Headspace People

Dennett’s ‘seven tools for thinking’

In 2009, I had the great pleasure of sharing a number of meals and pub-sessions with Dan Dennett, when he visited South Africa for a series of lectures. The picture below is of his first encounter with something called a “bunny chow” – a hollowed-out section of bread, filled with curry. Since meeting him then, he’s always been exceedingly generous with his time and thoughtful input when requested, as I’m sure any of you who have dealt with him would concur.

In case you hadn’t noticed, he has a new book out which looks well-worth our time and attention. It’s titled “Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking“, and is certainly next in line for consumption on my Kindle.

The Guardian recently carried an excerpt detailing “seven tools for thinking”. Number two on that list is certainly one I wish more of our “community” would take to heart, and deals with the tendency to caricature our opponent’s positions. I’ll paste a snippet below, but please go and read the rest – we could do with a reminder in many of these respects.

Begin quote:

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

Headspace Religion

The idea of an afterlife

Of course it can be tempting to believe in the afterlife, because it reassures or comforts – perhaps we’ll see the loved one again, and perhaps (sometimes) we’ll get to shrug off some guilt we’re now left with because of hurtful things we said or did. But notice, especially with that last set of motivations, that selfishness is the governing principle, rather than a tribute to the deceased or the memory of them. If we did want to somehow acknowledge those that have left us, I’d imagine that satisfying the demands of our egos in that fashion would not be what they would recommend or hope for (if able to recommend or hope for anything).

But giving up on the belief in an afterlife does not mean that we have to give up on commemorating the lives of those we’ve lost. Rituals of significance are popular for all of us, even non-believers, and often deservedly so. They provide a narrative force that punctuates our existence, bookmarking our progress or regress, coming into and leaving existence. Weddings, birthdays, and funerals play this role, and we can engage in all of these sorts of things with as much or as little commitment to metaphysics as we like.

ghostFor a while, many decades ago, I used to light a candle on the anniversary of a particular person’s death, because he was such a treasured friend that I felt something was amiss if I didn’t remember him. Of course, that’s close to superstition. But it made me feel better, and that’s surely a respectable motivation, even if it isn’t the strongest one?

There is of course a range of significance to fictions, including the dabbling with the idea of an afterlife that might seem tempting in the immediate days after someone’s death. Fictions that allow you to sweep child molestation under the rug, to justify misogyny, or cause you to pray over a child while she dies instead of rushing her to hospital are clearly deeply significant. In addition to this spectrum of significance, it is to my mind indisputable that whether something is true or not matters.

In many cases, wishing that there were an afterlife is probably trivial. However, if a belief in an afterlife allows you to neglect duties in your “real” life, thinking you have time to make amends later, or allows you to think that your real obligations are in the hereafter rather than now (think, for example, of religiously motivated suicide bombers), then the belief can contribute to serious harms. And, because there aren’t any effective ways of preventing false beliefs from taking on these harmful forms, perhaps it’s better to avoid them as much as possible.

Even then, this shouldn’t mean telling the grieving mother that no, her child is not in heaven. But it does mean that we shouldn’t encourage such beliefs. And, not encouraging them doesn’t mean that we need to treat the deceased as if they never lived, or never meant anything to us at all.

Headspace Morality

Alain de Botton: 10 virtues for atheists

I really can’t make my mind up about Alain de Botton. Part of me finds him insufferable, thanks to what appears to be his perpetual smugness, as well as his fondness for translating complex ideas into aphorisms that could fit on a chewing-gum wrapper. But then, much as the equally (to me, at least) annoying Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World brought philosophy to people who otherwise wouldn’t read or think about it, perhaps de Botton does more good than harm. Nobody expects more from him than vaguely inspirational “deep thoughts”, so it’s entirely possible that part of my annoyance is mere jealousy at how he’s cornered the atheist version of the Deepak Chopra market. And that, in doing so, he’s getting people to think about worthwhile and interesting things.

But at a time when some really interesting conversations are being had between Loxton, Myers, Novella and others on the delimitations of skepticism, it’s particularly annoying that de Botton’s recent list of what are variously described as “virtues”, “commandments” or “guidelines” are being marketed as “for atheists”. First, because it plays into the hands of those who think atheists need such a list – ie. that we are any more value-deficient than any other “group” of people; and second because it seems to assume we are a “group” of people in any relevant sense, besides simply sharing disbelief in gods as part of our mental furniture. (I realise that this could open conversations about “dictionary atheists” and the like, but I really hope it doesn’t.)

So, in the midst of an interesting discussion regarding how to define a particular shared interest and those who hold that interest, here were have a lazy demarcation of “atheists” and “other” – and when you see the list, you’ll no doubt observe that there seems little that is specific to atheism, and little that can’t simply be described as “guidelines for conscious creatures”, or somesuch.

De Botton has previous form in the game of oversimplification, of course – in Religion for Atheists, he straw-manned new atheism in support of his creation, atheism 2.0, and then in 2012 he suggested the erection of a “temple to atheism“. There are many good ideas hidden in both of these initiatives, but also plenty of platitudes. As I said at the time, “de Botton is dressing up the obvious as if it’s insightful. And his further explanation of how he thinks these are good ideas don’t make them appear any more so”. So it is with the 10 virtues for atheists, which are:

  1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
  4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
  6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.
  7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.
  9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

It’s fairly obvious what’s going on here. He intends this list as a substitute for the Biblical 10 commandments – but doesn’t want to call them “commandments” (note, some newspapers have called them that, but he doesn’t), because that will too obviously invite ridicule from atheists telling him things like “atheism is not a religion”, as well as glee from theists saying “look, atheism is like a religion!” So, he loses the rhetorical force being able to call them “commandments” would have provided through superseding the Biblical commandments and making them redundant.

But they are already redundant to atheists, and superseded by a non-belief in gods and their hypothetical commandments. Furthermore, these are values most of us – whether religious or not – already have. So, he’s trading on an existing set of commandments – but only indirectly – and then doing so in a way which highlights the false distinction he’s making between atheists and everybody else. As a result, the list appears ever more opportunistic, and simplistic. And, of course, annoying – even though there’s very little wrong with the list itself.

Daily Maverick Headspace Politics

Setting aside our differences

Originally published at the Daily Maverick

Daily Maverick readers will no doubt have noticed that last week, many of this community of opinionistas, editors and journalists congregated for The Gathering 2.0. A fair number of you were there too, and those I spoke with – readers and contributors alike – confirmed that they got as much value out of it as I did.

One key factor in its success, at least as far as I’m concerned, had to do with the value of community, shared goals and aspirations. Finding common ground and room for collaboration has always been difficult, and it has perhaps become increasingly difficult in a world of sharply divided identities and rather loud disagreements.

As was the case at the first Gathering two years ago, I was struck by the sense of a common purpose and shared commitment to finding solutions for South Africa and its developmental and political troubles. Sure, we sometimes disagreed on what those solutions should be, but there was little doubting our sincerity in looking for them.

It’s rare, though, to get to have these conversations in rooms without hostile commenters, and where a combination of ticket prices, self-selection and invitations extended pretty much ensured that people were going to be respectful, even when they disagreed. Out there on the Internet, or in more typical gatherings, civility and respect are not so easily guaranteed.

One thing that has certainly changed for me in the time between these two gatherings is my desire to attempt to be more sympathetic to the reasons why people disagree on goals and strategy – especially in the area of religion, where most of my attempted interventions take place.

Those of you who follow the endless squabbles in the secular, sceptical, or atheist community will know that fighting with each other is as much a part of the game as combating religious dogma is. And this isn’t only because there can be dogmatism and unreason on the non-religious side too – which there certainly can be – but also because everyone is sometimes guilty of being more interested in being right than in making progress.

Making progress – whether it be finding a political solution to a seemingly intractable problem, or persuading the rank-and-file Catholic to join you in publicly denouncing a child-abuse-enabling Cardinal – sometimes requires collaboration rather than antagonism. And, the former is more often appropriate than the latter is, as far as I’m concerned.

Don’t get me wrong – there is room for anger, and there is room for the sharpest criticism. Not only because the sharp criticism can inspire others to break with a tradition or belief, or serve as a lightning rod for debate, but also because it’s sometimes deserved.

The column I abandoned writing this week was going to amount to an extended insult (on issues, rather than ad hominem) directed at Blade Nzimande, and (leaving aside the fact that he would probably never have noticed it) attacking him seems permissible because he is presumably capable of brushing it off.

Likewise, I can feel more comfortable attacking Ray MacCauley rather than his parishioners, or the quack Professor or Doctor rather than those that change their diets or medical regimes on his or her advice. Because we all make mistakes, and while we should all sometimes know better, those of us in authority or with the expertise required to make the judgement in question should know best of all.

But as with any area of contestation – and especially in what I’m confident is an Internet-fuelled tribalism and hyperbole – caricatures so often win out over trying to find common ground. On the pro-science and secular side (and note the false dichotomy there – as if the religious can’t be pro-science, just like pro-life invites the caricature of “anti-life”), what community there is is partly premised on a caricature of the “other”, just like religious folk can easily point to some obnoxious atheist they know and use that person as their baseline for understanding non-believers.

What I worry about in these cartoonish versions of reality is firstly the possibility that we’re forsaking opportunities to learn things – about each other, about difference, about persuasion; and second that we’re impeding progress towards what could in many instances be common goals.

A significant proportion of secular activism – at least on the web – currently consists of people mindlessly (or so it appears) sharing photographs of a Hitchens or Sagan looking thoughtful, and accompanied by an inspirational (or blasphemous) quote. Often, these imagines will come from Facebook groups such as “I fu**ing love science” – as if saying so makes it true.

It doesn’t make it true. Mostly, we love the false impression of community that’s gained through imagining that the other – whether it be the unscientific, Bronze Age-mythology believing monotheist, or the dogmatic, immoral and cruel New Atheist – through the eyes of our respective prejudices.

I’m currently (too slowly) working on a review of Chris Stedman’s provocative new book “Faitheist” (edit: review now posted here), in which he makes the case for atheists “reaching across the aisle” and getting involved in interfaith efforts aimed at bettering lives. As he puts it somewhere in the book: “Do we simply want to eradicate religion, or do we want to change the world?”

These goals are of course not mutually exclusive, but in our eagerness to caricature each other, I worry that we lose sight of the possibility that focusing on the latter could contribute to achieving the former. More to the point, it could do so at a lower cost than encouraging divisiveness does, because the partisan outlook obscures the fact that we probably have more in common than what divides us.

Of course we need to keep asking whether beliefs are true or not, while encouraging people to discard untrue beliefs where possible, even if they are comforting. But no matter how often we ask those questions, they will have no effect unless someone is listening. And why should anyone listen, when it’s clear that the person asking you to listen has no interest in conversation?

Daily Maverick External World Headspace Religion

The tragedy of absurdity – on Holmes and the Batman shootings

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Last week’s shootings in Aurora, Colorado brought to mind the power of absurdity. Amid all the speculation regarding what motivated James Holmes to open fire on a crowd of moviegoers – killing 12 and injuring dozens – we can safely assume that there at least was a motivation or a reason. But it might not be something we can relate to, and in at least one sense, it will be absurd.

Much of the speculation as to Holmes’s potential motive is of course also absurd: from pastor Rick Warren’s claim (edit: he claims misinterpretation) that the teaching of evolution is somehow to blame, to the equally idiotic assertion that the killings are the result of the teachings of Christianity. Most if not all armchair psychologising about cases like this is little more than an opportunity for people on the sidelines to air their fears or prejudices.

Without speculating on his motives, then, we can still say that some set of deliberations led him to plan and execute this attack. And the narrative underpinning those deliberations would have been absurd, because whatever he thought the act would demonstrate, or whomever he thought it would punish, it would inevitably fall short of succeeding in its goals.

To wit: If he intended to kill people of a certain demographic or class, the quality of his targeting was clearly absurd, in that the victims were essentially chosen at random. If he meant to send a message, we’ve not yet been given to clue as to what it is, nor are we inclined to being persuaded by messages delivered in such a fashion.

The only long-term effect on the world from actions such as these is to inconvenience future cinemagoers, who will most likely soon have to pass through security checkpoints to get into the theatre. Minds won’t be changed, whether that of a lover or a god you intended to impress, or those of a set of politicians or bankers you wanted to chastise. In all these cases, the act and the motivation for it will be absurd.

And of course, a heavy price is paid for such a vanishingly small or nonexistent reward. This is the power of absurdity – we define the groups or ideologies we belong to abstractly, to the extent that our political or religious identities become unfalsifiable or irrefutable. Sometimes, we kill, fight and die for ideas, even those that we think will only manifest in an afterlife.

More broadly, communal commitment to the same set of beliefs, whether absurd or not, deepens trust and galvanises group solidarity. We demonstrate our commitment in our actions; and the more elaborate and apparently heartfelt those actions are the more convincing and persuasive they appear to an audience. This can in turn grow the audience or the community, in that they are attracted to the sincerity and solidarity they observe.

When the Pope washes the feet of worshippers, for example, the gesture is costly because it sacrifices power and ego. It’s intended to be a hard-to-fake symbol of commitment to higher powers, or to a shared set of beliefs – this is part of what makes those commitments or beliefs more likely to be adopted by an audience.

Holmes’s gesture was more costly. Clearly so in the case of those who were injured or lost their lives, as well as their families and friends, but also for Holmes himself, who faces certain loss of freedom in one form or another and even potential loss of life (capital punishment is legal in Colorado, even though the last death sentence was handed down in 1987, and then finally executed in 1997). It’s tempting, therefore, to speculate as to some grand motive, because the motive needs to be grand enough to allow us to reconcile these costs.

But perhaps the speculation is always more for our own comfort than anything else, given that you can’t explain the absurd. That is partly the point of these gestures and narratives – they are designed to be un-interpretable and outlandish, because that’s how they perform the task of separating “us” from “them”. We distinguish between cultures not only on the grounds of things like language, but also through ritual, and if the rituals are too easy to fake they become less useful tools for doing so.

To some extent, we now have what one might call universal religions or cultures – things like democracy, human rights and so forth – and various commitment devices that indicate our membership of these religions or cultures. As with all religions, costly gestures indicate greater commitment. If it is inconvenient for you to cast your vote, yet you still do so, you’ll appear to care more for democracy than someone who can’t be bothered to vote. If you spend 27 years in prison, you’ll appear to care even more.

We can’t yet know what religion, culture, or identity Holmes was demonstrating commitment to, and perhaps we never will. Perhaps he was doing nothing of the sort, and we’ll later discover that this (ex) PhD student in neuroscience should himself be a case-study of a certain sort of brain abnormality which predicts this behaviour better than any speculations as to his hypothetical beliefs could do.

Or, more worryingly for those who’d like to take comfort in a narrative – any narrative – that might bring something resembling sense to this tragedy, events like this could simply be a reminder that those universal religions many of us take for granted aren’t yet as firmly rooted in modern cultures as we’d like to believe, and that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Daily Maverick Headspace

Analysts, opinionistas and their (occasional) irrelevance

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying a round of correspondence and debate on some nebulous and easily abused topics including transformation and ubuntu. Every society has its grand narratives, especially in political discourse – and we can no doubt expect a significant increase in analysis and commentary on some of these narratives as we draw closer to Mangaung and the ANC’s policy conference.

While it sometimes seems a little too easy be recognised as a political analyst, the sort of instant and inexplicable authority that some commentators in that area have isn’t much different to other aspects of our intellectual lives. As I’ve previously argued, if you’re willing to throw your weight around on public fora, the mechanics of the attention economy can quickly elevate your ideas – no matter how anodyne – into a privileged position.

But the more worrying thought that came up in the correspondence on Ubuntu is whether any of this matters, in the sense that people’s minds are changed or the quality of debate improved. There is certainly lots of debate, but it’s unclear whether it has any effect outside of the filter-bubble inhabited by that (small) subsector of South African society who enjoy luxuries like advanced educations and material comforts.

The idea that “we” (namely the loosely-defined group above) are simply talking to ourselves – and going around in circles while doing so – is a depressing one. But perhaps it was ever thus and will always be so, and those of us who think the role of the social critic valuable should simply lower our expectations. In South Africa, it certainly seems the case to me that we can do little good until the basic education system has the opportunity to leave crisis mode.

Recognising this possibility doesn’t mean we should stop, of course. Much like lecturing to a class of first-year students also often seems futile, if an opinion or analysis has a success rate larger than zero in provoking thought, it could still be doing more good than harm. But perhaps some of this activity should stop, especially in areas such as political analysis, where it’s quite easy (I’d think) to recognise that you’re inflating a few banal observations to the status of commentary.

The issue here is one involving personal virtue, including the humility that makes it possible to realise you’re not adding any value and to then decide to stop adding to the noise. Newspapers, radio stations and online media need content, to be sure, but their needs (and the audience’s apparent need for distraction) do not have to entail saying things just for the sake of doing so.

There are millions of blogs that we ignore because they say so little, and more importantly, that we don’t write because we have little to say. The former is a less significant issue here, in that if you’re incapable of developing some filtering mechanism for worthwhile content, perhaps you deserve to be drowning in an overload of content.

But as for the latter, it seems to me that many contributors to the more formal media spaces forget to hold themselves to the same standards as they would when deciding whether or not to “set up shop” as an independent blogger on politics or morality (where the most egregious forms of waffling can be found).

For contributions to political debate to be useful, it should be the case that you have some unique insight or access to key players, or that you’re well versed in political theory or law. For morality, your opinion is – in itself – no more interesting than anyone else’s opinion, especially if it’s formed in complete ignorance of decades of debate on the issue in question. We’re certainly not the best judges of the value of our own opinions, but if you’ve been invited to opine in public, that’s hopefully evidence of at least some ability to recognise that opinions are only useful when (to put it quite crudely) you think everyone should find your opinion compelling, for good reason.

Outside of commenting on matters moral or political there is of course the strange space of opinion columns more generally, such as the one you’re reading now. Those of us who contribute in this space are of course easy targets, but often justifiably so due to how easy it is to sink into the comfortable narcissism of thinking you have something valuable to say. It’s rare to see the sort of courage displayed by Jacob Dlamini in his final Business Day column, where he admits that he feels “like a stuck record, saying the same thing over and over again”.

I sincerely hope that I’ll be able to follow that sort of precedent when the time comes. But in the meanwhile, on behalf of one minor contributor to all the noise, apologies for what we sometimes think you might find value in reading. And to my fellow noisemakers, let’s remember that we can set ourselves a higher standard, even if that means becoming redundant – or recognising that we’ve long been so.

Daily Maverick Headspace

Being wrong (the value of agnosticism)

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

During a lecture last week, the topic of September 11, 2001 was brought up to make a point about conspiracy-theorists and how frequently they employ confirmation bias to support their views. In short, confirmation bias is the disposition to prefer evidence that supports your existing view, while tending to ignore disconfirming evidence.

A student asked me which argument it was that convinced me the conspiracy theories are false. I replied that the world isn’t that simple: there often isn’t one knockdown argument against a position – especially a position involving so many complexities and confounding details. Instead, I said, it’s a matter of the arguments for one position being weaker than the other, when considered in overview.

But sometimes the situation is of course more uncertain than this, and it seems impossible to choose sides on particular topic. Yet we often do so anyway, despite the fact that we sometimes can’t support the view we’ve chosen to claim. When last have you heard someone say something like “I don’t know enough about that issue to have a position on it”?

Too many of us seem to despise doubt or uncertainty, even if that’s the position best supported by the evidence we have. And with the norm being to have and express a view, the space for being uncertain closes off just that little bit more. I try, for example, to be uncertain about aspects of the climate change debate, but often fail to succeed in doing so.

While I don’t know enough about anthropogenic global warming to be convinced of any particular point of view, the emotive fervour of the discussion pushes one to choose sides (and I then choose the orthodox side, simply because that gamble has usually been the correct one on matters of science).

Of course, I could do the research – but we don’t have time to research everything that everyone else would like us to be experts on. We need to specialise, and until we do it’s perfectly reasonable to say “I don’t know” – in other words, to be agnostic on any given issue. Of course, for some issues this position might be irresponsible, in that agnosticism might be a moral failing of some sort.

For global warming this might well be the case, but seeing as many of us conserve energy already thanks to Eskom’s unreliability in supplying their product and the prices they charge for it, it’s quite easy to be relatively “green”. Many might be flying less in any case thanks to recession, or driving less as a result of petrol prices. The point, in short, is that no matter how hysterical any given person is on this issue, it’s largely not us individuals, but instead corporations and governments, who could do much about the problem (assuming that human activity is part of the problem).

But despite being agnostic on this issue, it’s still possible to believe that one side of the argument is superior to the other. Doubt does not remove this possibility, but simply means that you don’t feel justified in claiming certainty. Agnosticism is the absence of conviction, not necessarily the absence of an opinion (whether informed or not). So to say that I am agnostic on climate change does not preclude me from saying that I believe, for example, that Ivo Vegter is wrong in his columns dedicated to refute climate change orthodoxy.

If he and I were to have that debate, though, most of what I’d be able to do would be to listen and ask questions when something sounded implausible or needed clarification. Occasionally, I might be able to say “what about this data here”, and he’d no doubt respond with a barrage of counterclaims. To be convinced by the arguments, though, I’d have to study both them and their competition. Until then, it’s largely an entertaining debate rather than an opportunity for conversion to another point of view, because I have the impression (sorry, Ivo) that there is a sufficient number of scholars who are both experts in this field, and engage with it full-time, who disagree with Ivo to make it more likely the case that they are right and he is wrong.

But I don’t know, and I also don’t believe I (at this point) need to know. This doesn’t make mine a position of faith, but rather one that is admittedly premised on not having sufficient information, and also on being aware of that lack of information. As long as there is some information rather than none, though, it’s a position that while agnostic still allows for one to choose sides in a non-dogmatic fashion.

Our considered views are always contingent on the information we have access to, and we are often in a position to confess in advance that this information is inadequate for conviction to be reasonable. The example of climate change here is simply a foil for making the more general point that we have options besides that of dogmatic, uninformed zeal – especially in matters that are fraught with political or emotive tension – and the option of being an expert on the topic in question.

We can say that we’re not sure, but despite this, we think it’s likely that some position is wrong or right. Doing so reminds us that it’s possible to change that contingent opinion when new evidence comes to light, and it sends a signal to others that it’s worth trying to change your mind on any given issue. Sometimes we might even think it’s highly likely that some position is wrong or right, and this is when we should feel most motivated to defend it against opposing views.

I suspect, though, that if we were to do an honest stock-take of our various points of view we might find that for most of them, the firm conviction we present is largely a fabrication. We might also find that this fabrication is in the service of ego, especially when we think that someone else is undermining our beliefs.

To treat all beliefs as equally justified – or to forget that we mostly speak from a position of qualified agnosticism – is unlikely to be good for debate and for the possibility of discovering that we are wrong. And if we care about being right, or rather, care about believing things that are true rather than false, we shouldn’t forget that getting to the truth is often only possible through allowing ourselves to be uncertain – or even wrong.

Daily Maverick Headspace People

Opinions on opinions on opinions

First published on The Daily Maverick

Gareth Cliff’s opinion-piece on the nomination of Mogoeng Mogoeng to be South Africa’s next Chief Justice attracted a number of interesting comments. However, it also attracted comments which had little to do with any arguments advanced, but instead appeared to be attempts at disqualifying Cliff from holding any views at all.

“Stick to your day job” was a sentiment that appeared at least twice, alongside some less subtle ad hominem attacks. And yes, we can justifiably wonder about how easily a radio and television personality can rebrand themselves as a public intellectual. But finding such a transition implausible or believing it to be difficult does not make it any less possible to do so – and it is distinctly anti-intellectual to rule out the possibility that sensible noises and words can come from surprising sources.

This sort of reaction would be no surprise to Cliff himself. His open letter to President Zuma attracted 876 comments – many quite hostile – as well as a column by Andile Mngxitama asserting that Cliff was the face of ‘white supremacy’. Sadly, and predictably so, it proved impossible (at least for a white man such as myself) to argue that we could – and should – attempt to separate the arguments from the personalities and politics of racial identity in this case.

My reply to Mngxitama gave rise to the sort of reaction that makes one wonder whether the strategy that Samantha Vice argues for – that white South Africans should refrain from comment on racial matters – is simply a matter of self-protection rather than principle. I don’t mean that, of course – there’s no question that her viewpoint is sincere, regardless of the fact that I believe it to be wrong.

But there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a considered position being dismissed on grounds of your racial identity, or have people calling on you to be kicked out of your university, as SACP Provincial Secretary Khaya Magaxa did following my reply, before you start to wonder whether it’s really worth the bother.

Of course, if all of us who – rightly or wrongly – believe we have something to contribute to these conversations took the more abusive advice of our readers to heart, we’d simply stop trying to contribute. And while some might consider that a blessing, and move on to complaining about something else, others might think that the space for debate and reflection would narrow appreciably, leaving us all impoverished.

There are at least three broad issues of relevance here. The first is something I’ve previously discussed, namely the fact that Internet comment facilities seem to self-select for vitriol and abuse. People who want to express the viewpoint that ‘you suck’, or some more sophisticated variant of that, seem far more likely to jab their index fingers at their keyboards than those who are interested in communication and debate.

Second, it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living though an era in which ideas themselves are not that welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column John Maytham was kind enough to alert me to, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”. Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

And third, there’s the issue of the extent to which any person or collective of persons should be accountable to others in the first place. The triumph of democracy as a political system has perhaps led to a generalisation of the idea that the majority should be trusted – and when you combine this with the previous two points, the frightening reality dawns that “the people” are often revealed as short-sighted and shrill.

But it’s of course not always true that the majority are right, or are to be trusted. We can all get things wrong, and we can sometimes do so simultaneously. To go back to the actual content of the Cliff column last week (as well as mine, and to a lesser extent Ivo Vegter’s), the idea that something like profound religious faith is a concern when discussing the role of Chief Justice is a genuine issue, admitting of substantive debate, in that it is far from obvious that we can wall off certain states of mind and motivations from others.

Yet even if the majority are not always right, feedback from an audience – whether it be a readership or a population of voters – is an essential vehicle for correction in that you can gain significant insight into what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. James Thorpe left an interesting comment on Cliff’s piece (timestamped Wed, 7 Sep 2011 at 09:41), in which this point was made.

He argued for some sort of reader-feedback mechanism here on The Daily Maverick. Apart from the comment wall, number of Tweets, Facebook ‘likes’ and Google ‘plusses’, the editorial staff obviously have access to figures indicating the number of times a page was loaded and which other Internet portals saw fit to link to it. Some may say that this is more than enough feedback – except, as Thorpe points out, we often don’t know what people liked and disliked about the column in question, and readers of course don’t have access to the hit rate and referrer data.

And then, of course, we can ask the question of whether this data is useful to readers at all. Or rather, whether it should be. Again, as mentioned above, does it matter whether a particular column is ranked well or poorly via some democratic process? It might well matter on the level of ego, for the writers themselves, but is providing this sort of facility plausibly an obligation on the part of the publication in question, and would it add value to readers?

While I was initially tempted to agree with Thorpe on this issue, it’s now not at all clear what anyone would gain. Publications themselves should have an editorial position, and publish what they think worthwhile, whether readers like it or not. There is of course a limit to this, in that it’s no good to sacrifice all your readers for the sake of principle. They can be guided in their decisions on what to publish through viewership figures, as well as through comments.

For readers, what you read – whether in the columns themselves or in the comments left – should itself be the reward. Asking for the decision about what to consider worth reading or not to be delegated to others via an additional mechanism could perhaps be an abrogation of the responsibility to form our own judgements, and then, to guide the judgements of the writers and editors, as well as other readers, through written feedback.

In short, I’d like to believe that it’s the case that the free market of ideas espoused by John Stuart Mill can still function in a world where we are encouraged to summarise complex preferences in the pressing of a button labelled “like”, or “+1”. We participate in that market, and contribute to its vibrancy and efficiency, through expressing our views. If they are persuasive, others will hopefully come to share them, and lesser content will be discarded for more substantial contributions.

Likewise, lesser publications might also themselves fall by the wayside if they persist in offering their readership sub-standard fare. It’s not at all clear to me that additional mechanisms for feedback would make this particular market more efficient. However, given the importance of the market in question, practical suggestions for doing so would certainly merit consideration.

The sheer volume of content generated on a website such as this – not to mention all the others we have access to – mean that interesting and potentially important ideas can get lost in the noise. This column, then, is an attempt to highlight that one idea, as expressed in Thorpe’s comment. Do we (humans, rather than The Daily Maverick) need to hear more opinions on opinions, and if so, what should the mechanism for allowing this look like?

Headspace People

Am I an idiot?

This was the question I heard a student ask me 10 minutes before his supplementary exam, a week or two ago. Supplementary exam’s, for those not familiar with them, are a second-chance offered to students who end the semester with a final mark of 45%-49%. Seeing as a pass is 50%, the thinking is that they may simply have had an off-day during the initial examination, and deserve a second chance.

Seeing as he would have to repeat the entire semester course if he failed this supplementary exam, and seeing as he knew me as an honest person, and also as one not afraid of speaking the truth about idiocy, it was peculiar that he wanted to hear my answer to that particular time, where you’d presume his state of mind to be somewhat fragile. But the question was asked.


Put a contract out on yourself

It will be interesting to track the success (or lack thereof) of this idea:

On stickK, you draw up an official commitment contract that binds you to achieving a personal goal, be it big or small. By agreeing to this contract, you publicly state your goal and commit to achieving it. Or, if grand public pronouncements aren’t your style, you can tell only people you select. Either way, you’ve committed to a goal and people know about it – so now it’s your reputation at stake!

To make you accountable as you work toward your goal, you file weekly reports on your success. (And don’t even think about lying — because you appoint someone you know as a “referee” to verify the accuracy of your reporting!) You also enlist as many Supporters as you’d like to encourage you, via the website, every step of the way.

If humans functioned as rational economic agents, it should be a roaring success, and lead many of us to find the motivation required to finish those Ph.D’s, stop smoking, eat less spam, or whatever. But as Herbert Simon (and common sense) tell us, while we’re certainly economic agents, we’re also very infrequently rational – often through little fault of our own. StickK provides an interesting thought-experiment, though, in that the first impulse that comes to mind (in my case, at least) is that – if I wanted to – I could quit smoking. But we’re often willing to leave that commitment in the hypothetical realm, and StickK offers a cheap, yet still incentivising, way to put your money where your mouth is. The key economic question that remains, however, is whether self-deception has a larger payoff than achieving one’s goals. For many of us, self-deception is so ingrained that we see little or no alternative to keep taking that payoff, no matter if it’s less than alternate rewards available. So again, we’re left with the essential prerequisite of escaping the circularity of our definitions of self. And this, fellow humans, requires a significant infusion of courage, as well as friends who are willing to tell you the truth.