Defend Truth


Mind over matter – and knowing the difference

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

“Rabbiting” is a delightful word, which can mean either reckless procreation or mindless babble. Both connotations apply to the explosion of commentators and analysts – especially in matters political – where it has become too easy to fall into the narcissistic trap of believing what’s on your mind really matters.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying a round of correspondence and debate on some nebulous and easily abused topics including transformation and ubuntu. Every society has its grand narratives, especially in political discourse – and we can no doubt expect a significant increase in analysis and commentary on some of these as we draw closer to Mangaung and the ANC’s policy conference.

While it sometimes seems a little too easy be recognised as a political analyst, the sort of instant and inexplicable authority that some commentators in that area have isn’t much different to other aspects of our intellectual lives. As I’ve previously argued, if you’re willing to throw your weight around on public forums, the mechanics of the attention economy can quickly elevate your ideas, no matter how anodyne, into a privileged position.

But the more worrying thought that came up in the correspondence on ubuntu is whether any of this matters, in the sense that people’s minds are changed or the quality of debate improved. There is certainly lots of debate, but it’s unclear whether it has any effect outside of the filter-bubble inhabited by that (small) subsector of South African society which enjoys luxuries like advanced education and material comforts.

The idea that “we” (namely the loosely defined group) are simply talking to ourselves – and going around in circles while doing so – is a depressing one. But perhaps it was ever thus and will always be so, and those of us who think the role of the social critic valuable should simply lower our expectations. In South Africa it certainly seems the case to me that we can do little good until the basic education system leaves crisis mode.

Recognising this possibility doesn’t mean we should stop. Much like lecturing to a class of first-year students also often seems futile, if an opinion or analysis has a success rate larger than zero in provoking thought, it could still be doing more good than harm. But perhaps some of this activity should stop, especially in areas such as political analysis, where it’s quite easy (I’d think) to recognise that you’re inflating a few banal observations to the status of commentary.

The issue here is one involving personal virtue, including the humility that makes it possible to realise you’re not adding any value and to then decide to stop adding to the noise. Newspapers, radio stations and online media need content, to be sure, but their needs (and the audience’s apparent need for distraction) do not have to entail saying things just for the sake of doing so.

There are millions of blogs that we ignore because they say so little, and more importantly, that we don’t write because we have little to say. The former is a less significant issue here, in that if you’re incapable of developing some filtering mechanism for worthwhile content, perhaps you deserve to be drowning in an overload of content.

But as for the latter, it seems to me that many contributors to the more formal media spaces forget to hold themselves to the same standards as they would when deciding whether or not to “set up shop” as an independent blogger on politics or morality (where the most egregious forms of waffling can be found).

For contributions to political debate to be useful, it should be the case that you have some unique insight or access to key players, or that you’re well versed in political theory or law. For morality, your opinion is, in itself, no more interesting than anyone else’s opinion, especially if it’s formed in complete ignorance of decades of debate on the issue in question. We’re certainly not the best judges of the value of our own opinions, but if you’ve been invited to opine in public, that’s hopefully evidence of at least some ability to recognise that opinions are only useful when (to put it quite crudely) you think everyone should find your opinion compelling, for good reason.

Outside of commenting on matters moral or political there is the strange space of opinion columns more generally, such as the one you’re reading now. Those of us who contribute in this space are easy targets, but often justifiably so due to how easy it is to sink into the comfortable narcissism of thinking you have something valuable to say. It’s rare to see the sort of courage displayed by Jacob Dlamini in his final Business Day column, where he admits that he feels “like a stuck record, saying the same thing over and over again”.

I sincerely hope that I’ll be able to follow that sort of precedent when the time comes. But in the meanwhile, on behalf of one minor contributor to all the noise, apologies for what we sometimes think you might find value in reading. And to my fellow noisemakers, let’s remember that we can set ourselves a higher standard, even if that means becoming redundant – or recognising that we’ve long been exactly that. DM


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