Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in

Our commitment to free speech is tested by speech that offends us, not by speech we agree with. This does not necessarily entail allowing all speech: it’s possible to take the pragmatic view that while we’d ideally want all speech to be permissible, it might be the case that in some contexts, the risks of violence (or other negative consequences) are too great.

I’m not going to repeat the standard arguments in favour of freedom of speech here (previous defences of the principle can be found in this column on Kuli Roberts, this one on Gareth Cliff, or this one on more general issues to do with “thoughtcrime” and hate speech).

On this pragmatic reasoning, one might ask how we most efficiently nudge ourselves into a world where all speech is allowed, even as those who utter hateful speech pay some other price (for example, widespread opprobrium) for doing so?

Continue reading “Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in”

Mother Teresa and charitable criticism

Nobody should be surprised to hear that I’m an atheist (or an agnostic, depending on who I’m talking to). But for many a year now, I’ve deplored the lack of humanism displayed by many of my fellow atheists, expressed in a contempt for religion and the religious.

There’s no question in my mind that religion is not the ideal way to substantiate moral claims, or to create community, and especially not to resolve matters of empirical fact. Despite this, most religious people are just like the rest of us in wanting to live better lives and treat each other well, and much of the time, their religion is no obstacle – and even an advantage – in the quest to do so. Continue reading “Mother Teresa and charitable criticism”

Caster Semenya, and fairness in sport (and life)

If we were to design athletic competition from scratch, how would we proceed? I think, given all the biases we’ve challenged or discarded since the first time athletic competition was tracked (sex, gender, race), we’d hope to find some way to match competitors in a way that created the spectacle required, and rewarded skill and effort, but did not rely on an arbitrary characteristic of humans to separate us into categories. Continue reading “Caster Semenya, and fairness in sport (and life)”

Harambe and our hubris

One of the lessons we could learn from the killing of Harambe, the gorilla recently shot by Cincinnati Zoo staff, is that we humans are forgetting that not everything is under our control, and that it never could be.

We are not omniscient and omnipotent gods – all we can do is plan as best we can, and take reasonable precautions against unknown risks. And even when you do so, something could still go wrong, as ended up being the case on Saturday, when a child fell into this gorilla’s enclosure.

It’s easy, from the sidelines, to insist that the mother was negligent. Perhaps she was – but at the same time, the only way to guarantee the safety of your children is to keep them in a protective bubble at the end of a leash. In a padded room. Even if you’re careful, mistakes happen.

It’s easy to say that the zoo is at fault. But this is the only time this had ever happened to them since 1978, and it’s an incident that exposes a weakness in the enclosure security that they hadn’t known about until now, presumably after taking all reasonable precautions in enclosure design and maintenance.

It’s easy to choose sides, and say that it’s outrageous that an endangered animal had to die because of someone’s negligence, because why couldn’t they tranquilize it instead – even as expert after expert reminds you that a 400lbs gorilla would take a good few minutes to go down after a (successful) shot, which would give its agitation more than enough time to be channeled into an expression that kills the child.

We want winners and losers, heroes and people to blame. Some are taking blaming the mother so seriously that over 400 000 of them (more by the time you read this) want the parents to be “held accountable”, and tell us that this incident demonstrates a “negligence may be reflective of the child’s home situation”.

These things seldom stop with petitions, though. Mob justice ensues, and people are bullied on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Sometimes it’s not even the “right” person being bullied, but a namesake only, that some keyboard warrior for Harambe has discovered and intends to shame into abjection.

This was an accident with tragic consequences, which are sometimes unavoidable despite our best efforts. Everyone will learn from it, including – hopefully – the mother, whose immediate response was to thank God, rather than the game-ranger who actually (probably) saved her child.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe, a gorilla on the Internet (as far as most are concerned), they wouldn’t give a moment’s thought to joining any initiative aimed at saving western gorillas more generally.

Meanwhile, as people mourn Harambe (at least the people who – like me – still eat meat), they won’t give a moment’s thought to the animal suffering they are responsible for, simply because they prefer a certain sort of food.

This desire for “justice” and for “shaming” is within our control. This lack of perspective where we think that we could have done better, and someone else is blameworthy – even though we know a fraction of the context – is within our control.

But knowing all possible eventualities, preparing for every possible risk, and making the perfect decision in the moment (rather than bloviating about what it was, in retrospect) is not something we can reasonably expect of ourselves, or anyone else.

“Boys with tips” and “Girl with cake”

When Girl with Cake was a thing, I wrote that even well-intentioned charitable giving should not be considered immune to criticism, as even that sort of charity can perpetuate stereotypes about the recipient. Another way in which charity could be criticized is if it’s inefficient – if the same efforts would be better directed elsewhere, which is one point made by proponents of “effective altruism“.

Yet another way in which charity can go wrong is when it validates stereotypes about the providers of charity, and this is to my mind the problem with the recent campaign to crowdsource tips for an Obz Cafe waitress who experienced some brutish behavior at the hands of a dinner table populated by Rhodes Must Fall activists.

Ntokozo Qwabe (NQ), a graduate of Oxford University and the most prominent voice of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford, relates what happened as follows:

They take a pen & slip in a note where the gratuity/tip amount is supposed to be entered. The note reads in bold: “WE WILL GIVE TIP WHEN YOU RETURN THE LAND”. The waitress comes to us with a card machine for the bill to be sorted out. She sees the note & starts shaking. She leaves us & bursts into typical white tears (like why are you crying when all we’ve done is make a kind request? lol!). Anyways, so this white woman goes to her colleagues who are furious. She exits to cry at the back & a white male colleague of hers reluctantly comes out to address us & to annoy us more with his own white tears telling us that he finds our act “racist”.

(You can read the rest at the Daily Vox.)

In reponse to this, Sihle Ngobese (SN) visited the restaurant, found the waitress – Ashleigh Shultz (AS) – and gave her the tip that the RMF table could (and should, unless they received terrible service) have given her, were it not for the fact that they objectified this woman as a placeholder for white oppression, despite knowing nothing about her, her politics, or her financial circumstances. (Something they of course should have been aware of is the likelihood that, as a waitress, she and some hypothetical intersectional movement might well find some common ground on the issue of class and privilege.)

Some say that this isn’t racist, because black people can’t be racist. I don’t agree with that, even though I understand the disctinction being made. This is because I don’t see the point of distinguishing between race-based bigotry expressed by people of a subjugated race and that expressed by a privileged race. ‘Racism’ seems a useful shorthand for both, albeit of necessity accompanied by the acknowledgement that the priviliged race is likely to not only be racist more often, but also to be oblivious to their racism more often.

Next, Roman Cabanac and Jonathan Witt (who host the Renegade Report podcast on CliffCentral) started a Twitter crowdfunding campaign that ended up generating R44 778 in donations for the waitress in question. (Another crowdfunding effort also sprung up, generating an additional R15 000+.) [EDIT: Twitter user @GarethKourie points out that this second campaign has reached $5000, so, more like R70 000, meaning that AS has now been tipped around R115 000.]

Later on, we find out that the waitress has a mother who has cancer. This information was however not available at the time the campaigns started, so should be irrelevant to any analysis of whether the campaigns were appropriate or not – they were not generated to raise money for cancer treatment, but to offset her experience of abuse by RMF, and to demonstrate a moral counterweight to the callousness of NQ and his dinner companions.

Both of those goals could, in my view, have been achieved without creating the impression of a couple of (literally) white knights charging in to protect one of their own against the (literally) dark forces of RMF. And, creating that impression simply lends credence to one of the legitimate concerns of the RMF movement, namely that white South Africans (and people, in general) are far too unaware and unconcerned about the fate of black people compared to the fate of other whites.

It’s of course true that it should, in theory, be possible to separate these issues from race, and to simply regard this as an act of generosity. But to think that people will (or even should) do so now in the political landscape that is South Africa is either naive or wilfull denialism. To refuse to countenance any criticism on this topic – as the Renegade Report hosts have done in their Twitter responses – is difficult to read as anything other than a commitment to making a point, rather than being humanitarians, even if the outcome of their commitment is a plus for humanitarianism, on balance.

The offset to her experience, and the restoration of her dignity, in a sense, was to my mind accomplished by the initial R50 donation and the outpouring of support on Twitter. The moral counterweight was provided by the same outpouring of support, as well as extensive and robust criticism of NQ, including from many black commentators who are usually sympathetic to RMF. Some of the criticism was, of course and unfortunately, racist and ad hominem abuse directed at NQ, which again simply serves to gift him the moral high ground he in no way deserves in this instance.

The job was done, in other words, meaning that if you wanted to crowdsource charitable donations, you should look further afield than this case. Anything beyond the extensive criticism and the symbolic tip – and especially something that ends up generating an amount of money that will outstrip what many black South Africans earn annually, is going to have a hard time appearing to be a humanistic gesture.

This waitress is relatively undeserving of this gift compared to so many other people. The gesture can’t help but appear to be motivated less by generosity than by a vindictive “sticking it to NQ”, showing how much of a better person “we” (the donors) are.

And, as I said on Twitter, you’ll find that (or at least I find, and I eat out too many times every week) black waitstaff are routinely treated rudely, and (I imagine) tipped less generously than white ones, assuming that the level of expressed respect correlates with the level of financial support offered as tip. My claim is not that “if you can’t help everybody, you should help nobody” or something of that sort. Of course we are forced to pick our causes.

My point is that helping this one is a strike against the “fascist” RMF (as they have been described by at least one of the Renegade Report hosts), masquerading as charity, and that the optics of this case are exceedingly poor, serving to reinforce negative racial stereotypes.

It doesn’t help the argument to assert that some of the donors are black, or that this sort of argument is of the “social justice warrior” variety. The latter is a vacuous slur that completely escapes the force of argument in the sense that even if it’s true (and it is) that some folk concerned with social justice are knee-jerk thoughtless reactionaries, not all of them are. Arguments need to be addressed on their merits, not with cliches. And even if some black people donated, they don’t provide political cover because they can also be prejudiced against RMF, or thoughtless regarding the impression this campaign creates.

Of course, these black donors are also not effective body shields against criticism when the campaign is spearheaded (after the first tip from SN) by white folk, where most donors are white folk, and where the “movement” enourages support from the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos. If he’s on your side, you really need to reconsider your strategy.

To summarise, I don’t think this is an example of effective altruism, and I also think it faily obvious that it feeds into confirming stereotypes about “whiteness”. Those who support the campaign might well not believe in the entire concept of “whiteness”, and I would agree with them that it’s an overplayed concept, often used as a thoughtless dismissal of opposing points of view.

But the fact that is sometimes (even often) abused doesn’t mean that it’s never true that we can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and impede progess, regarding race relations in what we do and how we choose to do it – as is the case here.

Zuma – manifestly unfit for purpose

Originally published in The Star, April 4 2016

Moral debates are not settled in courts. The law can be profoundly immoral, if it is written and practised by those who want to defend immorality, or those who are not aware of what their moral responsibilities are. For one, it can defend things that are immoral (for example, by prohibiting gay marriage), and second, it can be silent on moral issues that should be prohibited by the law. Continue reading “Zuma – manifestly unfit for purpose”

Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing

This notion will hopefully strike most of you as obvious, but how we express ourselves matters, at least if you care for being heard. The examples you choose to make a point, and the style in which you deliver that point, can mark you out as either interested in discussion/persuasion, or as simply wanting to show your interlocutor that she is wrong. Continue reading “Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing”

The #NoakesHearing, and social media ethics for (medical) professionals

Last Tuesday, I gave a talk at the UCT medical school on the ethics of social media for medical professionals, which focused in part on the Health Professions Council hearings with regard to the ‘unprofessional conduct’ of Prof. Tim Noakes.

While I’ve presented a half-dozen or so talks on the philosophy and ethics of science for dietitians in the last couple of years – usually for continuing professional development (CPD) points – this one attracted more than the usual amount of attention, thanks to the imminent resumption of the Noakes hearings. Continue reading “The #NoakesHearing, and social media ethics for (medical) professionals”