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Volume 26.05
23 April 2007

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Equity, Not "Equity"; Truth, Not "Truth" - By Professor David Benetar

Professor Hall's comments respond not only to my Cape Times essay (reprinted here), but also to my inaugural lecture. I shall similarly not restrict myself to those of his comments printed here, but will also reply to his read remarks at the 'debate' between us on 16 April.

Professor Hall responds to my reasoned argument with a number of rhetorical moves. Indeed, by his own admission, he eschews "fixed sequential logic with irrefutable outcomes at each of its stages" and regards himself freed "from the shackles" of my "analytical prison". His implicit message is: "Don't worry if you dislike David Benatar's conclusion but you are unable to refute his argument; just dismiss his argument as ahistorical and decontextualised". The problem with this is that insofar as history and context are irrelevant, the argument is flawed, and insofar as they are relevant, no good argument could ignore them. Yet, Professor Hall offers no arguments to show that I ignore relevant considerations.

What he does is claim that my distinction between three varieties of affirmative action is an artifice because "there are no rules or guidelines for the work of [UCT] selection committees" that use the terms "tie-breaker", "strong preference" or "set aides". Consequently he denies that my typology is a "factual account of UCT policy or preferred practices". I never claimed that it was. I was mapping out the possible policies. However, some of these policies do indeed describe UCT's practices. What Professor Hall ignores is that a description can be correct even if this is not recognised by those whose practices are being described. For example, one might, act unfairly without recognising one's own actions as unfair.

By the same token, simply because one describes one's own actions in a particular way does not mean that that description is accurate. Thus Professor Hall's insistence than UCT practices 'equity' rather than 'affirmative action' is unhelpful. There are such things as euphemisms. Describing something as equitable does not make it so. His allegedly contextual and historical comments - about the United States and South Africa - do not affect this. Many African Americans, for example, would vigorously deny his claim that US affirmative action policies "may not be aimed at redress for past wrongs" and must instead be based on present disadvantage.

Professor Hall misunderstands me when he claims that I believe that "rectification" and "consequentialist" arguments are "mutually exclusive". They are logically distinct - they are different kinds of arguments. That does not mean that they may not both be employed by a single person. In other words, although they are indeed "apples and pears" they may be consumed by a single person. The point he missed, is that if both the apples and the pears are inedible, then nobody should consume either. Under those circumstances it is no good to say: "Since the pears are inedible, I'll eat the apples and since the apples are inedible, I'll eat the pears".

Professor Hall charges me with not saying what I mean by 'race'. However, it is precisely because I take 'race' to be a pseudo-scientific concept that is wielded with absurd implications, that I reject it. It is thus not I but those who defend 'race'-based policies who need to define this term.

In offering UCT's understanding of 'race' Professor Hall misleads. He denies that UCT uses "race as a biological type". Instead, he says, UCT uses "race as a historical and social construct, founded in shared histories, customs and values" and that 'race' is "shorthand for [a] cluster of experiences, perceptions and abilities". This is utterly false, at least if we are to judge by UCT's actual policy and practices. This is borne out, for example, by the fact that UCT administrators routinely classify people (including applicants for positions and existing members of staff) without the sort of knowledge of those people - their histories, customs and values, their experiences, perceptions and abilities - that would be necessary if Professor Hall were correct.

He also says that "there is no continuity between race as evoked in apartheid race legislation" and as evoked in UCT's equity policies. If that is so, the link between affirmative action policies that use 'race' in Professor Hall's sense and the injustice inflicted on the basis of the apartheid understanding of 'race' is weakened even further, making the rectification case for affirmative action less plausible.

When Professor Hall says that we need to use 'race' (in his sense of the word) "to construct new knowledge paradigms and build innovative intellectual traditions" and to move "towards new standards of excellence" he restates, in different words, one of the arguments I examined and rejected in my lecture. That he simply restates the argument rather than responding to my refutation of it, is an example of how he fails to engage what I have said. When one is confronted with a refutation of an argument, one does not rescue that argument simply by stating it again.

Professor Hall claims that UCT's Equity Policy is clear and that this leads to "a set of clear expectations of selection committees". However, I have previously reported instances where selection committees were not clear on how much weight they should attach to 'race'. When I asked Professor Hall, in an appropriate University meeting, to clarify this he refused to do so. He seems to prefer selection committees' not knowing whether they should only attach tie-breaker weight to 'race' or whether it should be an overriding consideration as long as the candidate from the designated 'race' is minimally qualified. That preference for ambiguity is curious.

Professor Hall agrees with me that, to use his words, "slavish adherence to proportionality" of national and university racial demographics "would be absurd". Yet he is opposed only to tinkering with rough proportionality to achieve perfect proportionality. He does not engage my arguments that even vague proportionality is not itself an indicator of a more just society.

One final rhetorical move that Professor Hall employs is to taint me by association. Although he is careful, in places, to clarify that I do not hold the noxious views he describes, the mere association he makes is poison to undiscerning minds, of which there is no shortage.

Professor Hall, like the person who chaired the debate between him and me, is obviously suspicious of truth. He accepts only 'truth', not truth. Although not uncommon among the so-called post-modernists, this is nonetheless a confused view. If there is no truth, but only 'truth' why get so worked up in response to somebody else's 'truth'? If what I say is simply my 'truth', then there is no point in his trying to show me that I am mistaken. Unlike some people, I am not allergic to truth. I do not claim to have it, but I do think it is worth pursuing and that evidence and reason are the means to it. Moreover, I am committed to equity, but not to 'equity'.

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