A Plea for a Civil Exchange
By Tedla Woldeyohannes (Ph.D.)*
January 9, 2017
In this piece, I express a concern I share with many fellow Ethiopian observers about the exchanges between Dr. Fikre Tolossa and his critics on his most recent book—The True Origin of the Oromo and Amhara people. The concern that led me to write this piece is what many have come to observe about the exchanges between Dr. Fikre and his critics, mainly Profs. Paulos Milkias and Getachew Haile. I have not read Dr. Fikre’s book, but have followed the controversy that surrounds the book and heated exchanges that have been observed. I write this to plead with anyone who engages in the debate about Dr. Fikre’s book, and on any other topic of interest to us Ethiopians, to think of especially the younger readers who are following the exchanges and to think of what they would learn from such exchanges. When the exchanges are littered with personal attacks and questioning and belittling the academic accomplishments and credentials of one’s critics that obviously is not a good thing.
It is my hope that the next exchanges, responses and rejoinders on Dr. Fikre’s book, will focus only on the issues that are of great interest to millions of Ethiopians. The issues the book raises are extremely interesting and controversial at the same time as one can see from the public debate and discussion the book has triggered. Since the book makes claims that are controversial, as one can see from various responses to it, it is only to be expected to see strong reactions from those who have written on the topic or the issues the book raises. While it is fine to construct arguments that are intended to show problems with some of the claims in Dr. Fikre’s book, obviously, the best way to do that is by focusing on the issues and issues alone. Again, as all of us know, there is nothing wrong with challenging views, claims, etc., without attacking the person who holds various views and makes claims on a topic.
One thing that is of particular concern about the book which is the subject of the ongoing debate is due to the subject matter it deals with. As we all are aware, there is ongoing dispute, debate, and passionate disagreements about Ethiopian history in general before the publication of Dr. Fikre’s book. Adding a new book on the “true origin” of the two major ethnic groups in Ethiopia, the Amharas and the Oromos would obviously receive a scrutiny from those who have expertise in Ethiopian history and it is unavoidable to see debates and disagreements on the claims made in such a book. Not only people with expertise in Ethiopian history and historiography will engage in debates, but also ordinary Ethiopians who have read and learned some Ethiopian history would be interested in any book that suggests that there is a “new” historical evidence that has never been recognized before by historians and those interested in Ethiopian history. Add to this, the debate these days on the topic whether there is a common, shared Ethiopian national identity, which some Oromo elites deny and the debate is raging. As far as I can tell from what I have been able to read about the book, Dr. Fikre’s book is intended to show that there is a shared identity among Ethiopia’s two major ethnic groups. Anyone who wants to know the truth about this claim would naturally want to look at the evidence presented in the book.
In my view, a passionate debate about Ethiopian history is welcome and it is a healthy exercise, but also it is important for writers on Ethiopian history to make sure that “evidence” for any historical claims made in their writings matters. In this connection, those who write on history should not forget that many of their readers, even those who are not experts in Ethiopian history, can and do possess some knowledge or skills in evaluating whatever evidence is presented to support historical claims. For example, someone who is trained in academic philosophy is well equipped to evaluate the reasoning employed by historians or those who write on historical issues. In particular, an academic philosopher who specializes in philosophy of history typically works on issues that are extremely important for historians such as the nature of historical evidence in contrast with evidence relevant to other academic or intellectual inquiries, and whether historical knowledge can be objective or to what degree it can be objective, etc. I am giving this example to make a point that writers on history, whether they are trained historians or others, should be aware of the fact that their writings can be evaluated, to some extent, by non-historians as well. It is crucial for writers on historical issues to be open to critical engagement of their works by historians and others who have sufficient and relevant skills or knowledge to evaluate historical claims.
I have just offered one reason why non-historians can be part of an exchange in the conversation and debate on a book on history, a case in point is Dr. Fikre’s book. Now think for a moment how much of the exchanges on Dr. Fikre’s book involved the issue of who is an expert in Ethiopian history, and who is not. Raising the question of expertise is relevant and important, but to attack the person on the ground that this person or that person is not a historian and hence the issues raised by non-historians are irrelevant, or of little value, etc., and similar accusations can and do easily become sources of distraction from issues that need to be the focus of debate. I plead with those participants in the debate about Dr. Fikre’s book and other topics of interest to Ethiopians to restrain themselves from attacking their conversation partners and instead to critically engage issues that are the subject of the debate. Attacking the person would not advance the issue that needs to be the topic of the debate. If a pertinent criticism of an issue is raised by anyone, it would be fruitful to respond to the criticism of the issues without attacking the academic credentials of the person who criticizes a claim or the motive or character of the person.
Finally, let me conclude by addressing the issue of why focusing on arguments presented or evidence offered to support a claim is a desirable mode of intellectual inquiry and engagement and the importance of identifying fallacious reasoning that can pass, mistakenly, for good arguments. As many academic philosophers who teach a “Critical Thinking” or “Critical Reasoning” course at colleges and universities, I also teach the courses just mentioned, among others. One of the key reasons to teach a critical reasoning course, as many who have taken such courses know, is to equip students with a critical thinking or reasoning skills. One aspect of equipping students with critical thinking skills is by teaching them to identify fallacious reasoning which hinders intellectual inquiry by misleading people to believe claims without good reasons or for wrong reasons. A widely used textbook on Critical Thinking states that “Fallacies [flawed arguments] are often beguiling; they can seem plausible. Time and again they are psychologically persuasive, though logically impotent. The primary motivation for studying fallacies, then, is to be able to detect them so you’re not taken in by them.”  [Italics in the original].
It is not the purpose of this article to identify the fallacies in the exchanges on Dr. Fikre’s book but as I said above, it is important to note that fallacies do not help us to get to the truth about the issues of interest to us. For example, attacking the person, which is a fallacy, is bad because it involves rejecting a claim by criticizing the person who makes a claim rather than criticizing the claim itself. The fallacy of attacking the person is often categorized in Critical Thinking textbooks under the Fallacies of Irrelevant Premises. Hence, in evaluating claims or in advancing claims we need to avoid attacking the person whose views we are evaluating because it is not the person we are evaluating, rather we are evaluating a claim a person has presented and it is the claim that should be the focus of our evaluation or assessment. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the writers to avoid engaging in fallacious reasoning such as attacking the person and to use attack on the person to persuade one’s readers of the claim one is making. It is also the responsibility of readers to evaluate arguments or claims based on the evidence or good reasons offered to support the claims rather than being misled and believing the claims offered on the basis of attack on the person. Attacking the person can come in various forms: attacking character of the person, or circumstances in connection with the person such as suggesting that this person or that person did not attend the best school, etc., in order to discredit the claims the person in question makes. I encourage my readers, those who are not familiar, to familiarize themselves with fallacious reasoning to avoid being persuaded of a claim for a wrong or irrelevant reason. It is also important for writers to avoid committing fallacious reasoning when they make claims and want their readers to judge whether the claims are true or false based on good reason or evidence rather than using fallacious reasoning, intentionally or unintentionally, to persuade the readers. I provide a handy reference to Fallacies in the link in the footnote.
As I said above at the beginning of this piece, it is important to think of the younger people who are our readers and what we want them to learn from us. I am confident that none of us who have had opportunities to study various academic disciplines and with expertise in our respective disciplines would want the young people to see us as bad examples or as bad role models. I encourage all of us, who are public intellectuals, to strive to make our exchanges civil, and respectful to the extent that we are able.
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