When do we believe what our eyes tell us over what the people who were actually involved say happened? In a world where our access to information is as unprecedented as our technical ability to manipulate meaning, it’s an increasingly important question.
Propaganda really came into its own during the World Wars of last century, but the advent of digital technology took it to a whole new level from photoshopping a bible out of a person’s hands replacing it with an assault rifle to the truly terrifying prospect of deep fakes, the synthesis of artificial intelligence and fake news to the extent that you don’t actually know right from wrong, fact from fiction.
What happens though when you see something that looks righteous – and deeply saddening – and then immediately the person involved in the incident tells you that your eyes are deceiving you?
This was the case with Makazole Mapimpi and the ‘Bomb Squad’ debacle after the Boks’ victory over Italy last weekend. TV footage shows him approaching the reserves after the game who immediately go into a huddle to celebrate on their own, excluding them. He sees this, waves his hand dismissively at them and turns on his heel.
The players are all white. He’s black.
Was this an act of racism? Given both our country’s past and our recent – and continuing – flirtation with a particularly destructive strain of identity politics, you’d be excused for thinking that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and swims like a duck – then it is a duck.
But does that mean that Mapimpi is lying when he takes to social media to explain it, seemingly freely, honestly and of his own volition? Do we disbelieve the coach, who although white has the best transformation record in Springbok history and has been widely lauded by all players past and present for being a straight shooter? Do we disbelieve journalists, who have intimate knowledge of the team set up, some of whom happen to be black too?
Do we disbelieve them all because what they say, although perfectly plausible, doesn’t fit in with our preconceived ideas of how the world works?
The reality is that we do – and it’s not a new phenomenon. We all like to cloak ourselves in the comfort of our own prejudice and the reassuring affirmation of our own echo chambers. It’s because of that there are still people who think Elvis hasn’t died, that the Moon Landings were faked and that the US attacked itself on 9/11 and Princess Di was assassinated by British Intelligence.
Eventually the truth will come out, but as much as the Good Book exhorts us, it won’t necessarily set us free – there’ll still be the diehards that believe in the SARS Rogue Unit, White Monopoly Capital, and Mapimpi being a pawn of a greater malign influence.
When we do that, we victimise him for not allowing us to make him the victim we think he ought to be. And we think that’s fair?
Originally published by the Saturday Star on 12 October 2019.