Quote of the week

Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority – this trick will become familiar in the coming months. An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy. How long will they endure?

James Butler
London Review of Books
29 April 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 fuddyduddy 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.

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