Please, Katie Hopkins and co, keep your culture wars out of South Africa

Before Jacob Zuma resigned the presidency last Thursday, South Africa was in the news for an altogether less promising reason. The British journalist Katie Hopkins went there two weeks ago, saying it was time to bring to the world’s attention the ongoing murder of white farmers. She and her supporters claim the mainstream media have ignored the subject, because violence against whites does not “fit the narrative” imposed on a nation still synonymous with apartheid.

As a South African expat – and one who has relatives among those murdered on the farms – seeing the antagonistic, egomaniacal Hopkins take up this story was somewhat nightmarish. I don’t know if there is, as Hopkins says, some conspiracy of silence surrounding these crimes, but this much seems clear: she has no idea of the complex and volatile political landscape in which she has chosen to meddle. The episode is worth examining, though, because it highlights the wider danger of a culture-wars style of politics being exported from first-world countries to South Africa. This, if it continues, would be a disaster.

The farm murders are difficult to discuss objectively, since the government doesn’t keep relevant statistics, and consequently estimates can be politicised and based on unreliable data. But the Transvaal Agricultural Union – the only organisation with continuous statistics since 1990 – gives a high estimate of around 2,000 killings on farms and smallholdings in that time, not all of which involve white farmers. Then again, numbers are not really the main issue; there are dozens of poverty-stricken communities throughout South Africa with a higher murder rate (the national average, again unreliable, is 34 per 100,000). Rather, what makes the farm murders noteworthy is the nature of the killings, as well as the apparent complicity of police and, perhaps, elected politicians.

The issue of rural land ownership is a deeply acrimonious one in South Africa. For centuries, farming has been synonymous with the culture of the Afrikaners – the descendants of mostly Dutch colonists who, via the National Party, implemented apartheid from 1948-1991. “Boer,” the colloquial term for an Afrikaner, literally means farmer. In the post-apartheid era, the fact that much farmland has remained in the possession of Afrikaners, and of whites generally, has become a political ulcer for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

Groups such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters advocate the confiscation of white-owned property, and ANC politicians right up to former president Zuma have echoed their incitements to violence. The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has already stated his intention to expropriate land from whites.

It’s not without justification, then, that Hopkins speaks about politicians creating “a frame of reference” for attackers, and for the police to turn a blind eye. Political or racial motivation seems especially possible given that, while many of the farm murders are professional executions to facilitate the theft of firearms and cars, many others are gruesome torture-killings accompanied by rape. One of Hopkins’ sources claims the police have actually organised and armed attackers, and frankly, given the levels of police corruption in South Africa it would be surprising if this was not the case.

Hopkins’ reporting, however, is a stream of cheap sensationalism. In one video, titled “Shots Ring Out,” she is interrupted mid-broadcast and sent sprinting back to her jeep as her security detail begins firing their handguns into a nearby verge. Only at the end of the two-minute clip are we told this was merely a drill. Bad timing I suppose. While in South Africa, Hopkins also chose to reveal on Twitter that she is taking ketamine for medical reasons, allowing her to then scold the media for being interested in her drug use rather than her stories.

Much worse than this, however, is that Hopkins focuses on the race angle to a dangerous degree. Her framing of the situation on the farms – and of herself as a crusading “little white woman” – flirts with the suggestion that we should sympathise with the farmers because they are whites. Only in one instance does she give any indication that the farm murders are taking place within a complex web of social and political tensions, and that is when she considers the servile conditions many of the black agricultural labourers continue to endure.

But to understand why Hopkins’ intervention is not just stupid but in fact reckless, we need some more context. South Africa is currently at a crossroads of sorts, arrived at by the ebbing-away of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid policy of reconciliation. Mandela managed, at least rhetorically, to insist that progress be measured by the material circumstances of the population at large, rather than as a competition between groups. In a nation with eleven official languages, long carved into four racial categories by apartheid bureaucracy, this was quite an achievement. Nor was its value simply to forgive whites: no one benefits if the government can evade responsibility by deflecting blame onto the old oppressors (consider former president Zuma dismissing the notion of corruption as “a Western paradigm”).

But the promised material improvements have not been forthcoming – especially not under Zuma’s crony regime. A huge part of the African and Coloured populations continue to live without basic sanitation, education, or law and order, while South Africa maintains the highest levels of inequality in the entire world. Unemployment stands at 27%, with youth unemployment double that, and a large majority of managerial positions are still held by whites. The much-vaunted black middle class remains vanishingly small.

In these circumstances, inviting the world’s excess anger and resentment to be aimed vicariously at South Africa is something akin to playing with matches at a petrol station. The last thing the country needs is for its tensions to be compounded by foreign ideological agendas. This process is already underway at the other end of the spectrum, where the university-educated population has begun to adopt ideas from American seminar rooms. There have been demonstrations over offensive historical monuments, discussions about whether white men should have the vote, and all the standard linguistic nitpicking and Foucauldian sermons on power.

The farm murders are a travesty, and they deserve to be recognised as such. By all means let them be brought to the world’s attention. But it really does matter how this is done, and even who is doing it; encouraging South Africa’s politics to become focussed on racial and cultural identity will not be good for farmers, for the millions with urgent economic needs, nor for anyone else. Those pursuing culture wars in secure Western countries, whether from the right or the left, would do better staying out of it.

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?


 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse.

It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking place online – an argument that is now spilling over into demonstrations, acts of violence, and other culturally charged spectacles. While it is important to resist the calls for censorship coming from campuses, boardrooms, and the op-ed pages of newspapers, it’s also important to realize that these, too, are symptoms of that explosion in public discourse. For it is precisely the sensation of shaking and sputtering that makes people long for society to be handled like a carefully engineered machine.

Countering this need for order is the real challenge facing advocates of free speech, and their conventional manual isn’t offering much help. It demands that the right to express unpopular, or even anti-social opinions must be defended – but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny, this stance is easily portrayed as anti-social in itself. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that toxic ideas are best heard and examined, or that speech is the final bulwark against violence, when men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.

In this desperate position, free speech defenders have come to sound like the resentful father who scolds his son for being too soft. “They’re just words!” they insist, “Learn to argue back! This is about facts, not feelings!” These jibes are aimed particularly at the cultural left, whose attempts to remold science, language and thought carries the unmistakable whiff of puritanism. However, the popularity of this agenda reflects a wider desire, especially among young people, for a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right. Nor is this surprising, in an atmosphere of pernicious skepticism that makes meaningful consensus impossible.

Therein, I think, lies the ultimate weakness of the free speech position today. It is similarly anchored in a delusional vision of society: that of the rational, truth-seeking forum for debate. The suggestion that there has ever been such a debate – or worse, a golden age where everyone started with the same facts – appears to be a case of liberals drinking their own bathwater. Before the Internet, as one recent blog put it, “exposure to awkward political views were limited to tense exchanges at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when relatives shared their strongheld offensive opinions over the punch bowl.” The business of public discourse, meanwhile, was handled by established institutions, such as the press and media, popular arts and entertainment, politics and academia.

The way these institutions facilitated discussion is worth considering. Since everyone needed access to them, they developed certain norms – or informal rules and rituals, if you prefer – which provided the common ground for different perspectives to meet on equal terms. Thus, adopting the language and trappings of a print magazine, or of popular cinema, or an academic paper, gave an air of familiarity to even radical views. These norms also included unwarranted prejudices and taboos, of course, so discursive institutions have always had a problem with exclusivity. However, since they enabled a measure of free discussion, they could be reformed. There’s a reason we measure social progress by how successfully our institutions have incorporated new voices.

It is the case that everywhere we can argue and disagree without causing lasting hostility – in pubs, at dinner parties, and in families – there are norms regulating our behavior. On a wider, societal level, these become more like moral and aesthetic frameworks, the likes of which were essential in husbanding the growth of public discourse to begin with. Larry Siedentop has detailed how the principles of reason, equality and freedom of conscience could only emerge as a result of the Catholic Church’s firm grip on medieval Europe. Likewise in the 18th century, when The Spectator was bragging that it had “brought philosophy out of closets and libraries… to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and coffee houses,” a new fad was being promoted to make this reading public manageable. It was called “politeness.”

It’s true that social media has its own norms, but they are rather fragile, and generally operate within groups of more or less like-minded people. Indeed, it’s natural that rifts should appear in a space with radically diverse views, and none of the overarching norms that might have made them palatable. In the absence of such common ground, principles like granting your opponent the possession of reason and a free conscience are being eroded. Thus we see a good deal of amateur psychology, with large groups of people being suspected of confirmation bias or motivated reasoning. Even worse, we see paranoia emerging whereby individuals subside into categories of race, gender or social class—and it’s imagined that forces are advancing sinister agendas through ideologically possessed puppets.

Indeed, unfamiliarity and estrangement is the very essence of that machine-like view of society that is so hostile to freedom of expression. Yet there’s little that promoting free speech can do to solve this dilemma, and potentially a great deal it can do to make it worse. John Stuart Mill argued that the whole point of free speech is to interrogate our norms from as many angles as possible, so as to expose any erroneous ideas they might be sheltering. Not all free speech advocates subscribe to this rationalistic ethos, but in the present circumstances, they could end up there by default. At the very least, a commitment to free speech means being skeptical towards normative boundaries, since they are likely to prevent certain viewpoints from being heard. That said, as those viewpoints multiply, you will eventually run out of boundaries to draw.

Ultimately this brings us to a broader problem faced by secular liberalism, whose emphasis on the rights and interests of individuals tends to undermine social solidarity. There have been recent attempts to square this circle, notably by Jonathan Haidt. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt asked those who see society in individualistic terms to “recognise that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness,” and suggested they acknowledge the “binding” value of beliefs related to sanctity and loyalty. But as the philosopher Thomas Nagel commented, the interesting thing about this theory is where it falls short. Nagel points out that you can’t adopt beliefs simply because they are useful – they are only useful if you really believe them.

There are really no simple answers here. Liberal conventions such as free speech undermine the very social frameworks that they depend upon. But equally, you can’t impose a sense of community on a society from the top down. I’m inclined to agree with Karl Popper, then, when he emphasizes “the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us… to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, to accept responsibilities.” In the long run, maintaining freedom of speech will depend on persuading people to make that effort. But it will be a tough sell, and needs to be done carefully.

The article was first published by Quillette magazine on 19 October 2017

Is Empathy Good?

This article was first published by Quillette in February 2017

In 2009, the primatologist Frans de Waal published a bestseller called The Age of Empathy, in which he suggested that humanity might be rediscovering its propensity for cooperation and kindness. No longer would we be fooled by the myths of politicians and economists about our apparently selfish nature. He cited as evidence for this the recent election of a man who seemed to speak about empathy more than any other, Barack Obama. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” How much older and sadder the West seems today — its conversations about politics and ethics bitter and polarized, all basis for rational disagreement evaporating before our eyes.

And yet, de Waal’s claim that we are “pre-programmed to reach out” has not been dispensed with — in fact, many continue to believe that the world is awash with empathy. Only there is now a growing suspicion that this might actually bear some responsibility for our discord. In 2012, a collection of papers entitled Pathological Altruism signalled the start of a new trend of skepticism towards empathy and compassion. Behind it lay the claim, as radical as it was blindingly obvious, that precisely because empathy is an evolved mechanism, it might have unintended consequences in the modern world.

Since then, psychologists and sociologists have been exploring the dark side of altruistic behavior, especially with regards to political and cultural tribalism. Jordan Peterson and Christine Brophy have discovered that so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ tend to be high in empathy towards the vulnerable, but draconian towards those perceived to be a threat. Similarly, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have pointed out that partisanship flourishes in a “victimhood culture,” because people respond to appeals from those they identify with socially.

These seem like lessons for the left especially, but as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign showed, the right has its own sinister uses for empathy. Nationalists have long used the propaganda of victimization to foster in-group mindsets, and to motivate, in Jonathan Sacks’s phrase, “altruistic evil” towards outsiders and scapegoats.

Be all this as it may, the notion that what the world really needs is less empathy still strikes most people as absurdAre these not cases of too little, rather than too much empathy? Is the cardinal definition of empathy not to “place yourself in somebody else’s shoes”? How would our close relationships function without it? And above all, without the capacity to be moved by another’s suffering, how is good supposed to come into the world?

These questions point, more than anything, to an almighty confusion about how phenomena like empathy, compassion, and altruism work and relate to one another. For this reason alone, we should welcome the most direct assault on empathy to date, Paul Bloom’s much-discussed recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Let’s take that adage about “placing yourself in someone else’s shoes.” As Bloom points out, it confuses two things that don’t necessarily go together. One is cognitive empathy, or “social intelligence,” which means the basic ability to grasp someone else’s point of view. This is rightly valued. Bloom’s adversary, however, is what he sees as empathy proper: feeling another’s pain as though it were your own.

This kind of emotional or “affective” empathy is not voluntary, of course, but according to Bloom, nor is it a good basis on which to act in public life. This claim is based on two main observations. First, to embrace empathy is often to abandon perspective and rational judgment, meaning that “our interests fail to coincide with any reasonable assessment of where help is needed most.” And second, echoing some of the research I cited earlier, empathy is actually quite picky about which shoes it enters. It conforms to our existing prejudices, and leads people to seek harsher punishments for perceived enemies, finding some of its purest expressions in “us versus them” situations.

That empathy can be divisive should scarcely be surprising. How often do partisans seek “single identifiable victims” — whether mistreated welfare claimants or destitute veterans — to frame a particular agenda in emotional terms? Once a debate has become suffused with empathy, all appeals to the bigger picture are easily dismissed as callous. And worse, the consequences can reverberate far beyond the debate itself.

Arguably the great moral fiasco of our day, the Western response to the migrant and refugee crises in southern Europe, has shown all the shortcomings of empathy that Bloom describes. An image of a dead child washed ashore achieves a greater response than five years of mass-casualty shipwrecks, not to mention figures showing the displaced climbing into the millions. Since this is how we’ve learned to understand suffering, the urgency of the problem ebbs and flows with photogenic tragedies and compassion fatigue, leaving governments unsure of how they should act.

When action did come, it was grand, magnanimous — and shortsighted. Germany’s open invitation to refugees travelling through the Balkans was a balm for Europe’s conscience, but first-come first-served is hardly an effective policy for helping the most vulnerable. Moreover, the episode pushed the entire continent’s politics to the right, meaning that as the German government backtracks, refugees pile up in Greece where they can least afford to be helped. And through all of this, anyone suggesting we discriminate on the basis of need has been met with a bizarre insistence that it’s cruel to distinguish, for instance, between migrants and refugees. It’s almost as if good intentions are worth more than good outcomes.

This last point, however, gets at a deeper problem with the role of empathy in our culture — one that Bloom’s book misses altogether. His critique deals with empathy in and of itself, and makes only passing reference to substantive issues, like police shootings or the caprices of media coverage, that underscore particular points. But there is no such thing as empathy per se. Like any human phenomenon, it doesn’t exist outside of concrete cultural and historical situations. Bloom would not have much material if Westerners did not watch TV, possess more resources than Africans, feel guilt in certain situations, or recognize the worth of people they have never met.

Deep-rooted problems like culture wars and a failure to think practically imply that vicarious suffering, more than ever, is welcomed not as a motivation for good actions, but as an end in itself. In other words, empathy is jealously defended because of its value to the empathizer. This, in turn, might point to an atomized, morally perplexed society, much of whose emotional sustenance comes from an ephemeral stream of online media. The feeling of helplessness that arises from passively consuming distant events is now central to the relationship of the individual to the world. In this situation, expressions of empathy and disgust, with their attendant comforts of tribal solidarity, are often all that stand between you and moral estrangement from reality.

Bloom admits that empathy is probably okay in personal relationships, but harmful in the public sphere. How workable is this distinction when politics is personal, and the ideology is the new family? Before we even start to think about how something like “rational compassion” might translate into a meaningful system of values, we need to consider why empathy is in such high demand.


The Roots of Navajo Nation

This article was first published online by Vice with Camille Summers-Valli’s photographs on 9 Sep 2015

Big Mountain is a time-soaked corner of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, a high-desert plateau where the Hopi and Navajo tribes have lived for centuries—but the natives are being forced out by the US government in an eviction process which began 50 years ago and continues to this day. Also called Black Mesa, the plateau follows the outline of a prehistoric lake, and over the long millennia the life supported by the water decayed to form the largest coal deposit in the US.

The extraction of this coal began in the late 1960s after extensive legal wrangling by utilities such as Peabody Coal and WEST (Western Energy Supply and Transmission) to bypass the resistance of the Navajo and Hopi indigenous peoples, a process brilliantly detailed by writer Judith Nies in 2000A key figure in negotiations was lawyer John Boyden, who organized a Hopi tribal council that then hired him—he went on to simultaneously work as counsel for the Hopi and Peabody Coal. The councils of the two tribes—which did not necessary represent the majority of the natives—signed the first strip-mining leases in 1966, agreeing to royalties of 30 cents per ton of coal, a grotesquely substandard rate. Soon, a coal slurry pipeline and two generating stations were built by Bechtel, the engineering giant famous for projects such as the Hoover Dam.



Before large-scale mining could begin though, vast areas of designated reservation land—shared between the Navajo and Hopi—had to be cleared. Boyden achieved this by claiming loudly in the press that the tribes were engaged in a war over grazing rights, leading eventually to the partition of the shared land in the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974. The result of this bill was the state-enforced eviction of thousands of indigenous people from the area, mostly Navajo caught on the wrong side of the new division.

Today only a small group of mostly older Navajo continue to live permanently or semipermanently on Big Mountain, herding sheep and maintaining what elements they can of their traditional existence. Despite small victories, such as a 1996 federal court ruling against Peabody for violating the tribe’s human and environmental rights, the Navajo have been forced to spend the last four decades living as resistors against regular eviction attempts. This year has seen another escalation in livestock impoundments and confiscations, a tactic employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Hopi authorities to enforce the eviction order by making life unsustainable for the Navajo.

The mining activity has done serious damage to the Navajo and their culture, from the poisoning of the tribe’s groundwater to the bulldozing of its ancient burial grounds. Peabody Energy, now the world’s biggest private-sector coal company, continues to extract resources from the Big Mountain area. Water is pumped by Big Mountain coal via the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, into cities, orchards, and cotton fields across the Southwest. The ground, a life force at the center of the Navajo spiritual universe, is now the energy source for the desert oases of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.


Last September, the Obama administration agreed to a $554 million settlement with the Navajo to end a lawsuit alleging that the federal government mismanaged the tribe’s resources, but the people of Big Mountain are still going through hard times. In the last year, four of the remaining elders have died.

And yet, in her photographs from Big Mountain, Camille Summers-Valli captures something affirming, something enduring and vital, that still exists in this community. She documents the younger generations who were born in or relocated to the sprawling settlements of Navajo Nation—such as New Lands in eastern-central Arizona—as they return to Big Mountain to reconnect with their spiritual inheritance. They go, whenever they have the time and the means, to ride horses, help their grandparents raise livestock, and participate in the daily ceremonies and prayers that tie the culture to the land.

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