Razors and Teapots

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”
Christopher Hitchens

Though popularised in the early 2000s by the journalist and writer, Christopher Hitchens, this ‘philosophical razor’ is actually an English translation of a Latin proverb which was in use much earlier:
‘quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur’, or ‘What is asserted gratuitously may be denied gratuitously’. Or, to put it (yet) another way: ‘the burden of truth rests with the accuser, and if the burden is not met, the claim can be considered baseless’.

Funnily enough, however, this basic principal doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to making all manner of claims about the Boer War. Defenders of the Myth feel they can just scream things like: ‘The British started the war to steal our gold and diamonds!’ – and if they squeal it often enough, and with sufficient vigour, they seem to think that no actual evidence needs to be provided. Though I have spent many hours debunking the cherished myths of the True Believers, the onus is actually on them to provide supporting evidence… and I have yet to see anything at all to back up any of their claims.

The philosopher, Bertrand Russell made a similar statement in 1952:
‘Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time’.

Of course, Russell was talking about religion, but one might just as well apply it to the Boer War myths (given that they too are based entirely on faith, rather than evidence), and replace the last part of this statement with:
‘…If, however, the existence of such a teapot had been repeated over and over at a thousand braais every weekend, taught as the absolute truth in South African schools for generations, and instilled into minds by means of relentless State-sponsored propaganda, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the True Believers, who will scream, and wail and stamp their feet, frantically trying to dismiss him as a ‘Jingo’ whose writing should not be given any credence’.

Here are a few of the favourite myths of the Second Boer War which I sincerely ask anyone to provide evidence (and I mean, actual evidence, not just pretending your great-grandfather told you something) to support:

The British engineered the war to steal the gold and diamonds!
The Boers just wanted to be left in peace!
The British lost every battle of the war!
The Boer invasions of Natal and the Cape Colony (oh, and Zululand, Rhodesia, and Bechanaland) were not real invasions – they only ever wanted to take up ‘defensive positions, just over the border’!
The British infantry were easy targets because they wore red jackets!
The Boers only surrendered in the end to prevent the mass murder of their women and children!
The British tried to commit genocide in the concentration camps!
The Boers won the war!
(that is one of my personal favourites)

Of course, simply claiming these things (especially after a bottle of brandy, late on a Friday evening) does not make them true. The onus is on the True Believers to provide evidence to support their much-cherished nonsense.

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