Respect and Honesty: Let's Get The Facts Correct, by Prof David Benatar

21 May 2007

The UCT debate, sparked by the inaugural lecture of Professor David Benatar of the Department of Philosophy, continues unabated, as witnessed by the interest in two lectures hosted as part of the university's Respect campaign and the letters pouring in to Monday Paper over the past few weeks (not to mention those posted to newspapers and electronic discussion lists around campus). Here we run two responses by Benatar in reply to the letter by Associate Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and comments published in Monday Paper of 7 May (vol 26 no 7).

Associate Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela says ("Onwards [or backwards] into the 21st Century at UCT", Monday Paper 7-20 May 2007) that in the debate which she chaired between Professor Martin Hall and me, I "unilaterally decided to change the terms of engagement agreed on between" herself, Professor Hall and me. For this reason, she says, I violated the basic principle of "a respectful level of decorum in a debate between colleagues". This unsubstantiated and libellous accusation is deeply ironic, because it was she and not I who unilaterally decided to change the terms of engagement that has been agreed upon. (The evidence for this is contained in correspondence that can be found at the philosophy website ). The facts are these:

I had intended, at my inaugural lecture, to propose a debate, with a representative of UCT, about the content of my lecture. When Professor Hall contacted me in advance of my lecture inviting me to participate in a panel that would discuss various matters including my inaugural, I suggested to him that we have a special event devoted only to debating my lecture. He agreed to this and to being the person who would debate against me. He also agreed to the following format: after a brief introduction from me and response from him, he and I would have a discussion for 15 to 20 minutes. Thereafter the discussion would be opened to the floor.

Professor Hall then invited Associate Professor Gobodo-Madikizela to chair the session. It became apparent from an email she sent to Professor Hall and me that she mistook the invitation to chair as a licence to determine the terms of engagement. In reply, I indicated that Professor Hall and I had already agreed on the format of the debate and I explained why it was important that we adhere to the agreed plan. Professor Hall was not averse to her alternative, but he did not repudiate our earlier agreement. Associate Professor Gobodo-Madikizela insisted and I responded, again standing my ground.

Immediately prior to the debate, the three of us had a discussion which left the original plan unchanged, except that I would offer introductory words only if most of those present had not been at my lecture. After Professor Hall finished his 19-minute response to me, I replied in three or four minutes, forgoing the rest of my reply time in order that we could proceed to the interactive debate between Professor Hall and me. At this point Associate Professor Gobodo-Madikizela tried to cut me off and open the discussion to the floor. When I resisted this she became increasingly indignant. Throughout this interaction and in her closing comments, she manifested none of the impartiality one expects from a chairperson.

It is thus she who displayed a lack of respect by unilaterally departing from the agreed arrangements. I had requested this particular forum, Professor Hall and I had agreed on the format of the debate and Associate Professor Gobodo-Madikizela sought to depart from this. In seeking to transfer her transgression to me, she has violated a basic principle of ethics and academic discussion - the principle of honesty. She owes us all an apology.

Transforming the Affirmative Action Discussion

When I decided to speak about affirmative action (with special reference to university appointments) at my inaugural lecture, I knew that it would be controversial. However, because the prevailing orthodoxy about affirmative action is deeply problematic, there was a desperate need for it to be challenged. I was and remain aware of the sensitivities that surround affirmative action. I stressed the importance of rectifying injustice but argued that current affirmative action policies are not the right way to proceed. My argument was sensitive to reasonable concerns, and it was more nuanced than my critics either realise or acknowledge. Nevertheless, I could not allow my and other people's sensitivities to preclude a frank critical discussion of an important topic.

Almost all my critics have responded with textbook fallacies - the very sorts of reasoning errors that we should be teaching our students to avoid. Most disturbing and pervasive of these is the ad hominem argument. Instead of engaging my arguments, they have attacked the person advancing the argument. They immediately assume that my arguments must arise from my "race" or some associated insensitivity. Alternatively, they dismiss my views, as Dr Sam Raditlhalo does, as "right-wing politics". The debate about affirmative action will not reach the level befitting a university until it outgrows the immaturity of the ad hominem argument. Those peddling this sort of argument should be ashamed of themselves.

It is because so many of my critics cannot refute my arguments that they seek to dismiss them. Judy Favish was "shocked" that I "believed it was possible to evaluate redress mechanisms, such as affirmative action, purely on the basis of logical considerations". Is she recommending that we think about justice in ways that reason would preclude? As sympathetic as one may be to a victim - whether of apartheid or any other crime - determining the just response must be done rationally. That is why we have courts and judges. We do not simply defer to the victim, who is often, quite understandably, unable to think impartially about what justice requires (and prohibits).

Some critics, such as Roger Arendse, dismiss my arguments by denouncing them as decontextualised and ahistorical. Although these denunciations are easy to make, they are not so easy to justify. Thus, Dr Adam Haupt, for example, speaks of the class divide, but does not say why we should treat "race" as a proxy for class. Nazeema Mohammed says that my rejection of racial preference affirmative action constitutes a "failure to really reflect on the meaning of racism for South Africa". But here she confuses the problem to be solved and the means to solving it. We can all agree about the legacy of racism without thinking that racial preference is the way to respond to it, just as we can all agree about the tragedy of AIDS without thinking that beetroot, garlic and potatoes are the way to treat it.

Many of my critics are content either to trot out their own assumptions as though these constitute a refutation of arguments against them or to offer nice-sounding non-sequiturs. Thus Associate Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela waxes about the value of diversity, the importance of "our different perspectives" and the need "to really listen to others".

Given how badly she misunderstands much of my lecture, one wonders how carefully she was listening to me. She thinks that because I focus on "race", I have no qualms with affirmative action on the grounds of gender or disability. On the contrary, I chose to focus on "race" because I find the other forms of affirmative action even less defensible. Moreover, had I focused on gender affirmative action, I might well have been met with the response that I ignored the South African context in not focusing on "race"! Associate Professor Gobodo-Madikizela is also mistaken in thinking that I advocate placing "heavy weighting on class". I do think that class is more relevant than "race", and I spelled out some ways in which it should be considered. But that does not mean that I advocate putting the kind of weight on class that she wants us to put on "race".

Finally, she charges my lecture with a lack of originality. Although I obviously referred to and drew on the arguments of others, there were numerous arguments, insights, taxonomies and subtleties that were mine. She may have missed all this because she is looking only at the forest and not at the individual trees.

I look forward to the day when UCT can have a sophisticated debate about affirmative action. I fear, however, that if that day ever comes it will only be once the passions have subsided to the point that the debate will no longer be needed. In the interim, I encourage the hitherto silent ("black" and "white") opponents of those forms of affirmative action that presuppose racial classification and preference, to speak their minds.

Professor David Benatar
Department of Philosophy

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