Race debate elicits fatal fallacies

Race essentialists and race denialists are both missing the dangers  of reductive thinking (John McCann)

Race essentialists and race denialists are both missing the dangers of reductive thinking (John McCann)

Too many of us rush to opine instead of critically examining our convictions before we decide whether to retain them and to state them publicly.

I have been struck by how the false dichotomy, one of the more common fallacies in argumentation theory, has become all the rage again in recent times. It rears its head regularly in debates about many pet South African topics.

In discussion about identity politics, and racial identity more specifically, there is a tendency to gravitate towards one of two hardened views. There are, first, many race essentialists and race reductionists who think that all analysis about life in present-day South Africa ultimately comes down to our racialised identities.

For race essentialists, any talk about other tools of social analysis, such as those related to gender or class, is simply a refusal to accept the absoluteness of race reductionism. Race, despite being a social and political construction, is treated by race essentialists as akin to something biological.

An example of a race essentialist is that guy who thinks, wrongly, that he is the reincarnation of Steve Biko. If I am not mistaken, his name is one Andile Mngxitama. Do not even dare to talk to the man about the interplay between irreducibly complex markers such as gender, class, language, ethnicity or geography. He simply will not listen to you. You will, as this writer has experienced over the years, simply invite another famous fallacy of his, the ad hominem fallacy, that is, a personal attack on you instead of reasoned engagement with the content of your argument.

The other side of the false dichotomy in debate about race is the position of race denialists. Many white South Africans, and not just infamous ones like Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roets, think that race is utterly redundant in analysis of life in present-day South Africa.

For them, as with Mngxitama, all analysis can be reduced to one nifty concept or idea. The only difference between a Roets and a Mngxitama is that the one reduces everything to the ANC’s apparently inherent evil, and the other reduces everything to race.

READ MORE: Unplug me from fallacious arguments about race

But these reducations are false. You should recognise that racialised identities are powerful social and political constructions, and that a true description of the nature of South African life in 2018 necessarily requires more than just a passing inclusion of class analysis and other concepts.

If you are a race reductionist you will, for example, miss out on crucial differences in phenomenological accounts of black middle-class life in the city, say, and black rural life. That is not even to add other layers such as ethnic, linguistic and geographical differences that make it impossible to single out racial identity as the sole sociological means to account for life in our complex country.

On the other hand, if you are a race denialist, you will also end up with woefully thin and incomplete characterisations of contemporary South African life. For example, even when black and white kids have attended the same schools, and even when they are equally fluent in the cultural grammar of whiteness, our racialised identities still haunt us in powerful ways.

Your skill set, as the white colleague, isn’t routinely doubted by recruiters or by clients that your company serves. An excellent black colleague, even with “a polished accent”, is still subject to a myriad anti-black prejudices, including those of fellow black South Africans.

If you’re a white middle-class person, a black bouncer is less likely to police you when you want to enter a posh nightclub in Cape Town. The same white person’s black middle-class friend might be told by the same bouncer that there is a private function on that night.

Race denialists pretend that class analysis can wholly explain this kind of thing. That is rubbish. Black and white people can have the same education, same income, same hobbies and live in the same suburbs, and still one’s skin colour can determine a range of different experiences in the same country.

This means that race essentialists and race denialists are both missing the dangers of reductive thinking. They are also, invariably, peddlers of false dichotomies. False dichotomies, to be fair for a brief moment, are very seductive. They are elegantly simple. They have an air of certainty. That, in turn, has the rhetorical effect on an unsuspecting audience of demanding immediate self-identification with one of the two choices being falsely presented by a speaker as the only options.

But, despite our past, contemporary life is in fact seldom black and white. We should not be scared to live in the grey areas and, faithful to the complexities of life in these areas, we should embrace the headache-inducing work required to make sense of our society.

The public discussion on Ashwin Willemse’s decision to walk off a SuperSport television set also elicited reductionist reasoning, although there was a variation on this kind of sloppy thinking.

A remarkable number of people approached that incident with an implicit false dichotomy in their reasoning. There was an operating assumption that either there was irrefutable proof of explicit workplace racism or race was utterly redundant in Willemse’s workplace experience.

That is so obviously false that it is almost mind-boggling to see that many people frame identity analysis that poorly. But I say almost mind-boggling because there is a reason we fall for such simplifications. It serves our interests to deny that an emotionally and politically tricky concept such as race still has enormous power in contemporary life.

One quick way to deflect from the reality of racism’s reach into contemporary life is to set the bar impossibly high for when we need to take reports of institutional racism seriously.

But this is madness. Just as most experiences of sexual harassment are not as overt as rape, so too the vast majority of racist experiences are not as overt as being called the k-word. We live in the grey area in which most sexual predation and most cases of racism do not announce themselves bluntly. You wouldn’t know this is if you are a reductionist or a denialist about either racial identity or gender identity.

What further complicates this is that any talk of complexity is itself lampooned by race essentialists and race denialists. They employ yet another fallacy, the straw-person fallacy; that is, the deliberate misconstruing of what an interlocutor says to dismiss complex analysis.

Complexity then gets attacked waspishly as a refusal to “take a clear view”, which invariably means embracing the false dichotomies that abound and picking one of them.

There is nothing brave about choosing between two false views in complex debates. That is easy. The harder approach to social and political discourse is to venture into the murky realities between the extremes. We need more of that kind of approach to discourse in South Africa.

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