Justine Sacco wasn’t the biggest problem about her Twitter storm UPDATE

Over at Big Think, I argued that Sacco’s apparent racism – or rather, her racist Tweet – was probably the least worrying part of her whole “Twitter storm”. What worried me and continues to worry me are our default responses to people and how we caricature, so we can attack, convey pure bile, and do little to actually advance cause or thought.

I didn’t see evidence of rape or death threats at Sacco, though I did look. If you know of any, please let me know below.

I’d like to see more silence than noise online, especially when something makes us angry. That default to convey that anger publicly should be considered: you don’t get a free pass to say and do what you like just because you’re justifiably angry: I argued this about the Elan Gale case. We should stop this being our default and, if there’s a competition for response, it shouldn’t be about who’s the nastiest or most “hardcore”: it should be who’s the smartest and most effective in combating the mindset causing you (justifiable) anger.

I would be terrified of being the target of a Twitter storm: we mess up in various ways and there’s no one to actually shut off or calm down the masses of the moral march. Even if you said something stupid or idiotic, the response is disproportional as you are one person and they are legion. This is inherently unfair. And that’s another reason I worry.

Updated: Thanks to commenter “oolon” below for links showing threats.

Please note my comment policy before commenting, unless you love the taste of Banhammer.

Follow me on Twitter.

Watch the video of talks from Free Society Institute’s conference “Thinking Things Through”

Some time back, some of the most thoughtful, eloquent people from South Africa joined forces, in some kind of Avengers move, to discuss and combat “[o]bstacles to a free society [such as] oppressive or irrational legislation, moral confusions, bigotry and prejudice, and misconceptions about science and secularism.” This was the Free Society Institute‘s conference titled Thinking Things Through, which got support from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

You can witness all their smarts on full and delightful display now in a single YouTube channel. Here’s the first, with FSI Chair Jacques Rousseau.

I hope to be watching and writing on each one.

For now, I hope you’ll give them all a watch (and witness that South Africa is not comprised solely of lions, grasslands and combat, but critical thinkers and eloquent speakers of international standing).

Žižek on that fake interpreter

No doubt you’ve read all about the fake interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service: standing only metres away from some of the world’s leaders, people soon realised the man was signing nonsense, not language. The story then got stranger, as it was discovered that the interpreter suffers from mental illness and has a history of alleged violence.

I’m not sure what to make of it, or the weirdness of official responses and disappearances of the organisation that hired him. However, in seeking to make sense of things, I know not to rely on Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian philosopher has used this case as a way to pen an article on… something.

In case you’re unaware of him, I recommend reading a 2007 article by Johann Hari on a titular film of the man. As Hari says in the New Statesman:

[Žižek] seemed to emerge fully formed from the wreckage of the former Yugoslavia with an eclectic magpie-philosophy, rapidly spewing out books and essays on everything from opera to the use of torture in the TV series 24. Zizek [sic] is the biggest box-office draw postmodernists have ever had, their best punch at the bestseller lists. The press fawns upon him; he has been called an “intellectual rock star”; and, according to a recent profile in the New Yorker, Slovenia has a “reputation disproportionately large for its size due to the work of Slavoj Zizek [sic]”.

However, all this stardom and fawning seems undeserved, assuming engagement with reality as a prerequisite for a public intellectual. Hari continues:

What does Slavoj Zizek believe? What does he argue for? Such obvious questions are considered vulgar among postmodernists. When you first look through the more than 50 books he has written, it is almost impossible to find an answer. It seems he seeks to splice Karl Marx with the notoriously incomprehensible French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, slathering on top an infinite number of pop-cultural references.

His defenders claim he is trying to stretch the scope of philosophy to cover the everyday flotsam that philosophers have hitherto ignored. But gradually, as you pore through Zizek’s words or watch his audiences, whose bemusement is caught on film, you discover that the complex manner in which he expresses himself does not imply that his thought is itself subtle or complex. In fact, he seeks to revive a murderous and discredited ideology [Leninism/Bolshevism].”

Even in a strangely favourable review of the film in (the otherwise excellent) Philosophy Now, Grant Bartley writes: [Žižek’s] writing suffers from the common philosopher’s disease of confusing simplicity of expression with stupidity of thought.”

Not mincing words, Noam Chomsky recently said:

Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it.

Back to Žižek’s piece on the interpreter: I can’t make sense of it.

It begins in a clear way that outlines the situation of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter. But then Žižek goes on to indicate something about how Jantjie’s incomprehensible gestures were – or were not? – meaningful because everything being said was – or wasn’t? – meaningful. Here, have a look at what Žižek says:

Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.

Later he says, without justification or evidence that:

Jantjie’s gesticulations generated such an uncanny effect once it became clear that they were meaningless: what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

Why? Because we are displaying or performing… I think? I don’t really know. I think he’s trying to say that most of the memorial was a performance – from leaders paying respects, celebrities showing their human faces, etc. – but only Jantjie’s was the one that struck us, even though it was as meaningless as the rest of it.

OK. But, that’s barely even worthy of a Tweet, presuming that it is indeed Žižek’s point.

If we’re using Jantjie as a measure of comparison, then Žižek’s output is itself the embodiment of a meaningless performance people are tricked into believing is conveying significance. I say this as having tried numerous times to read his books, his articles and watch his lectures. He himself admits in the film Žižek! that it’s all a performance, one that he needs to keep up lest someone see the emperor’s nakedness.

I dislike comments asking “Why was this written?” but I hope I’ve shown that I’m asking this from a position where I’ve genuinely attempted to understand Žižek’s point. And, if what I think is his point is the one I highlighted above, I don’t see why it matters that much, could not have been said in a simpler way, or why it required an entire article do so – let alone that it’s buried amid assertions dressed to look like argument. All the veils of words he waves around his empty ideas make it difficult to realise that there is little substance beneath them; he is a self-admitted performer after all.

The fake interpeter, Mr Jantie, however, doesn’t have a fawning audience who are quick to assert that his meaningless gestures actually have substance: apparently you need a PhD to do that.

Try that next time, Mr Jantjie. It appears to work for Žižek.

UPDATED: To add Jantjie’s suffering from mental illness (it’s in the linked article but better put it here for clarity’s sake). HT to reader John Morales.

Support STASIS: A 2D, Sci-Fi Horror Adventure game

If, like me, you love classic adventure games – King’s Quest, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and so forth – then this looks perfect. STASIS, boasting stunning art design, Ridley Scott-esque environmental creepiness, and engaging story, is being developed by local creator(s); it’s nearly reached its Kickstarter goal.

I love that it’s made by fellow South Africans, since it shows we’re capable of “world-class” in our creations.

I hope you’ll support it with me. Help me achieve my evil plans of showing the world what my country can do, beyond making biltong, getting upset at lady hunters, and laughable leadership.

Melissa Bachman, hunting and the ethics of outrage

In my latest for The Guardian, I examine the backlash against hunter Melissa Bachman who killed a lion then posted a picture of her successful kill on social media. The backlash, more than the kill itself, worries me. That doesn’t mean I support hunting – I still don’t know my moral position on it – but it does confirm my worry over pile-ons, hate and indications of sexism that poisons much discussion of women on the Internet. [Read more…]

In my first digital magazine

Yes, it’s a (local) gaming one; if you’re interested in gaming, good writing or my writing, I hope you’ll give it a read.

It’s free and lovingly made by fellow South African writers who love games. I love the fact that it’s a magazine, not a knee-jerk, “put up as fast possible” website – where speed of information matters more than quality conveying of that information.

Of witchcraft and circumcision in South Africa

Here in South Africa, witchcraft is being blamed again for the deaths of some young men, who themselves participated in unnecessary circumcisions. To try criticise even the circumcisions, one is left with the “culture” defense which is worth strongly criticising and opposing.

Look, no matter what it’s blamed for, I can almost guarantee that witchcraft probably wasn’t responsible. But more importantly, it ties into a general attitude of long accepted traditions, which go against reason and science. JT Eberhard makes some good points. [Read more…]