Danger of ‘rationalist conceit’

POSER: The courts should be used to decide on the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT, says the writer, not through majority voting involving a largely white alumni.

POSER: The courts should be used to decide on the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT, says the writer, not through majority voting involving a largely white alumni.

Published Mar 25, 2015


Xolela Mangcu

Calls from the university administration on students to resolve the question of the removal of the Rhodes statue through rational deliberation are getting more strident by the day.

These calls are based on a particular epistemology of scientific rationality that has proven to be bankrupt when it comes to the great moral questions of the day.

I point to the dangers of this “rationalist conceit”, as Patric Chabal puts it in his book, The End of Conceit, a conceit that proceeds along several inter-related arguments or, more accurately, prescriptions.

The first prescription is that the protesting students must take the views of other stakeholders into account. These stakeholders include the very same, largely white Senate and Council who recently abolished race-informed affirmative action, despite the objections of black staff and students.

That episode was the grossest form of racial majoritarianism I have seen in this country since 1994. It confirmed the moral duplicity of white liberals who insist on the protection of minorities while enforcing racial majoritarianism in the spaces they dominate.

I will leave it to your imagination what taste that leaves in the mouths of many blacks. Suffice to say, our white colleagues have not exactly given black staff and students reason to believe they will exercise their majority vote in our interest.

Given that black people were excluded from UCT for decades, it also does not require rocket science to figure out the racial composition of that other constituency – alumni. And I am not exactly sure why alumni should be involved in this matter at all. What’s the next step – are they going to tell us what to teach as well?

The second conceit is that universities are sites of rational deliberation. This ideal of pure reason has long been repudiated by political philosophers. And, as UCT anthropology professor Francis Nyamnjoh more recently put it, “this epistemology’s logic is simple and problematic: it sacrifices pluriversity for university and imposes a one best way of attaining singular and universal truth. The epistemology has resulted in social science disciplines and fields of study that have sacrificed morality, humanity and the social on the altar of a conscious or implied objectivity that is at best phoney”.

The third conceit is that UCT can split the difference by moving the statue elsewhere on campus. Given our own recent history, I would have thought the university knows that half-measures don’t work when it comes to dealing with evil.

If what UCT vice-chancellor Max Price is quoted as saying about Rhodes is true, it would be the most unfortunate oxymoron of this whole saga: “He was a great man, did many things and did them well. He was a great politician and an imperial governor of the Cape. What he achieved was unusual and he was a self-made man. But the attitude and means he used to get there were not right. He was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.”

No, Mr Vice-Chancellor, this is not a balancing act. Can you imagine anyone saying Hitler and Stalin were great because they got the trains to run on time and that the only problem was that they were dictators? Or that they were products of their time?

Rhodes’ racism was not a character fault of an otherwise great man. He was a cruel and vicious power-wielder and that informs everything he did. Power is simply not the same thing as greatness, which is, by definition, a moral virtue.

Having first denied the centrality of race to our experience, UCT is now veering dangerously close to moral relativism on race. I had expected more of my white colleagues to be embarrassed by the university’s association with Rhodes. Alas, the fact that we can’t speak with one voice on something as morally clear-cut as this is a sign of the times. But it would also not be the first time white liberalism has been found wanting.

The fourth element of this enlightenment rationality is that the protesters must be logically consistent. If they remove Rhodes from UCT, they must also come up with a solution for Rhodes University or the Mandela-Rhodes scholarships. Do not fall for the trap – those institutions will find their own solutions.

Struggles are by definition full of contradictions. During the struggle against apartheid, we rejected the homeland system as an illegitimate apartheid creation and yet black people woke up to work in those governments every day. As Walter Sisulu said about the homelands: “We have to shape our tactics on concrete circumstances.”

Also, there are few arguments more patronising and disrespectful of the historical experience of black people as the constant reference to the Mandela-Rhodes scholarship, as if the few black individuals who get that scholarship are a measure of recompense for the evil Cecil John Rhodes visited on black people.

The fifth argument enamoured of liberals is that we should not wipe out history. This is probably the most disingenuous argument. Universities are the last places where history is likely to be forgotten. I just cannot imagine anyone at UCT teaching any course without reference to the history of this country. Also, these latter-day historical preservationists had no problems with the erasure of black history under Rhodes and his apartheid successors.

I can bet today’s historical preservationists would have celebrated the pulling down of the statues of Lenin, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. So if the statue of the Butcher of Baghdad ought to have come down, why apply a different standard to the Butcher of the Cape?

The sixth conceit is that the cry of the students is not racial. Max Price makes much of the fact that this is a multiracial protest.

Let us be all clear about what this movement is: a black-led student movement with white students who have accepted there are times when those who feel the pain must lead. That modesty on the part of white students is a lesson for the university in dealing with blacks.

Now I want to suggest an alternative approach to the students. They should insist that this matter should not be decided through majority voting.

Voting is not the only way democratic societies reach decisions, and that is why we have courts.

The liberal principle of judicial review was invented for precisely this moment: to protect us from what Harvard Law professor Lani Gunier called the “tyranny of the majority”. There is simply no such equivalent in our decision-making bodies to review the majoritarian decisions of council and senate, for instance.

In his famous essay Telling Your Story, Marshall Ganz says something that the students should take seriously. In the face of overwhelming majorities, they should hold on to their story. Truth-tellers are rarely in the majority in any given society.

The society will ultimately come round to your story. In all you do, my dear students, keep Steve Biko’s words in your mind: “We know what the problem is, and we will stick by our findings”. As Ganz, who headed Barack Obama’s organising efforts in 2008 and now teaches at Harvard, puts it: “Stories not only teach how to act – they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart of our emotions. And it is what we feel – our hopes, our cares, our obligations – not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act.”

To my fellow professors at UCT, we can allow this to be the most perilous moment in the history of the university by sticking our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, or we can make it the most creative by listening to our students. We should be able to foresee a racial civil war in this country in the same way we should have foreseen the anger of our students.

Instead of being blinded by personal privilege in the here and now, we should do all we can to avert the unravelling of our society, by taking seriously the stories of black people. No amount of clever argumentation will help us tackle the challenge.

l Xolela Mangcu is Associate Professor of Sociology at UCT

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