Commentary: The case for civility, from Cape Town to Morristown

Exhibit at the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Barbara Franz
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By Barbara Franz

I have been thinking about civility, empathy, courtesy and respect for others.

Last month while I was parallel parking in front of my house, an A4 driver flipped me the bird as he passed by. I was somewhat surprised. But then again, this is the new normal.

It seems to me that people relieve their frustrations verbally or by using symbols in public today much more frequently and openly than they did, say, three years ago. There are numerous incidents that illustrate how the overall level of civility and courtesy has plummeted in this country.

For example, remember the story surrounding the MAGA hats-wearing high school students, who apparently taunted a Native American elder near the Lincoln Memorial in DC (which turned out to be a more complicated conflict)?

Their acts were captured on a video that went viral. A smug and gleaming young man with a smirk stares into the face of the elder Native American.

The video showed a young man’s face expressing “self-satisfaction and certitude, of edginess expressed as cruelty” with a confident gaze. He was surrounded by his friends, who were clearly snickering — some could be seen doing the “tomahawk chop.”

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

Consequentially, the family of the young man in the center of the video filed a $250 million libel lawsuit against the Washington Post for allegedly suggesting in its initial coverage that the young man had assaulted or physically intimidated the Native American and engaged in racist conduct.

A federal judge dismissed the suit on July 26, 2019.

To be sure, in this video the young MAGA hat-wearing teenagers were not expressing the pent-up frustrations found in people who lack power and meaningful authority.

While I understand that media coverage after the event must have been petrifying for the teens and their families, the incident itself demonstrates the dynamics of racism and white privilege in America. A group of white teenage boys wearing their MAGA hats — which are overt and intentional symbols of bigotry, racism and ignorance — attended a right-wing Christian rally aimed at denying women their reproductive rights.

They happened upon a group of “Black Israelite” bigots and, reportedly in retaliation, decided to harass and insult a Native American with “war whoops” and “tomahawk chop” gestures.

Of course, they did so because white privilege has trained them from birth that they likely could act in such a way without consequences.

White privilege has become the modus vivendi in today’s America, from the Kavanaugh hearings to the “send her back! send her back!” chanting at President Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, NC.

What surprises me, again and again, is the assertiveness and disdain that comes with it. While Trump claims he is no racist, the New York Times reports his supporters “roared those words” after Mr. Trump aimed their animosity at Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who emigrated from Somalia.

He smeared her as trafficking in “vicious anti-Semitic screeds” and as a left-wing radical who sympathizes with Al Qaeda, hates America and “looks down with contempt on the hard-working Americans.’”

‘EUROPEANS, NATIVES, ASIATICS, COLOURED PERSONS’ : Former racial designations in South Africa, from exhibit at the District Six Museum in Cape Town. Photo by Barbara Franz.

Attacking Omar and the three other congresswomen of color (all three born in the USA), the chant represents America’s xenophobia and racism today. It is loud, assertive, vulgar, and fraudulent.

Coming back to New Jersey from the edge of “Western” civilization—South Africa—I have some thoughts on this phenomenon. I have spent the past three weeks talking to dozens and dozens of asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented immigrants in Cape Town, South Africa, about their experience with xenophobia and public hostility.

Cape Town is an architecturally beautiful, European-looking city that barred blacks until 1994.

That year, the Apartheid regime — the system of institutionalized segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups — was abolished and a new constitution that enfranchised blacks and other groups was adopted.

Yet de facto, systematic racial segregation remains deeply entrenched in South African society. Economically, post-Apartheid South Africa remains the most-unequal society in the world, and Cape Town is the epicenter of this inequality.

The richest 10 percent of the population held around 71 percent of net wealth in 2015, while the bottom 60 percent held 7 percent of the net wealth. Furthermore, inter-generational mobility is low—inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change over time.

Cape Town sometimes is labeled the rape capital of the world, at other times it is branded the murder capital of the country. The murder rate has risen 60 percent, from 43 to 69 per 100,000 population since 2010.

The historical struggle still is very real in South Africa and Cape Town. It is a highly racialized society, where it is easy for the government to use xenophobia to drive the fractured population to violence and distract the country from roaring inequality and widespread corruption.

What may surprise those who associate Cape Town with beaches and Table Mountain is that a short drive from some of the priciest property in Africa are the Cape Flats, a patchwork of townships.

These townships were dumping grounds when the apartheid regime removed people of mixed race, the so-called “Coloureds,” from downtown districts, such as District 13, in the 1960s.

Unemployment and poverty in these townships are endemic. In one precinct, Philippi East, 93 percent of households were victims of crime in 2016. Most of the refugees and asylum-seekers I talked to live in these areas in very precarious situations.

The vast majority of them have been victims of robberies since coming to Cape Town. Nevertheless, compared to the countries they left, such as Burundi, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, the refugees realize their chances of survival and economic advancement still are much better in South Africa than at home.

All refugees with whom I’ve spoken have experienced xenophobia and disdain from South African citizens on an almost daily basis. They try to avoid associating with citizens. When life is brutal, one can expect encounters with the locals to be uncivil and brash.

However, this was not the case everywhere. Indeed, I met most of my interviewees at the Scalabrini Centre, a non-governmental institution (NGO) that focuses on the settlement and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers.

In spite of the challenges and difficulties experienced by the NGO service providers and advocates, I never—not once—saw them scolding somebody or raising their voice in frustration.

None of the NGO agents and people I worked with expressed their frustrations about their often insurmountable obstacles in a disrespectful or rude way. Nor did any of the refugees and asylum seekers I interviewed talk about their hardships and precarious circumstances in a vexing or angry way.

Language matters. And the language that the service providers used was apparently seamlessly adopted by the refugees and asylum-seekers. For example, nobody spoke of problems. Ever. Everybody spoke of challenges when discussing housing issues, food insecurity, or difficulties with residence permits, healthcare or finding a job.

But this is not all. The NGO is in downtown Cape Town. Picture downtown Princeton, if it bordered downtown Trenton.

Fancy high rises and exclusive historic buildings are right next to stretches of vacant structures. Hungry homeless people appear to be everywhere. NGO employees follow an extraordinary code of respect. It may be a written policy, but most likely it is not. Yet whether in the office, on the street, in traffic, or in restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and coffee shops, one group engages with the other in a very respectful way.

Whether the other is a client or a colleague, a waitress or a maid, a driver or a beggar, all were treated with courtesy and respect. It is difficult to maintain this courtesy day-in and day-out. But if enough individuals engage in such behavior, it will make a difference in one’s family, neighborhood, community, town, city and state.

In another context, the novelist Rachel Cusk once wrote: “Like a narcotic, rudeness offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.”

In South Africa, the jails and jailers are clearly visible for everyone to see: Structural systemic poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, and endemic violence are among these jailers.

Clearly, the xenophobia and anger expressed there against (black) foreigners has a lot to do with the inescapable, daily grinding poverty and inequality.

These are not the reasons for the disrespect and incivility expressed currently in New Jersey and the U.S. The American version of incivility, I suspect, is more likely based on entitlement and privilege, not poverty and destitution.

Some commentators have called this “narcissistic rage” — anger dissociated from a social context. Fury is expressed after every perceived slight or indignity, and interpreted as an outrage and an assault on one’s oversized sense of identity.

Pulling this social phenomena back into the polis, columnist and conservative pundit George Will, interviewed in The Atlantic, observed: “To revitalize politics and strengthen government, we need to talk about talk. We need a new, respectful rhetoric—respectful, that is, of the better angels of mankind’s nature.”

The reason, Will said, is that “mankind is not just matter, not just a machine with an appetitive ghost in it. We are not what we eat. We are, to some extent, what we and our leaders—the emblematic figures of our polity—say we are.”

Will is right. We are a prosperous country that holds so many marvelous opportunities. Let’s be cognizant of our use of language and the way we approach each other. Let’s think about respect, and realize that our civility and courtesy will be reflected back to us in this world.

It’s individual acts of politeness and decency that will alter our reality. The alternative is that we continue to walk down the current angry path of growing inequality, misinformation and indifference.

POSTSCRIPT: This was written before the weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. I hope we will get more than “thoughts and prayers” from our leaders this time.

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., chairs the political science department at Rider University, and is a Morristown resident.

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Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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