White fear, white shame

An unlikely provocateur — a quiet, thoughtful, original, careful philosopher, working in Grahamstown — created a public stir with an article she published in an academic philosophy journal.

Samantha Vice argued that it is appropriate for white South Africans to feel shame because of their association with the brutality, oppression and dispossession that were part of the apartheid past, particularly when it is likely that they have benefited from it. Further, she argued that one (among many) morally decent responses to this could be a kind of political silence.

Her paper sparked a heated, sometimes abusive, emotional public discussion. Vice has been insulted, invited to commit suicide, and told she does not deserve a university job. The topic clearly struck a nerve. The nature of the response to Vice is noteworthy, and worth trying to understand. The Wits Centre for Ethics, based in the Wits philosophy department, hosted a seminar on the topic.

The speakers were Vice, Eusebius McKaiser (whose discussion first brought Samantha’s piece into the public discussion), another philosopher from Rhodes, Ward Jones, philosopher David Benatar and constitutional-law professor Pierre de Vos. Aubrey Matshiqi, due to speak, was unfortunately unavoidably called away.

It was heartening to see a broad range of people filling the lecture theatre — black, white, young old, Wits, UJ and Tukkies, South African and from elsewhere, ex-ministers (Barbara Hogan) and a representative of AfriForum. Most stayed from 2pm to 7pm. Everyone listened to the speakers with respect and many felt comfortable enough to be able to contribute in a respectful and thoughtful manner. There was no consensus. But that was definitely not the point.

If you had read the blog comments on Vice’s initial article and on its discussion in the Mail & Guardian by McKaiser, you would think that Vice had argued for the following claims:

  • All white South Africans are guilty, in virtue of being white, of anything any white South African ever did under apartheid.
  • All white South Africans should spend every minute of every day being tortured by guilt.
  • White South Africans are responsible for every single problem in South Africa and no one else has ever done anything wrong.

Actually, she made none of these claims. Vice raised, in a careful and thoughtful way, some difficult ethical questions about how to respond morally to being associated with a group that enacted an enormous injustice over many years, and being part of a group that, on the whole, still benefits from this.

Doing some thinking
There are real questions here. If you discovered that your family had become rich from the proceeds of someone being deported to the Nazi concentration camps, you would do some thinking about your money.

The parts of Vice’s paper that sparked the most anger were the ideas of shame and silence. Collective guilt is a tricky notion. Most philosophers think that it makes sense to feel guilt only for something you have done. Shame is different. One reason that philosophers are interested in shame is that it does seem to make sense to be ashamed of something done by someone with whom you are associated. There is nothing incoherent in saying “I am ashamed of my brother for beating his wife.”

Also, unlike with guilt, we readily make sense of the idea of being ashamed of something for which you are not responsible, something you have not done. A young woman in the audience commented that as a black South African she feels ashamed of her and her family’s poverty, particularly when moving in wealthy spaces. Again, while we might wish she did not feel this, we can make sense of it. Both shame and guilt are painful emotions that we usually try to avoid. Both can have unhelpful psychological consequences, of which we need to be careful, and can be inappropriate and disproportionate. They can also be appropriate.

Vice’s idea of political silence infuriated people. Vice argued for less silence than much of the debate took her to be arguing for, and argued only that it was one possible moral response, not a prescription that all whites ought to follow. The idea is still controversial.

What I agree with most in her view is the idea that being a member of a group which has had, and continues to have, a certain sort of dominance (men, say, with respect to women), calls for a degree of circumspection. One should reflect on it a bit. One should try to cultivate some sensitivity and think about one’s position. And where one is a member of a group the majority of which clearly, and not very long ago, were involved in perpetuating something atrocious, a certain kind of strident, self-righteous tone in moral criticism should be avoided.

Last week I listened to Jeremy Paxman discussing his new book about the British Empire on BBC Radio 4, on a programme called Start the Week. He said that when considering their colonial past there were plenty of things the British should be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of. Another panellist, Richard Gott, argued for less of the positive and more of the negative. They disagreed about the emphasis, but not about the idea that it makes sense for the British to feel either (or both) pride or shame with respect to aspects of their past. Neither seemed to expect that mention of the possibility of things the British should be ashamed of in their colonial past would lead to public outcry.

Pride and shame are interesting. We can feel both with respect to the actions of those with whom we are merely associated, and for things we have not ourselves done (think of a rugby team). Where we can make sense of pride with respect to a group, there too it must be possible to feel shame.

The discussion moved on to the British relationship with China, and panellist Shuyun Sun spoke about the humiliation of the opium wars as the ever-present defining feature of the Chinese relationship with the British. She spoke with a passion that made this past brutality seem like a continuing burning presence, and one which she wanted the British to understand and acknowledge. She described its importance to the Chinese and talked about a display about it, in what is now officially the biggest museum in the world, in Tiananmen Square.

Paxman and Andrew Marr, the host, jumped in with defensive-aggressive comments about things not represented in the museum — apparently there’s not much about the cultural revolution, or the protests in Tiananmen Square. Their point is not wrong, but their tone sounded jarring in response to the desire for understanding and acknowledgement Sun had expressed, and the reality of the atrocity. It’s difficult to talk about the past. We need to keep practising.

Lucy Allais is a professor of philosophy at Wits University, and director of the Wits Centre for Ethics.

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. view our special report.

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