“I enjoyed your rant,” she said.
I thanked her and murmured something self-deprecating, but the old anxiety was roaring back. Because the truth was I didn’t know what she was talking about. I had no memory of ranting.
Worse, she wasn’t the first person to compliment me. Every day, it seems, someone pops up on Facebook to congratulate me for an “epic rant” that I have apparently delivered.
It’s happening so often, in fact, that I am left with only two explanations.
The first is that someone keeps spiking my drinks with megalomania pills. I don’t know why they would do this because it clearly causes a scene: one minute I’m out with friends, the next I’m apparently wearing a military uniform and screaming paranoid rhetoric into a microphone.
Because that’s what ranting is, surely? I mean, if people are telling me they enjoyed my ranting, then clearly they’ve seen me out of my mind on Mussolini’s Magic Mushrooms, banging my fist on a lectern for three hours and vowing to destroy the homosexual Zionist Muslim environmentalist feminist agenda which, as all good sons and daughters of the soil know, is merely the vanguard of the Illuminati as they seek to crush all resistance to a final invasion by illegal reptilian immigrants.
The second explanation is that most people are a bit vague about what ranting actually is. They have a general sense that it involves robust language, a bit of hyperbole and few generalisations, but that’s all. So perhaps it’s understandable that, when they stumble across a few spicy adjectives, they think that they’ve found a genuine rant.
On the one hand, this seems like good news. If people are becoming vague about what constitutes a rant, it might be because they’re hearing and reading fewer of them, which in turn might suggest that public rabble-rousing is dwindling. When Hitler and Idi Amin were spitting all over the front row everybody on the planet knew the difference between a rant and an argument.
Then again, there might be a less encouraging interpretation of that vagueness.
When I first started writing satire I discovered that South Africans respond to spiky, malcontent prose in three distinct ways. A few like it. A few more dislike it. But the overwhelming majority are simply confused and alarmed by it. It’s not that they don’t understand the content of satire or critical writing. It’s that they don’t understand why anyone would express anger in public.
Anger is our national sport
This response would make sense if it came from Swedish nuns or Tibetan monks or anyone else who had surrounded themselves with peace, positivity and silence. But this is South Africa. Anger is our national sport. Which is why I suspect that when South Africans see an expression of outrage and call it a “rant”, they’re not reacting to an unexpected rocking of an otherwise tranquil boat. Rather, I believe, they are revealing a fear of expressing anger, perhaps because of what it might unleash.
Rant. The clue is in the word. They’re not saying, “Gosh, you’re oddly agitated.” They’re saying: “You sound like Hitler.” Which, when you think about it, is a very efficient way of getting someone to shut up and to sit on their anger just like everybody else is doing.
We’re often told that South Africa is angry, and it’s true. But I feel that only half the message is getting through. We’re not being told, for example, that anger is a natural response to fear, and that fear is a normal response to change. Pundits tell us that we’re a furious nation, but they don’t go on to remind us that anger is inevitable in a changing society. And that’s not even taking into account our unique cocktail of injustice and inequality.
Instead, we’re bombarded with messages telling us that anger needs to be hidden away or buried out of sight. For the secular, anger is proof that you’re not Zen enough, perhaps because you’re still eating meat. For the religious, wrath is a deadly sin: God is allowed to be murderously angry, but you’ve got to suck it up. Either way, if you’re angry, you’re deficient.
Which might be why we South Africans go straight from “No, really, I’m fine thanks” to bludgeoning people to death with a brick. Determined to avoid our anxieties at all costs, or with no way to access them, we skip all the stages in between: those essential moments where frustration and fear can be addressed before they become anger, and where anger can be defused before it becomes violence.
None of which helps me, of course. So if you see me pounding my shoe on a table, insisting that Poland and France are historically part of Cape Town and should be annexed immediately, please take me to hospital. And whatever happens, don’t let me anywhere near Facebook.