Appeal to our sense of justice, not to our guilt – Steven Friedman

STEVEN FRIEDMAN: Appeal to our sense of justice, not to our guilt

‘This does not mean we should stop talking about race — we are still not speaking honestly about it’

Published:2011/09/07 07:18:06 AM

THE way we say things may be more important than what we say. Nowhere is this truer than in this country, where saying things in certain ways ends reasonable discussion.

This is underlined by reaction to Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s call for a wealth tax. It is not clear whether he was calling for a tax on all wealthy people or whites only — his remarks suggest he is just as worried about a section of the black elite’s indifference to poverty as white unwillingness to accept responsibility for the past. But by framing his remarks as criticism of white attitudes, he did not open the debate he hoped for — he triggered defensive rage.

None of this is surprising. Tutu’s proposal is not new — Daniel Bradlow, an academic at Pretoria University and American University, has been trying to persuade business for some years to embrace “reconciliation financing” designed partly to redress the effect of historical injustices such as apartheid. His attempts to launch a reconciliation and development bond here have not succeeded, even though he has used measured language that does not seek to make anyone feel guilty. His experience confirms there are few takers for initiatives that call on whites to redress the injustices of the past.

This confirms what some of us learned from a research exercise shortly after 1994. It tested reactions among mainly white middle- class participants to a water-step tariff, which would charge more per litre to those who used more. First, they were asked whether people who had benefited from apartheid should pay more for water to atone for past discrimination. They reacted with abuse — black people were accused of every imaginable sin and the proposal was condemned as an example of their desire to sponge off minorities. A while later, the same group was asked whether people who used more water should pay more per litre to allow poorer people to use more. Everyone agreed.

So, if proposals for a fairer distribution of our resources are framed in terms of racial guilt, they are fiercely resisted. When they appeal to values most of us claim to share, such as justice and fairness, not only are they taken seriously, people who reject the racial argument may even accept them. Lest the focus group seem like an academic exercise, we have a step tariff today and just about no- one has complained. It was introduced first as a conservation measure and then as an antipoverty tool. Racial minorities who refused to pay more to atone for apartheid did not resist when they were asked to conserve a scarce resource or to reduce poverty.

Tutu and Bradlow are not wrong to point out that some of us are doing very well and others doing very badly because of the injustices of the past. But the necessary correctives they are urging will trigger a real national debate only if they are phrased in universal terms that appeal to everyone’s sense of justice.

We urgently need this debate because, whatever our view of the past, current economic realities cannot endure. Not only are growth and development stunted when some have more than they could possibly need while others do not have enough. A society that signals that our worth is measured by how much we own and then ensures that most people cannot own much, virtually implores people to grab wealth illegally, not because they are starving but because they have been told that owning things is how they earn respect.

The changes we need would not require those who live well to cease to do so — only to recognise the difference between what is enough and what is excessive.

Building the argument on atonement for the past may deflect us from that discussion, not only because it antagonises but because it distracts attention from one of the past’s most baleful effects — the new elite’s belief that they can earn respect not by rejecting the excesses of the old elite but by imitating them. Many of our economic debates are thinly disguised squabbles over how excess should be divided between new and old elites. We need a debate over how we can move beyond excess to an economy that ensures growth and fairness. We are more likely to get there by stressing justice and fairness than by appealing to guilt.

This does not mean we should stop talking about race — we are still not speaking honestly to each other about it. But it does mean we must talk about it in a way that invites people to move beyond their prejudices and does not ensure that they remain trapped in them.

If the debate is phrased in this way, success is not guaranteed. There are powerful voices, here as in many other societies, that see any move towards a fairer and more sustainable economy as a threat. But a debate on what is just is more likely to move us towards a fairer society than one based on guilt — no matter how warranted that guilt might be.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.



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