“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.

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 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?

The 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.)


  • Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a research company. He specialises in the tech and telecoms industries, but keeps a blog on politics, economics and other curiosities on the spike


Ivo Vegter

Ivo Vegter writes and argues for fun and profit. He is a columnist, magazine journalist and apprentice model shipwright. In his spare time, he helps run a

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