Column: When context is needed

As highlighted by the Argentina controversy, ‘cancel culture’ needs a spoonful of context, writes RYAN VREDE in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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Cancel culture. For those who don’t know what this is, allow me to have a crack at explaining it as I understand it. It is the propensity among (mainly) people with a liberal ideology to call for the destruction of a prominent individual/group after that figure/group exposes themselves as holding or having held views, or taken a course of action, that runs counter to their liberal ideology.

Sometimes things are uncovered be it racism or bigotry or corruption etc that legitimise the calls to cancel. Often it is a self-righteous call to deal with the situation with the emotional maturity of children. Context is often discounted, when context should guide our response. 

This brings me to the focus of this column the call to cancel the careers of Pablo Matera, Guido Petti and Santiago Socino. In early December, the Argentina trio were implicated in a controversy around tweets of a racist and xenophobic nature dating back to 2011. The social media outcry was wild. I understand why it was, but I’m perplexed by it nonetheless.

I write this column through the lens of a nearly 40-year-old coloured man who grew up on the Cape Flats. I’ve endured racism and probably will again. I have friends, most highly accomplished professionally, who have told me about their experiences of xenophobia. I’ve felt their pain like it was my own.

So I know the power racism and xenophobia seeks to steal. I can and will never condone it. But to make an absolute judgement on the trio without context is not only shortsighted, it is counter-productive if your desired outcome is to see their minds and hearts transformed.   

None of Matera, Petti or Socino was older than 20 at the time. I’m almost certain they knew they were saying awful things, things that were meant to demean and disempower. I’m more interested in why they were said these things, than what they said. Why they said this speaks to their conditioning as kids in their formative and most impressionable years. Herein lies the context.

They were clearly conditioned to believe that black people and foreigners are inferior, even subhuman. As a coloured man I find it reprehensible and sad, not offensive. I know my truth. And I know I’m not alone. My truth isn’t affected by the lie/s they were taught. But neither does my truth become more legitimate through a strong sanction for the trio seven or eight years after the incident.

What does this achieve for me or indeed those calling for them to be cancelled? I’m more interested to know whether their views have evolved since. They claim they have. Matera, who captains Argentina, said he is ‘ashamed’. The others have expressed deep regret.

They appear to be broken by the experience. They appear to speak from a place of contrition. I look at what has happened in the years following the tweets (nothing else of this nature has emerged in the public domain) and, this, combined with their apologies, suggest to me they are being sincere.

The Argentina Rugby Union have determined that they aren’t being deceptive, that they have unlearned these views, and are not only sorry they got caught. Time will reveal this to be true or not. Racists are notoriously bad at suppressing their racism.

I find it far more productive to remove from the equation the emotion that drives cancel culture and seek to help them transform their minds and hearts through education.

This can take many forms. If this fails, it is a testimony to the power of their conditioning, and/or their determination to continue to be enslaved by that conditioning. I wouldn’t take that personally, because it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.

Cancelling these players won’t eradicate any racism or xenophobia that lives inside them. In fact it is only likely to deepen these vile views.

I’ve never held racist or xenophobic views, but I cringe thinking about some other views I held as a teenager, particularly around my standing in society based solely on me being a man. I’m sure an honest introspection of your views at the same phase of your life would reveal similarly poor thinking, the likes of which you’ve long abandoned. You know better, so you should do better.

If you don’t, you deserve every sanction that comes your way. If you’re doing better on the basis of knowing better, I ask that you extend that same grace to the likes of Matera, Petti and Socino.

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Ryan Vrede