The controversy surrounding South Africa's decision to "nationalize" white-owned farmland without compensation (which I covered here, and in a later elaboration of the underlying reasons here) has caused a lot of debate among commenters, on this blog and elsewhere. Some respondents tried to be rational and factual in their approach. Others scoffed, scorned, and generally derided those behind the decision. In some cases, there were indications of potential racism and other prejudices.
What struck me most of all was the refusal of some commenters to face facts, or their insistence on advancing alleged "facts" of their own that were either half-truths, or not correct. This is a besetting sin on both sides of many debates in these politically charged times, so I thought it might be worth considering it in a little more detail.
Facts are funny things. The "hard sciences" speak of scientific fact, which is (at least technically) something that's been confirmed by observation and/or experiment, is reproducible, and empirically verifiable. However, let's not forget that science has itself been wrong on many occasions, usually because the technology or scientific literacy of the day has been unable to properly analyze or explain what was observed. Earthquakes are a good example. Until the development of plate tectonic theory early in the 20th century, and the subsequent emergence of the new science of tectonophysics, no-one knew for sure why earthquakes occurred. There was considerable controversy over and resistance to these concepts, until testing, observation and research finally confirmed them. It's still a developing field, so there may be new discoveries to come that will refine our understanding of tectonics, perhaps radically. Who knows? Arthur C. Clarke's fictional hypothesis of "tectonic engineering" may yet come to pass. (I just hope I'm not around to be one of the early experimental subjects when it does!)
Scientific fact does not necessarily translate to generally accepted truth. Cultures, superstitions, religious beliefs, traditions and other elements of our make-up, individual and collective, can drastically limit or change their effect. In more primitive societies, the concept of plate tectonics would be regarded as laughable. Earthquakes have been blamed on divine punishment for the sins of humanity (a superstition that is still sometimes found today), the movement of giant subterranean catfish, a god (Poseidon) striking the earth with his trident, and so on. Someone sufficiently convinced of the reality of such myths might well reject the scientific explanation. I've come across that in Africa, as I've mentioned before:
I once sat out a severe thunderstorm on the porch of a farmhouse in the Northern Transvaal. With me was a school-teacher from the local town, a man with a Bachelors degree and a post-graduate Diploma in Education. He solemnly informed me that the animist spirits of the trees were at war, and the spirit of that tree – the one that had just been struck by lighting – had lost his battle. He was an educated man, who knew all about, and daily taught, physics and chemistry to school pupils… but he was also a product of his tribe and his culture. He really believed what he’d just said. He absolutely was not joking. When I tried to argue, he told me openly that he pitied me, because I was so blind to the spiritual reality that could be seen, plain as a pikestaff, right in front of my eyes.
That's what we're seeing now concerning the confiscation of white-owned farmland in South Africa. We can argue until we're blue in the face about the damage it will do to agriculture, and its unreasonableness from any logical, rational, or economically sound perspective . . . but all our words are so much hot air to those who've developed a blind belief that their economic woes are all attributable to white "colonialism", and that, unless and until they "take back the land", things will not improve. Their beliefs are, of course, strengthened by the poorly performing economy, to which they point as additional evidence of white "conspiracy" to prevent them sharing in the "fruits of the land".
It's hard for many intelligent people in the First World to accept or understand this. We're accustomed to looking up the facts for ourselves, determining a logical, rational course of action based on those facts, and pursuing it. However, the evidence of our own blindness to reality is all around us. Just look at the current political polarization in the United States. The left, "progressive" side wants all sorts of benefits to be granted to citizens and residents "as of right", including free health care, free tertiary education, and so on. The question of who's to pay for all those benefits, and how, is blithely dismissed as inconsequential. On the other hand, some of the arguments on the right wing aren't much better. Their prescriptions for economic and political insularity, refusal to face up to the human and societal costs of some of their programs, and penchant for management by decree rather than consultation (a flaw shared with many on the left) are equally unrealistic. Perhaps both sides would do well to re-read Percy Bysshe Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias". It might remind them of human fallibility.
The same blinkered vision and blindness to facts can be found in many aspects of our modern, First World culture and vision of reality. Just look at how historians argue about the US Civil War. Was it caused by slavery, or a dispute over states' rights? I won't even attempt to unravel that tangled web! Culture, tradition and other less-than-rational perspectives affect each and every one of us. Take religion. I'm a Christian, partly (I suppose) because I was brought up as one, partly because of a conscious decision I've made as an adult, based on my experience of what I believe to be God's grace in my life. I'm not going to change that commitment of faith - but I must also acknowledge, in all honesty, that I can't advance empirical, scientific evidence for it.
If someone wishes to accuse me of "primitive superstition" for believing in a Deity, they're free to do so. I can't argue with them empirically - only philosophically, spiritually and theologically. So be it. I won't look down on them for believing differently, or on believers of other religions for their faith. At the end of our respective lives, we'll all find out who was right. (If the secularists are right, of course, I won't find out at all - I won't know anything after I die, because there'll be nothing to experience!) Meanwhile, I have many friends, some with similar beliefs, some with radically different philosophies of life, the universe and everything. We remain friends because we aren't trying to convert each other. We all accept that we have the right to believe what we wish - and we all accept that we may, at times, be wrong. In due course, we'll find out.
I think that's the important element that most of us miss. I referred to it last week:
None of us is omnipotent or omniscient. We all have "blind spots". It behooves us to acknowledge that reality, and to keep it in mind when analyzing anything. As Oliver Cromwell famously put it:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."
Too many of us refuse to consider that possibility.
We may be sure of our "facts": but equally, we may be filtering those "facts" through lenses of culture, tradition, upbringing, society, spirituality, personality and many other elements. Unless and until they're empirically verified, we'd best tread carefully. The same goes for our dealings with other races, societies, cultures and nations. They don't see things as we do, and probably never will. That's not to say we, or they, are right or wrong. It's just the way it is. We want to believe that we're certain of what's right, factual, truthful, etc., and we usually act as if we are: but unless we're dealing with the "hard sciences" (and sometimes even then), we seldom have that assurance, no matter how hard we might wish it. (In that vein, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. are not hard sciences, and their claims and assertions are therefore not definitive!)
Reality is no fun sometimes, is it? - particularly when it's uncertain.
EDITED TO ADD: It seems that some readers have misunderstood what I said above, and are responding to their own interpretation of it, rather than my actual words. I've written a response to that in a subsequent article, which you'll find here. If you're in any doubt about what I said or meant, please read that. Thanks.