Fixing Ivo Vegter

ivo_vegterSome of you might think that Ivo Vegter can’t be fixed, given that he’s a resolute critic of government intervention in our lives, suspicious of the doom-and-gloom narrative around climate change, and (cautiously) pro-fracking. To be honest, I disagree with him more than I used to, especially on the climate change issue.

However, it’s partly because of his columns in the Daily Maverick that I’ve discovered that I disagree with him, and why. This is part of the point of commenting in the public domain – that arguments can be put forward, debates can be had, and minds can be changed. As John Stuart Mill famously reminded us in On Liberty, we want to encourage free speech and robust debate partly because it shows us where we are wrong, and partly because it helps us know what criticisms need to be addressed and responded to, even when we are right (or think we are right).

It’s with this in mind that I alert you to the fact that Ivo, a friend as well as a fellow columnist (at one time – I subsequently retired) at the Daily Maverick, is unwell and in need of support. If you’ve enjoyed his writing, and/or if you think that the independent columnist role is worth supporting, consider helping him out (his banking details are at the previous link). He – and many like him – earn far too little (or sometimes, nothing) for what they do, but readers often benefit greatly. As per the nature of crowdsourced initiatives, your small donation can make a difference, if there are enough of you making them.

Moral hysteria as substitute for thought

Moral hysteria, and a culture of soundbites and headlines, can get in the way of seeing the merits of an alternative point of view, and perhaps changing our minds on an issue. The whole point of intellectual discourse, reading and writing is to discover where we might be wrong, and to change our minds (including sometimes turning to agnosticism) on particular issues where we seem to be wrong.

Instead, we mostly look for evidence that reinforces our existing view, and alarmingly, sometimes allow criticism or contrary evidence to serve to reinforce our existing belief (this mechanism is known as the “backfire effect”).

The case is that of Melissa Bachman, who has recently been the subject of large helpings of social media vitriol, including petitions directed at the South African government asking for her to be barred from entering the country in perpetuity. Bachman, in case you didn’t know, is a so-called “trophy killer” who recently shot and killed the lion pictured below.

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Now, whatever you might think of hunting – or even eating meat – there’s absolutely no reason to think that she had done anything illegal, and therefore, anything that merited a request to bar her from the country in perpetuity. But that’s not what the petition is based on. Instead, it asserts that she should be barred from the country for being

an absolute contradiction to the culture of conservation, this country prides itself on. Her latest Facebook post features her with a lion she has just executed and murdered in our country.

The problem, of course, is that the “culture of conservation” operates within a legal framework, and that legal framework currently permits hunting, so long as the necessary licences have been obtained. If you’ve crossed your legal t’s, you can “execute and murder” (in case the execution fails, it’s good to have a backup plan) as many of the creatures you’ve been given permission to execute and murder.

The fact that you are photographed with the non-human animal that you’ve killed should not be regarded as morally salient. Critics have used emotive language such as “bloodthirsty” to describe Bachman’s hunting, even though there’s nothing that’s objectively more bloodthirsty about her photographing the lion that she has killed than there is my photographing of a particularly juicy and tender steak. I could post a steak picture every day for a month, and not be the subject of such a petition – even if I were to not give a damn about how humanely the cows (or whatever) were hunted, a concern that Bachman and other hunters might have, but be unable to reflect in a photograph.

Ivo Vegter, a former colleague at that fine online newspaper, the Daily Maverick, puts it well in the conclusion of his column “In defence of a lion killer“:

South Africa officially considers Bachman a welcome and valued visitor, and rightly so. Even if you disagree, and you arrogantly think you have the moral authority to judge her arrogance, the real story is this. Your smug superiority risks depriving South Africa of tourism revenue and employment. It risks depriving the country of much-needed funding for conservation. It risks reducing the value of our wildlife, which reduces the incentive for private farm owners to breed and protect game. Hypocritical anger is a greater threat to conservation than Bachman’s rifle will ever be.

I’d urge you to read his column, and some of the many comments to it. But in short, whether or not you are opposed to hunting, issues such as these are rarely simple. The vast majority of issues are, in fact, quite complicated. If you care about your country’s economy, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. If you care about the fate of a particular species, you might need to (pragmatically) allow for hunting under certain conditions, for a certain time. And so on.

The danger, of course, is that a pragmatic concession towards some ultimate goal can sometimes be difficult to rewind, leaving us stuck with the pragmatic concession long after it’s needed. But insofar as that concern is legitimate – and it often is – it’s not the one we typically hear. Instead, we typically hear screaming and stamping of feet, and that inspires little but turning your back and walking away.

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.

LeadSA responds (sort of) to Bill of Responsibilities criticism

Since the launch of the Bill of Responsibilities last week, debate on its merits and demerits has continued – mostly on Twitter, but also via two columns worth reading in the Daily Maverick (by Khadija Patel and Ivo Vegter). I’ve also written a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read in the Daily Maverick tomorrow (or here, a day or two later).

But some of you might not follow me or the other participants on Twitter, so might have missed this response from Yusuf Abramjee, published today in the Pretoria News. Mr Abramjee is the Head of News and Current Affairs at Primedia, Chairperson of the National Press Club, and a spokesperson for LeadSA. And he’s also apparently eager to embody the sentiments of the Bill of Responsibilities through allowing general hand-waving in the general direction of serious issues to replace critical and useful engagement.

And he’s not the only one. In a brief interview with John Maytham on CapeTalk567 last week, some of the questions directed at me also implied that there’s something wrong with criticising this Bill, which after all aims at something most consider good – moral regeneration and so forth. But there’s no reason to buy into this false dichotomy – I can be committed to moral regeneration, but think that it isn’t best served by a prescriptive, nanny-ish and illiberal document, which is what this Bill amounts to (see Ivo’s column, linked above).

Then, there are some on Twitter who also accuse the Bill’s critics of over-reacting. You can decide for yourself if that’s the case, but none of these critics are engaging with any of the arguments – they are simply asserting that we’re wrong, or at worst, not committed to a country in which people are aware that they have an impact on the lives of others, and on the country’s direction, and who therefore might want to think about rights and responsibilities in a non-superficial way. As Sipho Hlongwane pointed out, “there’s a whiff of ‘I was a prefect at school'” to their criticisms – and we’re all just being disobedient children.

As is the case with Yusuf Abramjee’s response (Facebook link), pasted below (without the stuff about our obligation to support SA cricket, and to switch our lights off for an hour every year):

Last week, Lead SA launched the Bill of Responsibilities for the Youth. We have a Bill of Rights in our Constitution. But with rights come responsibilities. This document is also aimed at moral regeneration.

The majority of people were positive about it. But some immediately started criticizing the Bill of Responsibilities and – without studying the contents properly -found fault with it.

We have to promote good morals and ethics. We have to address the many social ills, especially among our youth. But, the constant negativity from some quarters is worrying and it can become destructive.

Let’s not forget that with freedom of speech and expression comes responsibility. We must not open our mouths simply for the sake of it.

We have many problems in our country and if the culture of just finding fault and becoming armchair critics is going to continue, it is not going to hold our country in good stead.

We all have to work together and find solutions. We all have to roll up our sleeves. We all have to make a difference. It’s about you. It’s about our future and our country.

What a wonderful democracy we have. We are quick to point fingers but we are sometimes slow to find solutions. All South Africans need to take the negativity and turn into something positive. With every problem comes a solution.

Let’s not become a nation which embraces gloom and doom. As citizens we have rights, but that means responsibility, too.

Notice that the criticisms are simply a result of our “not reading the Bill properly”. Will we have read it properly only once we agree with it, I wonder? All the critical treatments of the Bill that I have read ask specific questions about it, and criticise clauses of it that demonstrate quite a thorough reading. It’s not a long document, after all, and seeing as it’s aimed at kids, it would be quite odd for it to present a comprehension challenge to the various smart people I read and follow on Twitter. Unless we’re all just thick, I suppose.

And besides ignoring any arguments and accusing us of not paying attention (where we actually engage with substance, rather than simply dismissing the opposing view), Abramjee also plays the negativity card in saying that the “constant negativity from some quarters is worrying and it can become destructive”. This linking of criticism with pessimism is an illegitimate way of privileging optimism – it makes critical enquiry morally coloured, and suggests that those who criticise are being unfair, or perhaps even unpatriotic.

And of course there can be criticism which is uncharitable, unfair, or motivated by an agenda other than reasoning our way to the most justified position. But if that’s the case, it needs to be demonstrated, not simply asserted. Critical enquiry – criticism – is our best resource for sorting sense from nonsense, and to discourage it is certainly not leading SA in any direction we should wish for it to go. As I’ve said before (and will expand on in tomorrow’s column), a key part of the freedoms that were secured in this country is the right to not accept someone else’s vision of life, or truth, as being compulsory for all of us. We have the right to think for ourselves, even though a consequence of that can sometimes be that we get things horribly wrong.

Finally, in a shameless finger-wagging moralising moment, Mr Abramjee tells us that “We have many problems in our country and if the culture of just finding fault and becoming armchair critics is going to continue, it is not going to hold our country in good stead”. Well, I’m not sure who he’s addressing here, but the majority of the people I’ve been engaging with on this issue get out of their armchairs all the time. They are teachers, critics, politicians, columnists and so forth, who spend the bulk of their lives engaging in various efforts to stimulate debate and thinking on the problems facing South Africa and the world in general.

Again, whether they do so well or not is not the issue. Whether they do it in the way Yusuf Abramjee or LeadSA would prefer or not is not the issue. But LeadSA and Yusuf Abramjee don’t get to decide that, and this is the point of the criticism. And we’d happily be proved wrong (speaking for myself, but a plausible assumption for the others). But proving us wrong would require engaging with the arguments – and that’s not something we’re seeing much of from some parties to this debate.

SA Blog Awards 2010

The voting phase of the SA Blog awards 2010 has started, and it seems that Synapses has made the final 10 in two categories: best blog about politics, and best post on a South African blog, for my February post on Giving Jacob Zuma the finger. Thanks for the nominations, whomever you generous folks may be. If you’re inclined to follow it up with a vote, then the banners below give you an easy way to do so. The left-hand one is for the politics category, and the right-hand one for best post – of course, you can just click one of them and fill in your other nominations when you get to the voting site.

There’s a bunch of good stuff there to vote for, but also some very strange contenders. Some of the blogs haven’t been updated in ages, and some aren’t even blogs (for example, The Daily Maverick). Unfortunately for me, if one is going to (falsely) consider the Maverick to be a blog, then they (rather than me) should certainly get your vote. But they’re not a blog, so rather vote for me. (Update: see Chris’s comment below. The Daily Maverick have taken themselves out of the running.) You can vote until the 17th of September, and the process allows for one vote per day. Yes, I know, the methodology is completely screwy, but there you go.

Other people/blogs worth checking out:

Two of my competitors for best post: 6000 with his Dear Uruguay (clearly inspired by my post, The hand of god, revisited, but never mind that); and Michael Meadon’s post, On deference, which exhorts us to bear the limits of our knowledge in mind, and to understand what authority means in the context of scientific claims.

Two of the entrants for “Best Science and Technology blog”: Michael Meadon’s Ionian Enchantment and Angela Meadon’s The Skeptic Detective also merit your consideration.

Playing the authenticity card

As published in The Daily Maverick

The nation’s favourite teddy-bear impersonator, Barry Ronge, recently wrote that “although Breyten Breytenbach has a point when he calls South Africa a ‘kleptocracy’, can we take someone seriously who doesn’t even live here?”

In response, we could perhaps ask whether we should take someone seriously if they think that the validity of someone’s point of view has anything to do with where they live. Continue reading “Playing the authenticity card”

‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, describing Karen Armstrong’s attitude to religion, once remarked that it was “reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are’.”

As Easter approaches, some of these elusive ideas dominate radio talk-shows and a disproportionate number of column-centimetres in newspapers, regardless of the fact that everyone is usually saying exactly what they said last year.

Of course, the ideas are most often accompanied by some unpleasant facts, such as the increase in deaths and injuries on our roads resulting from herds of families heading to reunions, celebrations or simply vacations. But as for the ideas themselves – rebirth, renewal, sacrifice, atonement and the like – we see them infecting both unbelievers and believers.

The majority of those living in a society forged in a Judeo-Christian tradition end up partaking in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment, regardless of whether they are committed to any theological underpinnings for those ideas.

On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as festivals such as Easter and Christmas were established traditions long before the Roman Catholic Church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festivals for itself, premised on a version of history that is now regarded as true by many, if only through being repeated often enough.

Some of us, though, will find ourselves at dinner tables shared by relatives and friends who do take these festivals and that version of history seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And those of us on the outside of this belief system may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say what might seem to us to be crazy things.

The extent to which the secular community has an obligation to play along – or the opposite obligation to protest – is a running debate. A key element of this debate is the possible incoherence involved in your lack of belief not standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Easter and Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, family, and the simple pleasures of a good meal come to mind, as does the welcome notion of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – along with others not mentioned – are somehow premised on these festivals, the fear grows that they may become reserved solely for that time of year.

In other words, perhaps some of us – having done our duty in being nice to Aunt Sally around the Easter dinner table – might feel no obligation to be nice to her again until Christmas rolls around. In case this sounds implausible, note that a similar effect is being noticed with regard to “green” consumers, where recent research indicates that they are less likely to be kind, and more likely to steal, as a result of their perceptions of themselves as “good people”. As Dieter Frey, a University of Munich psychologist, observes, “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere”.

As with resolutions at the start of each new year, or that month following a trip to the dentist where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time. More to the point, they count for little as indications of our characters when they affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently, due to the promptings of events on a calendar.

All these holiday seasons are invariably filled with both the best and the worst of human character – as are all days and months. For every heart-warming tale of families reunited, this Easter will bring another tale relating to a Catholic priest and an altar-boy, or another about a parent so in the grip of pseudoscience or some paranoia that she is unwilling to vaccinate her one-year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why they have chosen one thing rather than another. And yes, perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Easter. Though I’m not too sure about that given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year – sadly, too many in pilgrimages to venues such as Moria.

It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other simply because they are reminded to do so by a date on a calendar, and by what that calendar tells them about their metaphysics. As the secular members of South African society often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and by extension, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Easter or Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosspot for the rest of the year.

Freedom of (Multi)choice

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

A number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fabric have recently weighed in on DStv’s news that it is considering introducing a pay-per-view pornography channel. As previously reported by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick, Taryn Hodgson of the Christian Action Network claims that the channel will fuel the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation”, and that those who believe otherwise have “imbibed the lies of the porn industry”. Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute cites sympathetic studies (including one from a right-wing Christian organisation, and another from a high-ranking Freemason’s address during the 1989 ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ conference) which purport to demonstrate a connection between pornography and sexual violence. The trade union Solidarity claims that “children’s rights will be violated” by this channel, based on their own research indicating that “77% of molesters of boys and 87% of molesters of girls used pornography”. Continue reading “Freedom of (Multi)choice”

On JZ’s call for a national dialogue on “our moral code”

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

Many South Africans would support the recent call by President Jacob Zuma for a national dialogue on our moral code. While quips about foxes guarding henhouses may be the first thing to come to mind, two serious and separate issues are raised by this call: the desirability of such a dialogue, and the practical issue of who should take part.

On the first issue, perhaps we should start by noting that the perceived moral failings of some influential South Africans and the public response to these have a feature in common, namely a tendency to pluck a ready-made moral viewpoint off a shelf and then present that as either defence or accusation. Neither of these responses demonstrates commitment to moral reasoning or sensitivity to the fact that some issues cannot be resolved by appeal to dogma. They are, nevertheless, often successful in that new South Africans have been bred to be tolerant of difference and reluctant to criticise things they may not understand. Continue reading “On JZ’s call for a national dialogue on “our moral code””