(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom

Charismatic pastors have long been abusing the loyalty and faith of devout Christians, and I’m sure this happens in other religions also. In South Africa, though, we’ve recently heard of some quite bizarre examples.

Penuel Mnguni telling people they should eat snakes and Lesego Daniel making a sacrament of grass and petrol come immediately to mind. And then there are the more traditional forms of exploitation, like Pastor Mboro telling parishioners that he can get them to heaven for R 10 000 (or, secure them a VIP seat next to Moses, Abraham and even Jesus for R 30 000). Continue reading “(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom”

Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump

This has been a pretty bad year. What we’ve lost includes Muhammad Ali, Prince, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, George Martin, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Elie Wiesel, and Micheal Cimino. (And then Leonard Cohen too…)

Oh, and, potentially, centrist politics – at least for a time. Brexit was at least in part a triumph of the political right, fueled by fears of immigrants and a nationalistic fervor, by contrast to the vision of a world united by common values and open (in both the legal and cultural senses) borders. Continue reading “Populism, more than prejudice, is the problem with Trump”

South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much

South Africa has supported “a call for the suspension of the United Nations LGBTI rights expert“, because sexual orientation and gender identity “should not be linked to existing international human rights”. [Update, 22 November: SA has reversed course, and now support the establishment of the LGBTI rights expert position.]

Say what you will about whether “gender identity” is a confused concept (here’s Rebecca Reilly-Cooper with a thoughtful article on that), the fact remains that theoretical disputes are a separate matter from the fact that LGBTI folk are subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence exactly because of those identities. Continue reading “South Africa’s LGBTI folk can have rights – others, not so much”

Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa

The intentions motivating the draft South African Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill are – as far as I can tell – entirely noble, but perhaps not entirely sound.

If you don’t know about the Bill, you can read Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s justification for it on Daily Maverick, in which he says that:

It will provide additional tools to investigators and prosecutors to hold the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and provide a means to monitor efforts and trends in addressing hate crimes.

Continue reading “Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa”

Obesity: The Post-Mortem and “gratuitous fat-shaming”

The Doctor and I recently watched “Obesity: The Post-Mortem”, a BBC3 recording of the autopsy of a 17 stone (108kg) woman. Unless you have access to BBC’s iPlayer, you’ll not be able to watch it (legally), and I imagine many of you wouldn’t want to in any event.

But even if you can’t watch it, you can nevertheless engage with the point made in her post on the show, where the Doctor says that there’s a difference between something being uncomfortable or unpleasant, and it being offensive. I agree, and want to expand on that point here. Continue reading “Obesity: The Post-Mortem and “gratuitous fat-shaming””

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.