The great South African nondebate (2)

Following on from my previous post, that sought to frame or introduce an exchange of views between Gareth van Onselen (GvO) and Scott Burnett (SB), I’ll now proceed to look at some of the arguments they each presented.

The summary is this: I don’t believe either of them to be uncharitable towards many of the central points the other is making. I do however think they are talking past each other, because they speak from opposite ends of a significant divide regarding the role identity plays (and, should play) in conferring argumentative authority.

Burnett, for example, spends much time recounting ways in which white people “live in a system that is skewed to our advantage”, and concludes his first response with the suggestion that GvO pretends “that we don’t also have to slay the demon of white racism”.

The suggestion throughout is that GvO is “promoting denialism” of this, by questioning the regularity and the emphatic nature of some accusations of racism, which he (GvO) feels can create an atmosphere of “though policing” where no other conversations can be productively held (because all conversations end up turning on race).

It shouldn’t need pointing out, but GvO is fully aware of white privilege, while simultaneously being concerned at how the phrase can be used as a “generic insult”. Both of these things can be true at the same time, even if you think it’s used as an insult less/more frequently than he does, and even if you think the problem of white privilege is under/overstated.

So to spend time presenting the case for the existence of white privilege and suggesting that GvO isn’t conscious of it, as SB does, is to defeat a straw person. GvO’s column is about something else entirely – it is about whether arguments gain or lose credibility because of who is doing the arguing, rather than what they say.

GvO argues for the existence of inflated rhetoric and hasty moral judgement in South African political discourse. Furthermore, he argues that this interferes with the possibility of discussing anything else, for example poverty, and that any interventions in political debates are judged more by how they are perceived (the emotional responses to them) than by their content.

As I’ve said in the past, it’s obviously true that

the liberal impulse of treating ideas according to their merits can be criticised for assuming the possibility of cultural and value-neutrality – and that possibility might well be a fiction, where it’s simply the case that one set of norms has become the default.

But this doesn’t mean that an attempt to engage with something other than a national preoccupation – as important as that preoccupation might be (and is, in our case with regard to race) – proves that the speaker isn’t concerned with that preoccupation.

The same applies to the manner of engagement. You might not believe that this or any other topic is suited to a dispassionate liberal gaze – you might think no topics are, and that the gaze in question is fundamentally flawed or corrupted. That’s a point of view, to be sure, but it’s not an obviously true one.

Thinking that people aren’t concerned about the “correct” things, on the basis of what they don’t say or the argumentative style they deploy not only ignores their actual argument, but can also present your own argument as being unfalsifiable. That’s a bad thing, for those of you who don’t know the term – it means that nothing can prove you wrong (or, that there is no available evidence/argument that would make you change your mind). That’s not debating or arguing, but rather simple dogmatism.

Even if the liberal attitude of arguments standing or falling on their own merits can confer blindness to relevant aspects of lived realities and emotional responses, it doesn’t necessarily do so (those data could, after all, be included in the argument). And, even if person X (maybe GvO) has appeared blind to those aspects in some context or another, he’s not necessarily being so in any particular or the present case, just because he chooses to talk about something else.

The point is that conclusions aren’t demonstrated to be true simply by asserting that they are. If GvO argued for a climate that is hostile to thinking about and discussing ideas (where race isn’t foregrounded), it’s circular to say that arguments are meaningless unless race is foregrounded.

You could say that GvO overstates the problem, to be sure. I think he does, and is thus to my mind guilty of creating a minor straw man of his own. Minor, because I agree that the problem he highlights exists – I know from responses to things I’ve written that the fear of misinterpretation when talking about identity has led me to say or not say certain things. Not because I believe them to be wrong, but because I don’t feel like dealing with being shouted at on Twitter.

Overstating the problem, if that’s what he does, doesn’t make the problem itself nonexistent. But if you don’t believe the problem exists at all, then surely that’s the argument to be made, rather than to argue (as SB does) that some other problem is not only what you should focus on, but also the cause of you focusing on the wrong thing in the first place?

A last point, or rather, theme: SB, in a response on Facebook, suggested that the “significant divide” I spoke of above (I used “chasm” on Facebook) would disappear if I “clearly distinguished ‘argument’ from ‘evidence’ and thought about that in relation to racism”.

Well, no, it wouldn’t, because SB never discussed whether GvO has any (never mind good) evidence for his claim that public discourse tends to a racial analysis to the exclusion of any other factors. (GvO doesn’t provide positive evidence either, which might have been a good place for SB to start a rebuttal to the actual argument.)

The closest SB comes is in accusing GvO of an abuse of Orwell’s concept of a “thought crime”, in referring to how our utterances are policed and interpreted via race-based analyses. As I say above, you can indeed make the claim that GvO overstates the problem here – but the problem with SB’s response is that a) not only is it a response to something other than what GvO argued, but b) its analysis of one of GvO’s premises is cripplingly superficial.

The premise I refer to is this: GvO argues that one of the ways debates on race become intractable, result in misunderstanding and sometimes outrage, and more generally command attention to the exclusion of other debates is that they operate in the realm of emotion and subjectivity, rather than reason and objectivity.

I’ve problematised the liberal notion of objectivity above, and more extensively in the past, so won’t labour that point now. But just to repeat an important point: the fact that it’s difficult to see beyond a fixed, or privileged, point of view doesn’t make it impossible to do so, and doesn’t make someone who attempts to do so blind to those difficulties.

Burnett, by contrast, responds to these difficulties by obliterating them via a theory of privilege, which he seems to firmly believe in. As I say, I don’t think he’s at all uncharitable in an intentional way, but the point needs to be made that one cannot assert a contested theory of political engagement as if it were fact, while using that same theory to discredit the arguments of those who disagree with you.

SB says, for example,

First we must stop denying the simple asymmetry involved in antiblack racism: if you do not inhabit a black body, your opinion on whether something you did or said was antiblack racist is just not that relevant. A similar asymmetry applies to sexist acts.

Van Onselen writes that some people make accusations of racism but that “they are often wrong”. How would he know? Because, as he then goes on to imply, he thinks the people so accused are, in general, good people?

This is the ancient and rather ridiculous notion that virtuous acts are simply acts performed by virtuous people. These days, ethics tends to focus more on consequences. When the consequence is feeling hurt, belittled or unfairly treated, then the person so affected has far greater authority when reporting on it. Of course they are not the only authority, and everyone deserves to be heard. But you are not an expert on somebody else’s experience. Even when you really feel you were misunderstood, sometimes the adult thing to do is to listen and learn, apologise, and endeavour not to make the same mistake again.

Leaving aside SB’s view on ethics, which I’d contest, that’s not a “simple asymmetry” at all. As I’ve argued in the past, “while speaking from a particular vantage point can mean that you have a better understanding of arguments related to that vantage point, it offers no guarantees of this”. In other words, we need to still engage with an argument, rather than dismiss it (or grant extra credibility) because of who is uttering it.

There’s certainly an asymmetry in how credible your voice and opinion is perceived to be – there’s no disputing that. And (3rd paragraph of the quote) of course it’s true that the person who experienced something has greater authority regarding how something feels – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have greater authority in terms of any overall analysis of the problem, or how to fix it.

First person, lived experience certainly grants emotional authority, but that is here being conflated with argumentative authority.

I also don’t mean to dispute the value of listening, as SB says in those closing lines. One should listen especially acutely if you’re aware that you’re likely to have certain biases, as I know I do. But one listens in an attempt to gain enough information and understanding to offset those biases, and SB can either allow that it’s possible to do so – in which case any of us are potential authorities – or say that it’s impossible to do so, in which case GvO is by definition wrong, no matter what he says.

To re-state, and in conclusion: the argument is really about whether we can assess claims and evidence on merit, or whether who the speaker is is always a defining variable of that merit, regardless of what is said. I’ve said many times, and here again, while we can say with confidence that who the speaker is often matters in terms of how we perceive authority, that doesn’t settle the question of whether it should do so.

In essence, this is nothing but the long-standing debate regarding whether reason can operate independently of power. If you think not, then of course you’ll conclude that GvO (and I) are wrong. If you think they can operate independently, you might wonder, like I do, what SB’s response had to do with GvO’s column.

In both cases, though, it’s a mistake to assume malice or wilful obfuscation. We’re talking about incompatible views on evidence and on epistemic authority, and each side of this debate (I’m talking about readers, rather than GvO and SB) need to read relevant contributions with that in mind.

The point is that SB’s diagnosis of GvO finding the “very idea of white privilege so threatening” speaks from inside a theoretical perspective, and refuses to engage on GvO’s terms. Likewise, I imagine that those sympathetic to SB’s point of view will think that GvO is being obtuse, stubborn, stupid or worse, rather than engaging SB’s argument on its own terms.

Meanwhile, nobody (well, I can think of one person) from the suite of under-40ish columnists are writing about, say, the economy. Everyone is writing about race. Most of our Twitter arguments are about race. As I say, that’s important – to my mind, even perhaps the most important thing to talk about.

But it’s not the only thing to talk about. If conversations can sometimes usefully be about something else – but always end up being about race in any case – then that conversation has been derailed, and we’ve missed out.

Does this happen often enough that it’s worth writing the column GvO did? I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is “yes”.

P.S. I don’t know if I’ll address the 3rd and 4th columns, as I’ve probably said enough on this already. So, in case I don’t, here’s GvO’s response to SB, and SB’s response to that – which is as far as the sequence extends, at least at time of writing.

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.