In the era we live in – dubbed a “post-truth” world – our biggest challenge, when it comes to the truth, is not that we allow our fingers (or thumbs) to do the “smart” phone talking, but that we’re rapidly losing the ability to hold the bigger picture in mind when shooting from the hip.
Emotion and anecdote – the “power of the one story” – are essential components in any attempt to solve societal issues.
But they need to be partnered with a helicopter view, a reasoned picture of the whole, to achieve a balanced understanding and any hope of constructive change.
Take our latest “expropriation without compensation” hot button.
The EFF has successfully raised a motion in parliament to look at amending the constitution.
This follows on the heels of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sona commitment to include it as one option in resolving the land question.
Ladies and gentlemen, start up your search engines – social media and braaivleis discussions are going into meltdown.
Between the extremes of land-will-solveall-ills and the sky-is-falling can we find a way to talk about land constructively?
How does one get the helicopter airborne when everyone is emotionally grounded in the topic?
At 2.19 pm on Wednesday February 14, Valentine’s Day, Nicolas Cruz climbed out of his Uber ride, walked into his old school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and left approximately 10 minutes later in among crowds of exiting pupils.
He then strolled to a nearby Walmart, bought a soda and headed off to McDonalds.
At 3.40pm, while walking through a quiet neighbourhood, he was stopped by a police officer and taken into custody without incident.
In his wake he left 14 pupils (aged 14 to 18) and three staff dead, wounding 14 others.
A year before, the 19year-old had legally purchased an AR-15 (a semi-automatic rifle, the civilian version of the standard weapon issued to US troops), the weapon of choice for American mass shooters.
On entering the school building, Cruz activated the fire alarm and began shooting (more than 150 times) at pupils and teachers, working his way steadily through the three-storey building.
The assistant football coach died while shielding two pupils, the geography teacher died shepherding kids into a classroom.
The on-site deputy sheriff arrived at Building 12 on the sprawling campus some 90 seconds after the shooting began.
Armed with a handgun he took up a defensive position outside, but against protocol didn’t enter until the shooting stopped.
After being publicly lambasted by the sheriff for failing to enter and to “address and kill the killer”, the officer resigned.
Three other deputies had also arrived on the scene during the shooting and failed to enter.
The sheriff’s department had, over the period of a decade, received some 23 calls regarding Cruz’s violent and erratic behaviour, as well as two specific tip-offs that he planned to “shoot up a school”.
A month prior to the incident, the FBI received a very clear tip-off that it failed to follow up on.
As the event spilled out onto live television, America went into a media feeding frenzy and became, as is customary, polarised.
Everyone sought to get their piece of the truth out front and centre.
Pupils from the school became instant social media heroes in their public #Never Again confrontation of both politicians and the gun lobby’s National Rifle Association (NRA) on the issue of “common sense” gun control.
Within a week CNN had convened a live-TV “town hall” meeting in which Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio was roasted for his emphasis on mental health checks and lack of support for a “weapons of war” ban.
President Donald Trump declined the CNN invitation, but arranged his own “listening session” on the same day.
The US president subsequently said, “A ‘gun-free’ school is a magnet for bad people” and called for “adept teachers with military or special training experience”, 20% of teachers to be given concealed guns as a sure way of ending the attacks.
He also came out in support of the NRA, tweeting that “Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People (sic) and Great American Patriots (sic)”.
Later, under challenge of the arming teachers’ idea, the president tried to shift focus onto the failure of the deputies, calling their conduct “disgusting” and asserted, “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon”.
With that he confirmed that the search for solutions in response to school massacres was more about reality TV sound bites than about changing the reality on the ground.
America has some five million assault rifle owners who collectively own more than 8.5 million civilian assault rifles.
In a retail market valued at least at $1.4-billion in 2014, the country produced some 1.2 million AR-15s in 2012 alone.
In contrast, there are 3.1 million teachers in the US, teaching 50 million kids across 98 200 schools.
The enormity of the task of arming and training 20% of the them – despite the suicidal notion of arming teachers with nine-round handguns and expecting them to go up against people with 30- to 40-round rapid-firing and accurate rifles – is impractical and unlikely to succeed.
But the patriotic-cowboywho-saves-the-day appeal, combined with the NRA’s defend-our-freedoms-fromcommunists talking points, overrides the chance of deeper debate.
With that, any meaningful and balanced assessment of school access policies, background checks, increasing the ownership age and banning of assault rifles goes out of the window.
But that’s not the biggest failure.
By focusing on the school only – the anecdote – it misses the fact that while there have been 90 mass shootings in the US since 1982, the greatest threat of a free-gun society is suicide.
More than 21 300 Americans took their own lives with guns in 2014.
Gun homicides only accounted for 11 008 deaths, of which 14 were due to a mass shooting.
So where should the debate be focused?
The post-truth world is at its happiest when the waters are muddied. It gets there by deflecting and projecting, manipulating reasonable doubt and pandering to conspiracy theories, thereby driving a wooden stake into the heart of consensus.
With truth out of the way, what’s easy to believe takes over.
South Africa doesn’t have the same gun problem – we have been able to dodge that bullet.
But we have a land problem and there’s no hiding from this one.
On Tuesday, parliament resolved (by 241 votes to 83) that the constitutional review committee of parliament would review Section 25 of the constitution and other clauses, where necessary, to cater sufficiently for the principle of land expropriation without compensation.
After public participation, it’s due to report back by August 30.
What is the truth about land, what’s easy to believe?
Let’s hope we can get the helicopter airborne.