4 min read
09 Aug


Hopefully I have your attention with that provocative title. Maybe the article title even got you in the mood for a good argument on social media right away. But do we have them…those good arguments? South Africans, for reasons that we can examine elsewhere, are pretty bad at having meaningful arguments and debates. We move between a polite silence on several topics because of our past, with a resultant dread of offending anyone, and sneering, sulking insults on social media. For good reasons and bad we deny ourselves the benefit and the beauty of having tough conversations the right way. 

So obviously my title was designed to get you thinking, a tongue in cheek reference to some social media strategy or a verbatim title that could be found on the front cover of some self-published book on racial division. But let’s push that envelope a little further – what would you want to win if you could have a tough argument with those other races? How would you go about it in the first place? What would the topic be? Would it be a loud and shrill screaming match, a cool and detached debate? Would you prefer that to happen on social media or in real life? What would convince you that you have won this argument? Would it depend on the number of likes you get on Twitter, whether your friends say that you have “destroyed” your opponent? Would nothing short of the humiliation and silencing of your opponent do? Or would such a win simply mean that for once you are truly understood, for once you get your point across, where these important issues are acknowledged and understood, respectfully, by your opponent? What would you want to win in such an argument? What is stopping you from having such arguments?   

Maybe our arguments with each other will benefit from an understanding of what makes these difficult arguments so … difficult, so unpleasant, so futile. We often start with different lived realities, different languages, different educational backgrounds, different expectations of what is important in life. To these points of departure we add a general culture where violence is often seen as a legitimate method of enforcing our views, and where nuanced and layered debate and discussion is a rarity. He who shouts loudest and most often wins the debate, as we see from the arguments of children to our political discourse, or what passes so badly for it. In this process, and with our squandered opportunities of the last thirty years, we have built up a thick skin of indifference, of perceived truths of how “they” are, of what “they” want, and why it is a waste of time to argue with “them”. We lazily, but all so confidently, run our so-called debates on the well-oiled tracks of these clichés and excuses why we do not have those real, difficult conversations. We are so confident in our views, so secure in our assumptions about “them” that most of us have simply given up on trying. 

We do not see and experience much real debate around us – our television or social media screens and braai fires have taught us that it is better, safer to continue to trade in these clichés and to avoid doing the hard work that is so long overdue. In the process we move further apart, the arguments become more and more intractable, cyclical, even generational. But we know all this. We have made peace with most of it. Who cares about having difficult conversations with The Other? Put on the armour of Righteous Indignation and tell people to move on, that it’s been thirty years, that they don’t understand, that they are like that and will always be like that. We have silently accepted our own defeat, our own under-performance, our own resultant future, all because it’s the way it’s always been, it’s the easy way. And we’re right, right?   

But what if there was a different way, a way that destroys in its own way the bad lessons of the past? What if we could take those little pinpricks of light found here and there in our media conversations, those groups and individuals who do get tough conversations right and expand that into a national experience? If we can let sunlight and fresh air into this locked up, shuttered house of ours, if we can begin to have the conversations that matter – the questions about the land issue, about respect, about unemployment, about how we are going to help each other up out of this hole that we have helped to dig? When are we going to sit around these tables, real and proverbial, and let the rage and disappointment burn away the things that were left unsaid, the things remaining like a cancer, the things that prevent us from healing, from standing up from under this? When will we step aside and let our tears cleanse us? 

During the transitional period we blinked, we looked the other way in many respects. The Truth and Reconciliation exercise was a wonderful idea, and it delivered many of the expected results. We were also however so keen not to mess this up, not to offend, not to derail the precious gains we have made. Things will sort themselves out, won’t they? The timing for those really hard discussions was not right, we could always do it later, tomorrow, next week. And so here we are, as unskilled at the difficult conversations as ever, as entrenched in our ways of thinking, in our small and safe boxes, safe from exposure to “them” and their wrong ideas. 

The field of conflict resolution has, over the last number of decades, developed a very impressive, very practical body of research, best practices and techniques designed to deal with situations such as ours. That research tells us that communities, countries will continue their internal conflicts until three requirements for the consideration of better alternatives are met. These three requirements, briefly summarized as instability, a mutually hurting stand-off and a mutually attractive set of alternative resolutions that are seen as better options, I believe have now been met, conditions that may not have been as developed as they were two or three decades ago. So, the time has arrived to do the work, to stop waiting and hoping for some political party or some other external solution to come and save us.  

My call for an urgent focus on having these difficult conversations has two phases, both of which we can start with immediately and simultaneously. Firstly, we need to become skilled in constructively and effectively having these conflicts out in the open, to address them in such a manner where they heal and help us grow in all respects. Secondly, we must then apply those skills in having those tough conversations with each other. Elsewhere I have called for a re-opening of a national debate and a focused, structured reviving of a national reconciliation project. This is much the same thing, but with a skills transfer and a personal application focus to it. Individuals, small groups, learning to argue with each other and to resolve their real conflicts in real ways that bring real benefits. 

It need not be understood or embarked upon as a moral imperative at all, as much as I would love to convince you of that. Channeling our wasteful conflict into creative avenues can only benefit all of us. The benefits of true reconciliation, on a national and individual level, can hardly be gainsaid. Imagine the solutions the people of this country can start putting together if we are relieved of the negative deadweight of unresolved conflict. 

But how do we do such a thing, where do we begin? We often hear calls for better communication, for tolerance, for our conflicts to be resolved. As we can see, we understand the idea but very few of us have any idea how to implement it on the streets. I can think of a few wonderful national projects that could help, but for that we need money and political will, both commodities that seem in short supply. So here’s what we can do. Four years ago I started this idea, this crazy idea, that we are terrible at conflict, that we have good reasons for being so bad at it, that we can be so much better at it and that being better at it will take us to where we belong as a nation. I have managed to study this, work at it and to bring it to the factory floor, the boardroom, the community, the street and the home. It works. It is measurable. It improves your life, your community, it opens up possibilities for improvement on a personal and community level. 

So, from this week I will be running a series of very practical blog posts designed to help us with the “How To” part of this challenge. How do we argue better with each other, how do we benefit our communities and ourselves from this? I have been doing this for a few years now, so I am continuing as before. I am simply now inviting you to join me in this project, our project. Whether you join me or not will have no bearing on my work. It will cost you absolutely nothing that you do not wish to give, you can follow the series and no-one needs to know. No membership, no contracts….. just the visible benefits of arguing better with each other. We don’t need less arguments, we need better arguments. It will be difficult for years, it will hurt, offend and unsettle many people. But in the end, as a nation, we will all be winning big at arguments with other races. 

Start the bigger, better arguments process by leaving a comment below, or write to me with ideas, complaints and arguments at andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za   Join us weekly, at www.conflict-conversations.co.za Watch the media and our social media pages for these activities.      

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