A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. The barkeep pours it, and the guy picks up the glass — and then splashes the booze all over his face. “Geez, buddy,” says the surprised barkeep, “why‘d you do that?” The man, genuinely perplexed, says, “I wish I knew. I‘ve been doing it for years. Every time I pick up a drink — bam! All over my face.” The barkeep nods wisely and tells the guy he should see a psychologist about it. And so he does.
Week after week, month after month, year after year, the guy delves into his psyche, his childhood, his parents, his dreams, his sex life, his hopes and his fears. And at last, after ten years of therapy, he returns to the bar and triumphantly orders a drink.
The barkeep pours him a shot and stands back expectantly. The guy raises the glass, winks confidently at the barkeep — and then splashes the booze all over his face.
“Aw hell, buddy!” says the barkeep. “I thought you spent the last ten in therapy for that.”
The guy nods, very pleased with himself. “I did,” he says. “And now I understand why I keep throwing it in my face!”
A psychoanalyst told me that joke, partly as a self-deprecating wink at his own profession, but mainly as a gentle reminder that understanding doesn’t help much if it isn’t coupled with action.
As a professional opinion-haver, I must admit that the punchline feels like a gentle indictment of what I do.
I‘m not speaking for other columnists. I‘m not side-eyeing, subtweeting, or any of the other fun words the kids are using to describe passive-aggressive finger-pointing. Their motives and methods are their own. But I can‘t help wondering if some of them, like me, have subtly fallen prey to a particularly pernicious assumption, namely, that talk is action.
I wonder if we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by that completely hollow phrase, “address the problem”. We hear it all the time, used by politicians and business people and call centres, so perhaps endless repetition has numbed us to its ultimately hollow meaning. It just sounds so good, like an official, hands-on-medal-bedecked-heart promise to fix something. And yet, all it actually promises to do is to look at the problem; to stand a safe distance from it, and to stare at it.
I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage.
I also suspect many of us who stand on soap boxes and shout (whether for money in the media or for free on social media) have unconsciously signed on to a bizarrely impotent social contract in which we have agreed that we have a moral duty to be outraged by anything deemed outrageous. Once we’ve signed up, we are required by this contract to point our angry thoughts and words at the source of the outrage, and to be furious about it for as long as is socially acceptable — between one and three weeks, depending on the magnitude of the original crime.
But I’m uneasy. I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage. If it was, I think we’d be doing something, like challenging people to duels. I suspect what we’ve been told is outrage is actually just anxiety created by being shown too many horrible things over which we have absolutely no control. It’s despair at seeing the vast, immutable systems that guarantee that more horrible things will follow. We’ve been told that as modern media consumers we are addicted to outrage, but are you really an addict if you’re being force-fed?
Most worrying, however, is that there is no clause in the social contract that requires us to follow up and see if our outrage has had any positive effects or changed anything. The arms deal, xenophobia, educational dysfunction, Nkandla, Eskom, xenophobia again, Marikana, Eskom again — hell, even the poor rhinos: all have had their moment in the spotlight of our collective anxiety. Each of them triggered this feeling of helpless disbelief we have decided to call outrage. But then the spotlight moved away, as it always does. The feeling abated, as it always does. The powerful got away with it, as they always have, and the weak got screwed, as they always will be.
I‘m starting to feel like I‘m in that bar; endlessly served another shot of dysfunction and anxiety; endlessly trying to swallow it but instead splashing it all over the place. And knowing why it‘s happening isn’t going to help. Words can only go so far. It‘s time for deeds, which is my cue to pipe down. Besides, I don‘t have answers to my own questions. I don‘t know if more words are a help or a hindrance. So I‘ll just drink my drink. The same again? No thanks, barkeep. This stuff will kill you in the end.
First published in The Times and TimesLive