LETTER: Clarity or rhetorical flourish?

Submitted by SJW on 6 June, 2018 - 12:26 Author: Mike Zubrowski

More debate on the Right of Return here.

The exchange between Ashok Kumar and Sean Matgamna in Solidarity 469 was very interesting. Ashok managed to spend over a thousand words saying remarkably little beyond vague allusions and rhetorical games.

His contribution could be summarised as claiming that Workers’ Liberty differs in attitude from much of the left on various related issues – not substantiating how – and that Ashok’s own attitudes conversely are more widely supported.

Sean by contrast gave insightful analyses of both the relevant political issues, and of the culture of debate on the left itself. However, he indulged in rhetorical excesses at points which obscured more than clarified, at least without further contextualising.

Sean wrote that “The second most terrible ‘racist’ crime of the 20th century was the vengeful driving-west of 13 million Germans at the end of the war, with the death of perhaps half a million of them.” This was a historically relevant and powerful example in the context cited. However, the superlative claim – that it was the “second most terrible ‘racist’ crime of the 20th century” — is not particularly meaningful, clear or helpful. The Bengal famine of 1943 killed between two and four million Indians as Churchill insisted on exporting and diverting food from India, aware of the devastating and avoidable consequences. In 1932-33 Stalin orchestrated an artificial famine in which between three and seven and a half million ethnic Ukrainians died, characterised by many as a genocide. Both had strong and clear racial elements. How exactly can we classify these and other different great evils, and quantify how bad they were?

Similar questions can be raised about Sean’s superlative description of the Holocaust as the “worst racist crime in history”, when considering it against racialised systems of enslavement, slave trading and slavery between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Sean’s claims are not so much wrong as meaningless or unclear.

It seems likely that Sean knew that this claim was flawed when asserted without caveats or clarifications. The main point after all was an analysis and comparison of the nature of and racism behind this expulsion with other racist attitudes and crimes, not of its terribleness per se. The superlative was then used to add a powerful rhetorical flourish rather than a substantive point in itself. However, doing so is unnecessary, of limited meaning and unhelpful.

Sean also clarifies what he had probably been referring to – a quote from Engels adapted from Ibn Khaldun, specific historic episodes, and a film – in an article alluded to by Ashok which the former had written twelve years earlier. He rightly points out that the phrasing was demagogically weaponised five years ago.

The artistic creativity in the article cited however – at least without more clarificatory context than was included – did obscure the meanings and intentions and was deeply ambiguous. This was not useful when trying to convince people of complex ideas and left it open to be misinterpreted as evoking or resembling bigoted and extremely offensive tropes.

As in the examples discussed above, the rhetoric was ancillary to the central point, but this does not excuse lack of clarity.

Greater emotive and rhetorical force at the cost of severe ambiguity or claims of limited meaning is not a trade-off we should be making in the pursuit of a serious culture of debate. The top priorities must be clarity and the truth.

As Sean acknowledges, a major problem of the culture on the left is emotive force being used in place of reasoned discussion. We must hold ourselves to higher standards as exemplars.

Mike Zubrowski, Bristol

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