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Affirmative Support

4 Jun 2007 - 12:45

By Michael Rolfe

You remark in the last Monday Paper that you did not print any letters in support of David Benatar because you received none. I regret, then, not taking keyboard in hand earlier to applaud his tour de force of an inaugural lecture, the start of which was delayed by trying to cram into a large and overflowing lecture hall what was comfortably the biggest audience I ever saw at such an event.

The lecture was of a piece with Prof. Benatar's public presentations generally. That is, he stated all his premises, simply and clearly; and proceeded through careful, transparent and non fallacious argument to the conclusions they support. He then alone amongst participants of the debate that I have seen expressed his willingness to be convinced of other conclusions should his arguments be successfully attacked. It was a display of public exposition of an order that does credit to the University, a textbook example of how to proceed beyond textbook examples, and thus very compelling.

The mathematician satirist Tom Lehrer once sarcastically remarked, "It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee house or a college auditorium and come out in favour of the things that everybody else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on." Prof. Benatar got up and spoke truth to power, and has subsequently stuck to his politically incorrect guns through responses that included ad hominem attacks and knee jerk reactions to what he didn't say. This is inspiringly courageous (and vastly more engaging than familiar faces rising at question time to repeat, unbuttressed by comparable argument from premise to conclusion, the tedious litany of orthodoxy).

It was the Vice Chancellor, I think, who remarked at Prof. Benatar's lecture that it is the business of universities to assert truth. Truth, yes. But not truthiness. "Truthiness" Merriam Webster's Word of the Year for 2006 is a word coined by American TV satirist Stephen Colbert to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively, instinctively, or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts (cf. Orwell's "bellyfeel" in 1984). Truthiness is a feature of many of the responses to Benatar. This is a shame: asserting truth does the University credit; asserting truthiness does not.

Affirmative Action or "equity", as UCT calls it is a subject that rouses passions in both breast and discourse. However, if a conclusion is correct, it should be possible to construct a dispassionate a priori argument that supports it. It remains to be seen who wins the debate, but Prof. Benatar has won the argument.