Osama bin Laden

Johannesburg - So there I was minding my rib-eye steak, possibly originating from a cow but who really knows in these horsey times? It looked juicy, though, just like the picture on the restaurant’s menu, until my protein enthusiasm was drained by what was about to happen.

An enthusiastic 21-year-old recognised me from a book event I did at the University of Johannesburg. He wanted to ask a question. I obliged. His slight frame, innocent brown eyes and hesitant body language did not prepare me for what was to come.

“You know Bin Laden, right? He killed people and the world’s population decreased because of his terrorism.

“Societies in which homosexual people are accepted are societies in which populations decrease because there are fewer male partners for women to procreate with. In those societies the population therefore decreases.

“So, what is the difference between a homosexual like yourself and a terrorist like Bin Laden?”

As he ended the question, his eyes took on a more accusatory glint, as if the question was rhetorical.

I must confess I lost my cool. I put my knife and fork down. I temporarily ignored the dead protein-rich beast on my plate. I looked him squarely in the eye. “What you just said is both morally and intellectually f***** up.”

Then I kept quiet. The silence was volatile. There was no film director’s music to cue the correct emotive response from him. Unmediated disgust filled the air. We stared at each other for what felt like a lifetime.

Then his eyes welled up a little, which made me feel extremely bad, and at the same time, I really thought he might knife me in a fit of homophobic rage. Feeling both like a bully and a potential victim is a weird emotional space to occupy.

I was not sure whether to pre-emptively call a waiter or to send out an SOS tweet about a potential mess at a restaurant appropriately named The Butcher Shop.

But then he caught me off-guard. He lowered his voice. “Teach me,” he pleaded. I felt relieved. No black eye for me. Just Catholic guilt for being hard on him.

But it was important to be hard on him, not just intellectually but also emotionally. Some arguments that are intellectually bankrupt are also morally offensive. Terrorists set out to kill innocent people intentionally.

A gay person’s love for someone of the same sex is of no consequence to a gawking bystander – I am not setting out to kill innocent people when I make love to Vusi. The two cases are therefore disanalogous.

But sometimes intellectually irresponsible viewpoints can be insulting, can impair the dignity of a group, can cause deep emotional distress, and can perpetuate social exclusion.

When the social and emotional consequences of intellectually bankrupt viewpoints are that serious, it is important to respond not just intellectually but also with emotion.

And, to his credit, after about 20 minutes of tense conversation, we moved on to talk about how we had been talking, and I explained to him why I had emoted first, before I had bothered to respond intellectually.

I asked him: “If you took your girlfriend of a different skin colour home, and your sister said to you that blacks and whites mixing was ‘as disgusting as seeing a dog and a pig breeding’, would you calmly point out why the analogy is unconvincing?”

He said he would be offended and would show it. Only thereafter would he try to engage his sister on why her reasoning was sloppy. He understood where I had come from with my initial reaction, and we proceeded to have a beautiful and long conversation about morality, philosophy and critical thinking.

A little bit of controlled emotion can work wonders in changing someone’s attitude and behaviour.

But still I was sad after our meeting. This was a university student, studying towards a degree. To qualify for this degree would have required good matric marks. He was at a top-end restaurant to meet the chief executive of a leading supermarket chain because he has a business already.

He seemed like an outstanding student, a young leader, an entrepreneur. And yet his critical thinking skills, and his commitment to constitutional values and moral reasoning, still requires years of fine-tuning.

But he will be okay. He stops cocky and hard-hitting people like Eusebius McKaiser and says: “Teach me.”

And he just e-mailed me.

So I will coach him in debating, critical thinking, and public speaking free of charge. He stole my heart. He almost reduced me to tears with his disarming request to be taught what he does not know about.

But what about the millions of young South Africans unable to think critically or to work through simple moral puzzles? Who is there for them?

* Eusebius McKaiser is author of the bestselling book A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays on race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics.

The Star