Ivo Vegter
Ivo Vegter

Sense and civility

“The mark of an educated mind is the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it.” That’s one lesson to take from the Big Bad Bullard Barney.

The quotation is attributed to Aristotle. He noted another mark of an educated mind: “to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible”.

Last week, I posted (here and on my own blog) the argument I thought David Bullard was attempting to stir, namely that colonialism, for all its evils, had benefits too. In particular, that in many places it established institutions and infrastructure that formed the basis for later prosperity growth.

This may or may not be a valid argument, but despite Bullard’s careless and condescending approach to the subject, it seemed worthy of discussion among civilised, intelligent people. (As it happens, I was wrong: Bullard didn’t intend to go that far. He told Lerato Mbele on CNBC Africa on Thursday morning that he intended only to say we shouldn’t keep blaming present ills on past injustices. But first, he went to see his lawyer.)

As often happens with controversial subjects, the argument quickly turned absolutist, divisive, and personal.

The Big Bad Bullard Barney

Sadly so. It would be not only more polite and entertaining, but also more instructive, to suppose that those who raise an interesting argument might wish to discuss its merits and implications, rather than stating it as cold fact or firm belief so partisans can shout each other down. Why would they raise the debate if the issue was simple and settled in their own mind? It seems reasonable to assume they are able to see more nuances than just a simplistic, binary distinction between good and evil.

It seems fair to assume it isn’t very likely they run down neighbourhood cats in their spare time. I’m sure Bullard doesn’t, for example. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least.

Anyway, the argument on colonialism, which I hadn’t thought much about until I read it in an editorial by an Indian economist a few years ago, was put forward for consideration.

If parts of the argument appeal to me, that is irrelevant. I may well be wrong, but that is also irrelevant. The merits of, perspectives on and conclusions from the argument are what matter in public debate. In a public forum such as a blog, anyone is welcome to try to convince readers the argument is invalid. I dare say they won’t do so by calling their opponents Holocaust deniers or unreconstructed racists.

I did not, for example, state a conclusion on whether colonialism was, on balance, good or bad. On the contrary, I noted several caveats, several grave iniquities of colonialism. Yet half the responses, both in support and in opposition, seemed to assume that even just raising the argument was tantamount to unequivocal support of colonialism.

On the contrary, there isn’t even an intellectual need to reach a definitive good-or-evil conclusion. The subject is far too complex for such a simplistic judgement, it would involve exactness that simply is not in the nature of the subject, and the point is moot in a world that has moved on and looks toward future progress.

Manmohan SinghManmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, in 2005 said the following:

Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian prime minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too. Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories, have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilisation met the dominant empire of the day.

These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well.

Just look at him, in those colonial clothes! He must be a racist lapdog of British imperialism who thinks Indians are an inferior race!

Or is it possible to consider that his statement does not amount to nostalgia for colonialism? That it does not claim Indians could never have built these institutions and infrastructure without the British Raj?

Lest this post reopens the colonialism argument, let’s consider a few different examples.

Roe vs Wade is a 1973 ruling by the courts in the US. Based on the constitutional right to privacy, it ruled that a woman had a broad and unequivocal right to choose to have an abortion, no matter what the circumstances before the foetal viability, and for the sake of her health afterwards. Since “health” was defined very broadly, the legal hurdle for third-trimester abortions was set low.

Some people argue that this ruling is wrong. They base their argument on the fact that the US Constitution says nothing about abortion, and that there is a clear conflict between the constitutional right to life and other legal rights. By ruling as it did, the court created a sweeping legal right where none existed before. Such a decision, opponents argue, should have been made by the people’s elected representatives in the legislature, and not by appointed judges from the bench.

Obviously, moral conservatives and religious opponents of abortion use this argument. It suits their political agenda to overturn the ruling that made it legal. I happen to agree with the argument, purely on principles of law and political philosophy. There are good reasons for the separation of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and this ruling crosses that line. It does not interpret law, but writes it.

Given the knowledge that I oppose the Roe vs Wade ruling, would you think I’m pro-life (anti-abortion), or pro-choice (in favour of abortion)?

It surprises many people to discover that, bar a few important caveats for the purposes of this argument, I am pro-choice. I oppose the Roe vs Wade ruling because of legal principle, not because of its substance. I would want that question to come before an elected legislature, to be openly debated and decided according to the will of the people. I would want that decision to be pro-choice.

If that is indeed the outcome, opponents would have suffered a fair, democratic defeat. If not, I would accept an anti-abortion decision in the knowledge that democratic principles were preserved. Moreover, I’d take comfort in the fact that should society change its mind in future and wish to change the law, it would not be blocked by legal precedent declaring such legislative decisions to be unconstitutional.

How about the death penalty? As a white guy, affected by and deeply concerned about crime, you might think I’d support the death penalty. Let’s establish a few facts in support of that view. First, I’m no bleeding heart. I have little sympathy for the scum that murder and rape and victimise our townships and suburbs. More importantly, I accept the pro-death-penalty argument that honest, innocent and hard-working taxpayers should not have to support the life imprisonment of such murderous scum.

But even though I agree with that argument, I oppose the death penalty. Not, I might add, because I have reached definitive conclusions on whether the state should have the right to kill citizens, whether the risk of executing innocent people outweighs the benefit of executing the guilty, or whether the death penalty would be an effective deterrent. Such questions are, to my mind, preceded by the more mundane consideration that if you can’t catch criminals, can’t prosecute them and can’t keep them in jail, it is premature even to begin debating the likely success of reintroducing the death penalty and the complex philosophical conundrums posed by something like it. Supporting the death penalty, in my opinion, is putting the cart before the horse.

Or let’s take another common source of generalisations: party affiliation. In South Africa, ANC supporters include communists, unionists, welfare statists, left-liberals, black racists, non-racists, crony capitalists, market-oriented capitalists and a few classical liberals. I’d have much in common with some of them and strongly oppose the views of others. Likewise, DA supporters include left-liberals, welfare statists, white racists, free-market capitalists, classical liberals and chihuahuas. When they gain power, they’ll include crony capitalists too.

In the US, the Republican Party is aptly named the “Grand Old Party”, and is commonly described as a “big tent”. That’s because the GOP includes libertarians of both the Austrian School, such as Ron Paul, and the Chicago School, such as Alan Greenspan. It includes religious conservatives like Mike Huckabee, religious nuts like Pat Buchanan, and non-religious social conservatives. It includes foreign policy hawks who envision a global Pax Americana, but it also includes small-government isolationists and libertarian pacifists. It includes big-government conservatives and crony capitalists. It includes socially conservative minority groups who believe in the American Dream and don’t believe the welfare state is it. It includes rural rednecks and sophisticated urban capitalists. It includes sophisticated rural capitalists, and urban rednecks too. It includes xenophobic nativists and free traders. There’s a big ol’ rumble going on in that there big tent.

Likewise, the Democrats include a disparate collection of unionists, socialists, free-market liberals, Marxists, free traders, anti-free-traders, big-government welfare statists and spending hawks. If someone tells you he or she supports the Republicans, or the Democrats, which of these many conflicting positions would you assume to be his or her policy positions and philosophical beliefs?

Plato and AristotleThe point of this long list of examples is this: it does not improve the quality of discussion, on a blog or anywhere else, to assume that those who present an argument for debate necessarily accept it. Or if they do, that this implies a more general stereotypical, partisan or extremist position. It neither addresses the merits nor raises the tone to get personal, denounce their character or reduce their argument to simplistic caricature.

Those who do this end up demonstrating only one thing: that while their opponent is able to entertain a thought without accepting it and can rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits, they sadly lack these marks of an educated mind.

(First posted on my own blog.)

  • Jim Stockley

    Good post. I completely agree with your position on the Death Penalty.

  • Davef

    (chuckle) Rational argument assumes that those taking part are capable of flexibility and could accept that they are wrong at least in part. Sadly, this is not a precondition for posting on a blog.
    In summary ‘do not assume I fit into the pigeonhole you put me in.’ Only the stup and camp-followers ever fit neatly into any pigeon hole.

  • Jon

    Good point. The label on my new pair of trousers tells me where it was made, what fabric is employed, who the manufacturer was and how I should wash and dry it.

    All very interesting and useful to know.

    But it will not tell me the most important thing of all, and the key reason I bought it.

    It doesn’t tell me just how splendidly wonderful I’ll look while wearing them.

    Labels leave out the most important bits.

  • Gerry

    So basically: the more educated you are, the more shades of grey there are. The more extreme your point of view, the more ignorant you are…

    Nothing is inherently good or bad, just the beliefs and opinions of people that make it so. And a belief and opinion is just that – a mere belief and opinion. No need to insult others or fight wars over it. Though God knows own many times that has been done before.

    The question of “why can’t we all just get along” is suddenly mooted by the question of “do we WANT to get along?”

    Anyway, I’m waffling, I’m outta here.

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    @ Gerry: No, I beg to differ. I don’t think there’s necessarily a correspondence between shades of grey and education, or extremism and ignorance. That assumption risks accepting the kind of moral relativism, ambiguity and policy impotence that afflicts so much political debate these days. It leads to what business-school types call “analysis paralysis”. When that happens in a company, it’s bad. When that happens in political debate, the consequences can be far more serious. Your comment, “nothing is inherently good or bad,” is a case in point. I don’t go along with that. One has to be able to make moral judgements and decisions in order to get anywhere. The alternative is unproductive. But it is equally unproductive when action gets denounced or an argument gets dismissed for lack of moral or rational perfection.

    One can hold strong, even extreme opinions — I do. That it is easy to shoot them down by making assumptions about the person or their argument that aren’t true or weren’t stated doesn’t make the opinion invalid.

  • Davef

    “Just look at him, in those colonial clothes! He must be a racist lapdog of British imperialism who thinks Indians are an inferior race!”
    …couldn’t you consider posting a picture of that great liberator from colonialism and anti-racist and defender against imperialism and the neo-clonial ambitions of the British, his Excellency Bob-from-next-door in his trademark traditional African Saville Row garb?
    I hear a whole bunch of dead Ancient Greeks are planning to sue (via planchette-attorney) him for his claim of inventing Democracy in Zimbabwe. They claim that he stole their intellectual propety to do so, including the bit about one man, one vote, excluding women and slaves. (Slaves = imperialist British lackeys – no real difference except slaves had to be fed or they lose value). He even nicked the bit about foreigners (barbarians!) being inferior simply because they weren’t Ancient Greeks, even if they were supposedly more advanced in other areas. 😉
    Plato et al would like to talk to you about inserting DRM (democracy rights management) into their product in future.

  • Scottster

    Hear! Hear!
    I don’t agree with all your views but I do agree with your reasoning.
    Nice post.

  • Claire

    You make an excellent point.
    There is a terrible tendency on this forum to get personal. Sadly, I suspect that I may have been guilty of this once or twice myself. It is difficult to stay objective when one is personally attacked, and I have on occasion sunk to the level of my detractors. I am suitably contrite.

  • pete ess

    Hey, look at that! When one sets a decent, thoughtful tone, the debate following it can be decent and thoughtful, too.
    Too often the beginning of the debate is inflammatory, igniting a tongue-lashing backlash (how’s that for a new phrase?).
    Is it extremism or populism? I tend toward blaming populism.

  • Solo

    Ivo, well written and I agree with the point you are making. I very seldom read these blogs anymore, because people tend to pick a fight rather than debate.

    PS. On a side point, I am apposed to the death penalty (it doesn’t work as a deterrent and is more expensive than life imprisonment) and towards abortion (except in special cases). But your view is interesting, you will rather take a chance on possibly terminating the person who will cure cancer , write a great symphony or be the next Mandela before he had a chance to live, than mistakenly execute the wrong person.

  • Ariel

    Ivo your argument, which I agree with, is unfortunatley contradicted by the Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory:

  • Brent

    Good article and wellreasoned, start on a high plane an dmos tpeople follow at that level and hopefully som eexceed it.

    We need to learn to judge and comment on the message not judge on who the messenger is striving to do and say the right thing not the good correct thing


  • http://WeepforAfrica Icarus

    OK, so you _can_ have your cake and eat it.

    Or simultaneously agree and disagree with a position.

    But that still doesn’t make it right, or wrong.

  • Alisdair budd

    Unfortunately these days argumentation is usually used to deny reality or “prove” unreal propositions. In a psychotic construction of fantastical propositions disguised as logical progression.

    Such as “Zimbabwe had a free and fair election.” or “Madonna didn’t buy her baby from Malawi.”

    The length of argument usually depending on how much money you have to pay someone else to put up with it, or how desperate you are not to give in and admit you have made a mistake or are lying.

  • Jon

    Nobody agrees with a position they KNOW to be wrong. You agree with it if you know it’s right.

    And if you don’t quite know it’s right, but think that it might just possibly be, pending further investigation, you’ll reserve your judgement until you DO know for sure.

    Then it IS right. No ifs, buts and maybes.

    However, someone else may be equally convinced that it (whatever that is) is WRONG.

    That person is wrong of course. He has to be, if you are right.

  • Positive

    It is a pleasant change to follow mature reasoning and appreciation of arguments put forward, with no personal attacks or shallow, cheap shots. We are getting into dialogue mode here. How about changing blog to diablogue? :-)

  • Rory Short

    Ivo good post!

    In any social context there are many elements some useful elements and some not so useful elements and some downright destructive elements. We need to recognise that and then seek to identify the useful elements in any situation and support them.

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/ebrahimkhalilhassen Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

    Ivo writes “it does not improve the quality of discussion, on a blog or anywhere else, to assume that those who present an argument for debate necessarily accept it”. I would hope that people entering into public debate believe what they are saying, and get organised to convince society. Simply making a debate for the sake of controversy is fine, as it might just get us thinking. However, in the battle of ideas and of how our society develops, intellect without conviction, is simply not enough.

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    @ Ebrahim: Sure, I value people who can take a firm stand too. The point, however, is to read the qualifiers and caveats and not make unfounded assumptions about the person presenting the argument.

    When someone starts by qualifying: “This is the argument I believe X was trying to make”, one can surely have a discussion about the merits of that debate without being accused of accepting its most extreme and one-sided version? Or when you say, “There is an interesting argument that X, because Y,” one can surely debate its merits without necessarily accepting it?

    In fact, it’s a long tradition in debating societies that sides in an argument are arbitrarily assigned. You get to defend whichever side you draw, whether you agree or not. Your conviction, after all, is entirely irrelevant to the validity of an argument.

    And even when someone does state their conviction, it seems more productive to argue the merits of the case if you disagree than to resort to schoolyard insults, moral outrage or simplistic labels.

    @ Positive: That’s an excellent name for a blog, but only because of the similarity (and implied reference) to “diabolical”.

  • BenzoL

    very philosophical indeed. Like it but not through my keyboard :-))

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/ebrahimkhalilhassen Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

    Ivo, thanks for the response. The point I am trying to make is that you, not only have to understand the other persons positions, but that the contest for ideas some ideas win and others do not. In fact, it is a staple of trade union education to role play the bosses position. Thanks for an interesting post.