Mother Teresa and charitable criticism

Nobody should be surprised to hear that I’m an atheist (or an agnostic, depending on who I’m talking to). But for many a year now, I’ve deplored the lack of humanism displayed by many of my fellow atheists, expressed in a contempt for religion and the religious.

There’s no question in my mind that religion is not the ideal way to substantiate moral claims, or to create community, and especially not to resolve matters of empirical fact. Despite this, most religious people are just like the rest of us in wanting to live better lives and treat each other well, and much of the time, their religion is no obstacle – and even an advantage – in the quest to do so.

A South African “culture of entitlement”?

Stephen Grootes has a column titled “Analysis: A culture of entitlement that holds us back” in the Daily Maverick (disclosure: as many of you will recall, I used to write for them), and it’s causing some discontent on social media and in comments to the column. The discontent is due to the fact that Grootes is interpreted as “pathologising poverty”, and of perpetuating stereotypes regarding “lazy blacks”, waiting for handouts instead of getting on with things. Essentially, Grootes is being accused of expressing racist sentiments at worst, or of oversimplification at best.

The charge of racism isn’t explicit (at the time of writing this), but I’ve little doubt that it will come. Grootes has, at least, been accused of “enabling” racism in that he is thought to be providing a narrative that allows for dismissing poor people as simply lazy, rather than being victims of generations of oppression, that still compromise their prospects today.

My concern is this: both explanations could have merit, and both could be partially true, but only one of the two can be discussed openly without charges of racism or ill-intent being levelled at the author. In short, the concern Grootes was trying to address might be a forbidden topic – especially if broached by a white author.

But that simple analysis makes critical writing about race, poverty or politics in South Africa prohibitively difficult, in that most topics of conversation are going to be “about” black South Africans – that demographic is, after all, 79.2% of the population. Some (like Samantha Vice) would argue that white folk like myself (and Grootes) should accept our lack of credentials, an simply butt out of conversations like these entirely – but as I’ve argued before, that form of identity politics is unduly restrictive, infantilising both ourselves, and our conversations.

Instead, we need to address the arguments, rather than the utterer of those arguments. Of course black South Africans – easily identifiably as having been, and currently still (some will disagree with the “still”, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever that past privilege ripples into the future) relatively less able to secure loans, jobs, or access to universities – are going to have their potential artificially suppressed in ways that the (typical) white South African won’t. But it’s a separate issue as to whether there’s an additional problem – namely the “culture of entitlement” that Grootes speaks of.

Grootes is addressing the second issue, not the first. Yet, a racist reading of his column tends towards interpreting him as denying the first issue – in other words, playing into the hands of racists by implying that it’s simply because people are black that they are lazy, under performing, etc.

Of course poor people in this country will – by and large – happen to be black, simply because of the population demographics. But they – and others – might also risk falling prey to some grand narrative, including around entitlement. It’s happened before, with the “Rainbow Nation”, and can happen again – and a white man, no matter how privileged he might be – is allowed to talk about this as much as anyone else.

Is freedom of the press that important?

The original text of my most recent column for The Daily Maverick:

As Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane reminded us on World Press Freedom Day, not only is the extent of press freedom a matter for debate, but much also still needs to be done in terms of bringing the benefits of a free press to most South Africans. This is not simply a matter of what goes unreported, or even of the potential stifling of a free press via intimidation of journalists or other forms of political interference. These are important concerns, but ones which presume an interest – as well as the ability – on the part of South Africans to equally engage with the issues discussed.

Our concerns should go deeper, in that for a developing country such as ours, the focus should perhaps more appropriately be on whether most South Africans have anything to say at all.