As submitted to The Daily Maverick
There is a difference between being moral and being moralistic. Whether or not we ever reach consensus on what it means to be good, I don’t think it could ever be a good thing to replace debate and discussion on morality with simple – and simple-minded – tut-tutting and finger-wagging that is premised on a belief in moral certitude.
Examples of individuals who claim this sort of moral authority are easy to find. From Mary Whitehouse’s campaign against the “permissive society” in Britain to local examples like the homophobic Errol Naidoo, these individuals tend to treat moral dilemmas as black or white issues, and are always at the ready with unambiguous solutions to those dilemmas.
However, the easy answers are often not the best answers, and complex situations frequently merit more nuanced treatment. Not only are the easy answers often wrong, but they also present a danger, in that they can limit our ability to engage in reasoned debate. Slogans and clichés may be just the ticket for a protest march, but they serve little purpose if our intentions include a long-term resolution of some problem or other.
As I discussed last week, this is why we should not silence those who hold dissenting views to ours, in that doing so assumes that we are right, and that we have nothing to learn from those who disagree with us. The point is not that we’re right in thinking of racism as a social ill, to be protested and opposed at every turn, but rather that dogmatism and the assumption of infallibility is also a social ill, and that we safeguard ourselves against it by encouraging debate and dissent.
Annelie Botes’ disclosure that she doesn’t like blacks caused much offense and public reaction. But some sorts of reactions open space for debate, and others do not. Some may think that it’s pointless to attempt debate with the likes of Botes, but this misses the point that we are manifesting a certain kind of society by having these debates – one in which reason is valued above hysteria, and where we protect ourselves from error by always allowing for the expression of repulsive points of view.
Since she made those comments, another sort of counterproductive, knee-jerk reaction has resulted. The K Sello Duiker award, given to Botes in 2010 for her novel Thula Thula, has been withdrawn. In his her statement announcing the withdrawal of the award, South African Literary Association (Sala) chairperson Zodwa Motsa said that “Sala’s advisory board and its partners are concerned that Ms Botes’ alleged racist remarks may disgrace the awards. It is therefore against this background that Sala hereby distances itself from such alleged racist utterances attributed to her”.
It is unclear what function the word “alleged” plays in that statement, given that Botes was happy to repeat and confirm her remarks. And it is now also unclear what function the Sala awards play, for by virtue of this decision they are clearly no longer literary awards only, but are also rewards for an author’s having a certain sort of character, or set of beliefs.
The problem here is three-fold: first, that in order ensure that future awards go to the right sort of person, Sala will need to do exhaustive lifestyle audits of nominees (and of course to produce a philosophical monograph on permissible and impermissible attitudes, for the guidance of nominators). Second, this action by Sala seems to be completely lacking in mandate, in that the award conditions speak of “preserving our literary heritage” rather than certain defined values.
Third and perhaps most importantly, withdrawing the award is not necessarily the best way to achieve what I presume their goals to be – the stated one regarding South Africa’s literary heritage, and their newly-revealed goal of contributing to a non-racial society. Both of these goals are laudable, and we should all support them. But again, doing so might be best achieved through something other than an instinctive and moralistic reaction.
Besides the practical and financial obstacles to resolving the first problem – in that both the workforce and time required to vet nominees might be too onerous for an award to ever be made – it is the issue of resolving which attitudes to condemn that is most tricky. It’s easy to condemn someone for racist attitudes, because you can count on significant public support in doing so. But in itself, doing so seems more opportunistic than principled unless you also condemn authors and withdraw awards for other sorts of bigotry and prejudice.
One way of doing so – and also of addressing the second problem mentioned above – would be to highlight the chosen and approved values in the award conditions. It is of course unreasonable to expect Sala to know the relevant details of every nominee’s character, but stating the intent to support certain values above others would at least safeguard Sala from accusations of mere political expediency and populism.
Without telling us what sort of character an author should have, Sala make it possible that they can take offense, and strip awards, for literally anything an author believes or says. For instance, they could decide that a certain spiritual outlook was desirable, and not give awards to atheists. Another virtue of publishing these criteria would be that a person like Botes would then presumably not be nominated in the first place, or would deserve scorn for accepting such an award if she were to win one. As it stands, taking the award away without having made these conditions public amounts to little more than an ad hominem argument, and an assumption of the role of thought-police on the part of Sala.
But by far the easiest solution would be for the Sala’s to remain a purely literary award, and to leave debate and censure of political and moral views to organisations and individuals who have taken on that responsibility. Knut Hamsun’s 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature was not revoked when his Nazi sympathies became clear, because it was a prize for literary merit, just as the Sala’s apparently are, or are supposed to be. We can read and enjoy books or any art form without endorsing the artist’s character.
This does not mean that Sala needs to, or should, remain silent. Instead, I would suggest that leaving the award intact, while denouncing her views and expressing regret that she is a Sala award-winner, would be a more effective way of contributing to a non-racial society. When you consider the contradictions of this case, it is clear that much space for debate could instead be opened by exploring how it is, or could be, that someone who appears to have racist attitudes could write this novel, which is by all accounts a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the lives of exactly the people she claims not to like.
Consider the role this could play in the classroom, and the opportunity it presents for a discussion of not only literature, incest or child-molestation (a central theme of Thula Thula), but also the racial politics of South Africa, and the ways in which Afrikaner Nationalism has so easily given rise to – and sometimes still does –these vexatious and dangerous us-versus-them attitudes. Thanks to the moralistic reflexes of Sala, that opportunity stands an increased chance of being lost. And again, as is so often the case, a complex issue will be dumbed down a little more.