Monday, February 22, 2010

Do we really need a new morality initiative?

The sexual mores of our President have landed him again in hot water, and as any other shrewed politician would do, he deploys diversion tactics to make the issue go away.

All around the world, when there is a big problem that threatens to subsist, what you do is to instigate a Commission. It gives the impression that you do something and by the time the findings are published, no one will be interested in it anymore -other current affairs will have taken over. It is no different with Jacob Zuma's proposal for a Commission to probe South Africa's morals.

Yet, to focus on morals in solving social and political problems is also the typical stuff of the right wing, straight out of the conservative style book. John Kane-Berman of the South African Institute of Race Relations, taking his cue from US and UK conservatives, usually claims that the statistical absence of the proper South African family (mom, dad, and two children living under one roof) explains many social ills. And the restoration of the "family" will somehow solve the problem. Neglected are then the historical, social, and political dimensions of the problem.

While morality matters, the real question is what kind of morals are we talking about? Concern for morality often serves as a smoke screen for promoting conservative, political values. The scourge of rape and violence against women is hardly caused by young women wearing mini-skirts; pregnant school girls are not the ones to be blamed for their early pregnancy, but rather the (usually older) men who trade sex for (material) favours; HIV/AIDS cannot be controlled by ostracizing those who have contracted the virus, as through marking their buttocks, but by treating it as an illness that requires medical and preventive measures, and so on.

Conservative moralists want to suggest that if only people would be follow the right morals, the social, economic, and political conditions would improve. To me, this seems barking up the wrong tree.

If the zeal to enforce conservative family values was as big as the desire to demand fair behaviour by those with power, be it in government or the private sector, be it by those high up or by exerising merely parental authority, we would go a long way addressing the problems that bedevil us.

Acting in morally sound ways involves more than policing sexual and social behaviour - a starting point would be to reflect as to how power and authority are, should and could be, exercised.

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