The great South African nondebate (2)

This entry is part of 2 in the series Business Day nondebate

Following on from my previous post, that sought to frame or introduce an exchange of views between Gareth van Onselen (GvO) and Scott Burnett (SB), I’ll now proceed to look at some of the arguments they each presented.

The summary is this: I don’t believe either of them to be uncharitable towards many of the central points the other is making. I do however think they are talking past each other, because they speak from opposite ends of a significant divide regarding the role identity plays (and, should play) in conferring argumentative authority.

Burnett, for example, spends much time recounting ways in which white people “live in a system that is skewed to our advantage”, and concludes his first response with the suggestion that GvO pretends “that we don’t also have to slay the demon of white racism”.

The suggestion throughout is that GvO is “promoting denialism” of this, by questioning the regularity and the emphatic nature of some accusations of racism, which he (GvO) feels can create an atmosphere of “though policing” where no other conversations can be productively held (because all conversations end up turning on race).

It shouldn’t need pointing out, but GvO is fully aware of white privilege, while simultaneously being concerned at how the phrase can be used as a “generic insult”. Both of these things can be true at the same time, even if you think it’s used as an insult less/more frequently than he does, and even if you think the problem of white privilege is under/overstated.

So to spend time presenting the case for the existence of white privilege and suggesting that GvO isn’t conscious of it, as SB does, is to defeat a straw person. GvO’s column is about something else entirely – it is about whether arguments gain or lose credibility because of who is doing the arguing, rather than what they say.

GvO argues for the existence of inflated rhetoric and hasty moral judgement in South African political discourse. Furthermore, he argues that this interferes with the possibility of discussing anything else, for example poverty, and that any interventions in political debates are judged more by how they are perceived (the emotional responses to them) than by their content.

As I’ve said in the past, it’s obviously true that

the liberal impulse of treating ideas according to their merits can be criticised for assuming the possibility of cultural and value-neutrality – and that possibility might well be a fiction, where it’s simply the case that one set of norms has become the default.

But this doesn’t mean that an attempt to engage with something other than a national preoccupation – as important as that preoccupation might be (and is, in our case with regard to race) – proves that the speaker isn’t concerned with that preoccupation.

The same applies to the manner of engagement. You might not believe that this or any other topic is suited to a dispassionate liberal gaze – you might think no topics are, and that the gaze in question is fundamentally flawed or corrupted. That’s a point of view, to be sure, but it’s not an obviously true one.

Thinking that people aren’t concerned about the “correct” things, on the basis of what they don’t say or the argumentative style they deploy not only ignores their actual argument, but can also present your own argument as being unfalsifiable. That’s a bad thing, for those of you who don’t know the term – it means that nothing can prove you wrong (or, that there is no available evidence/argument that would make you change your mind). That’s not debating or arguing, but rather simple dogmatism.

Even if the liberal attitude of arguments standing or falling on their own merits can confer blindness to relevant aspects of lived realities and emotional responses, it doesn’t necessarily do so (those data could, after all, be included in the argument). And, even if person X (maybe GvO) has appeared blind to those aspects in some context or another, he’s not necessarily being so in any particular or the present case, just because he chooses to talk about something else.

The point is that conclusions aren’t demonstrated to be true simply by asserting that they are. If GvO argued for a climate that is hostile to thinking about and discussing ideas (where race isn’t foregrounded), it’s circular to say that arguments are meaningless unless race is foregrounded.

You could say that GvO overstates the problem, to be sure. I think he does, and is thus to my mind guilty of creating a minor straw man of his own. Minor, because I agree that the problem he highlights exists – I know from responses to things I’ve written that the fear of misinterpretation when talking about identity has led me to say or not say certain things. Not because I believe them to be wrong, but because I don’t feel like dealing with being shouted at on Twitter.

Overstating the problem, if that’s what he does, doesn’t make the problem itself nonexistent. But if you don’t believe the problem exists at all, then surely that’s the argument to be made, rather than to argue (as SB does) that some other problem is not only what you should focus on, but also the cause of you focusing on the wrong thing in the first place?

A last point, or rather, theme: SB, in a response on Facebook, suggested that the “significant divide” I spoke of above (I used “chasm” on Facebook) would disappear if I “clearly distinguished ‘argument’ from ‘evidence’ and thought about that in relation to racism”.

Well, no, it wouldn’t, because SB never discussed whether GvO has any (never mind good) evidence for his claim that public discourse tends to a racial analysis to the exclusion of any other factors. (GvO doesn’t provide positive evidence either, which might have been a good place for SB to start a rebuttal to the actual argument.)

The closest SB comes is in accusing GvO of an abuse of Orwell’s concept of a “thought crime”, in referring to how our utterances are policed and interpreted via race-based analyses. As I say above, you can indeed make the claim that GvO overstates the problem here – but the problem with SB’s response is that a) not only is it a response to something other than what GvO argued, but b) its analysis of one of GvO’s premises is cripplingly superficial.

The premise I refer to is this: GvO argues that one of the ways debates on race become intractable, result in misunderstanding and sometimes outrage, and more generally command attention to the exclusion of other debates is that they operate in the realm of emotion and subjectivity, rather than reason and objectivity.

I’ve problematised the liberal notion of objectivity above, and more extensively in the past, so won’t labour that point now. But just to repeat an important point: the fact that it’s difficult to see beyond a fixed, or privileged, point of view doesn’t make it impossible to do so, and doesn’t make someone who attempts to do so blind to those difficulties.

Burnett, by contrast, responds to these difficulties by obliterating them via a theory of privilege, which he seems to firmly believe in. As I say, I don’t think he’s at all uncharitable in an intentional way, but the point needs to be made that one cannot assert a contested theory of political engagement as if it were fact, while using that same theory to discredit the arguments of those who disagree with you.

SB says, for example,

First we must stop denying the simple asymmetry involved in antiblack racism: if you do not inhabit a black body, your opinion on whether something you did or said was antiblack racist is just not that relevant. A similar asymmetry applies to sexist acts.

Van Onselen writes that some people make accusations of racism but that “they are often wrong”. How would he know? Because, as he then goes on to imply, he thinks the people so accused are, in general, good people?

This is the ancient and rather ridiculous notion that virtuous acts are simply acts performed by virtuous people. These days, ethics tends to focus more on consequences. When the consequence is feeling hurt, belittled or unfairly treated, then the person so affected has far greater authority when reporting on it. Of course they are not the only authority, and everyone deserves to be heard. But you are not an expert on somebody else’s experience. Even when you really feel you were misunderstood, sometimes the adult thing to do is to listen and learn, apologise, and endeavour not to make the same mistake again.

Leaving aside SB’s view on ethics, which I’d contest, that’s not a “simple asymmetry” at all. As I’ve argued in the past, “while speaking from a particular vantage point can mean that you have a better understanding of arguments related to that vantage point, it offers no guarantees of this”. In other words, we need to still engage with an argument, rather than dismiss it (or grant extra credibility) because of who is uttering it.

There’s certainly an asymmetry in how credible your voice and opinion is perceived to be – there’s no disputing that. And (3rd paragraph of the quote) of course it’s true that the person who experienced something has greater authority regarding how something feels – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have greater authority in terms of any overall analysis of the problem, or how to fix it.

First person, lived experience certainly grants emotional authority, but that is here being conflated with argumentative authority.

I also don’t mean to dispute the value of listening, as SB says in those closing lines. One should listen especially acutely if you’re aware that you’re likely to have certain biases, as I know I do. But one listens in an attempt to gain enough information and understanding to offset those biases, and SB can either allow that it’s possible to do so – in which case any of us are potential authorities – or say that it’s impossible to do so, in which case GvO is by definition wrong, no matter what he says.

To re-state, and in conclusion: the argument is really about whether we can assess claims and evidence on merit, or whether who the speaker is is always a defining variable of that merit, regardless of what is said. I’ve said many times, and here again, while we can say with confidence that who the speaker is often matters in terms of how we perceive authority, that doesn’t settle the question of whether it should do so.

In essence, this is nothing but the long-standing debate regarding whether reason can operate independently of power. If you think not, then of course you’ll conclude that GvO (and I) are wrong. If you think they can operate independently, you might wonder, like I do, what SB’s response had to do with GvO’s column.

In both cases, though, it’s a mistake to assume malice or wilful obfuscation. We’re talking about incompatible views on evidence and on epistemic authority, and each side of this debate (I’m talking about readers, rather than GvO and SB) need to read relevant contributions with that in mind.

The point is that SB’s diagnosis of GvO finding the “very idea of white privilege so threatening” speaks from inside a theoretical perspective, and refuses to engage on GvO’s terms. Likewise, I imagine that those sympathetic to SB’s point of view will think that GvO is being obtuse, stubborn, stupid or worse, rather than engaging SB’s argument on its own terms.

Meanwhile, nobody (well, I can think of one person) from the suite of under-40ish columnists are writing about, say, the economy. Everyone is writing about race. Most of our Twitter arguments are about race. As I say, that’s important – to my mind, even perhaps the most important thing to talk about.

But it’s not the only thing to talk about. If conversations can sometimes usefully be about something else – but always end up being about race in any case – then that conversation has been derailed, and we’ve missed out.

Does this happen often enough that it’s worth writing the column GvO did? I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is “yes”.

P.S. I don’t know if I’ll address the 3rd and 4th columns, as I’ve probably said enough on this already. So, in case I don’t, here’s GvO’s response to SB, and SB’s response to that – which is as far as the sequence extends, at least at time of writing.


Burnett and van Onselen: the great South African nondebate, indeed (1)

This entry is part of 2 in the series Business Day nondebate

Gareth van Onselen (columnist in Business Day, and previously a senior member of the Democratic Alliance staff) and Scott Burnett (PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies) have been involved in an interesting exchange of views on the topic of race, and on the function race plays in South African political discussions.

There have, at this point, been two contributions from each of them. Gareth van Onselen’s (GvO) initial column carried the headline “The great South African nondebate“, and – if one were to focus only on Burnett’s response, it is indeed a nondebate, in that I think Burnett mischaracterises GvO’s column, and thus fails to respond to its argument.

GvO says as much in his response-to-the-response, but I’d like to offer my own reasons why I think this is the case rather than rely on GvO’s. I want to do so because Burnett’s first column has attracted a fair bit of praise from many friends and acquaintances, especially from those who regularly offer commentary on social justice issues in South Africa.

I think those people are not being sufficiently attentive to what GvO is saying, and that some of them – Burnett in particular – are misreading him completely, and in doing so, simply proving his point.

This post is but a prologue, in that it will be long enough if I simply lay some groundwork, rather than focusing on the arguments themselves. I’ll be focusing on the first two parts of the exchange in the first follow-up post, hopefully this week, and then later offer some thoughts on the second set of columns.

There are two obvious impediments to reading GvO charitably. The first is in the claim or implication that he’s irredeemably tainted by being (variously) a previous Communications Director at the DA and a staunch liberal. A more infrequent but equally ad hominem response might imply that being male or white is a handicap to his thinking (or at least, understanding).

The second is perhaps exactly part of what GvO’s column was claiming, which is that every discussion on South African politics is somehow faulty (or considered incomplete) unless it ticks certain rhetorical and moral boxes. A white South African has to profess understanding of systemic discrimination, the lingering (and still strong) effects of cultural capital and so forth before they can be regarded as a sincere interlocutor.

This amounts to a small, but not trivial, bar to fair argument regarding other aspects of South African political discourse. It should be permissible to highlight certain issues without your views on other issues being assumed, simply because you don’t account for them.

It is not implausible to me that so-called “virtue signalling” has become almost obligatory in South African political debates, and the “problem” with GvO is that he’s far more interested in the argument in the abstract than in cataloguing how he, as an individual, is “guilty” or “not guilty” of various sins.

The second impediment to reading him charitably is thus that he can appear more unsympathetic to certain issues (systemic discrimination, for example) than he might actually be. I’ve had these sorts of arguments myself, where I’m assumed to have view x because I speak in the abstract and detached language of philosophy, rather than foregrounding the subjective realities of the people I’m talking about (including myself).

Thanks to having it pointed out to me, I now know that if I want to be understood (and not have various motives misattributed), I might need to say things in a different way. But, this is an issue of rhetorical strategy – it says nothing about the content of my views.

With the above as prologue to comment on the actual arguments of their respective pieces, I’d encourage you to read them both (again, for some), carefully and objectively. Sorry for the tease, but for now, I’ll leave it there.

Free Speech Politics

Choosing to be silent | Being barred from speaking

we-realizeDuring the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.

My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.

In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.

It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.

As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.

To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.

This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.

At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.

I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.

And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.

Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.

For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.

Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.

Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.

Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.

But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.

As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.


Academia and teaching Politics

The 2015 #SaxAppeal cover


This is not a “rage-blog”. I’m not indignant, offended or any of those things by the Sax Appeal 2015 cover that I saw via Twitter this morning. It depicts Christian Grey (a rich white guy who is into BDSM) looking out over shacks where poor black people live.

I do, however, think it was a poor choice of image, for the two reasons I’ll outline below. But first, a general point, which is the actual motivation for this post: there are usually intermediate options between the polarised sorts of shouting at each other that social media seems to encourage.

Criticism is quickly read as outrage, and in a case like this, can also lead to accusations of conservatism, fuddy-duddyishness and so forth. On the other end of the spectrum, those who support the image can overstate its virtues, and not recognise any value in concerns expressed by others.

There’s a gulf between those options, and that’s where I’m speaking from. I was shocked by the image, but I mean shocked in a descriptive sense, rather than as an index of moral outrage – it took me aback. So, that’s a plus for the “good satire” reading, in that being forced to take notice is a good start.

But the cover ultimately misses the mark, and was a poor choice. First, because risky satirical choices are only a smart move if you’ve got credibility as a satirist or satirical publication. Without that, you can appear to be simply echoing the reality you’re trying to critique, or appear oblivious to dimensions of it.

Simply being known as a satirical magazine one isn’t the same thing as people knowing you to be good at that job, and therefore interpreting you in that light – and sorry to say, but I don’t think Sax Appeal been good at it for a while.

Second, you significantly increase your chances of being read uncharitably by virtue of the targets that you pick. In this instance, there’s a context of:

  • 5 years of debate on admissions policy, race and transformation
  • public criticism from UCT academics on the perceived slow pace of transformation at UCT
  • a funding crisis at a national level, affecting the ability of poor students to enter universities
  • a rather public tantrum by a prominent media house owner on UCT’s transformation track-record
  • a university that is situated in a city that is perceived by some as racist

And so forth. In other words, this was a very risky issue on which to push the boat out. I certainly don’t think they were intending to be crude or offensive – in fact, I know some of the people involved, and trust them in this regard – but this was a poor decision.

(Sax Appeal has taken note of the reaction, and posted the statement quoted below to Facebook.)


On behalf of the SAX Appeal Editorial Team, we regret the hurt caused by this year’s cover photo.

We understand the concern about what is perceived by some as racist or patronizing undertones of the image; but we would like to state unequivocally that our intention was not to make light of racism or to humiliate its victims.

Our intention was to open up discussion about the problematic power relations in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid has left a tragic divide between rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban – a divide that is still perpetuated daily.

Just as the themes of 50 Shades of Grey allude to power dynamics in sex, our hope with 50 Shades of SAX was to discuss the other power dynamics that still pervade our society. Even though the privileged no longer oppress the underprivileged daily with batons or whips, we hoped that the cover image would inspire discussion about the secretive, underhand ways in which the privileged still get their way.

These issues, including those within the magazine, such as the discussion around homophobia in Islam, the psychiatric profile of God and of golf being representational of white privilege, were included in the magazine to bring about such discussion.

In this way, SAX 2015 has taken a very different turn compared to previous editions. Sensitive topics were not written about to ridicule the marginalized or disadvantaged but to induce meaningful discussion about these topics. These are issues that we did not think we could avoid discussing, but if we missed the mark in our attempt at discussion, we regret the effect that this has caused.

We hope that this perspective might add to the debate that has been sparked on social media and that it might point it in a direction that is critical and constructive around issues of race and socioeconomics.

Morality People Politics

Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.

Academia and teaching Politics

Wrong about race in South Africa and UCT

agi_events_010Two snippets, from two quite different sources, raise concerns about self-serving (as opposed to principled) thinking about race in South Africa and at the University of Cape Town, where I teach.

First, we have Douglas Gibson expressing concern that “race is back in fashion” in South African conversation. Gibson is the former Chief Whip of the Democratic Party, which became the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition.

I’ve only had a couple of conversations with Gibson, but have read many of his speeches and columns over the years, and regard him as a determinedly old-school liberal, rather than someone who is happy to let pragmatism dominate, as seems to be the case for many in today’s DA.

One character trait of what I describe as an old-school liberal is often an inclination towards idealism, in this case manifesting as a desire that South Africans be race-blind, to want to engineer a South Africa that is nonracial or post-racial. He opens his column with an example of race-blindness, in this case that of his son:

Thirty five years ago a little white boy aged three, standing in his bathing costume next to the pool, stroked the arm of a little black girl, also in a bathing costume, and said, “Ooh, you’ve got a lovely tan.” My son didn’t see race and certainly had no race prejudice. That was at the height of apartheid. He is still not a racist, just as many other whites are not.

There are two distinct points to make about examples like this. The first is that we can agree (or not) that this is an ideal future to try and arrive in. The second is that we can agree (or not) on how to get there.

A concern that I and others have about DA rhetoric is that it seems to want to get there by insisting on it, and by asking us all to just ignore race, because in doing so we’ll discover all sorts of other relevant and interesting things about each other as individuals.

As ever, I think some things are easier to say and support from one point of view rather than another. I don’t experience what it’s like to be black in South Africa, but if what I’ve heard is accurate – and I’ve heard it from black intellectuals far more qualified and socio-economically advantaged than me – they perceive racism far more often than they should (the “should” here would of course be zero times).

I’ve said in the past that the perception of Cape Town as being racist can’t simply be dismissed, and still think that even if we agree on an (eventual) goal of non-racism, we might find (a) that we can never get there or (b) that the way to get there is precisely to acknowledge race and prejudice, rather than pretend people don’t have these experiences.

To put it crudely – columns like Gibson’s, romantically espousing non-racialism, can be read as part of the problem in their denial of the validity of the lived experience of people who feel discriminated against. It can appear like you’re being told to simply “get over it”, and I think that’s condescending.

The other example I want to highlight is from Dr Xolela Mangcu, who is at the furthest remove possible from Gibson in at least two respects, in that he is a black Biko scholar, rather than a white liberal. Mangu has been columning voluminously about UCT’s new admissions policy for the past few months, and some of these columns have attracted responses from our Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price.

In Mangcu’s most recent opinion piece on race and transformation at UCT, he says the following:

Numbers matter also because there should be a critical mass of black professors in the University Senate, which is the highest decision-making body when it comes to academic affairs. I just find it difficult to imagine that doing away with race-based affirmative action would have been such a high priority for the Senate, or would have passed so easily, if that august body was populated by a large number of black full professors.

And here’s my problem: even if you think the admissions policy flawed, Mangcu’s words there seem to me to insult the black professoriate, or otherwise to indicate a laziness of thought on this issue, or are otherwise simply mendacious.

To briefly run through the options: the extract could insult black members of Senate, in that it suggests that they cannot be of independent mind regardless of perceived race-interest, and think that a policy might be the correct policy on principle even if it attracts the sorts of controversy it has.

Second, it could indicate a laziness of thought, in that he’s simply assuming that everyone who is a black Senator is somehow going to ineluctably reach the same conclusions about the policy as he did – in other words, that his is the only reasonable interpretation.

The arrogance of this would be one problem, and the second would be that it would make his argument circular, in that he’d be saying “the policy is wrong, and if Senate were black in the majority, they would vote against it, which proves that the policy is wrong”.

Finally, it could well be that Mangcu doesn’t think his analysis is the only defensible one, and it could be that he simultaneously knows that some black Professors support it. If these conditions were both met (and if I haven’t left out other options) then it seems that he’s misrepresenting the case for rhetorical effect – just like Gibson is.

My point, in short, is that given that we recognise how fraught these conversations are, we should be careful to have them honestly, contextually, and objectively, in the sense that the quality of arguments can still matter, even if you think there’s something distinct about how race informs an argument.

Morality Politics

When a muppet takes on a puppet – Steve Hofmeyr vs. @ChesterMissing

downloadForeign readers, if you want a snapshot of how weird and emotive racial politics in South Africa can get, here’s one for you: A man who thinks that “Blacks were the architects of apartheid” has now filed a harassment charge against a ventriloquist’s puppet.

Chester Missing (whose book I previously reviewed) is the puppet of ventriloquist, comedian, anthropologist (and friend), Conrad Koch. The puppet’s Twitter account has recently been quite vocal in denouncing the racist – and bewilderingly contrary-to-reality – statement captured above, in part because it was made by someone with a large audience (on Twitter, but more importantly as an award-winning musician who has sold truckloads of records to people who like Neil Diamond, but in Afrikaans).

Missing has also been asking Steve Hofmeyr’s sponsors whether they are concerned about the negative impact on their brands that might accrue from being associated with Hofmeyr. According to Hofmeyr and some of his followers (from what I’ve seen, mostly folks who are routinely associated with Afriforum and/or Praag, organisations that are overwhelmingly white and Afrikaans, and who are – charitably – tone-deaf and emotionally crippled when it comes to race), this amounts to harassment and defamation.

I don’t think it’s defamatory in principle, as you can see above. However, as I’ve argued in the past, I do think it’s possible for criticism to be sufficiently abusive or misdirected that it should be reined-in. (Having said that, the issue in the piece linked just above, on Mozilla and Eich, was for me more about picking the wrong target – Eich – rather than his religion and religious beliefs.)

In this case, though, I don’t see anything in Missing’s Twitter stream that crosses any kind of threshold into abuse, harassment or defamation. By contrast, I think that Hofmeyr needs to take responsibility for the statement he makes above, and others he’s made over the years, which give clear credence to an interpretation of racism, as commonly understood. (Conrad Koch has explained why he thinks the most recent statement is racist on his website, in case you’re Steve Hofmeyr or Dan Roodt, and need this explained to you.)

I’ll close with an example of a absurdly wrong-headed understanding of free speech and censorship, from the Institute of Race-Relations’ Frans Cronje (their name is misleading, in that you’d think they’re about improving race-relations, but I’ve rarely found that to be the case).

Why I say it’s wrong-headed is that obnoxious opinions need to be tolerated. He agrees with me on that, or so he says in the last (chronologically) of the three Tweets I’ll embed here.

But he gets there via chastising Chester (without naming the puppet) for trying to “silence” Hofmeyr.

Chester is doing exactly that, in challenging Hofmeyr’s idea that black South Africans are the architects of apartheid. If Hofmeyr chooses to fall silent in shame (or whatever), that’s his choice. The only entity that has the power to forcibly silence Hofmeyr are the courts, and guess what – only one of the two parties involved (Hofmeyr) has approached the courts.

Cronje’s argument works entirely contrary to his objectives here, in that this is precisely an argument against Hofmeyr approaching the police or courts to silence Missing.

To close the circle of absurdity with regard to South Africa’s racial politics, remember that Missing, in this case, is the puppet who is reminding others that Hofmeyr thinks blacks designed Apartheid, and Cronje is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations.

And, he seems to want Missing to stop criticising Hofmeyr, while having no problem with Hofmeyr’s lawsuit. Go figure, indeed.

Daily Maverick Politics

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.

Academia and teaching Morality Politics

UCT Admissions policy – race and redress

uctThe various Faculty Boards at the University of Cape Town are currently considering alternative models for UCT student admissions. These models arise from a debate the University has been having for some time now, regarding whether “race” is still the most effective identifier of likely disadvantage available to us. Some participants in this debate argue that race has become an increasingly crude proxy for disadvantage, resulting in a large number of false positives (which in turn has the effect of shrinking the number of places available for people who are actually disadvantaged, whatever their race might be).

That line of argument is also frequently accompanied by the observation that the racial categories we use in South Africa (and elsewhere, but South Africa has a particular history in this regard) are innately odious, and should be eliminated from legislation, policy and discourse wherever we can.

Some critics of that position argue that to eliminate recognition of race as a special category for attention simply perpetuates racism, and that any policy shift in this regard would be regressive. Others argue for the more moderate position that while race should be eliminated from policy in principle, it is too soon to do so – and that even though race is mostly a proxy for disadvantage, it remains the best one we have available to us in the present moment.

The contribution to the debate offered below merits wide distribution, and is shared here with the permission of the author, Professor Anton Fagan of the Law Faculty. For what it’s worth, I agree with his position, and find the paragraph below to be a strikingly crisp articulation of the obvious wrongness of including race as a criterion for disadvantage in perpetuity:

to make an applicant’s preferential admission conditional upon her having identified herself as ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’ or ‘Chinese’ is to make the receipt of something that is deserved, unconditionally, conditional upon a Faustian bargain. To get what she deserves, as a matter of justice, an applicant is compelled to validate one of the foundational principles of the racist apartheid order – the principle that everyone falls, naturally and in a way that can be read off one’s biologically-determined features in a mirror, or can be determined by inspecting one’s nails or one’s genitals, into one of the following groups: black, coloured, Indian, Chinese, and white.




UCT’s new admission policy has much to recommend it. In so far as it seeks to undo inequality, by looking at home and educational circumstances, it represents a major step forward. However, the criteria by which the ‘Faculty Discretion’ is to be exercised, especially ‘racial diversity’, are troubling.

In 1987, I was an LLB student here at UCT. In an evidence class, the lecturer discussed a 1957 Appellate Division decision called R v Vilbro. It concerned the admissibility of a witness’s opinion as to whether the accused were ‘white’ or ‘coloured’ for the purposes of the Group Areas Act. The Court held that such an opinion was admissible. For, it said:

‘There may be people who have had a reason to apply their minds specially to the question of distinguishing the races. Such a witness was, in the present case, the Chief Inspector of Indian and Coloured Education . . . .’

‘[T]here may be people who, in respect of the persons whose race is in issue, may have had more opportunities of observing them than the magistrate. The latter only sees them in court, dressed up for the occasion, a woman probably with make-up . . . Other people may have seen them more frequently and in different circumstances, and have had more opportunities and more time of forming a definite impression about them.’

Upon hearing these passages, a student in the class, Zehir Omar, shouted out angrily: ‘Who was the judge?’ I sat forward expectantly, like everyone else, keen to hear who this racist was. The lecturer answered: ‘Fagan CJ.’

The effect of this view of admissibility was that the accused’s conviction under the Act was upheld. But that was not the main reason for Mr Omar’s outrage and my shame. Indeed, I am not sure that the lecturer even mentioned this outcome. Our outrage and shame were grounded, primarily, on something that Mr Omar, and I, and many others in the class took for granted: racial classification, in itself, is morally repugnant. We knew that the division of persons into ‘coloureds’, ‘whites’ and ‘natives’ had no biological basis. We knew that this division was not merely a social, but a political and ideological, construct. We knew that it took its life from, and was inextricably linked to, the practice of racism under apartheid.

You may know the book Racecraft, written by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, and published last year. The Fields are sisters. One is Professor of History at Columbia University. The other is a sociologist, based at the Center for African and African American Research at Duke University. They have written a great deal on slavery, witch craft, and racism. The following extracts from their book show some of its key ideas:

‘Anyone who continues to believe in race as a physical attribute of individuals, despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists and geneticists, might as well also believe that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are real, and that the earth stands still while the sun moves.’

‘Race is not an element of human biology . . . nor is it even an idea that can be plausibly imagined to live an eternal life of its own. Race is not an idea but an ideology. It came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons . . . Thus we ought to begin by restoring to race . . . its proper history.’

‘[R]ace is neither biology nor an idea absorbed into biology . . . It is ideology, and ideologies do not have lives of their own. . . . If race lives on today, it [is] because we continue to create it today.’

‘[T]he first principle of racism is belief in race, even if the believer does not deduce from that belief that the member of the race should be enslaved or disfranchised or shot on sight by trigger-happy police officers . . .’

‘[W]hat “race” is’ ‘is a neutral-sounding word with racism hidden inside’.

The current UCT application form requires applicants to identify their ‘population group’, the choice being between ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘white’. An applicant may refuse to choose any of these, in which case he or she will be assigned to the open category. It is fair to assume that UCT’s new admission policy will be implemented with an application form that requires more or less the same.

The effect of this will be a continued naturalisation of race. The division of persons into ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘white’ is presented as part of the natural ordering of the world, rather than as what it really is, namely an historically-contingent, politically-constructed and ideologically-driven ordering. The historical, political and ideological connection between these categories and the racism of the apartheid state is simply swept from view. Rather than that categorisation being presented as being deeply-embedded in a particular history, politics and ideology, it is presented as a free-floating categorisation with a logic and reality all of its own.

Worse than that, the categorisation into ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘white’ is supposed to be insensitive to distinctions of social standing or class. Being the son of a billionaire entrepreneur, or the daughter of an unemployed domestic worker, will neither qualify nor disqualify an applicant for any of the categories. It follows that the primary basis for categorisation must be biological difference. The effect, therefore, is not merely to continue the naturalisation of race. It is to entrench a form of bio-racism.

The Fields sisters gave their book the title Racecraft, because they see the idea that a person has a particular race as analogous to the idea that a person is a witch. Just as there are not really witches, and never have been, so there are not really races, and never have been. Neither ‘witch’ nor ‘race’ has, as they put it, ‘material existence’. Both the idea that a person is of some race and the idea that a person is a witch are merely ‘illusions’ or ‘fictions’ created and sustained by social practices. Now imagine that a university has decided to provide redress for those who were victimised on the ground that they were witches. It would be odd for the university to pursue that redress by asking every applicant to the university this question: ‘Are you a witch or are you not?’, and then to make the provision of the redress conditional upon the person answering: ‘Yes, I am a witch.’

There undoubtedly are many applicants to UCT who, because of inequality, deserve preferential admission. However, to make an applicant’s preferential admission conditional upon her having identified herself as ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’ or ‘Chinese’ is to make the receipt of something that is deserved, unconditionally, conditional upon a Faustian bargain. To get what she deserves, as a matter of justice, an applicant is compelled to validate one of the foundational principles of the racist apartheid order – the principle that everyone falls, naturally and in a way that can be read off one’s biologically-determined features in a mirror, or can be determined by inspecting one’s nails or one’s genitals, into one of the following groups: black, coloured, Indian, Chinese, and white.

Getting what one unconditionally deserves is made conditional upon one’s willingness to treat as real, as essential, as natural, and as morally-neutral, an ordering of the world created by the apartheid state in order to pursue its racist objectives. If you do not admit to being a witch, you will get no justice. If you do not admit to being what D F Malan and H F Verwoerd decided you are, namely a coloured, a black, a member of the other, you will not get the justice you are entitled to. Writing about the American context, the Fields sisters make a similar point:

‘Like a criminal suspect required to confess guilt before receiving probation, or a drunk required to intone “I am an alcoholic” as a prerequisite to obtaining help, persons of African descent must accept race, the badge that racism assigns to them, to earn remission of the attendant penalties. Not justice or equality but racial justice or racial equality must be their portion.’

The continued requirement of racial identification in UCT’s application form reveals a failure of imagination on our part. Damaged as we are by the experience of apartheid, we find it hard to envisage a future in which South Africans do not see each other through the spectacles which Dr Malan and Dr Verwoerd welded onto our noses. And because we find it so hard to envisage this future, we do not recognise that one of the first steps we must take to secure it is to remove the distorting lenses of our racist apartheid past. We must refuse, collectively, to continue seeing the world, and each other, in the way which the racist apartheid project required.

It is possible to do so. We have a policy in my family that none of us refers to race. As a result, my six year old, Lihle, does not see race – at any rate, not yet. Of course he sees skin colour, and hair colour, and so on. But he does not see race. A few months back, my daughter’s boyfriend was having supper with us. Lihle turned to him and said: ‘Rahul, you and I are both brown.’ But that was not a case of Lihle seeing race, and certainly not race as constructed by the racist apartheid state. For then he would have said: ‘Rahul, you are Indian but I am black.’ – which he did not say.

Were I an idealist, I would now propose that all reference to race or population groups, as well as any requirement of racial classification, be removed from UCT’s application forms. Like the Fields sisters, I would argue that what matters is not racial inequality and racial injustice, but inequality and injustice full stop. And I would argue, as they do, that a continued focus on race, on the one hand, is not necessary to achieve equality and justice and, on the other, is likely to blind us to, and therefore also to leave uncorrected, many of the inequalities and injustices that plague our society.

But I am enough of a realist to curb my ambition a little. I therefore propose, as a compromise, the following:

No applicant should be asked to state whether he or she actually is ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘white’, or is a member of a population group so described. Instead, applicants should be asked to which of these groups the racist apartheid state most probably would have assigned them.

This way of posing the question makes visible the historical contingency of this racial classification and its connection with the racist programme of the apartheid state. It therefore helps to guard against the naturalisation of these racial categories, and against the entrenchment of the belief that they are an inevitable biological or cultural fact. It also avoids the Faustian compact spoken of earlier: an applicant entitled to redress would not be required, as the price for getting it, to treat as true one of the racist apartheid state’s great falsehoods, namely the claim that there are black persons, and coloured persons, and Indian persons, and Chinese persons, and white persons, and that each of these are a kind of person essentially different from every other.

Academia and teaching Daily Maverick Morality Politics

UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 9.46.51 AMDespite the many columns I’ve written on the dangers of jumping to easy conclusions, the UCT student survey ranking how attractive various “races” are provided a reminder of how difficult it can be to follow one’s own advice. Especially with regard to emotive topics, the moral outrage machine can be quite seductive.

So it was that I found myself joining the initial chorus of judgement, tweeting that the survey, published in the student newspaper Varsity, was “embarrassing”. Yes, it was embarrassing, so I don’t think I said anything false. But when a member of UCT’s staff says that something is embarrassing, he’s not only reporting on but also helping to create the institution’s reputation, and words should perhaps be chosen more carefully.

There were elements of this that should rightly be called embarrassing, but levelling this charge was inseparable from a charge that frequently accompanied it – namely that the survey itself was also racist (for some, that Varsity, its editor, or even the university was racist too).

In a moment of impressive ambulance-chasing, the Young Communist League of SA reported Varsity to the South African Human Rights Commission, saying that “the article and its alleged survey were always leading to inculcate a culture of one race being the jewel of all others. It is despicable to read and should not have been published, even more so that we were without the full details of the survey”.

That’s simply confused, and a prime example of how moral hysteria commands the parts of the brain normally reserved for thinking. There’s no reason to think that the survey didn’t happen (“alleged”), because it doesn’t report anything at all surprising.

Then, it’s implausible to suggest that the survey will itself play a causal role in generating racist attitudes.

Lastly, yes, it is uncomfortable to read that students are ranking races on their perceived attractiveness. But if it’s true that they are doing so, there’s nothing racist about reporting on this – the racism would be in the students’ motivations for ranking the people in question as they do, with the student journalist doing a better or worse job of putting this information into some context.

What people (including me) missed at first is that the journalist, Qamran Tabo, did a rather good job of putting this into context via the article that accompanied it. The primary failings of the piece in question were the headline chosen for the survey, and the scientific illiteracy of the survey itself.  Tabo had no evidence for the claim that this was how “UCT” would vote, rather than how the 60 students polled actually did vote.

Normally, when we see a pie chart reflecting the views of 60 respondents as if they are significant, we’d simply laugh it off as an embarrassingly poor piece of research. It wouldn’t be the sort of thing that attracts such levels of outrage that it ends up on local lampposts or even in the Daily Mail, providing the opportunity to add further misinformation in the form of a claim that UCT decided to scrap race-based admissions policies in February (the new policy is still being debated, and will be designed to focus explicitly on redress).

Presenting this poll as quasi-scientific was certainly an error. Not only because of the pie-chart’s title, or the tiny sample size, but also in the peculiar way in which the sample was drawn. Tabo chose to survey 10 individuals from each of the following “racial groups”: “white, coloured (culturally), Indian, East Asian, biracial and African”, and had them respond to a question of who they would date, and these responses ended up in a chart reflecting a vote on which race was “most attractive”.

Leaving those methodological problems aside, though: if these 60 students – or even thousands of UCT students – voted in those sorts of proportions, would this not simply be a reflection of how many people still think of race as a way to differentiate humans, rather than a judgement on the appropriateness of doing so?

It has been suggested to me that it’s odious to even think of conducting such a survey. However, I don’t understand why we should protect ourselves from the fact that people do still hold these attitudes, whether we’d like them to or not. It would have been ideal if the students Tabo approached were to have refused to participate on principle – but that’s not the world we live in (yet), and is unlikely to be for quite some time.

So if we read this as reporting on racist attitudes, rather than endorsing those attitudes, are the results surprising or offensive? We know that certain appearances and lifestyles are normalised as “attractive” in popular culture, and we know that students are deeply immersed and influenced by exactly that culture. And that’s all that this survey revealed.

When passing an ostensibly offensive image like this pie chart around on social media, it’s easy to ignore context and fall prey to over-reaction. I doubt that many of us had read the accompanying article before allowing our instinctive outrage to prompt a reaction. I know I didn’t, so must confess to not heeding my own advice in this instance.

Tabo concludes that article by saying the following:

Of course everyone has the right to choose who they want as a romantic partner, but it is interesting to observe how race, which is really just a collection of arbitrary physical features, acts as a barrier when it comes to who we choose to love.

Hopefully one day, when the world’s entire population becomes creolised, characters will be the only deciding factor for who we want to date.

And that’s just right, surely? The author decries the fact that these students use an arbitrary characteristic, rather than someone’s character, to determine who they would like to date. There’s nothing racist about the conclusion, and it can’t be racist to report that people do have these (potentially racist) preferences.

It could be embarrassing in various ways, sure – but it’s also embarrassing that our knees jerk so quickly, and so violently, when anyone mentions the fact that people do still think in racial terms, regardless of the fact that we wish they wouldn’t. Outrage won’t make the problem go away, and neither will pretending that people don’t have attitudes we wish they didn’t.