Words Are Politically Cheap, Actions Are Expensive: The Empty Rhetoric of Scholar Activism4 min read.
The radical politics of the professional middle classes—too often found full of rhetoric, but short on action—are explored in Leo Zeilig’s new novel, The World Turned Upside Down.
In writer and activist Leo Zeilig’s latest offering, The World Turned Upside Down, the richest one percent are wreaking havoc on both people and planet. Meanwhile, a social movement is out to stop them—one grizzly murder at a time. As the movement grows, it eventually engulfs the life of the story’s protagonist Bianca Ndour, a lesbian Senegalese professor raised in Nigeria and working in London. A thunderously irrepressible, unapologetic, and radical thinker, Bianca uses her public platform to speak out against the injustices inflicted on the many by the powerful few.
The result is a provocative and pulsating call to arms against capitalism’s grotesque excesses and inequalities, one centered around a violent revolutionary movement: the One Percent Murders.
Who is behind the murders? Can they be stopped? Should they be stopped? Bianca thinks not, and in her refusal to condemn the One Percent Murders, and her brazen, polemical style, her character drips with the spirit of political radical Frantz Fanon. When asked during a live television interview if she condones the murders, she fires back: “Do I approve of the violence? What violence? Whose? The violence that you have—both of you—spent wealthy years celebrating, writing nauseating books salivating over imperial tryanny and the never-ending murder spree of the rich … in their wars. How many died in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
As Fanon wrote in his most celebrated work, The Wretched of the Earth, “Decolonization reeks of red hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.” Bianca, too, sniffs the revolutionary potential behind the unfolding violence. “‘Rarely in history can you say this,’ she tells a small crowd, ‘but we are living through a moment of extraordinary reckoning. The rats, forced out of their lair, are panicking—watch where they run, get read for what they unleash on us’.”
Like Fanon, Bianca bursts with energy, ideology, and anger. “I had always believed in anger,” she tells us at one point. “Is this not the time for anger? It was the opposite of inertia, of academic pontificating—anger worked up action, and only through anger and action could justice ever come.” The emphasis on the centrality of action to revolutionary change and upheaval is a major motif of Zeilig’s work. His first novel centered around two generations of activists and the anti-war movement in the United Kingdom. His last novel, meanwhile, took its title—An Ounce of Practice—from a Freidrich Engels quote that “an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory.”
Yet there is an intriguing sense that for all her anger-fueled political sermons, Bianca fails to enter the decisive arena of action herself.
There is a hint of activism in her youth, when we are told she attended a demonstration against South African apartheid as a teenager having just arrived in London from Zimbabwe. Her life as a university professor, however, is in many ways highly insular, absorbed by personal relationships, exercise, and the demands of her work. As she shuttles between international flights and university campuses, there is little to suggest that her actions extend beyond preaching at her pulpit and promoting her books at events. The only direct action we see her engage in throughout the entire novel is a cleaners’ strike on her London campus. Even here, she stumbles across the strike by chance and gives an impromptu speech calling for “the total expropriation of the capitalist class,” entirely abstracted from the specific demands and lived realities of the cleaners’ struggle.
There is a sense in all this that Bianca never really manages to escape her upbringing: she was raised in a wealthy, middle-class family on a Shell Oil compound in Nigeria. Her father was full of radical rhetoric but lived in comfort, ensconcing himself and his family from the harsher realities of Nigerian life that lay beyond the compound’s walls. While Bianca found some temporary escape from those walls during childhood—leaving them behind completely in adulthood—the stifling bureaucracy and demands of a professional career in the modern university appear to have walled her off from society once more, this time in a compound of her own making.
Here, Zeilig appears to be interrogating the class contradictions of scholar activism, and, more broadly, the hypocrisy of the professional middle classes. Even the most ideologically committed among them, like Bianca, are too often found full of rhetoric, but short on action.
It is likely that in passing this commentary, Zeilig is drawing at least in part on his own experiences, having lived in Senegal and South Africa, been active in a range of social movements and struggles, and written extensively on working-class struggle, the development of revolutionary movements, and some of Africa’s most important political thinkers and activists, including Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, and Frantz Fanon.
And again, there are echoes of Fanon here, in his argument that many of Africa’s early postcolonial intellectual leaders betrayed the aspirations of the working classes and popular masses, whose interests they claimed to represent and whose backs they had climbed upon in their ascent to power.
In one passage, we see Bianca run to work, shower at the office, and look out over the city of London, in perfect mimicry of the daily ritual of a wealthy city banker callously murdered in the novel’s opening pages at the hands of an unknown assailant. By drawing this parallel, Zeilig pushes us to ask whether, through her seeming inaction, Bianca—and the class she represents—is in fact complicit in the system she believes she is fighting against, no better than the wealthy one percent she so despises.
And yet all might not be as it seems. Those around her, including her students, protect her ferociously when required, and wherever Bianca travels, another murder is never far behind. It is a mark of the depth and complexity of The World Turned Upside Down that there are no clear or easy answers, only unsettling questions combined with a relentless exposé of capitalism’s ills and injustices. All of these questions are designed to jolt us out of complacency and comfort and into the one state that we all must occupy if a better world beyond capitalism is to be won: action. When, in the real world, even an establishment figure such as the current UK government’s chief scientific adviser is publicly pronouncing that “nothing short of transforming society will avert catastrophe,” we had better take notice.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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Defend the Freedom of the Press
We, The Elephant, stand with our fellow journalists against the attacks meted during the coverage of the recent demonstrations. An independent, impartial, and objective media is a pillar of our democracy and crucial to both the state, the opposition, and the wider public. Freedom of the press is a non-negotiable.
Going by recent events, we are quickly sliding down a precarious path as regards freedom of the press. The spike in disinformation, influence peddling, hostility and attacks blurs the ability for the media sector to deliver, timely, critical and credible information necessary to help the public make informed decisions and hold meaningful conversations.
We are also particularly concerned by the targeting of specific media persons, media institutions, international journalists, and media industry practitioners.
In March 2023 alone, we have witnessed at least 45 reported cases of attacks, theft, harassment, and arrests by both sponsored state and non-state actors with some of the journalists affected suffering direct attacks and bodily harm.
The genesis of these attacks can be linked to the publication of the photos and issuance of summons by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) linked to the demonstrations on the 20th of March. The publication on the state agencies social media platforms was an exercise in error that included false, misleading and misconstrued claims against participants in the demonstration.
The unintended outcome has been the formulation, and instrumental-ization of hostility and violence against members of the 4th estate. So far we have witnessed the targeting of reporters, videographers, freelance practitioners, and photographers by police, hooligans, hired goons, and looters who’re kin to cause mayhem and evade justice.
Journalists as chroniclers of societal events, scribes of the evolution of political demands, and recorders of the unwarranted, gross violations, have a solemn duty to inform the public on matters of public interest. They therefore ought to be accorded their respect in time, their place in the political contestations as neutral arbiters, and respected as repositories of current and historical memories.
We urge our colleagues while out in the field to prioritize their safety, assess the risk factors, coordinate with their newsrooms, and the law enforcers, and review media ethics and the legal ramifications in the course of their work during demonstrations.
We urge freelance journalists to coordinate, liaise, and embed with their colleagues for safety purposes. We also urge for urgent investigations into the theft, assault and detainment of journalists, and call for speedy prosecution of the perpetrators. We also ask for refrain by public figures from spotlighting specific media persons and media houses, and ask aggrieved parties against media persons and institutions, to channel their complaints through the respective legal channels as provided by law.
The Elephant Desk
Addressing the Information Disorder: Building Collaboration
In deploying measures to address the information disorder, the trend is towards the establishment of multi-stakeholder collaboratives.
In a recent article, I discussed the need to address the information disorder (defined as mis- and disinformation) through collaborative multi-stakeholder collectives such as Fumbua Kenya. In this article, I take the next step of envisioning the ideal composition for such collectives. However, before doing so, I briefly explore other similar collectives with a view to drawing lessons on building collaboration.
A tried and tested concept?
For several years now, numerous stakeholders have attempted to address the information disorder in different ways such as fact-checking and conducting media literacy trainings. These solutions were often used in isolation. More recently, stakeholders recognized the importance of collaboration in deploying measures to address the information disorder. As a result, there has been a growing trend towards the establishment of multi-stakeholder collaboratives to address the information disorder as it relates to issues such as the pandemic or democratic processes such as elections.
Collaborative efforts have largely been dominated by media practitioners. For example, in Brazil, during the 2018 elections, a collective of journalists drawn from twenty-four different local media companies was established to debunk rumours, fabricated content, and manipulative content aimed at influencing the polls. This collective is known as Comprova. In the same year, a similar collective was established in Mexico with the same mandate. It was known as Verificado. A year later, Uruguay followed suit and established a collective under the same name. However, Uruguay’s iteration of Verificado broke the mould by incorporating academics, universities, and civil society professionals. With the examples of Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay, Argentina was able to pull together a collective of more than 100 news organizations under the Re-Verso banner. Much like Uruguay, Argentina’s Re-Verso took the collaboration further by including other disciplines such as forensic scientists who were able to assist the journalists in fact-checking audio messages.
With the experiences of these collectives, recent multi-stakeholder collectives have become increasingly diverse in their composition. For example, the BBC recently launched the Trusted News Initiative which brings together journalists, social media platforms and technology companies, and researchers. The mandate of the Trusted News Initiative is to increase media literacy, develop early warning systems, engage in voter education, and provide a platform for stakeholders to share lessons. Similarly, the Credibility Coalition, which is comprised of researchers, journalists, academics, policymakers, and technologists, aims to foster collaboration around developing common standards for information credibility. One of Fumbua’s members—Meedan—is also a member of the Credibility Coalition.
When these collectives were initially established, they were primarily driven by the recognition of the importance of collaborative journalism, and the need to reach broader audiences. As a result, their composition was heavily biased towards the media. However, subsequent iterations recognized the importance of broadening the pool of collaboration to factor in other disciplines. Some have articulated this importance explicitly. For example, Nordis, a consortium of researchers and fact-checkers funded by the EU Commission, explains that the diversity in their composition is aimed at developing new insights, technological solutions, recommendations for journalistic practice and tools educators can use. Perhaps most importantly, they hope to have concrete policy recommendations for legislators.
Extrapolating the basics
Based on the examples of multi-stakeholder collectives around the world, one can discern common trends. For one, most collectives seem to be centred around journalistic practice and as such are dominated by media organizations. While there has been a recognition of the role played by other stakeholders such as academic researchers and cognitive scientists, their involvement has not been as robust and deliberate. These collectives also often crop up in response to a major socio-political/socio-economic event such as an election, and this influences their composition and activity.
Most collectives seem to be centred around journalistic practice and as such are dominated by media organizations.
Fumbua has largely conformed to these trends, being comprised of a large number of media organizations, and having been established to address the information disorder around the 2022 general election in Kenya. However, Fumbua’s experience is unique in several ways. For one, Fumbua included a pre-bunking initiative which was the first of its kind in Kenya—StopReflectVerify. Fumbua also relied on social media personalities and performing artists to repurpose some of the core messages developed by the journalists within their collectives. The use of multimedia content enabled the collective to engage audiences in ways that align with the nature of information consumption on social media. Perhaps most crucially, Fumbua was able to use its network to engage with policymakers and regulators to attempt to impact public policy.
One size does not fit all
When one considers the experience of the diverse collectives around the world, it is clear that each iteration was significantly influenced by several factors which were unique to each situation. From the social issue the collective was designed to respond to, to the available resources and organizations willing to participate, it is clear that one cannot define, in absolute terms, what these collectives should look like.
However, what remains clear is the importance of such collectives being intentional about defining the scope of collaboration, the role of each member, and how each member’s activities will feed into the larger collective’s work. In building collaboration, such collectives should also be mindful of the information value chain in their ecosystem. For example, in Kenya, one would be remiss to exclude vernacular radio stations which remain a consequential player in the media ecosystem.
The diversity of these collectives should be informed by the unique issues they are responding to. Fumbua for example was able to engage a large cross-section of its audiences in a way that was familiar to them by deliberately including stakeholders at all levels of the media ecosystem and supporting these stakeholders by amplifying their content and helping them repurpose it. However, at a broader level, these collectives should be designed around changing how the populace interacts with and consumes information. It no longer suffices to raise awareness around the existence of the information disorder, or to flag information as false or misleading. For this reason, these collectives ought to be focused on impacting how information systems are designed. This goal, considered in the context of the particular collectives, should then inform their composition.
The Roots of Toxic Masculinity in South Africa
In South Africa and elsewhere, toxic masculinity is an outcome of modern individualism rather than tradition.
As I stepped into the nightly streets of Cape Town’s most dangerous neighborhoods, I sensed that my journey would be an initiation. The goal of my research project was to document the lasting impact of apartheid racism and gender inequalities on tough and street-smart men. Little did I know that I would make every effort to become invulnerable in my own kind of way, trying to prove my masculinity and academic prowess through ethnographic fieldwork.
Just like many of the men I met in South Africa, I was attempting to shed my vulnerability. However, it never fully worked, even for a privileged European white man like me. Ethnography is an art form rather than a science and it makes researchers vulnerable as they continuously affect and are affected by the research subjects. Moreover, the pressure I put on myself to produce something exceptional to gain respect and impress others took a toll on me.
The paradox of (in)vulnerability made both my research participants and I complicit, although on vastly different terms. For me, attempts to become an invulnerable individual with fixed gender identity led to relationship problems, substance abuse, irritability, and suicidal thoughts. The more I sought invulnerability, the more vulnerable I felt. This (in)vulnerability has received little attention in research, which often disregards the gendering of behavior or turns masculinity into both the cause and solution for a range of social, psychological, and medical problems.
Over the course of more than 10 years of research, I could feel the pulse of (in)vulnerability; the throbbing between disconnection and connectivity, rigidity and disorder, closure and openness. Perhaps this pulse is a fundamental aspect of life for everyone, regardless of social and cultural differences. But the struggle for invulnerability takes on different rhythms based on circumstances. I have been witness to the pain and struggles of the men I interviewed. Some committed suicide, others were murdered, had fatal accidents, or died from infectious disease before they reached their 40s.
Although I stayed in contact with some of these men, I retreated to my safe haven after completing my doctoral research. Writing my dissertation and book was draining, filled with anger and shame over my inability to support the people whose stories I documented, and my own shortcomings. I was not living up to the ideals of a compassionate human rights advocate or a productive academic who could be sharp, unyielding, and daring at all times. But the survivor’s guilt was just another manifestation of me believing that I could be an individual savior.
As I delved deeper into my research, I realized I had fallen into a well-worn pattern—a white European male traveling to Africa to prove his masculinity. It dawned on me, most of the behaviors that are associated with toxic masculinity are an outcome of modern individualism rather than tradition in South Africa and elsewhere. White men imported the gendered ideal of a self-made individual. The trope can be traced back to 17th-century English philosophers who defined the individual as the “owner of himself,”” who owes little to others, with a core identity composed of seamless traits, behaviors, and attitudes, rather than an assemblage of contradictory elements adopted through ongoing exchanges with others.
South African psychologist Kopano Ratele argues that well-meaning critiques of gender ideologies tend to homogenize and retribalize African masculinities as if they had no history. From this perspective, contemporary heteronormativity and male power are not necessarily a matter of “‘tradition”’ as a single and fixed structure. Yet, gender development work in Africa often uses the term “toxic masculinity” interchangeably with “traditional masculinity” particularly among low-income Black men.
During my doctoral research, I found that my own assumptions about the dark ages of patriarchy and their continuing effects on South Africans were based on a teleological model of progress that obscures how modern individualism creates toxic masculinity. My pursuit of invulnerability through ethnographic research was an attempt to “be somebody” in a world in which personhood is seemingly no longer defined by mutuality in relationships. For the most marginalized men I met in Cape Town, this pursuit was by far more distressing, in part, because these men were aware of the fact that they always depended on others for their very survival.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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