du Preez, McKaiser, racism and loaded questions

I’ve been thinking about racism a fair bit recently – not only because it’s a national preoccupation, but also because of things you likely know about already: the ongoing student and worker protests at my university (among others), and the Paris attacks over the weekend and responses to that (yes, I know “Islam is not a race“).

Another reason for the personal preoccupation is that I’m toying with the idea of writing a book on the subject, or rather a book on the concept of “whiteness” and how it influences discussions on race in South Africa. So it was with great interest that I attended Eusebius McKaiser’s Johannesburg launch of Run Racist Run last week, in which some of these issues are explored.


I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I have been following two discussions of it and its author – one, a bunch of abusive ad hominem towards McKaiser on Twitter, from people who also haven’t read the book, but think they can dismiss it on the grounds of what they think they know of the author.

Two, in a lengthy Facebook post and discussion, Max du Preez expressed dissatisfaction at being (unfairly, in his view) singled out for criticism in one of the book’s chapters.

You need to read the thread yourself for a full view, but my summary of it is that du Preez is unhappy that McKaiser reads a certain newspaper interview as containing evidence that du Preez adopts a rhetorical strategy of pointing to obvious, and odious, racism to deflect from his own, more subtle racism.

11220930_10153588730640546_4454034221720839491_nAnother discussion of the case can be found on Jason van Niekerk’s public post, which helpfully also contains a page from the book in question, reproduced alongside. My concern with how this discussion is framed on Jason’s post, as well as by McKaiser, is that it’s easy to see this as an example of a loaded or complex question. For example, “have you stopped beating your wife?”.

These questions entail any answer simply implicating you further, making it impossible for du Preez to respond in any way except to say, “you got me – I’m sorry for my subliminal racism”. In these situations, the questioner holds both absolute authority over the framing of the question, as well as the acceptability of any answer – and I don’t think that’s fair.

I don’t think du Preez would disagree in the least with how McKaiser frames the false dichotomy in the closing sentence of the image above. I also don’t think du Preez would disagree that he – and all white folk – might sometimes have a reflexive thought that is attributable to a racially discriminatory upbringing or culture.

But that isn’t what he was being asked about in the interview McKaiser focuses on. He wasn’t saying that “because I reject the racism of Bullard/Roodt/Hofmeyr, I myself am immune to criticism”. If you want to criticise him for saying that you need an example of him saying that, rather than an example of an interview where he could be read as saying that, if we choose to be uncharitable.

Here’s what van Niekerk thinks faulty about du Preez’ response, with my response below:

du Preez doesn’t mention or address the three specific claims made against him. Instead, he suggests that we can know whether he’s a racist or not by looking at his history of written work.

2 things about that.
1. That response is begging the question posed in the chapter title. du Preez is, in his response, invoking exactly the conception of racism McKaiser is calling inadequate: racism as a fixed feature of character you either embody or don’t, rather than a vicious disposition the privileged can fall into without noticing.
2. Even if he weren’t begging the question, this isn’t an issue of representative sample sizes: McKaiser has picked that article as an exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot. Other stuff du Preez has said or written that doesn’t do that wouldn’t be relevant to a discussion of that move.

It didn’t seem to me that du Preez was saying that his body of work immunises him from any accusations – rather, he’s saying that one article (which wasn’t even addressing the substantive charge being made against him by McKaiser and van Niekerk) is an unrepresentative data point.

It’s not question-begging, in other words, but (legitimately, in my view) rejecting the question as illegitimate. As I said above, I think du Preez would agree with “the conception of racism that McKaiser is calling inadequate” – he’s disagreeing that an interview of his manifests that kind of racism, because thinking it does so takes an interview given in one context (an Afrikaans newspaper, speaking mostly to a white community, where du Preez would be well aware of that and frame his responses accordingly), and interprets it as if it were offered in another context.

On the second point above, it seems to me that van Niekerk is doing the question-begging here. It’s only an “exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot” if you assume McKaiser’s reading is correct, and I don’t think that’s obviously true at all.

More to the point, to use someone as an example of unconscious (or partly conscious) racism, when that person has neither the right of reply (pre-publication), nor the right to explain anything about how the context is relevant, seems unethical to me.

Again, if we put the simple question to du Preez, “do you think that condemning obvious and overt racists makes you, yourself immune from more disguised or subtle forms of racism, and that even you might sometimes slip into those?”, I’m pretty confident he’d say “yes”. Until you ask him that question, is it fair to read what he’s said – in another context, to a different audience, as proving a “no”?

(Disclaimer: all three of the people discussed above are (hopefully not “were”) friends of varying degrees of virtuality.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.