There is an ancient thought experiment designed by the Greek historian Plutarch, which captures the concept of identity in all its complexity. As the tale goes, Theseus, the mythical founder king of Athens, single-handedly slayed one of the fiercest and most evil creatures in all of Greek mythology, and returned home triumphantly on his ship. To honour this heroic feat, for 1 000 years Athenians meticulously maintained his ship in the harbor and annually reenacted his voyage. Whenever a part of the ship became worn or damaged, they replaced it with an identical piece of the same material. Eventually, there came a time when no parts of the original ship remained.
We are thus faced with the juxtaposition of two ships: the ship that Theseus originally brought back to Athens and the ship sailed by the Athenians 1 000 years later. While the two ships are visually indistinguishable, are they the same? Which is the true ship of Theseus? The question probes into our understanding of what we define as identity. How can every single part of something be replaced, yet it still remains the same thing? Is identity a persistent, enduring set of qualities, or rather a set of elements existing only in the present tense?
The frustrating answer is that both versions of the ship can justifiably and uniquely claim the title of Theseus’ ship, because identity is inherently complex. That complexity expands, however, when we begin to consider how the ship of Theseus reflects the paradox in which institutions across South Africa and the world find themselves.
The considerations behind the ship of Theseus are the same ones behind the question of whether institutions (and certain practices within them) should be reformed or abolished. If an institution seeking to transform or diversify replaces all its explicitly exclusionary or oppressive structures with a host of new, inclusive policy changes, does it remain that same problematic establishment? Or can it now become a new institution, a haven of equal treatment? Does a society founded on racism remain a racist society, regardless of what comes next? Can somebody who says something bigoted or does something socially and morally reprehensible ever be considered somebody outside of the person who did that thing or said those words (and thus holds those beliefs)?
Invariably, applying Plutarch’s paradox to any institution or government body grossly simplifies the matter. It does, however, provide an incredibly useful framework through which to understand the central tensions between those who hold power and those who speak out against them and the structures they represent.
For many, if not all, prominent South African private schools, the year 2020 especially would have seen them faced with this same paradox. Schools, along with most other institutions, have faced growing and continuing pressure to decolonise and transform. Yet the word transformation details a journey — a transition from X to Y — which schools seem to be somewhere in the middle of. But what does that endpoint look like? When can we conclusively say that a school has transformed itself and become truly inclusive? When can we conclusively say that an institution (or indeed a country) has truly decolonised itself?
I guess it’s here where the words of Angela Davis become incredibly pertinent: “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you now have some black faces and brown faces… Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist, misogynist, as it was before”
It goes without saying that entire institutions are more complicated than a single wooden ship, but there are parallels that resonate between the two. One of the features that the paradox of Theseus’ ship seeks to imagine is whether the original identity of the ship has endured over time. Now there has been progress made to move away from the colonial, racist schools of the 20th century and that shouldn’t be ignored — good work has been done and is being done. Yet there is still evidence that those undertones remain. It is also true that not all the exclusionary policies and sentiments that currently exist were founded on the original establishment of these institutions. As each institution seeks to grapple with the nuances behind this journey toward “structural transformation”, the ship of Theseus paradox presents pressing and fundamental questions which cannot be ignored.
Do subtle shifts in policy undo the core logic and sentiment behind the societal environment of a school? Yes, policy change matters and it is vital to transformation. But the conception of those policies is equally if not more important. The difference between the new parts and the old parts of Theseus’ ship is not the only consideration which defines its identity, and in the same way, the identity of an institution does not solely rest on its policies. Some people argue that for these institutions to truly decolonise, they need to be picked apart from the roots. Others see true structural transformation being realised through a series of gradual, persistent steps. Whatever the process looks like, let me submit to you that the essential questions posed by Plutarch’s paradox need to be confronted head on for these institutions to truly claim new identities.
In this piece, I have proposed far more questions than I have answered. Likewise, after a thousand years, the Athenians were still thinking about which was the actual ship of Theseus. In this same way, we must think long and hard about what change truly does to our collective identities. Schools especially ought to confront their pasts, critically engage with their present, and begin adjusting the sails on the voyage into the future. Whether they are one thing or another will, I sense, always be held up for debate. What will be evidently clear, however, is whether not concerted efforts to change are being made and whether or not all are onboard.
This piece was published through a partnership between Thought Leader and youth platform Ukuzibuza.com to acknowledge young voices during Youth Month.