Zille on Carien du Plessis and the ‘race card’

Briefly, on Helen Zille criticising journalists, and specifically Carien du Plessis, on Twitter. As I said at the time, Twitter is the wrong medium for this in any case – prone to misinterpretation and uncharitable readings. Plus, Zille has a similar problem as Dawkins has on Twitter – she can all too often sound like she’s simply trolling, which doesn’t do her arguments any justice.

It’s entirely possible that du Plessis is overcompensating for something in her reporting. It’s entirely possible that this might have something to do with race, gender, experience and the like. But how could this ever be proved? The fact that it can’t be – that it’s unfalsifiable – makes making the claim the story, rather than the claim itself.

Making the claim that she does demonstrate bias now becomes a character slur of sorts, and in that context, can amount to ‘playing the race card’, even though Zille is quite right in her general description, in a comment to her column in Daily Maverick, regarding how we often misuse the idea of the race card.

Let us sort out this “race card” red herring. When a reference to race is relevant, it is NOT playing the race card. Only when race is irrelevant to the argument, does it involve the “race card”. e.g. if someone is corrupt and they claim they are persecuted because of their race, THAT is the race card. If I have come to the conclusion, over many years, that a reporter’s race and background is something that they have to constantly over-compensate for in every report, I will say so. It is not the race card. Of course it is offensive. But freedom of speech is the right to say things one believes to be true but that may be offensive to others. No-one has the right NOT to be offended. And why is everyone so shocked when a relevant point is raised about the baggage of race and history on some white South Africans — while there is not a word about the constant gratuitous racial insults others of us have to face on a daily basis. Stop this double standard and hypocrisy.

As she correctly points out, if race is relevant, there’s no logical fallacy in highlighting it. Playing the race card is just one instance of an ad hominem fallacy, and should be treated just the same, in a logical sense. Calling something ad hominem shouldn’t be used simply as a way to avoid dealing with the substance of the accusation, assuming there is any substance to the accusation. And that is where Zille errs.

Because if you want to make the case that there’s bias – and not simply create the impression that you don’t like what’s being said – you have to actually make the case, not simply allude to it. Helen Zille just asserts her conclusion regarding du Plessis, appealing to her impressions as evidence. But we don’t have access to those impressions, meaning that for us, as readers, the claim is without warrant. This sort of claim is permissible, and we shouldn’t shout it down just because we disagree.

We should shout it down (by which I mean, point out its failings) more because it’s poorly made, and because we care about good arguments.


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.