Unplug me from fallacious arguments about race

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.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

Related stories

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my time’ — Mamodupi Mohlala

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

See people as individual humans, not as a race

We need to ingrain values of equality in education, businesses, society broadly and religious groups to see people

Maaza Mengiste: ‘We are now catching up with the past’

As war drums beat again in Ethiopia, author Maaza Mengiste finds new language to memorialise the Second Italo-Ethiopian War

‘Let ANC deal with its leaders facing corruption charges,’ Ramaphosa tells parliament

The president was answering questions before parliament, where he also told the EFF to allow the courts to decide on the matter of the CR17 bank statements

Mabuza asked to account for why ministers were seated next to Malema in Senekal

MPs can’t seem to stop the house from degenerating into screaming matches, even during virtual sittings, as exhibited when the deputy president answered questions in the NCOP on Wednesday.

Finding my faith in Trump’s America

From the heady days of Obama’s inauguration to the everyday fears of living while black, Jakki Kerubo had a front-row seat to one of the most turbulent periods in US history
Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Zuma maintains his true colours at Zondo commission

The former president’s escapades at the commission of inquiry into state capture are a far cry from Nelson Mandela’s response when summonsed to testify in the high court

Gordhan tells Zondo how Moyane wanted to advance the objectives...

The public enterprises minister is being cross-examined by Tom Moyane’s lawyers at the state capture inquiry, as both men seek to defend their reputations

Burundian refugees in Tanzania face increasing danger

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of Burundian refugees being tortured and forcibly returned by Tanzanian authorities

Exclusive: Top-secret testimonies implicate Rwanda’s president in war crimes

Explosive witness testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda implicates Paul Kagame and the RPF in mass killings before, during and after the 1994 genocide.
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…