Daily Maverick Morality People Politics

Sensationalism, morality and the media

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

There is a difference between exposing hypocrisy for the sake of satisfying the public’s desire for scandal (thereby perhaps increasing newspaper sales), and doing so in a way that makes the hypocrisy part of a larger story. Much over the weekend coverage of Malema and Mbalula’s various indiscretions seemed to prefer the former, leaving at least this reader with the question: Why should I care?

It’s not obvious that we should expect moral virtue from political leaders – and even if we were to do so, we’d first need to agree on what those virtues are or should be. Who Mbalula has sex with is not my business, nor is it something that should be. Unless, of course, the Minister’s choice of sexual partner entails some direct impact on his credibility or on consistency between his words and deeds.

If we believe Mbalula himself, he was separated from his wife at the time of his liaison with Joyce Molamu, so it’s not even clear that he has contravened the standards he appeals for others to follow. Members of the public might nevertheless consider him a hypocrite, and this will no doubt complicate his attempts to position himself as the next ANC secretary-general.

But until Stephen Grootes discussed Malema and Mbalula in these pages, the liaison – rather than any of its potential implications – was the story. Likewise with Malema. It should be no surprise to any of us that he’s a far wealthier man than many of his supporters, and that he’s more likely to have friends who host R10m parties. Yet another example of the lack of consistency between his rhetoric and his actions is not, in itself, front-page news.

The timing of such a party and the way in which it dilutes the force of the Youth League march against poverty can be. But as was the case with the Mbalula story, the media focus was more on rubbing his nose in this apparent evidence of hypocrisy (notably also tainted evidence, in that the business class flights and accommodation were apparently sponsored by the groom).

Outrage and sensation might be effective ways to sell copy, but they do little good in fostering a society that welcomes debate, and is able to engage in it. There seems little reason to believe that these stories will do anything other than entrench existing positions, where either M&M are being victimised by some white media cabal, or are untrustworthy demagogues.

We get the society we deserve, in that we are that society and it takes on the forms we encourage. As someone said on Twitter over the weekend, what the public is interested in is not equivalent to the public interest – and it’s the latter that gives newspapers licence to broadcast what would otherwise be details of someone’s private life.

Where those details are not contextualised as part of a story that is in the public interest, such as succession battles in Manguang, the press is not only feeding our appetite for sensation, but also starts taking on the role of moral authority and watchdog. Feeding our appetite for sensation is the job of the tabloids – not of the few variably-respectable local newspapers we have access to.

And neither being a moral authority, nor policing whatever version of morality is concocted is their proper role. The line between reporting on the news and aiming for objectivity – or at least making your biases clear if you’re not interested in objectivity – and trying to regulate society has become increasingly blurred.

For this reason alone, the extensive overlap between LeadSA and some of our media is problematic. If we were to discover that a particular LeadSA campaign is founded on poor evidence, or that a representative of LeadSA was somehow corrupt, are the chances of reading about these matters in an Independent Group newspaper at all diminished by their affiliation with LeadSA? I’d guess the answer to be yes. But I’d also guess that if this sort of event were to come to pass, that we’d see much crowing from the competition, and very little analysis that tracks something we could describe as being in the public interest.

And where the media endorse this sensationalism by practising it, we cannot be surprised to find citizens thinking they should care. Not only care about details that are stripped of context and meaning, but also care so much for their own hyperventilations that they think their worldviews should be enforced on the rest of us. A recent example of this can be found in complaint laid against an advertisement for Axe deodorants, where a single viewer convinced the ASA that it was offensive enough to require being taken off the airwaves.

That the ASA were convinced by this complaint is mystifying, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out ( What is perhaps more perplexing still is how they can proceed from here, having set the bar for offence so low. Every advertisement that includes images of an attractive man or woman could be described as sexist, and if we pretend to be offended enough (or sadly, actually feel offended enough), will the advertisement be pulled? Or how about those Fatti’s & Moni’s ads that so offend us Pastafarians, in subjecting us to images of our deity being boiled, over and over again?

If someone in the public eye has done something that weakens their case or exposes them as a fraud, this can certainly be in the public interest. But simply pointing out their indiscretions is not – we need to hear what this implies in terms of some larger issue. Without that context and analysis, the media is feeding a large and ugly beast. We know the public want sensation. And it’s likely that they’ll want more of it if we keep giving it to them. But perhaps, we should be encouraging them to want less of it.

Morality People

Feminism, sexism and Foschini T-Shirts

If you want further motivation for depression at the levels of debate H.Sapiens is capable of, take a look at the comment thread below this Rebecca Davis column on The Daily Maverick. The column dealt with some sexist T-shirts that were being sold by the Foschini group (see them here). Name-calling and missing-of-the-point-ing is the order of the day (well, of 3 days so far, and the pace hasn’t abated yet). One largely unexplored problem, though, is that the name-calling on this issue comes from all sides of the debate – it’s one of those emotive issues (like Slutwalk) where there’s something approaching a respectable, maybe even politically-correct view (neither term meant pejoratively), and then those who reject that for some reason or another (often, a bad reason). However, the mere fact that one doesn’t espouse the “respectable” view isn’t yet evidence that one holds reprehensible views – yet that’s the sort of reaction that dissent frequently attracts.

I’m not speaking for anyone other than myself here – the commenters on that thread who disagree with Rebecca might reject what I say here – but part of the problem with these sorts of debate is that they rule certain questions as out of order by establishing a normative principle. So, because sexism is bad (certainly), when I claim a sexist affront it immediately has a head-start in any argument. Furthermore, others are disincentivised from challenging my view, because it’s too easy to label those dissenters as sexist, and thus to silence them. We’ve seen the same thing, over and over, in the political sphere – words like “racist” or “coconut” are silencing devices.

What then could happen is that a viewpoint finds itself immune to, and protected from, challenge. Immune to because of its orthodoxy, and protected from because of our fear of being labelled as racist, sexist or whatever. This is why I try, where I can, to defend things like free speech both with reference to reprehensible views (like those of Kuli Roberts, perhaps) as well as more laudatory speech (Zapiro, for example). We do need to remember that even the well-intentioned can get things wrong. Those of us who defend free speech are often well-intentioned (at least in this regard), but there might nevertheless be better and worse ways of going about making your case.

For the record, this isn’t exactly a free speech issue at all – at least not in the standard sense. Nobody was being censored, and Rebecca and the other 10 were simply expressing their views on something they found offensive, and the Foschini group responded as they deemed appropriate (by withdrawing the T-shirts from sale). If you read the original letter of complaint, it’s measured and contains an argument for why the T-shirts were inappropriate. It wasn’t an emotive rant, or a call for immediate boycott (although we did see a few of those floating around, especially in the hyperbolic universe of Twitter).

The question here is whether Foschini had any choice. On this particular issue, perhaps they did – but at the expense of damage to the brand. Some of the T-shirts (I don’t think all, which weakened the objections somewhat) were genuinely offensive, but was there any room for Foschini to debate this? Could they have said: “We see your point with #1 and #2, but we’ll keep selling #3 because we think you’re being hypersensitive”. In other words, do these sorts of interventions even cross the line into a sort of moral blackmail, where your legitimised outrage can be leveraged without challenge?

The boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable offence (ie. merely risqué rather than legitimately problematic) are not only subjective, but also present a slippery slope problem. With the withdrawal of the T-shirts without any substantive engagement – and with the polarisation of the debate evidenced in the Davis column linked at the top – a new level of what is acceptable and not has been set. And potentially, one less thing can be debated, and one fewer thing can be a legitimate source of humour – because something is always potentially offensive to somebody.

As I argued following the decision by Pick ‘n Pay to withdraw the ‘blasphemous’ issue of Sax Appeal from the shelves, one possible outcome of these sorts of debate is simply a world in which those who shout the loudest get heard, or are taken more seriously than others. So even as we are fully entitled to object to things we find offensive, and attempt to get others to see our point of view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our own views are beyond challenge or that we can assign some degenerate label to those who object to those views.

Something which might be worth thinking about, as we fumble our way forward, is that in terms of tone and attitude to opposing views, some of the responses to this T-shirt saga have operated from a rhetorical space quite similar to that occupied by the likes of Errol Naidoo, who is constantly outraged – and uncomprehending – at the world not bending to his will. In fact, it might surprise Rebecca and the other 10 authors that this victory was his also. As he pointed out in a newsletter received on October 26:

There Is Victory In Christian Unity!
Two articles in the news media caught my eye this week. The first, reports on the Advertising Standards Authority ruling that a TV advertisement that featured angels falling from heaven because they are attracted to the deodorant -must be withdrawn because it is offensive.

The second story involves the Forchini Group responding to customer complaints and immediately withdrawing t-shirts from Markhams stores with slogans that portray women as sex objects.

What both incidents highlight is the power of the consumer to oppose evil and advance righteousness in society. These victories may appear small but they are significant.

Since Family Policy Institute went fully operational in July 2008, I have seen many examples of ordinary Christian citizens standing together to stop injustice & wickedness in its tracks.

When a homophobe like Naidoo is in your corner, it exposes the fundamentalist nature that these debates so easily take on. As I’ve said above, there was nothing fundamentalist about the original letter of complaint, and I’m certainly not suggesting that the letter was motivated by the same reasoning as Naidoo’s. However, the path of being offended – and thinking that others need to take note of your offence – is a treacherous one that can lead to Naidoo-land. And we should be careful to avoid that, because it’s good to keep talking. And to keep listening.

Daily Maverick People Politics

You’re only 1% if you don’t Tweet

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Perhaps – and only partly – as a consequence of the incredible volume of content generated on the Internet, it sometimes appears that we all have something to say. Not only through producing content such as opinion columns, but also in commenting on them and in passing them on to others via mediums like Twitter.

As I’ve argued before, this democratisation of knowledge – or at least opinion – comes with costs and benefits. Being able to participate in the conversation entails crossing a very low threshold, in that everyone with access to the Internet, even simply via their mobile phones, gets to have their say.

However, the noise can sometimes drown out any signal. More importantly, we can forget that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody is obliged to treat an opinion with more respect than it merits – no matter how forcefully it is presented, or how much passion underlies its expression.

Twitter is beginning to present a problem in this regard. You might think it always has, and perhaps you’d be right. But I think it’s getting worse. The confluence of a 140 character limit, the attention economy, and our feelings of all being equally entitled to have our opinions creates endless fights, factions and frustration – at least for those listening in, trying to understand what the fuss is about.

Mostly, though, these factors can conduce to a bizarre sense of self-importance. Some Twitter users take delight in being inflammatory, with mini-revolutions started every hour and then forgotten when some new outrage comes along. The problem, however, is that these revolutions are usually against a caricature, a headline, or a set of assumptions about a person that might well be defamatory if they were spelled out in an op-ed.

But while they are underway, with hundreds or thousands of people endorsing your call to action, perhaps you can feel like you’re achieving something – even if that achievement later turns out to only be X more or fewer followers. And even if your call to action ends with a re-tweet, rather than with a portion of your audience changing their vote, changing their bank, or saving some endangered iguana.

Just as the weak and unprincipled parts of mass protest can drown out the voices of those who have something meaningful to say, social media allows one to get by with unsubstantiated rumour or even thinly-disguised character assassination. And when you get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. Nobody remembers, and nobody ever needs to apologise.

While these attempted revolutions are underway, they can seem significant enough to gain some traction. Last Sunday, for example, some Twitterers attempted to incite their audience to believe that the regular sarcasm emanating from Helen Zille’s Twitter feed somehow entailed a reason to never vote DA. Examples of her alleged lack of fitness for high office were Tweeted and re-Tweeted, all in an effort to justify inferences such as her having no respect for those less educated than herself.

Even if this inference were true, you’d still need to build a pretty impressive bridge to get from there to anything relevant to a rational voting strategy. The same people who, for example, argued that Mogoeng Mogoeng’s defensiveness or religious beliefs had no relevance to his suitability as Chief Justice were now claiming that a rude person (on their terms) could not govern well.

The fact is that these are separate issues. You don’t need to like someone to think they can do a good job – even if it’s indisputably true that our feelings regarding someone’s character do influence those judgements. So if you want to play it safe, it’s perhaps best to stick to bland, uninteresting contributions like those from Jacob Zuma’s Twitter feed. It’s impossible to find those objectionable – mostly because they rarely involve any substantive content.

The thing about Tweeting and politics, at least in a South African context, is not only that our memories are short but also that we’re mainly just talking to ourselves. It doesn’t seem plausible that any significant number of votes will be shifted, simply because the vast majority of voters aren’t on Twitter. This statement is not, I think, a result of selection bias as a consequence of only justified by the people I pay attention to – if you search for the hashtag of any emerging political story, the vast majority of Tweets are in 1st-language English.

We’re all still muddling our way along, trying to figure out how best to use resources such as Twitter. Now there is immediate access to people we’d previously have had to apply to meet in triplicate, and much of the time, they feel compelled to respond. And when they don’t, that’s another instant indictment of their characters.

But all of this is prone to over-reaction, and a sense that we and our Tweets are more important than they actually are. The space allows for conversation and for frivolity, and it can be enormously valuable in providing not only access, but also news at a faster pace than we’ve ever benefited from in the past.

We shouldn’t, however, mistake it for rigorous and reasoned debate. And we shouldn’t mistake people for activists, just because they can be shrill and condemnatory in 140 characters or less.

Morality People

William Creasey: Sex-offenders and media responsibility

A friend alerted me to this front-page spread in Friday’s Cape Argus regarding William Creasey. For those unfamiliar with Creasey’s history, he was arrested in 2003 and later convicted for indecently assaulting minors. Following his release on parole in 2009, nothing (that I know of) has been heard of him – at least in relation to this sort of crime. What’s interesting about Friday’s story is that it details what essentially consists of a sting operation, exposing the fact that Creasey is using a pseudonym and expressed an interest in offering art classes to children. The police response was ‘that there was nothing they could do until they had proof that Creasey had committed an offence against a child’.

Why does the Argus feel that it has the responsibility to do more, and that their attempts to do so are front-page news? Of course sex with unwilling participants is illegal and immoral, and of course children often require a measure of paternalism to protect them against threats they might not fully understand. But one point of view would be that Creasey had done wrong, had served his time, and was currently doing nothing illegal – and nothing that justified this violation of his privacy and rights to trade his skills as an art teacher for money.

Those arguing in favour of exposing a man who is (to our knowledge) not guilty of any current crimes might argue as Paul Hoffman does,saying that the public does not need to wait for harm to be done and that we “are entitled to seek a suitable interdict if there is a reasonable apprehension of harm”. But my concern here is that any (or many) people are potential threats to some interest or other, and any subjective ranking of those threats or interests is open to abuse. So in principle, it seems preferable that we punish actual criminals rather than potential ones. Here, Creasey has been punished for actual crimes, and is now being further punished for potential crimes.

He did himself no favours by posting the Gumtree ad described in the story, and you can read his editing of that ad either as an acknowledgement that it was inappropriate for his to be teaching children, or as an attempt to not draw attention to the fact that he wanted to teach children. Likewise, the fact that he was using a pseudonym could be suspicious or not, depending on whether you believe him in saying that it’s a pseudonym he’s always used for his artistic endeavours. On the least sympathetic reading, he was engaging in what’s known as “grooming” – a term describing attempts by a sex offender to target and prepare children for sexual abuse. Or, he could simply be trying to get his life back on track, and doing what he loves (I mean teaching art, of course).

While South Africa does have a registry of sex offenders, it only went live last year and at this point only lists current convictions rather than historical ones. So Creasey would not appear on it, making it impossible for parents of children he might teach to check whether he (or anyone else) is on the registry. From what I can gather, the registry itself and the process for having a name checked on it is cumbersome and dysfunctional enough to make it pretty difficult to do so in any case.

But the larger question remains, despite these issues: Should our newspapers engage in this sort of pre-emptive strike against a possibly innocent man? Should your past always be available as a means by which to smear your reputation and limit your freedoms? It’s a sensitive and tricky subject, but we should guard against the tendency to allow ourselves to justify anything “for the children”. While sexual abuse is undoubtedly a threat to them (and to others), there are also threats for us all when the media becomes a vigilante.

Edit: Some people can’t read past their instinctive outrage, it seems. I’m addressing how complicated this balancing act is – I’m not coming down on the side of Creasey’s privacy. In general, though, I would defend someone against a known violation of their rights as opposed to protecting people from possible harms. If it’s true that paedophiles are irredeemable, as Mr Simpkins seems to believe, the balance shifts in favour of the exposure in the Argus.

Edit 2: The Argus has subsequently published this explanation for why they exposed Creasey.

Edit 3: The Argus then published this op-ed in which I make a fuller case for why it was inappropriate for them to expose Creasey in this way.

Daily Maverick External World People

Keeping Steve Jobs in perspective

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

A few hours after hearing of Steve Jobs’ death, it started to seem as if Princess Diana would have reason to be jealous (if she could still be anything at all), such was the outpouring of praise directed at the CEO of Apple. “Praise” is of course the understated version of some of what we read, or witnessed at iStores across the world, where the behaviour often seemed more worshipful than what you’d imagine merited by the death of a man with no (ostensible) religious following.

But as Umberto Eco observed in 1994, the ongoing debates between supporters of the Mac and the PC has long been something like a holy war. PC users disparage the Mac faithful for embracing the paternalism of a world with prescribed choices, and Mac users sneer at the irrationality of us PC folk in making our digital lives so much more complicated than they could be. Eco said:

I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

As is the case with all cults, adherents tend to lose touch with reality. Something of a personality cult developed around Steve Jobs – partly because of the undeniable sexiness of the products he introduced each year, and more recently perhaps partly due to his well-publicised battle against pancreatic cancer.

Now we see Jobs lauded as the sort of innovator and business leader the world needs more of, despite the evidence suggesting that he was a somewhat abusive autocrat rather than the sort of consultative, politically-correct kind of leader that regularly gets held up as an example to follow in business as well as politics. There’s evidence of a double-standard here, and there is also a remarkable lack of balance in the range of responses to his death and his legacy.

Just as much of the reaction to the failure of South Africa to grant the Dalai Lama a visa prompted either overly flattering portraits of the man himself or character assassinations, Steve Jobs is now either deified or demeaned, depending on who you read. The truth is as always not that simple, and we do ourselves no favours by embracing these false dichotomies.

Of course Jobs changed the world, but he’s no Norman Borlaug, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison or even Craig Venter. He refined and popularised various tools for making our digital lives more efficient, and more pleasurable. Apple, with Jobs at the helm, had mastered the art of making us believe that renaming and refining was the equal of invention – but it isn’t.

The iCloud is simply the cloud, as most of us knew before Jobs tried to get us there with fewer clicks of a button, and FaceTime is simply video-conferencing with a silly name. A mouse with one button, like Apple’s used to be, is simply a crippled input device. The most recent innovation, introduced at the launch of the iPhone 4S, is Siri – a voice-activated tool for performing various functions on your mobile phone. Siri no doubt has a lovely voice, but she’s doing the same job I’ve been able to do on my Android phones for the last three years.

An example of something actually invented by Jobs or Apple is difficult to find (just as it is for Microsoft). What they mostly do is package and resell the innovations of the real mavericks – those who truly “think different” (while perhaps respect [sic] grammar). What Jobs and Gates have historically done is encourage you to think the same – at least in terms of believing that their products, and their products alone, are the route to your digital salvation.

This is not necessarily or always a bad thing. Informed buyers can be aware of the costs and benefits of aligning themselves to one faction or the other, or mixing and matching if appropriate. I use iPods, but manage them with PC software because iTunes is horribly bloated and slow, at least on a PC. And I use PCs and Android devices because I want to tinker and customise, and I certainly don’t want to be told that Apple considers a phone app to violate standards of decency they have decided I should hold.

If you want things to just work, and don’t want to invest time and energy into learning how they work, there’s no question in my mind that Apple products can be superior. But as Andrew Orlowski points out, the problem is that claiming that they – or Steve Jobs – changed the world raises the question of how small that world – your world – started out being. A new way to do something we’ve always been able to do can be innovative, but it isn’t so by definition.

The endless queues around iStores on the release of a new Apple product, and the religious fervour accompanying the annual Apple product announcements, give the impression of a world of devotees that were letting Jobs do their thinking for them, rather than using the tools he introduced in order to do their own creating and innovating. This thinking is different, yes, but it’s perhaps not the kind of thinking that even Jobs would endorse, as much as he would have appreciated the resulting profits.

In an interview for Wired magazine in 1994, Jobs said that there is a “solution to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn’t it. You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a Web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education. … What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”

One thing that certainly helps in fixing education is to encourage critical thought, and to discourage the binary worldview which says that Steve Jobs is either a techno-Messiah or some sort of sweatshop-running magpie of digital innovation, taking and then rebranding other people’s ideas in furtherance of the cult of Apple.

But treating one person as so important and so meaningful to the world, when he was only doing the same thing as his competitors – sometimes years after them – seems rather hyperbolic. It’s true that he made computing easier for many, and has done the same thing for our smaller computers that also make phone calls. Whether this is a good thing or not is an open debate, because easier can often mean that there’s less for you to do, and less for you to think about.

Daily Maverick People Politics

Does it matter if you’re black or white? #CensusSA2011

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

On October 10, be ready to stand up and be counted. Well, you’ll need to stand up at least for as long as it takes to let the enumerator into your home, for that day marks the start of South Africa’s first census since 2001. There’s no question that conducting a full census costs plenty of money – R3 billion is the current estimate – but they also provide valuable information.

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?

People Religion

Confirmation bias

All of you religious nutters out there probably believe you’ve known this for some time, but I’m discovering that atheist/agnostic students can be just as unreasonable, pig-headed, irrational, rude, lazy and just plain stoopid as any given believer. As a regular participant in a atheist/agnostic discussion forum at my university, infantile debates are raging on vegetarianism and evolution, and some parties to these debates seem to have decided that – once they give up on god, Santa and the Tooth Fairy – their logical fortress can no longer be breached and they no longer have any obligation to even try to present coherent arguments. It’s all very sad and tawdry.

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.

People Religion

a better future…

On a track from Heathen, David Bowie demands “a better future”, and after watching Jesus Camp yesterday, I’m inclined to agree with him. The movie isn’t great, as the basic message could have been conveyed in an 45-minute documentary rather than a feature-length film, but it still serves as a powerful reminder of the insidious and growing power of religious fundamentalism in society, and politics in particular.