Written by: Ryan Rutherford

Not long ago I had an all too dishearteningly common online interaction, one that provides as good an entry as any into a discussion attempting to contrast those elements constitutive of ideal discourse with the ignoble forces militating against its realisation.

More importantly, these starkly discrepant approaches possess ramifications beyond what might at first blush appear to be an academic exercise in the etiquette of intellectual engagement.  This extended reflection was prompted by the fallout from an article I posted on Facebook by a British legal scholar critiquing the ANC’s intention to expropriate land without compensation as a means to redress historical injustice.

The piece made mention of the importance of private property and the ANC’s binding commitments to various international statutes protecting this fundamental right.  The debate that subsequently ensued, involving a personage with whom I was “friends” solely on that social media platform, was thoroughly unpleasant, to write the least.  His initial salvo was to claim that whites lose all neutrality when discussing the land issue, and went on to accuse me of indulging in “white supremacist” thinking.  Throughout our exchange, this self-proclaimed academic never once addressed the substance of any of the points made by the legal scholar, nor any of those I volunteered to elaborate upon my views in furtherance of trying to have a meaningful debate.

Instead, I was subject to increasingly deranged vituperative abuse and the repeated imputation that my worldview stemmed entirely from my racial identity. 

This deeply frustrating exercise represents in microcosm what is the increasing norm in South African political discourse, with the land issue often providing the emotive spark facilitating the sharp slide into racialist degeneration.  When Alf Lees of the Democratic Alliance denounced bank nationalisation as a “mad idea” in Parliament, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi took umbrage at being criticised by a white man.

The demagogic leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, launched a campaign to unseat Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, Athol Trollip, because the DA refused to support expropriation without compensation, consistently emphasising that he is targeting Trollip because he is a white man, and declaring in a speech that he wants to “cut the throat of whiteness.”

Former ANC Secretary General, and current Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, told a conference gathering that some white farmers were “greedy” because they were opportunistically buying up land when it became available.  How dare they?!  This is just a very limited summary of the kind of race-inflected sentiments regularly spewed forth from major politicians, with Malema being the worst offender by some margin, but certainly not alone in his race-baiting antics.

What my experience with that Facebook fanatic and the vile pronouncements of these political figures have in common, is that they are engaging in a classical logical fallacy known as an ad hominem.  They are directly attacking a person, that is, rather than the substance of their ideas.  Considering the explicit racial dimension to these attacks, and the general tenor of hateful vitriol directed against whites that appears ever more pervasive in this country, Malema and co are in addition peddling the kind of imbecilically vicious racist pabulum that purveyors of identity politics have so insidiously perfected.

While the identity politics brigade are particularly prone to subverting even the minimal standards conducive to meaningful discourse, they are certainly not alone, thus it is perhaps worth tarrying a moment on the basic template that should underpin good argumentational form.

An elementary point of departure in this regard is the notion that one either has good reasons for believing something, or one doesn’t.  Therefore, screaming that one’s interlocutor is a racist or a sexist or an ignoramus because they may hold contrary beliefs, or even for simply asking one to justify one’s beliefs, is not providing reasons, nor presenting anything that can even charitably be described as an argument.  And yet this is so often exactly how “conversations” proceed on the Internet, a medium of ostensibly unparalleled world-inclusive communication, whether referring to Facebook, Twitter, or any other cyber locale where large numbers of people digitally congregate. To reiterate, and taking only a random sampling, if one believes in god, the wonders of the free market, that 9/11 was an inside job, that women are smarter than men, that Trump is the best president ever, that Richard Dawkins is a racist, simply stating so, no matter how heartfelt one’s commitment to any of these views, is simply never good enough.

The onus is always and everywhere on the person making a claim to buttress it with evidence and logical reasoning.  To consider it rude or offensive to be expected to provide justification for one’s views is at best hopelessly oversensitive and, at worst, not understanding the rudiments of sound argumentation.

But as my afore-detailed experience makes clear, often something far less innocent is at play in derailing potentially fruitful exchanges.  The pernicious ulterior motive I have in mind is rooted in identity politics, a worldview that admittedly allows for a range of differing interpretations, but can usefully be defined as a perspective holding that a person’s essential characteristics, or indeed the most important traits defining them, are inextricably bound up with membership in some collective.

That we are all members of multiple groups, in the present author’s case those with a Y chromosome, the cis-gendered club, and the Caucasian fraternity, among others, creates some obvious problems, but intersectionality has thankfully stepped into the breach to provide a kind of arithmetic to calculate what combination of groupings renders someone the winner in the victimology Olympics.

But I digress.

Identity politics can be, and is, employed by members of both dominant and previously marginalised groups, whether referring, in the American context, to the white identity politics that helped propel Trump to the White House, or the black nationalism promoted by the Black Panthers.  In South Africa, the AWB and EFF are both ardent proponents of identitarianism, although obviously from different ends of the racial spectrum.  Giving such salient credence to group identity, whether as a defence mechanism for the one making claims or deflecting those made by others, is the surest way to reduce conversations to mere unhinged mudslinging contests where someone’s statements are not seen as a good faith attempt at putting forward legitimate reasons for thinking in a certain way, but instead as intrinsically tied to their race, gender, national identity, sexual orientation, or any other perceived identity marker.

As my own aggravating encounter with that putative academic so vividly showcased, one of the most poisonous aspects of adopting identity politics as a guiding epistemological principle is that it reduces everyone else to the same lowly level of unthinking anti-intellectualism.  To such beings, it is quite inconceivable that anyone could see the world differently, and might genuinely be interested in conducting a good faith discussion about ideas.  I, too, simply had to be motivated primarily by my identity, and to perceive all others as similarly inspired, as this was how he monomaniacally navigated the world.  The intellectual and moral corruption, not to mention outright totalitarianism, entailed by this outlook can hardly be overstated.

Subscribing to an identitarian prism is not just intellectually lazy, dishonest, unfair, inhumane, regressive, and reactionary, among other deplorable attributes, but has potentially far-ranging social ramifications.  This is particularly problematic in South Africa where centuries of stringent racial categorisation, the most pernicious form of identity politics, was used to justify egregiously oppressive policies directed against the majority black population.  After this shameful history, for such a society to again reduce everyone to their membership in a racial group is to seriously court repeating, if not in important respects risk dangerously emulating, the mistakes of the Apartheid government, from which nothing good can follow.  Trafficking in identitarianism is not just dangerously reductive, a sure-fire way to atrophy one’s capacity for critical thinking and self-reflection, the cornerstone of thinking in any meaningful sense, but is liable to engender an irrational and overarching hatred of the other that will almost inevitably culminate in violence or physical oppression, possibly on a vast scale.  Witness the sickeningly destructive antics of Fees Must Fall, the outrageous acts of vandalism and land occupations and looting stoked by the EFF in the last few months, or, further afield, the stomach-churning carnage witnessed in Charlottesville last year when white supremacists, the ideological mirror image of the FMF/EFF types in this country, went on a brutal rampage, leading to the death of a young woman and injuring many others.  These actions were not mere aberrations, but stem inescapably from an underlying weltanschauung positing the primacy of some kind of collective identity over a commitment to appraising everyone as an individual.

If South Africa is ever to transcend its seemingly intractable fixation on racial collectivism, the same conceptual scaffolding that has for so long brought so much grief and suffering, not to mention warped the moral sensibilities of all those beholden to this toxic identitarian strain, a thoroughgoing commitment to evaluating a person’s arguments and intellect will have to be vigorously pursued and consistently upheld.  In short, we should ardently and unapologetically advocate for a culture where the content of someone’s character means everything and their melanin quotient means absolutely nothing.