Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fuddy-duddy equality = 0, critical equality = 1

Michael Osborn responded thoughtfully to my posts on affirmative action. It's perhaps worth quoting from his response at lenght.
Pierre's relativism is an invigorating and necessary corrective to the "false necessities" in which all institutions trade to legitimate and reproduce themselves. But the rejection of "standards" per se, like many other forms of thoroughly radical critique, rob us of our capacity for critique itself. As I have said, Pierre's suggestion that standards are nothing but tools of exclusion is inconsistent with the unflinching absolutism that animated our attack upon apartheid education.

Pierre's position enables him to evade the tragic choices that must sometimes be made between equal opportunity, on the one hand and what Benatar and his fuddy-duddy ilk call "quality" on the other hand. It is easy to sympathise with Pierre in this debate. The practical pressures of transformation, and the abuse of "standards" as a rationale for racism, make such a denial very tempting.

I can offer no solution to this quandary. But I am convinced that, if Pierre is suggesting that (outside perhaps of the "hard" sciences), there exist no clear standards against which to measure quality, his position is incoherent, Like it or not, every discourse and practice is constituted by its implicit standards, the provenance of which are indeed always arbitrary, partial, unfair, exclusive - or reflect a colonial imposition. (Didn't Foucault write that somewhere?)

That is not to say that all standards must not be interrogated. (Forgive the ghastly, but still trendy, term.) Indeed, in the best tradition of liberal pedagogy, unrelenting questioning of the most fundamental premises of a discipline must itself be part of that discipline. We are condemned to hack away at the branch upon which we stand - yet hope the branch never gives way under our feet. Unless we have a gift for self-levitation, we have no choice but to keep some (but not too much), faith in our branch.

Can't say I disagree with much in this post. In an extended version of my remarks on affirmative action published in the Cape Times, I do actually say that I am not pleading for an abandonment of "standards". If I get into that Boeing 747 I want to know that the pilot can land the machine without killing me. It's the easy assumptions about standards that I decry.


Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, I wish to offer the following proposal (hinted at by one of your other contributors): That academics who were advantaged in their initial appointments by virtue of their “race” forthwith resign and re-apply for their post. (It would be fair to say that most white academics appointed before 1994 were advantaged in their appointments, either directly, or by virtue of the fact that they enjoyed superior educational opportunities under the old order.)

Consider the advantages of this course:

1. It would dramatically accelerate the pace of transformation – something that virtually everyone agrees is intolerably slow, given the relatively slow turnover (10%?), in academia. (It would also abbreviate the period during which there will be a need for racial preferences in hiring; once blacks were more-or less proportionally represented on the teaching staff, the imperative for race preferences in appointments would be greatly diminished.)

2. It would carry immense symbolic weight. The example set by those who resigned would put radical transformation at the top of the agenda. A similar program might be taken up in other areas, business, the professions, the senior civil service, etc.

3. It would be more fair than limiting the application of AA principles only to new appointments. The burden of race-sensitive hiring practices would be spread across all white academics, not borne solely by the smaller group of new entrants, who came of age post-1994.

4. It would put beyond any doubt the credibility and commitment of those who tendered their resignations.

I suppose the principle objection to my plan is that it would be unacceptably disruptive of the institutions in which they took place, undermining essential institutional continuity. But that problem could be at least partially addressed by having resignations staggered over, say, a three year period.

A more serious objection would be that the step is premature. The pool of black applicants, some might say, remains too limited to fill a large number of simultaneously vacated posts. But one advantage of the plan is precisely that it would put that proposition – too often cited by opponents of transformation -- to the test. If indeed there were indeed not sufficient “qualified” black candidates for a given post, the white incumbent would be re-appointed, and perhaps commit to tendering her or his resignation in another five years, opening an opportunity for the next class of aspirant black academics.

Michael Osborne

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael. Clever one, but I am not nearly noble or selfless enough to resign my post. Of course, I have another escape route as I was promoted to Professor in 2001 when affirmative action was in full swing at my institution. And given the fact that Universities do not pay nearly as well as, say, government departments or the private sector, you are going to look far and wide to find a black person who would take my job....

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, I can introduce you to black law graduates, struggling to get articles or other employment, who would very willingly take your job. But then again, according to Professor Benatar, they would not be suitably “qualified.”

Would you not have to concede that you were significantly advantaged in your initial appointment by the fact that you are not “African”? If that be so, should you not, just as much as the younger generations of white aspirant academics, bear the burden of redress?

I cannot help thinking that beneficiaries of apartheid who demand vigorous affirmative hiring policies in their own institutions -- but without being willing to put their own jobs on the line – bear a faint resemblance to “chickenhawks,” those young Republican policy wonks who enthusiastically support the war in Iraq, but would never, ever, go so far as to pick up a rifle themselves. (You will recall one of the sublime moments of Fahrenheit 911, when Moore waddled around Capital Hill thrusting recruitment forms into the hands of Republican congressman, urging them to register their sons and daughters for the military.)

Michael Osborne