Religion Skepticism

Religion in South African (public) schools verdict: a victory for OGOD

The verdict in the OGOD vs. 6 public schools case was handed down on June 28, with Judge van der Linde ruling that schools were not permitted to promote “one or predominantly one religion to the exclusion of others”.

In theory, then, the days of a school promoting themselves as having a “Christian character” should be over, with countless schools across the country now having to edit brochures, websites, and even coats of arms.

Academia and teaching Politics

Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise.

Religion Secularism

Religion in education: when government officials violate the law

Earlier today, Barry Bateman sent me this:


For those of you whose Afrikaans is as poor as mine, a rough translation would look something like this:

Instead of a moment of silence, schools under his leadership can have a moment of prayer. Preachers were previously not welcome at schools, “but I’m opening schools up to preachers”, said Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Education in Gauteng.

“Schools can decide for themselves which prayers they would like to offer at their school. Each school has the right to practice religious activity, so long as it’s not harmful, like Satanism. If Satanism is followed, I’ll bring the police into it. Why do we find Bibles in hotels, but not in schools? In my first 100 days in office, I distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools.”

Lesufi also said that if we want to understand problems in schools, we need to understand the souls of schoolchildren. In answer to a question regarding the pending court case, brought by OGOD against six schools in light of those schools’ Christian characters, Lesufi said that 85% of South Africans are Christian.

“As I last understood the Constitution, it was the majority that won.”

The same Department of Education recently held a prayer meeting for prospective matriculants, at which Lesufi remarked that “We support all the pastors and reverends in our school”.

2012_5$thumbimg131_May_2012_092556310-llLesufi is not the first Gauteng Education MEC that seems to have difficulty keeping their personal religious views out of the frame when doing their jobs – last year, Barbara Creecy singled out Satanism and “the occult” as dangerous, despite the fact that we have a community of pagans, Wiccans, Satanists and the like who pose no threat to anyone, and whose religious freedom is Constitutionally protected.

As I’ve noted on numerous occasions now, we have a policy on religion in education, and it’s pretty good. Unfortunately, our politicians (and schools) are pretty good at ignoring it. It calls for secularism in schools, in the sense that schools cannot proselytising for one faith to the exclusion of others. Secularism isn’t anti-religion – it’s anti schools being used as proxy churches.

Given this policy, you’d hope that MECs and MPs – as public representatives of the government, who adopted the policy in question – would themselves respect it, and not abuse their positions of authority to push the agenda of one religion.

If Lesufi were to do the same thing with regard to a building contract, or somesuch – i.e. use his authority to get a mate some lucrative deals for building schools in Gauteng – he’d be investigated, and hopefully fired. It’s an abuse of power and authority to introduce Christian prayer, and Christian texts, into public (and thus by definition, secular) schools.

Furthermore, who is paying for these 50 000 Bibles? Presumably, the Department of Education or the Gauteng government. Either way, that would be an abuse of public money. It’s not on the scale of Nkandla, of course, but simply because you might like the product he’s stealing your money to distribute to schools, doesn’t make it less of a theft.

Two final points: Lesufi violates the religious freedom and dignity of non-Christians, specifically Satanists, in the quote above. You cannot threaten someone with the police for holding religious views you don’t like. And, Satanism is not a synonym for certain (or, any) criminal activity.

As I’ve written before, Satanism does not encourage human sacrifices – it’s Christian propaganda versions of Satanism that these confused kids who commit murders and sacrifices are falling prey to. And this is again why the National Policy on Religion and Education gets things right, in the sense that it calls for instruction on all religions. If we do that, fewer kids will have the false beliefs that might encourage criminal activity like that.

Finally, this MEC needs a refresher course in democracy and the value of our Constitution for protecting rights and freedoms. We signed up for a system in which the majority don’t necessarily get their way, because we recognise that the majority can abuse their power.

We signed up for religious freedom, because even you, Mr. Lesufi, should recognise that this protects you too – as it’s a purely contingent fact that you happen to share the majority view. If you happen to convert to something else, or lose your faith, you’d perhaps better understand why it’s rather important that the state stay out of religion entirely.

(Incidentally, Lesufi’s 85% figure seems entirely made-up – the last reliable data we have is from the 2001 Census, which had Christians as 79.77% of the population, and I’d be surprised if that figure hadn’t decreased since then.)

As ever, nothing will come of this, because all the lovely policy in the world is powerless against untouchable power, led by a man – Jacob Zuma – who has offered various masterclasses in how not to give a shit about the law.

Yes, this particular case is very trivial in comparison. But it’s still wrong, and Lesufi should know better.

Religion Secularism

Children, religion, and distinguishing fact from fiction

prayOne of the less attractive traits of the non- (and especially, the anti-) religious is that we can sometimes allow confirmation bias to lead us into believing rather uncharitable claims regarding the role of religion in society, or the effect that a religious upbringing can have on children.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to favour information that confirms what you already believe and disfavour contrary evidence – is of course not unique to us heathens. It’s just that as one of them, I’m concerned about the bad PR we (hello, Prof. Dawkins!) sometimes generate. So, I’m inclined to be wary when I read headlines like this, in the HuffPo:

Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds

The headline creates the impression that children brought up in a religious environment might well think that Harry Potter is real, perhaps lives just up the street, and that maybe there’s a chance that you might become a wizard too if luck shines her light upon you.

What a popular website reports that a “study finds” isn’t always a neat fit to what the study actually says. So if you have access, I’d recommend that you read the paper by Corriveau, Chen and Harris yourself, or alternately at least read the more sober take on it that was published by Vox.

To briefly summarise, the paper describes how 5 and 6 year-old children from religious, parochial and secular backgrounds were presented with Biblical stories in original and modified (one including “magic” but no God; the other a realistic version) forms, and then asked to express a view on whether the protagonists were real or fictional.

Here’s one of the stories (the story of Joseph) in its three forms, quoted from the paper:

This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.

Vox summarises the lead author’s response as follows:

What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

It’s not obviously true that having a broader conception of the range of possibilities is a bad thing – in fact, it seems rather banal to observe that one of the fun things about childhood is being able to engage in flights of fancy. I don’t have data on this, but I’d imagine that most of us did so to varying degrees.

Our imaginations might not have led us all to imagine the same sorts of things, but whatever it was that we imagined, those imaginings were not only enjoyable (well, leaving aside nightmares), but also conducive to creativity both then and in later life.

Fantasy, as with chemical substances, can be good or bad depending on the dose – it’s not yet a problem when we simply observe that 5 or 6 year-olds with exposure to religion are more credulous when hearing tales of people doing magical things. In fact, we can’t rule out the possibility that at that age, and depending on how it progresses, that it’s actually a good thing, and that it’s the secular children who are impoverished.

I’ve said this before, and while I know that many of my heathen friends and colleagues don’t agree, the majority of religiously-educated children who grow up to be religious adults don’t regard their religious texts as literally true. Even Dawkins’ (who has spoken of teaching kids they might go to hell as “child abuse“) own research suggests that to most Christians in the UK, the Bible hardly features in their lives at all, even as moral guidance never mind as a guide to reality.

In other words, we don’t have good reason (from this study) to say that because religiously-educated children are more credulous, we end up with defective adults. I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible that this is the case – just that we don’t yet know that it is.

Using studies like this to make claims like that is perhaps just as fantastical as the thing you’re objecting to – and more to the point, it’s an obnoxious thing to do.

Academia and teaching Politics Science Secularism

“World-views” and secular education

imagesFourth-year medical students at a local university were yesterday witness to a panel discussion on various world-views, with the intention of familiarising them with some of the different points of view that their patients might one day hold. I was invited to participate in this panel, which I gladly did, seeing as these sorts of public interventions are one of the values we can easily, and cheaply, give to “the cause”, as it were.

Joining me on the panel were an Imam, an Anglican priest, a Hindu doctor and the daughter of an African traditional healer (who was also a student in the class). The point of the panel wasn’t to debate who was right and who was wrong, but more to sensitise the students to the differences, and to prompt them to how they might approach sensitive topics of conversation with these various sorts of world-views.

It was an interesting experience, partly because it again brought to the fore just how normal, and just how abnormal, a largely materialist, or naturalist, point of view was – even in a room of about 200 people trained in the scientific method. The student who arranged to have me invited to participate reported that around 70% of his classmates were religious, and after yesterday, I fear that might be an under-estimate. One horror-story he told me is of a group of students training in psychiatry who decided to pray over someone that was clearly experiencing some sort of mental episode, rather than getting her to somewhere she could be diagnosed and treated.

But it’s not only the uncommonness of a naturalistic outlook that struck me – it’s also how alien it seemed to be to the audience. The tenor of some of the questions seemed to regard me as some sort of curiosity, or exhibit – a rare creature from a strange and distant land. Over and over, for example, I had to repeat the point that they should think of me as representing the “secular” world view, because religious folk can be secular too. Secular doesn’t mean lacking in belief, it means leaving your (metaphysical) beliefs at home when you go to work, especially in the public sector.

Then, the usual questions also came up: how can love just be in the brain (well, it is, but that doesn’t make it any less special); where do you get your morals from (the same place as you, the same place as the apes, etc.); what is your purpose in life (that question loads the dice – I reject the need for an “ultimate” purpose).

So, when I sat at the end of the panel to talk to the local atheist and agnostic society about how to grow their society and build capacity, I stressed something they could do, that I fear many smaller, community-based groups forget: education. Take your core membership, and have them learn about the history of skepticism/secularism/humanism/etc. – and not simply learn to recite cutting lines from Hitchens, or the names of a bunch of logical fallacies.

We need people to go out there are dispell myths and misconceptions, and that requires the knowledge to do so. If you’ve got some of it, and also have access to a younger group of people wanting to promote the secular, scientific, humanist world view, help them to learn how to educate others about what we believe and don’t, but more importantly, why we believe and disbelieve. Even when you don’t persuade, the conversations will nevertheless be far more interesting as a result.

Culture External World Politics

COSAS is hamster number one

cosaslogoThere is never any reason to expect a new year to be any different from the previous one. The arbitrary shift from December to January is good for a few days off, and for many of us, too much indulgence – but changing minds and attitudes takes longer than that, and isn’t responsive to fireworks and Auld Lang Syne in any case.

So, it’s no surprise to find that – after a mere 5 days of 2013 – we already have (at least) 2 depressing examples of the hamster wheel that is discourse around race in South Africa. Much effort is put into keeping it spinning, but to little effect. And if one hamster dies, another – often indistinguishable from the last – takes its place.

COSAS is hamster number 1. This Black Consciousness movement was formed in the late 70’s to represent black pupils, following the Soweto uprisings. They have many proud moments in their history, regardless of whether you agree with their politics or not. You can read about their history here if you care to. The salient detail for my purposes is that the “organization’s principle aims were the conscientising of students and the wider community to the repressive nature of education in South Africa” (sic).

If you think the construction of that sentence poor, consider this, the first sentence of the recent COSAS statement on the 2012 Matric (Grade 12, the final year of secondary school) results:

The congress of South African students would like to unreservedly welcome the metric result of the class of 2012, this class is the class that reactionary forces anticipated negative outcomes from, as a way to put substance onto their argument which suggest that there is a severe collapse of order in the government that is lead by the ANC, the 2012 result beyond any other thing they are specially recognized by COSAS because they Are a reflection of a narrowing gap in terms of the quality of education between the model c schools and the township and the rural school, and such was made more than visible by the performance of a number of students who scored outstanding result from the lowest quintiles of our schools.

As a friend pointed out, this is a telling example, and “a massive indictment, of what mass education has done for born-free South Africans”. Not to mention proof-positive that COSAS’s work (as quoted above) is not yet done, in that the organisation’s Secretary General is still a clear victim of that repressive education himself.

The statement carries on in that vein (here’s the pdf), and in some respects gets worse when Tshiamo Tsotetsi (the Secretary General) expresses concern that publishing student names and results in newspapers is ill-advised because pupils are then targets for witchcraft: “All of these bad things can come to an end only if these results are no longer published. We would no longer loose our young people through depression or witchcraft.”

One of the leaders of an organisation devoted to improving school education, in other words, believes that children are being lost through witchcraft (and therefore, that witchcraft even exists). And of course, he’s right to some extent, seeing as pupils no doubt believe this too and are therefore victims of something people call “witchcraft”, despite their being nothing supernatural about it at all. But the tragedy is that 12 years of school isn’t sufficient to dispel these superstitions. Or, that nothing in the curriculum teaches skills and principles of reasoning that would help to do so. Worst of all, it’s probable that many teachers believe in witchcraft themselves.

The education system, the Matric results, and the gloating of the Ministry of Basic Education – even in the face of a reality where less than 1 in 3 pupils complete high school – could be the subject of an extended rant. As could hamster number 2, Gillian Schutte, with her recent prescriptive self-flagellation entitled  “Dear White People“. I’ll get to that in a separate post, and for now simply reiterate what I said on first reading her column (with apologies for misspelling Schutte’s last name):

Daily Maverick Politics

South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?

Originally published in Daily Maverick

On August 1, when Ferial Haffajee delivered the TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, I found it difficult to share the curiously optimistic tone of much of her presentation. Her talk was ostensibly on Zuma’s Spear – in my mind, one of the more depressing moments in a thoroughly unpleasant year for anyone who hopes for the Rainbow Nation rhetoric to one day mean something concrete or worthwhile.

The talk opened with pictures of medal winners at the London Olympics, and also contained various other examples of South Africans doing things that could also make one proud, assuming of course that “being South African” means anything to you. And why should it? Because when we get to the end of year news roundups, there will be far more there to make you angry than to make you proud.

Textbooks in Limpopo were dumped. Children are being taught under trees while government officials tie up deals for R2bn presidential business jets. As you know, I could go on – we all could, such is the plethora of bad-news stories us South Africans know all too well. And then, last week, dozens of striking miners were shot and killed by police at Marikana.

The temporary balm of an Olympic gold medal or three is meaningless now, just as that Rugby World Cup victory 1995 became meaningless, and just as those queues around polling stations in 1994 have become meaningless in light of a government who shows little evidence of any concern for anything but their own status.

But the first democratic elections at least retained meaning for a few years. By the time we got to the World Cup victory, meaning was perhaps preserved for a few months. Now, we’re down to weeks or even days before a nation-building event like the success of our Olympians is overshadowed by something far more representative of our nation than sporting excellence is.

Or maybe more representative than any sort of excellence, excepting perhaps excelling at things like hate, misunderstanding, selfishness and short-term thinking. The South Africa in which we’re ranked first in test cricket is not the one that most South Africans live in, nor a source of inspiration to someone who feels lucky to earn R5000 per month.

Perversely, it’s no doubt true for many that they would consider themselves lucky to earn even that small amount, and to be able to send half of it on to family even more desperate than they are. I remember a line from a Charles Bukowski reading – “one learns survival by surviving”. And such is the strength of this instinct to survive – and the cultural programming of considering it a good in itself to be alive, regardless of circumstance – that people keep on doing it, even though the life in question is probably never going to become more worth living.

A politician visiting Marikana can’t say things like this, of course. And while I realise that there’s standard diplomatic formulations for cases like there, I’d also like to think that a presidential spokesperson won’t take the opportunity to remind us of how busy and important Zuma is, in telling us he’s deigned to cut a trip short because he “is concerned about the violent nature of the protest” and is “sympathetic to calls for a commission of inquiry”. Just get there, preferably before the rabble-rousers like Malema do.

And perhaps, advise your ministers to exercise caution when speaking to the media. After all, it’s not ideal to hear the Minister of Mineral Resource, Susan Shabangu, observing that these deaths are “unfortunate for the [mining] industry”, especially in light of platinum prices.  Or better yet, consider appointing ministers who don’t need to be given advice like this in the first instance.

Besides anger and sadness, another reasonable reaction to a tragedy is perhaps to ask this question: when should South Africans begin entertaining the possibility that we have an illegitimate government? Not because they can magically fix poverty, but because some in government seem intent on breaking the things that could, like education. Education – one of the things that can help angry miners learn that it’s not true that a Sangoma can make you bulletproof.

And when they do break these things, they always keep their jobs, just as they do when they steal public money – so long as they support the right ANC faction, of course. So no, I can’t share the optimistic tone of Ferial Haffajee’s lecture. Today, I could say that I hate this country. In fact, I hate it enough to stay and to try to help break it, hopefully so that we can then start to rebuild it into something worth being proud of.

Jerm’s cartoon, reproduced below with his permission, was one of the motivating factors in writing this column.

Morality Politics

Jackson Mthembu and the Twittering revolutionaries

While there’s a truckload of recent religious batshittery I had planned to note here (sick people dying at faith-healing rallies, and so forth), Jackson Mthembu and a couple of other idiots are presently too difficult to ignore. First, there was yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) that recognised the Democratic Alliance as a legal person, and one which furthermore has the right to call for a review of the decision to drop corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma.

Section 45 of the SCA judgement reads (excerpted):

It clearly is in the public interest that the issues raised in the review application be adjudicated and, in my view, on the papers before us, it cannot seriously be contended that the DA is not acting, genuinely and in good faith, in the public interest.

The ANC press release, penned by dear Jackson, wants

to highlight the following: The continued attempt by the DA to use the Courts to undermine and paralyse government

Significant respect for the judiciary there. And of course, no attempt at political point-scoring. Which is good, seeing as Mac Maharaj had also remarked on the ruling and was quoted as saying “anyone who wishes to use Zuma SCA judgment for party political point-scoring would be doing a disservice to our country”. Good thing Jackson didn’t do that, then.

The other idiots are those intent on seeing malice or racism in anything that Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier, might have to say on Twitter. And, of course, to accuse anyone who dares to defend her as some sort of mindless zombie. Zille is a loose cannon on Twitter, no doubt. And as I’ve argued before, I think she’s got some strange and silly ideas. Today, she caused her regular round of outrage as a result of a tweet from yesterday which spoke of the Western Cape accommodating “ECape education refugees”.

If you can’t see why this is racist, then apparently you are a racist. Or so goes logic on Twitter (and also for Jackson, but more on him in a moment). Perhaps we should start at the beginning, by consulting a dictionary. One definition of a refugee could be “one who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution”. Of course, usually refugees flee a country, not failing education systems in the Eastern Cape. But Helen Zille was presumably using the word metaphorically. As I said on Twitter, her usage could certainly be described as hyperbolic, but racist? How does that work?

The way it works is simply that the pupils fleeing the Eastern Cape happen to be black. Hence, describing them as refugees is racist. Now, many refugees everywhere in the world are black. And the cause of this involved a fair amount of racism, in economics, in politics, in every aspect of the way some countries have operated (and some continue to). In this country, with our demographics and our history of social inequality, it stands to reason that most people who have something to flee would be black. Note that Zille never referred to race – she described them as refugees, which seems to have been intended as a description (while hyperbolic, as I mentioned) of the situation they faced themselves in, and which they decided to flee.

It’s a contingent detail that they are black, and that’s not a detail that’s relevant here – the material circumstance of a bunch of pupils (who happen to be black) is the issue, and the one Zille was presumably referring to in describing them as refugees. That they came to be refugees would undoubtedly involve racism, yes – but that’s not the issue here. Once they experience conditions that are worth fleeing from, how they got into that position is a matter for historians – describing them as being in that position doesn’t endorse it, or make the claim that they are there because of their race.

And now, let’s welcome Jackson back into the conversation:

The ANC is vindicated by the statement made by Helen Zille. This is typical of the erstwhile apartheid government’s mentality that resorted to influx control measures to restrict black people from the so-called white areas. (eh? These “refugees” are coming into the Western Cape – Zille’s made no effort to keep them out. Bit of an apartheid-Godwin, methinks.)

Zille’s racist statement underpins the DA’s policy of exclusionism of blacks. She will never say the same thing about whites who relocate from one area of the country to the Western Cape or even those who relocate from other countries to the Western Cape. To reduce South Africans who have free movement in their own country as refugees is tantamount to… labelling them with a tag associated with foreigners.

Zille’s reference to the Eastern Cape pupils as refugees is motivated by political opportunism, to be sure – it’s a chance to highlight how much better the Western Cape primary education system seems to be when compared to that of the Eastern Cape. But it also indicates sympathy, or at least an awareness (back to the definition of the word) that they are fleeing from an unpleasant situation. Any other sort of relocation, such as the examples Jackson uses, would only be of relevance as counterexamples or evidence of Zille “reducing” these pupils to anything if the situations were comparable.

Typical migration – whether for economic reasons, or to get an education – is driven by preference, not by need. Or rather, the needs are less severe. A word like “refugee” makes sense in the context of a systemic failure of some market, not simply someone moving to Gauteng because they find it difficult to find a job in the Cape. The point is that these pupils have been “reduced” to leaving their home-towns because the Eastern Cape education system has failed them – not because of anything Helen Zille has done.

But as is sadly so often the case, outrage and race-baiting are winning the day, both on Twitter and in the hypothetical mind of Jackson Mthembu. I agree that Zille’s Tweet was poorly-considered, as many of them are. And I think she’s said many unfortunate (and in the case of HIV/AIDS, appalling) things. But in this case, all she’s been is hyperbolic – and the racism exists only in the minds of those who see it in her use of the word “refugee”.

P.S. From the Kieno Kammies show in CapeTalk567, a 10 minute conversation on this between Jackson Mthembu and Helen Zille.

Culture External World General

Start saving for Norway

Not necessarily because you want to come here. It’s just that, if you do, you’d need to have started saving for it quite a while in advance. The pint of Heineken sitting alongside me, for example, cost around R80. The cheapest food at this pub is a margarita pizza for R170, and even your most basic Burger King combo meal will set you back around R110. Anyway – I’m here, and thus my complaints would most likely sound hollow. So just FYI, start saving.


  • The mad rush for duty-free as the sardines exited customs at the airport was a certain clue that you don’t want to buy booze or cigarettes in the city, unless you can help it. The queue there involved a far longer wait than customs itself, and the rationality of spending time in this queue was confirmed while browsing a wine shop. Not just a wine shop, mind you, but a “Wine Monopoly”. That is in fact its name. All wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, with prices partly determined by alcohol content, in a clear attempt to legislate morality. Which is of course fine if you’re a rich banker or lawyer, but not so good for the average geezer sunning himself in the park at 8pm. (These long summer nights are rather pleasant.)
  • Chatting to a local on the night I arrived, I was told something odd about schooling here. Basically, children are not evaluated in any substantive way before the age of 14 (or maybe 16 – he was plying me with drink). This is of course in service of their manic egalitarianism, which dictates that kids shouldn’t be made to feel special, or inferior, before adults believe they can deal with it. So instead of exams, tests and report cards, teachers can only offer nebulous advice such as “maybe you should take a look at that maths textbook sometime? I hear it has lots of cool pictures.” Or something – I haven’t spoken to a teacher to see how this plays out.
  • You need to be an active member of a church to become a gravedigger.
  • The most commonly-found food is the polser, which is a hot dog, and raisin buns (whose Scandiwegian name I cannot recall). The polser will set you back around R35, as will the buns, with 3 of them in a portion. But if it’s polser you’re after, rather go to Denmark, where they serve them with crispy fried onions and rémoulade. These Norwegian ones (at least the ones I’ve found), have neither, and are thus crap. Denmark wins, and I have no biases to disclose.

  • They are into peace, especially in the vicinity of the Nobel Center. I’m here for a humanist conference, and – recent events in Norway notwithstanding – it’s quite striking how the content and tone of dialogue with locals converges on trying to reconcile misunderstandings and resolve tensions. There is far less ego, or at least a different sort of ego. This congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is being hosted at a reception by the Crown Prince tomorrow night, and the Mayor is also making an appearance at the conference dinner on Saturday. There are flags advertising our conference in the streets. Basically, they take this stuff seriously.

And then, outside of observations on Norway, there’s an embarrassing and (hopefully) humorous anecdote, which involved the Irish. But before I get to that: South African readers, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably don’t. Because you’re not Irish. The one Irish delegate (implicated in the story I’m getting to) told me about how she and her friends drank vodka all day at school at the age of 16, from their ‘water’ bottles. And this was a head girl, from a middle-upper class background.

Anyway, I was chatting to Annie and her partner Aaron about God, Roy Keane (is that tautologous?) and assorted matters. Aaron wandered off to scrounge for coins to buy another beer. And then, while talking to Annie, I’m pretty darn sure I saw her raise her hand to the side of her face, wiggle her fingers and say “I’m up here”. That sequence of gestures is difficult to interpret as something else, one would think, and also difficult to misinterpret – it usually means “stop objectifying me by staring at my cleavage, you sexist boor”. Except I wasn’t, and hadn’t been.

This freaked me out. If you’ve watched Curb your Enthusiasm (the new series is great, by the way), you might have a sense of how utterly strange, and socially awkward, the next half-hour or so was. Because Aaron had returned, and it was another half-hour before he left, and I finally had the opportunity to resolve whether I was going to live with this misunderstanding, or “put it out there”.

I chose the latter path, and asked her whether she had wiggled her fingers, saying “I’m up here”. She looked at me as if I was alien, insane or both. I repeated the question, mimicking the gesture. Now she seemed convinced I was insane, which I might have exacerbated by saying “look, I realise I probably sound creepy now, but this is quite awkward and needs clarifying”. But she had no idea what I was talking about. And now there was this enormous elephant in the room, and I felt compelled to explain, again, what I thought I had seen – and of course what I perceived it to mean (the thing I may or may not have seen).

But bless the Irish – her quite straightforward response was “Ah, no. If you’d been doing that, I would just have slapped you or stormed off.” So then we got on with talking about Roy Keane, potatoes and so forth, with the discomfort slowly dissipating.

And now it’s Thursday, and the first phase of the visit (leadership training for secular humanist groups, at the IHEU) is over, with the conference proper starting tomorrow. I’ll be sending occasional updates on proceedings through the FSI Twitter account, and the usual motley collection of links and provocations via my account. Be careful out there.

Academia and teaching Daily Maverick

Elitism and the university

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

In Business Day last week, Jacob Dlamini argued that “universities should not be doing the work of high schools. Universities should not be in the business of remedial education”. TO Molefe has responded to Dlamini’s column, making the case that academic excellence is not the only imperative at universities, and that they do have a role to play in reshaping society through ‘remedial’ education.