Lwazi Lushaba vs Anthony Butler: A reply to Jeremy Gordin

Mandla Seleoane takes issue with the journalist's reply to UCT's politics lecturer's open letter to his HOD

A Refutation of Gordin’s Refutation of Lushaba

Jeremy Gordin wrote a reply to Dr Lwazi Lushaba’s open letter to Prof Anthony Butler, which appeared in Politicsweb, 28 October 2016. In the interests of saving space, I shall dispense with pleasantries and go straight to the point.

The views expressed by some readers of Politicsweb, both on Gordin and on Lushaba’s pieces, confirmed for me the old adage that a man convinced against his will remains of the same opinion. Alternatively stated, their views were reminiscent of the ethic of journalists in another epoch: do not let the facts come in the way of a good story! I have therefore agonised about the utility of trying to conduct a debate on this medium.

Gordin insinuates upfront that Lushaba’s letter is “arrant, malicious, possibly dangerous codswallop”, and that it is “magisterially moronic”. For someone who presents himself as schooled on the technique of debate, and who insinuates that Lushaba is not, I thought it rather strange that he would start his response on such an insulting tone. But hey, what’s new about that? Wasn’t it, after all, Lushaba’s point that, as a black academic, he has to put up with such insults at just about every turn?

He proceeds and makes three declarations. One of them is that he is white. He states that in his understanding (of what? I ask) he is, by reason of his whiteness, incapable of understanding many things. I don’t know where Gordin derives this “understanding” from. Apart from saying that is the prevalent view in SA lately, he doesn’t say what, exactly, gives rise to this “understanding”. However I am willing to accept that he might have such an incapacity. His response to Lushaba is all the evidence you need for that. I am not willing to generalise his inability to all white people.

Gordin refers to present-day South Africa at least twice in his piece. He writes that the “prevalent mode of thinking in Seffrica right now” is that white people are not capable of understanding many things. And then he writes that “facts have become monumentally irrelevant” in present-day “Seffrica”.

Let us recall that earlier in his piece he calls himself “an aging Parkviewan scholar”. We might expect, then, that he would periodise this “present-day” South Africa he keeps on referring to pejoratively. But he does not. He leaves it open to the reader, therefore, to hypothesise when, exactly, this South Africa came into being. My hypothesis is that it came into being after the 27th of April 1994.

Let’s ask: what is the essential difference between present-day South Africa and the other South Africa? One answer will suggest itself more readily than any others: the other South Africa was governed by Caucasians (Gordin’s term) and the present-day Seffrica is governed by darkies!

I am quite sure the reader will have noticed the insinuation in Gordin’s article that Lushaba is racist. My reading of Lushaba was that he argued against racism. I am unable to read Gordin’s piece quite like that – how could I? In his view the South Africa governed by darkies has rendered facts monumentally irrelevant. The South Africa which is governed by darkies does not even have the ability to comprehend an elementary thing like white people being able to understand things! Speak about facts being monumentally irrelevant.

But what are these things we call facts? We sometimes refer to them as data. The term data is a derivative from the Latin word dare (the English would pronounce it dah-ray), which means give. When we speak of facts as being given, we mean they are there for anyone (who would see) to see them. That Jacob Zuma is the president of South Africa is a given, whatever else we may validly say about the man.

We could also approach facts as a matter for evidence. If I should state that Europeans arrived in Southern Africa at approximately the same time as Africans, such a proposition is not a given: evidence is needed for it before we can accept it as a fact. How does all of that apply to Gordin’s response to Lushaba?

Lushaba questions Butler’s statement that parents complained about the lecture where he invited #RMF activists, at two levels. Firstly, he wants evidence that there were indeed such complaints. Secondly, he argues that once the evidence is presented, we must dissect the complainants and look into their demographic make-up. He suggests that, after the evidence of such a complaint is presented, we must embark on another inquiry do parents of rural African students have access to Butler? Are they able to complain to him about what their children get taught and how that gets taught?

How does Gordin deal with these? He doesn’t really deal with Lushaba’s demand for evidence that there are parents who complained. He merely remarks that Lushaba implies that Butler is lying. Regarding the question whether rural African parents have access to Butler, Gordin writes: “Well, Dr Lushaba, if I know anything about Butler, I bet they do. If you have proof otherwise, you write and tell Max Price.”

There is, therefore, a blatant refusal to entertain the invitation to present evidence that parents complained. Gordin dismisses the invitation with the throwaway sentence “I do believe Butler is, for his sins, an English citizen and wondered whether Lushaba has studied the debating techniques of Donald Trump….”

Since Gordin has used some non-English phrases in his piece, a subject I will return to in a little while, I hope he doesn’t begrudge me if I follow his example. Logic students have a term for his type of argument – argumentum ad misericordiam. Instead of addressing the point Lushaba is making, he effectively calls upon our sympathy. He wants us to view Butler as a victim of a person who thinks like Trump. He presents Butler as a person who is being persecuted for no other reason than the fact that he is an English citizen, just like Trump questioned Barack Obama’s Americanness! The fallacy might do a lot by way of deflecting attention from the issue for debate, but it leaves the challenge to produce evidence for Butler’s claim exactly where it was before.

Logic students also have a term for the way in which Gordin deals with the second challenge raised by Lushaba – argumentum ad hominem! What he says, in effect, is that we can sit back and relax, knowing that Butler, being a person well-known to Gordin, will do the right thing! Anyone who has ever been disappointed by people he believed would do right, or who is simply prudent, will know better than to follow such reasoning, however seductive it might sound to the ear. We have to say, along with Ayi Kwei Armah, that the beautiful ones are not yet born. Therefore we cannot repose trust in people on the basis only of who they are or whom they are known by!

The reader may have noticed that I have italicised a portion of Gordin’s response with reference to the second issue raised by Lushaba: he says if Lushaba has proof that parents of rural African students do not have access to Butler, he should inform the Vice Chancellor. Therefore Gordin knows that things which do not belong to the category of propositions I have referred to as given, such things need to be proved. They need evidence. And he says if Lushaba has the evidence, let him present it to Price.

Please note that Lushaba’s argument was that once the list of parents who have complained about the pedagogical merit of what happened in the lecture to which he had invited #RMF activists, then it would be possible to assess the issue Gordin says he (Lushaba) must produce evidence of. The assessment would be made on the basis of a demographic disaggregation of the complainants.

Although, therefore, Lushaba does not assert the existence of any state of affairs, but merely says questions around that must be asked at a certain future stage, Gordin hurriedly demands evidence for a claim Lushaba has not yet made. On the other hand it appears from Lushaba’s letter that Butler has positively claimed that parents complained. But Gordin dismisses the call that Butler should produce evidence for his claim.

Rather interestingly, he doesn’t accuse Lushaba of wrongly attributing the claim to Butler

– he just sees it as effrontery to demand of Butler that he should support his claim with evidence. I would have loved to say this approach smacks of double standards, but in fact it is worse. It does violence to Gordin’s standing as a scholar, so much of it, in any event, as he might be entitled to claim for himself.

Gordin makes fun of Lushaba, and he relishes the fact. He says: “He does, as noted, write a prolix species of gobbledygook. Instead of writing ‘we’ll talk’ about X or Y, Dr Lushaba has to ‘discourse’ about it”. A little farther down he writes: “With a little effort, Dr Lushaba could have thrown off his colonial shackles and opted to discourse by means of a brief, clear, jargon-free narrative.”

I did not get the feeling, reading Lushaba, that he had written rubbish, nonsense, gibberish, drivel, claptrap or waffle (all these being notions conveyed by the term gobbledygook. I admit that Lushaba could have written more simply, but does the fact that he didn’t, make balderdash of his letter?

Let’s proceed on the basis that, even accepting that Gordin wanted, as he says quite explicitly, to make fun of Lushaba, he intended, nevertheless, to make sense in pursuing that objective. If I can validly make that assumption in his favour, then I would like to invite attention to a technique logicians occasionally use in order to expose faulty reasoning.

They say if an argument is constructed in a manner which seems compelling, though flawed, the answer is to construct an argument with the same form, but whose invalidity is more readily seen.

We could argue, then, that instead of saying ipso facto, Gordin could have said for that reason; instead of saying became de rigueur in Seffrica, Gordin could have said became fashionable in South Africa; instead of saying inter alia, Gordin could have said among others. Gordin did not express himself in the manner he could have. Therefore his text constitutes a species of gobbledygook. Would Gordin now be willing, on the strength of this argument, to accept that he wrote poppycock?

Gordin writes: “… the letter is an insult to human rationality and to the written English language – and consequently an insult to all of us”. He ends his epistle by suggesting that Lushaba is not fit to polish the shoes of the people from the slums he presents himself to be speaking on behalf of.

I didn’t feel that my rationality was insulted when I read Lushaba’s letter. On the contrary, I thought the letter was rational and that it called on us to reason out the things he referred to, and try and find solutions which make sense. My sense was that Lushaba is arguing for space in which we might have a negotiated and shared framework for judging the educational merit of teaching methods and aids which may be in dispute. My understanding was that he was arguing against an imposed framework which claimed hegemony over all others. I am willing to accept that his letter may be offensive to some, but that does not constitute an insult to human rationality.

About the English language, well, I don’t know whether English-speaking people should not perhaps be more reticent and modest. The only African word which Gordin has used in his article from the richness of languages South Africa has, is umlungu. Interestingly, that refers to himself. He has said nothing in his article from which we might infer his aptitude for, or proficiency in any African language save to show that he knows that in the Nguni languages a white person is called an umlungu. How wonderful it might be if he could demonstrate adroitness in at least one African language, side by side with his complaint about Lushaba’s alleged insult to written English!

He says Lushaba has insulted all of us. Who is all of us? What gives Gordin the right to speak for all of us? What gives Gordin the right to universalise his particular rationality, such as it may be, for human rationality? Why can’t he see that it is this habit exactly which gives credence to Lushaba? If Lushaba is not fit to polish the shoes of the children and adults of Masiphumelele, Imizamo Yethu, Gugulethu and other black slums in South Africa, as Gordin opines, we have to wonder about his own fitness to speak for all humanity.

Mandla Seleoane