The crime for which progressives are on trial is “competence downshift”. An intriguing study titled “Self-Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals” appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by American researchers Cydney H Dupree and Susan T Fiske (2018), indicts progressives for engaging in competence downshift towards black people and other minorities. Competence downshift involves “stereotyping people as less competent and dumbing yourself down in a well-intentioned, but patronizing attempt to connect with them”. While the research was conducted in the US, its findings have a broad echo for South Africa. For the avoidance of doubt, in the US ‘liberal’ suggests left-leanings while in South Africa it denotes leanings to the right.
Competence downshift is a staple in South Africa. This becomes clearer with actual examples. No position is taken on the merits of the arguments. The aim is to simply show that the uneven treatment of different individuals for uttering the same words involves competence downshift mainly by progressives towards black people.
Let’s call into aid some actual examples.
Helen Zille is notorious for two comments: The positive aspects of colonialism, and educational immigrants streaming into the Western Cape.
Julius Malema is on record praising Apartheid and declaring that life was better then than in the present. Just in February this year, Bandile Masuku, who is a convenor of an ANC sub-committee on education and health, is quoted as saying many people who come to Gauteng are educational immigrants, which Songezo Zibi, former editor of Business Day, correctly found to be “100% the same [thing] Helen said the other year”. Many years ago, Nelson Mandela told his Cambridge University audience that there were positive aspects of colonialism.
While there was massive outrage and extensive criticism against Helen Zille, it was not the case for the other individuals for exactly the same comments.
There are similar examples, especially around racism.
While Julius Malema has called Indians “coolies” in the past, there have been no consequences for him. But an Indian man was prosecuted for calling President Ramaphosa a “kaffir”. Imagine if most of the offensive comments by BLF came from the FF+ or a similar organization. Imagine if David Bullard’s article had come from a black commentator. Would they have been fired by the Sunday Times and badgered by the public?
Lest he has forgotten, the reader is reminded that no position is taken on any of the comments by the different individuals. It is irrelevant whether or not Malema was justified in his comments. The aim is to simply demonstrate competence downshift through the uneven treatment of different people based on race for the same comments or conduct.
By not subjecting black people to the same kind of criticism and treatment to which they subject whites for the same conduct or words, progressives are dumbing themselves down and engaging in competence downshift towards black people. By treating a black man differently to a white man for the same words or conduct, progressives engage in stereotypes and subtle forms of prejudice against black people in general. By treating Malema differently to Helen Zille, progressives engage in subtle prejudices against black people as incapable of handling reasoned criticism. This different treatment expresses a subtle prejudice that a higher standard of behaviour ought to be expected from whites, but not from blacks.
Progressives are guilty of engaging in competence downshift given that they deal with Zille honestly and without pretense, but lower themselves or their reasoning in order to get onto a level that is ‘suitable’ for Malema or Masuku. This kind of discriminatory treatment just abounds with all subtle prejudices against black people.
Progressives are ordinarily well-intentioned in their conduct. They don’t want to offend and they may want to be politically correct. However, if you are more anxious about offending a black man than telling the truth as best as you can, you are not treating him as an equal, but a man-child and thus simply engaged in subtle prejudices.
With their best intentions, progressives are guilty of perpetuating stereotypes about black people that they are irrational to be antagonized with different viewpoints or trusted to handle offending facts. Progressives teach us that truth and reason do not matter when you deal with black people because they cannot handle reasoned criticism. They teach us that one ought simply to throw away reason and logic in an attempt to appease and avoid offending. Some readers may have experienced this patronizing and condescending behaviour in their personal interactions with progressives, black or white, but didn’t have a name for it. That name is competence downshift.
Mbulelo Nguta is a Mandela-Washington Fellow and has an MCom Taxation from Rhodes University. Follow him on Twitter @MbuleloNguta. Tiego Thotse is an economics student at Rhodes University and is DASO Chairperson. Follow him on Twitter @TiegoThotse.