UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine

Originally published in Daily Maverick

Despite 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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.