Daily Maverick Politics

On Helen Zille and identity politics “destroying freedom”.

Today’s Daily Maverick includes an opinion piece by the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who asserts that identity politics is “destroying freedom”.

The short version of this response to some of her claims might read something like “sure, identity politics might compromise freedom in some of its extreme manifestations, but never as reliably as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination do”.

Academia and teaching Free Speech Politics

Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

The University of Cape Town’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) hosts an annual lecture that explores issues related to academic freedom – the TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture. TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955, and is remembered as a fearless defender of academic freedom, including the autonomy of the university.

TB Davie defined academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit. This definition is not without its detractors, with some arguing that the concept of “academic merit” is itself prone to embedding and perpetuating certain biases, in particular biases related to class and race.

Morality Politics Religion

Homosexuality is more African than Christianity

PinkWeekLater today, I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on the topic “Homosexuality is more African than Christianity”, as part of UCT’s Pink Week. Seeing as no less an authority than Errol Naidoo has previously described me as a “homosexual activist“, I guess I’m qualified, and the topic should make for a fun discussion.

Even though I tend to never stick to the remarks I’ve prepared, here are some thoughts on the topic for those of you who weren’t (or aren’t, depending on when I publish this) able to attend.

First, of course the topic is meant to be provocative – in fact, it seems pretty clear that this is its primary purpose, seeing as it’s incoherent on a number of levels. Off top of head, you’d ask what “African” means; how it’s measured (how can one thing be more “African” than another?); whether Christianity or homosexuality are plausibly or potentially “African” at all (rather than human, animal, natural, unnatural, good, bad, etc.) – i.e. is that the correct category for the thing you’re describing.

And of course, you can ask whether any of this matters.

The sorts of things I intend to address are:

  • Homosexuality predates any established, mainstream religion. It must do so, because it predates language, in that we find homosexuality all around in the animal kingdom, never mind only in humans. Cats, dogs, rats, foxes, bears, dragonflies… just some of the species in which homosexuality has been observed.
  • We also know that Christianity only gets to Africa (Egypt, in particular) in the middle of the 1st Century. So, unless we want to claim that for all the centuries before that, Africans weren’t really African, you’re left with a bit of a dilemma if you want to deny the question as posed. Of course – in terms of when they started, at least – homosexuality has to be more “African” than Christianity.
  • What does it mean to be “African”? As I argue in the first link in the opening paragraph, I’m not at all keen on identity politics of this sort. If we want to define “more African” as “observed first”, then (as described above), homosexuality beats Jesus. But if we want to define African as having a certain character or attributes, then it’s of course possible (very hypothetically) for someone to make a case that homosexuality is some sort of aberration, and Christianity the more “natural”, or “normal” way of being.
  • But then, you simply sound like someone who wants to use religion as a vehicle to prescribe sexually permissible and impermissible behaviour – and in this case, to justify your homophobia. The burden of proof would then be on you to demonstrate why those religions, and those rules, are the ones we need to subscribe to.
  • In doing so, you’re of course forbidden from arguing that your religion shows that homosexuality is “immoral” because God says so. Because that’s circular, in that it’s exactly the identity and authority of your alleged God that is in dispute here, and it’s your God that tells you it’s immoral.
  • Lastly, some might want to say that there’s something normal or “natural” about seeking god(s), and that homosexuality is “unnatural” in some sense that makes Christianity more fitting for Africans. But what does is mean for something to be unnatural in any event? Do you mean:
    1. statistically rare? If so, then left-handedness is inappropriate/immoral also.
    2. not conducive to procreation? Then, no sex with contraceptives, after menopause, etc.
    3. not using your body as God intended (i.e. “the Lego doesn’t fit” argument) – well then, wearing spectacles is inappropriate, seeing as your nose wasn’t designed to hold up spectacles.

And of course, as highlighted above, homosexuality exists in nature long before any religion – never mind Christianity – does.

As a last consideration – whether something is African or not, and whether something is natural or not (regardless of how we define those terms) – so what? What relevance does that have to right/wrong? That case still has to be made, even if we are able to make a case that something is “unnatural” or “un-African” in some coherent sense.

To raise a related, but a different issue: There is one thing that’s quite likely to be both more African, and more Christian, than homosexuality is – at least in terms of prevalence. That thing, unfortunately, is homophobia.

In summary, stop telling people how they need to live, and let them live as they like, so long as they aren’t harming each other. The known harmful thing, in the meanwhile, is the judgement and prejudice of homophobes.

Daily Maverick Politics

Should identity politics dictate beliefs?

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Arguments with self-described liberals, feminists and various other sorts of people were part of the motivation for my column last week, in which I argued that it’s always illegitimate to dismiss an argument simply because it’s expressed by someone you regard as speaking from privilege. In summary, the person whose view you’re dismissing might be simultaneously privileged as well as correct.

The other side of this particular coin involves the labels we ascribe to ourselves. While people sometimes preface claims and opinions with formulations like “as a liberal, …”, I wonder whether that’s typical or whether we instead believe the things we do regardless of (or even, despite) those labels. Jonathan Haidt’s provocative (albeit not entirely convincing) paper “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (pdf) makes the case for (moral) reasoning always being after-the-fact justification for something we already believe, rather than an account of why we believe that thing. For political labels, I worry that we have the causal relationship back-to-front in a similar sort of way.

Namely, that instead of using a label like “liberal” to describe or summarise our general stance, the label ends up dictating the positions we feel we should take. Instead of thinking about and debating each issue on its merits, we instead assume that the one corresponding to our label is the correct one.

If there’s something to this, then just as it would be wrong to dismiss someone else’s argument because of their privilege, it would surely also be wrong to take up a position simply because a group you identify with tends to hold that position. To put it more simply: Whatever ideology or political stance you have should really be a general description of how you view a certain political or epistemic terrain, rather than a set of instructions for how to interpret the evidence. The evidence can speak for itself, and we might simply corrupt it when ideology intrudes on interpretation.

On this view, it would be wrong to say “as a liberal, I think that x should be the case”. Instead, we’d say things like “I believe that x should be the case, and it’s therefore somewhat accurate to describe me as a liberal”. Because if you think liberalism superior to some other political stance, your primary reason should be that you think liberalism gets certain positions right where other views do not.

In other words, liberalism is a summary term for someone who holds certain positions. If we instead start treating liberalism as a binding set of instructions for how we should make up our minds and which positions we should hold, we’re handing some of the responsibility for thinking about things over to dictionaries, spin-doctors and sometimes hysterical media, all of whom play a part in re-defining how these words are deployed in our various debates.

The essential problem is that the perspective we tend to hold or usually hold isn’t guaranteed to be the best one on every issue. It’s partly because some positions borrow or inherit virtue that they can get away with bestowing the impression of respectability on a claim. Saying “as a patriot, I believe that South Africans should care about the country’s image abroad” gets you part of the way to persuading, because who would want to sound unpatriotic by interrogating you? What you might have gone on to say could have been utter nonsense – but we won’t ask, and you won’t need to tell.

As much as it is oversimplification to say “as a liberal, I believe that free speech trumps dignity”, it’s nevertheless one of those useful oversimplifications, where the reasons for its evolution are perfectly sensible (clichés and stereotypes are sometimes entirely accurate, after all). These devices are timesavers, and also help save us from having to constantly repeat old arguments. But just as it’s only a signal for caution rather than a disqualification when someone who is privileged expresses views on poverty, or when a wealthy Republican male expresses views on women’s rights, we should also be cautious of justifying our political views via these labels. It’s not wrong, but it can be lazy – and eventually, make us more prone to error.

Not only do we save time with these devices, but they also help give us something to say and a way of making our interventions sound more authoritative. As I’ve argued in the past, the urge to have something to say can be part of the problem, because we forget that not only is agnosticism okay – it’s often the most rational position. You’re not forced to have an opinion, and forming one can be the first in a chain of errors.

Reclaiming intellectual humility is essential for re-invigorating public debate, whether on nationalisation or on Nkandla. This doesn’t mean that we can’t hold strong convictions. But whether you’re a liberal or whatever else, it’s the argument and not the label that should change our minds. In other words, I’m speaking of the possibility that we might sometimes forget the difference between the convictions we hold strongly for good reasons, and those we hold strongly mostly because, well, we and others “like us”… hold them strongly.

Daily Maverick Politics

The politics of identity

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

I don’t care whether I’m African or not, and neither should you. Not only is it difficult to imagine what such an identity might mean, but assuming – or worse yet, being assigned – an identity of whatever nature is a limiting move. It takes emphasis away from what you happen to be, and instead shifts the focus to something that you are not.

Daily Maverick Politics

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.