Archive | August, 2015

Dangers of Simplifying (response to Higher Grade English backlash)

26 Aug

After the resounding success of the Coconut lecture, there was a backlash that centered on ‘higher grade English’, people on Twitter speaking above the masses and thereby alienating them. I dismissed it, partly because it sounded like Black Twitter returning to its anti-intellectualism where recommending a book to a person is sacrilege.

Here are are some more thoughts on why that attitude is self-defeating and how to approach the situation.


Then again honey is winnie the pooh’s greatest problem


Example 1

I came to Buddhism via the Gautama Buddha quote of ‘Life is suffering’. As a heavily depressed teen, it seemed the Buddha really just got it unlike all that happy clappy Christianity.

The quote though has put many people off, who argued that Buddhism was a religion of depression and hopelessness.

Three decades later, a writer pointed out that ‘life is suffering’ is a simplification.

The word Buddha used was ‘dukkha’. Dukkha has no direct English translation. The writer offered the following ‘life experiences are inherently dissatisfying’.

A lot more mouthy, ‘higher grade English’ to some, but way more profound.

It offers a hint to how the suffering occurs. My depressed teen self would have been differently intrigued .

More importantly, the charge of Buddhism being religion of depression and hopelessness becomes dubious.

Simplifications hide as much as they reveal.

Example 2

Aristotle defined knowledge as justified true belief. It seems logical enough, so well everybody nods and moves.

However, as Professor Kinghorn pointed out each of those words deserves a book.

Justified by whom and to whom and for what purpose? (The power dynamic is hidden)

True – again who defines ‘true’ and how. This problem led to the science and the scientific method.

Belief – not even going to attempt this one in the age where cognitive sciences have taught us about unconscious bias.

My favourite definition of knowledge is ‘capacity to act’.

I like it because it hints at why knowledge is power?

It also has interesting implications. Bias is often wrong but it enables action including white supremacy, sexism, etc.

Ignorance thus becomes a form of knowledge – a justified untrue belief.

The trouble with asking people to simplify is that it grants them the power to determine how you learn about the topic. The mind by nature conserves energy leading to confirmation bias, so that first simplification is the lens you are likely to filter all further information on the subject.

It sets up a master/student power relationship and is thus inherently disempowering.

Boundary Spanner

My suggestion is to approach even topics spoken in ‘higher grade’ English with a will to learn and not just consume.

If knowledge requires effort to be learned, it is more likely to be remembered because again mind hates wasting energy.

If on Twitter, a conversation amongst say Black university students on Blackness includes terms you do not understand instead of fuming at the lack of simplification when people are talking about your ‘lived experience’ try a few learning tricks.

In the internet age, access to information is remarkably simplified.

Find a boundary spanner

A boundary spanner is a person who straddles two communities and can translate.

Ask about the term used and how it is different to your preferred simpler term. Seek clarity, help your mind navigate.

If this extra effort means you miss half the conversation, no problem. The topic of Blackness and most topics that matter will still matter tomorrow.

I also still hold that academics must try to write in a more accessible manner. I am reading Niklas Luhmann and my brain writhes against the excruciating experience but the man’s theory is on point. So, I am slogging through.


Building a shared Africanness / unity #language #diversity #panAfricanism

25 Aug

The kerfuffle about language and about mandating kiSwahili (or other but just one language) in order to build African unity got me thinking.

I am not a fan of the idea of unity. Calls for unity always feel to me like somebody is being thrown under the bus. Dissent ends up being reduced to ‘you are dividing us’.

I do, however, like Simphiwe Dana believe in a shared Africanness, a shared identity.

I wrote down some thoughts on how we can do this without relying on one language.

1) Language – Learn another African language

  • Due to the 7 degrees and network effects, by learning at least one other African language,  more Africans will be connecting to each other on an individual basis in different languages.across the invisible barrier of language.
  • By doing this, we contribute to maintaining the full diversity and richness of African languages.

2) The second idea is that we should actively commit to interacting with a diverse multitude of Africans. We can counter the societally natural homogeneity that comes with familiarity. In some ways, one African language idea is about creating that comfort of sameness.

3) We can nurture curiosity about other African people, cultures, knowledge systems and worldviews. Africa is diverse – appreciating and immersing in it is a good counter to the homogenising influence of hegemony.

4) Find, connect to and amplify the voices of the most marginalised. Power operates to silence many in Africa. Let us counter.

I spend more time tweeting about Greece than South Sudan. Every time, I catch myself I find information on the civil war and ongoing crisis. There is not much information but the very act of finding and sharing, sends the market signals that there is demand for the information. In time, there will be more.

I cherish my African identity and believe that honouring the diversity and the richness of that diversity is the way to build a shared Africanness.

In other words, ‘unity through diversity’ as called for in the South African coat of arms.

Audre Lorde “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”

Brief thoughts on Chester Missing

9 Aug

It feels like 5 years ago that I promised @ling83 that I would write down my  thoughts on the puppet.

It is probably best to start with blackface. I think those calling Chester Missing blackface confuse form and substance for the sake of outrage whilst indulging in oversimplification.

The real problem with Chester is the appropriation of Coloured identity for the benefit of a non-Coloured individual. The puppet also reinforces a widely held stereotype of Coloureds as jokers. Always cracking a joke unless of course they are gangsters. The other favourite national stereotype.

The harm of Chester is similar to that of cultural appropriation. One of the foremost representations of the Coloured community in our nation is White. That is a sad oddity by any lens.

I appreciate Chester’s stance on Steve Hofmeyr and other whiteness oozing individuals. The satire is superb and mostly lacks the racism of the nationally approved satirists like Zapiro.

I am not calling for the culling of Chester Missing but it is actually not my call. That decision belongs to the affected community.

PS: Another concern is that those yelling blackface are not particularly concerned about which community is most affected. That in part seems to confirm the Coloured lament of being sidelined. Even when they are most affected, the issue is predominantly framed in terms of the Black community.