Free Speech Politics

Zille on Carien du Plessis and the ‘race card’

Briefly, on Helen Zille criticising journalists, and specifically Carien du Plessis, on Twitter. As I said at the time, Twitter is the wrong medium for this in any case – prone to misinterpretation and uncharitable readings. Plus, Zille has a similar problem as Dawkins has on Twitter – she can all too often sound like she’s simply trolling, which doesn’t do her arguments any justice.

It’s entirely possible that du Plessis is overcompensating for something in her reporting. It’s entirely possible that this might have something to do with race, gender, experience and the like. But how could this ever be proved? The fact that it can’t be – that it’s unfalsifiable – makes making the claim the story, rather than the claim itself.

Making the claim that she does demonstrate bias now becomes a character slur of sorts, and in that context, can amount to ‘playing the race card’, even though Zille is quite right in her general description, in a comment to her column in Daily Maverick, regarding how we often misuse the idea of the race card.

Let us sort out this “race card” red herring. When a reference to race is relevant, it is NOT playing the race card. Only when race is irrelevant to the argument, does it involve the “race card”. e.g. if someone is corrupt and they claim they are persecuted because of their race, THAT is the race card. If I have come to the conclusion, over many years, that a reporter’s race and background is something that they have to constantly over-compensate for in every report, I will say so. It is not the race card. Of course it is offensive. But freedom of speech is the right to say things one believes to be true but that may be offensive to others. No-one has the right NOT to be offended. And why is everyone so shocked when a relevant point is raised about the baggage of race and history on some white South Africans — while there is not a word about the constant gratuitous racial insults others of us have to face on a daily basis. Stop this double standard and hypocrisy.

As she correctly points out, if race is relevant, there’s no logical fallacy in highlighting it. Playing the race card is just one instance of an ad hominem fallacy, and should be treated just the same, in a logical sense. Calling something ad hominem shouldn’t be used simply as a way to avoid dealing with the substance of the accusation, assuming there is any substance to the accusation. And that is where Zille errs.

Because if you want to make the case that there’s bias – and not simply create the impression that you don’t like what’s being said – you have to actually make the case, not simply allude to it. Helen Zille just asserts her conclusion regarding du Plessis, appealing to her impressions as evidence. But we don’t have access to those impressions, meaning that for us, as readers, the claim is without warrant. This sort of claim is permissible, and we shouldn’t shout it down just because we disagree.

We should shout it down (by which I mean, point out its failings) more because it’s poorly made, and because we care about good arguments.


Daily Maverick Morality Politics

The privilege of avoiding arguments?

Originally published in Daily Maverick

One of the chapters in Bertrand Russell’s “Unpopular Essays” (1950) is “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”. In the essay, Russell criticises the tendency of those who marched with him in support of various social justice issues to not simply stand against oppression, but also to insist that the oppressed are somehow epistemically privileged. They were wiser, more experienced, perhaps even more objective than those who were not oppressed. An uncharitable reading (Russell’s) would be that it’s actually good for you to be oppressed.


On liberal bullying

The Guardian recently re-posted a column by Ariel Stallings (originally published in Offbeat Empire), under the title “Online bullying – a new and ugly sport for liberal commenters“. It’s a quite interesting read, and deals with a concern that I can relate to – namely another variant of an ad hominem dismissal of someone’s arguments, in this case on the grounds of their race, gender, privilege and so forth. But as with all difficult topics, and perhaps especially the emotive ones, it’s all to easy to read this piece as confirming whatever bias you started out with.

It would be a mistake to interpret Stallings as providing you with an excuse to dismiss criticisms based on secondary factors like privilege. As I’ve argued in a more lengthy piece on this topic (which pre-dates reading the Stallings piece), we can separate the epistemic issues from the political ones. With regard to the epistemic virtue of dismissing arguments about (for example) race and related oppression when those arguments are presented by a middle-class white male such as myself, it seems straightforward that it would be ludicrous to think my arguments false of necessity. Then, it would perhaps simply be uncharitable to think my arguments more likely to be false than those of someone who experiences oppression based on race.

Because ideally, we’d always judge arguments on their merits and nothing more. But because of limited time (and other elements of bounded rationality), the heuristics of assuming that group x has some authoritative view on topic y are attractive, and seem to easily take hold. And they almost certainly have merit – at least in the limited application of giving you a reason to think that (on average) a middle-class white male has less chance of understanding the context of a person oppressed on racial grounds.

Of course, you might want to counter by saying that there’s no reason to think that oppression brings objectivity with it, which is one of the points made in this Jeremy Stangroom post. This is where the political, rather than the epistemological, takes centre-stage: those of us who speak from positions of whatever privilege should be cognisant of the fact that – no matter the strength of our arguments – we’ll easily be interpreted as speaking from that position (in other words, be biased by that position), and that this might be one of the factors that results in miscommunication.

Sure, you can argue that it’s an unfair hurdle to jump over in order to be heard. But communication is full of these annoyances, and we don’t do it any favours by simply donning our superhero-logician outfits and insisting that the rest of the world sees things just as we do. Perhaps we’d like them to, and perhaps they even should. But it’s unlikely that you’ll successfully convince someone of that when you sound just like either a stereotype they hold dear, or a sort of person they are justifiably antipathetic to.

And most importantly: the fact that it’s always fallacious to dismiss your argument simply because of who you are does not mean that your argument isn’t fallacious via who you are – because who you are would be a product of education, circumstance, privilege, race, and so forth. Sometimes – even perhaps frequently – we can become blinded to various ways in which we see the world in a partisan fashion. When someone reminds you of that, take the reminder seriously. Because it might well be true.

On a different note, if you’ve perhaps not heard the sad news of Greta Christina’s endometrial cancer diagnosis, go and read what she has to say. And if you’re willing and able to help, she has a few suggestions there as to how you can do so.