Sometimes I wish I could unplug myself from South Africa. Participating actively in public discourse opens us up to a lack of generosity, dangerously low levels of empathy, dishonesty and headache-inducing, unnecessarily bad arguments, including endless popular fallacies.
None of us is immune to being both victims and perpetrators of these tendencies and it makes it hard to know whether we are making progress in discussions on exceptionally difficult issues such as racism and sexism.
Debate is so sullied by a refusal to self-examine and to consider the viewpoints of others that it often appears as if we are mostly expressing our feelings and stating our convictions rather than conversing productively with those who disagree with us.
Discussions, most recently, about racism — or rather the latest instantiation of racism — provide plenty of examples of these unproductive tendencies. I want to unravel two such examples from different sides of the ideological divide.
Bad Argument #1: ‘You’re an Uncle Tom’
First, there is a tendency among us black people to fight to be labelled the most radical, a case of blacker than thou, woker than thou. For some people, how black you truly are depends on what views you hold on contentious issues in the race debate.
Furthermore, for some people, how deeply you are committed to eradicating anti-black racism depends wholly on whether you agree with them on a contentious issue. You are labelled a sell-out, a puppet of white people, an Uncle Tom, if, say, you hold the view that black people are capable of racism.
If you believe that incarcerating Vicki Momberg for racist speech is not an effective response to racism then you can be dismissed as “not being woke” and not seriously committed to eradicating white supremacy.
Note that I have said nothing here — deliberately — about whether there is anything compelling about the views that blacks can be racist or that sentencing racists to jail for racist language is a bad idea.
I won’t do so because the point is that those who have formulae in their back pockets for determining degrees of blackness, degrees of radicalism, do not give a damn about arguments on these issues that they disagree with. It is enough for some just to trot out the demeaning personal attack: “You are an Uncle Tom!”
They tweet the insult, which then gets retweeted by many people, which then makes them feel justified about doing it.
Productive dialogue requires of us to seriously interrogate the internal logic of the viewpoint we disagree with, to be capable of summarising that viewpoint accurately, and then explaining carefully why you dis-agree with that viewpoint.
Why on earth does it mean, if Person X does not want Momberg jailed, that that alone constitutes proof that Person X does not take anti-black racism seriously? It is wholly possible that I might have interesting, even if disagreeable, reasons for opposing the incarceration of those who utter racist speech, and that I might be doing more to root out white supremacy in society than those who are excited that Momberg is in jail.
There is no simple and definitive test of one’s commitment to racial justice. It is possible for someone to have a plurality of views and attitudes that hang together in a coherent fashion, which include, say, Momberg should not have been jailed; black people can be racist; most racists are white people; most victims of racism are black people; and white supremacy must be rooted out urgently as part of a commitment to bringing about a more just society.
The meaning and internal logic underlying these statements will depend on all sorts of things that someone might have to say in defence of, or by way of explaining, them.
But if you have zero interest in listening carefully, not entertaining the possibility that one of your beliefs might be faulty and not being open to persuasion, then you can lazily claim false victories by dismissing someone as an Uncle Tom.
We need to nip in the bud the silly tendencies of those who police radicalism.
Bad argument #2: ‘What about Malema?’
The refusal to think critically about one’s cherished viewpoints is also prevalent among many white people. I was shocked to get so many calls on my talk show shortly after Momberg was sentenced to jail, from white South Africans, angrily asking: “What about Julius Malema? He should be in the same cell as her.”
After the shock had worn off and I’d had time to reflect on these interventions, I was less surprised. There is really bad stuff, from a discourse point of view, going on here.
First is what I refer to as what-aboutery. This is a very South African tendency. Person X did Y and gets punished for Y, and we ask: “What about Z who also did Y?”
On the face of it, the person is simply pointing out inconsistency in how the law — or society in general — responds to wrongdoing. It is important to raise critical questions about consistency in society. But there is more at play here.
Many white South Africans were not asking: “What about Malema?” because of their interest in consistency. Rather, if we are brutally honest (because we know the country we live in, so let’s not play), many white people thought that, in effect, all white South Africans have been found guilty of crimen injuria rather than just Momberg, the individual.
Her guilt is experienced by some white people as a declaration of their collective racial guilt. That is why not one single caller who cared about consistency asked: “What about Steve Hofmeyr? He should be in the same cell as her” or “What about Dan Roodt? He should be in the same cell as her.”
They chose someone they regard as a black racist because of their racial affinity with Momberg. It is too much of a coincidence that the consistency test did not centre on both black and white examples of people who have used language that impairs the dignity of other race groups.
What is also ironic is that many of these white South Africans who felt personally judged by the courts via the Momberg case include white people who claim to hate identity politics. But their responses to the Momberg conviction involved identity politics. But don’t tell them. They will get terribly upset because, you know, apparently only black people have identity politics.
The more pedestrian problem with what-aboutery is that a court can only pronounce on the facts before it. Malema cannot go to jail because he has not been sentenced and sent to jail for crimen injuria. The same goes for Hofmeyr and Roodt. The elementary factual differences between Malema’s political language and what a court found in the Momberg case seem to be missed in the festival of what-aboutery.
The moral is this: you can only reduce your chances of a poor response to the Momberg case if you are in the habit of self-examination, listening carefully and daring to imagine that some of your beliefs might be faulty.
Maybe it is time to unplug. Racism, as Toni Morrison reminded us in 1975, is a distraction. I would modify her words slightly: racism is a truly fucking irritating distraction.