Academia and teaching Morality

Bigotry, free speech and student politics at UCT

Zizipho Pae, current UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) Vice President, posted this Facebook status following the US Supreme Court decision to strike down same-sex marriage bans:

We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us.

pae4-592x400I wasn’t planning on saying anything about this, but the most recent rant from Error Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute is mad enough to prompt a quick response, because he – like many others – are confusing the freedom to hold odious views with a (non-existent) obligation on others to not call them out on those views, and freedom from any consequences expressing those views might incur.

Ms. Pae is free to be a homophobe. She implies that she’s not a homophobe in the video embedded below, but the facts are clear: she labels gay people sinners, and suggests that we are “normalising” sin – in other words, that they are a threat to all of our moral welfares. She has a seriously negative disposition towards gay people, in that she doesn’t want them to have the same rights as straight people.

Dress that up in whatever religious sophistry you like, but any non-religious person would regard that as plainly homophobic. Also, any person, regardless of religious persuasion, should realise that Ms. Pae is instead endorsing an (unconstitutional) ban on gay marriage. So, wrong on the morals, wrong on the law.

She can have and express these views, regardless of the fact that we might prefer that she didn’t feel inclined to such prejudice. Her prejudices are also more common than I’d like, which is exactly why we don’t put basic rights to a referendum.

But holding those views does not protect her from criticism, whether or not she thinks she’s doing a bigoted god’s bidding. The university, and the SRC, have chosen to adopt a certain set of values, and homophobia is in contrast to those values.

She was relieved of her duties as Acting President by the SRC, as they are entitled to do. She has not been suspended or disciplined by the university administration, contrary to Mr. Naidoo’s claims.

Her rights to freedom of speech are not being violated – she chose a more demanding standard than “speech without consequences” when she ran for the SRC (before that, in fact, as simply registering as a student here involves committing to promoting certain values). So, free to speak, but then we don’t want you representing us.

So, there is no “anti-Christian discrimination” here, but rather a defending of what the country, and the university, have chosen as their moral foundation, namely non-discrimination on various grounds. She chose to be part of that community, so needs to follow its rules.

Where Naidoo and Pae do have a point is only with regard to the issue of her office being vandalised, and any threats being uttered against her. Those cases need to be investigated and the offenders sanctioned.

In the meanwhile, it would be absurd to think that the SRC should tolerate homophobia in its senior structures, and perfectly reasonable for them to suspend her, pending fuller discussion and investigation.

You don’t get to insult a large proportion of the students you’re meant to represent without consequence, whether you believe in a god or not.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

20 replies on “Bigotry, free speech and student politics at UCT”

Thanks Jacques, good piece. The intersection of headlines, UCT and humanism had me anticipating this all morning 😉
I hadn’t seen Naidoo’s response – I think I’ll avoid that link.
Something that wasn’t clear to me from any of the reporting was if this was on Pae’s personal facebook page, I assumed it was and was pondering whether the response was a bit heavy-handed. I think your arguments cut to why that doesn’t really matter. She signed on to a much higher standard of speech as a Student and SRC candidate. But: is there any space (or even a way) for someone in that position to clearly state their personal beliefs without it becoming a matter of suspensions. Could an SRC VP stand up and say “My personal beliefs make me uncomfortable with this – but I respect the constitution”?

It was her personal page, indeed. I’m not sure how heavy-handed the response was, though – unless I’ve missed something, she’s been suspended for the next few weeks, until UCT resumes and the SRC can convene and decide what (if anything) to do. That seems on the gentle end of intervention to me (but I might not have all the details). So I think she’s been suspended more *in case* more might come to light, and in a provisional sense, and might simply get reinstated.

Your question is a tricky one. If they express these beliefs in advance, fine – because then voters can choose to signal their disapproval of those views. If you run for election without doing so, maybe it’s a reasonable assumption that you abide by the SRC constitution, university values and so forth, and that you’ve then violated trust when you disclose it later down the line?

That seems a reasonable approach for a short term like an SRC candidate. I quite like the idea of getting a candidate’s ‘moral inventory’ as part of the election process, or perhaps there should be an explicit standard to which all are assumed to ascribe – and any exceptions need to be publicly communicated beforehand.
Where does that sit with the like of the big O and his ‘evolution’ on gay marriage? There may be some who could be equally unhappy that his public moral standard has changed during his period of office. Can we allow for someone to ‘see the light’ and have a ‘conversion’ (a devolution in my view) to a different moral approach?

If it makes a big enough difference to the House, they could perhaps attempt impeachment of Obama! (But seriously – the overriding issues for me would be the default assumptions of a particular job. US Presidents aren’t moral custodians – even if some of the electorate might treat them as such – so if a candidate changes his mind you’d simply have to suck it up. Laws are passed through so many layers that you’d probably have a hard time gaining traction for the idea that the ‘conversion’ was relevant to fitness for office. Obama can only be assumed to respect the Constitution, and I think Pae can be assumed to respect the values she signed up as assenting to when registering, and taking office.)

“She was relieved of her duties as Acting President by the SRC, as they are entitled to do.”

Does removing people from their positions because we disagree with their moral stances not have a chilling effect on free speech? Her comments would not meet the legal standard for hate speech, so how is the more stringent standard on free speech applied here not unconstitutional?

“Her rights to freedom of speech are not being violated – she chose a more demanding standard than “speech without consequences” when she ran for the SRC (before that, in fact, as simply registering as a student here involves committing to promoting certain values).”

UCT is one of the most prestigious universities on the continent and an SRC position is a gold star on any CV. Should she have foregone both for her sincerely held beliefs and to conform to the university’s standards, or should she have been duplicitous about what she believes? Again: the standard UCT and the SRC is applying on what manner of speech is and is not allowed by office bearers is far more restrictive than any law of this land. To expect people to either opt out of enrolling at UCT or running for SRC on that basis – or to remove them from their positions because they’ve freely expressed their thoughts – violates, I think, their right to free speech as defined in the Constitution. I cannot see how it doesn’t.

Imagine the converse. What if UCT were founded on Christian values and allowed for students to be removed from the SRC for speech that contravened such values?

To be clear: Being one of the sinners she mentioned, I am obviously not defending what she said. I’m only pointing out again how defective a concept free speech is.

In its absolute or near absolute forms, free speech leaves whatever outrage can be mustered as the only remedy for odious and bigoted speech. That inevitably breeds animosity and anger, a precursor to other forms of violence and systemic exclusion.

Yet in any other form it violates its own tenets by leaving what can or cannot be said by the individual to the arbitrary standards of institutions, societies and other groupings. And it appears in this instance, as in many others, to suggest that if individuals want to express their sincerely held beliefs and hold office, they may only do so in institutions and other social groupings whose beliefs are congruent with theirs, for such is not tolerated in places like UCT.

We’d need to carefully identify what we respectively mean by various terms you use. “Chilling effect” is the first interesting one – of course in one sense there may be a chilling effect, but I’m not sure it’s an interesting sense. For example, the fact that I know my wife will be annoyed with me if I say that dinner tastes a bit bland has a chilling effect on my free speech, but we’d hardly say I’ve been compromised in any fashion. So there’s a range of chilling, and we might not want to treat them all as symmetrical.

In free speech debates, I’ve typically encountered chilling effects defined as implicit pressure to be silent, but as a result of legislation. We might also want to say that “free speech” is also purely a legal issue. Once we go into the realm of social and workplace contexts (like in this case), many of the words that are clear (to my mind) in the legal context aren’t necessarily applicable anymore, or at least not as strongly.

So yes, it does have a moderating influence on her speech – but she’s free to override that and still speak, knowing that doing so might provoke reaction. I get what you’re saying about restrictions maybe being unconstitutional, but think that in this case, she’s an agent of an institution – she’s agreed to abide by company policy. (Free speech wouldn’t cover disclosing proprietary information, as another example of reasonable constraint.) She’s free to speak, but then the company is free to censure. Free speech rights don’t mean you *also* get to have the right to a position on SRC.

(The huge confounder here is the personal/public thing, and whether private FB posts are something the SRC and Uni should care about.)

The converse (a Christian uni) would of course be impossible here, if that meant institutionalised homophobia. But if it was permissible, I’d similarly defend the SRC’s right to suspend someone who preached equal rights.

So I don’t see the larger free speech incoherence you do. As a legal concept, it works (I think hate speech laws make it work less well, though), but I don’t see this as a legal case. In social contexts, we negotiate our way to shared norms, borrowing and adapting the legal concept. If a collective forms under certain value assumptions, they can try to bolster them through who they censure and praise, and others can try to shift those values, or form alternative structures to compete for influence.

Legislation enforced through the action of the state is not the only way implicit pressure to be silent (and therefore chilling effects on free speech) may be effected. Institutions also have power comparable to the state to institute rules and regulations that silence voices within and those without who might want to be within. The case of Steven Salaita and [email protected] is a good example. In that instance the actions of the institution were indefensible in terms of free speech as defined through the harm principle. In the comparable case of the King David School and Joshua Broomberg, however, sense prevailed and Broomberg faced no institutional censure for his freely expressed thoughts.

So I’m not at all convinced the example of your wife is a good comparison, unless, of course, you’re suggesting the power she wields over you is institution-like, in which case I offer my sympathies and this here strong drink.

The example you provide of proprietary information is also interesting. However, there are two major issues with it. The first is that there is no way in law or otherwise she could reasonably be construed to be an agent of UCT. No reasonable person would purport her to be acting on behalf of the university and no reasonable person would conclude an agreement with her on that basis. At best she is an agent of the SRC, which is an agent of the student body that elected her. If she was to be removed, the students should have been the ones to do it through popular vote or some other mechanism that effects the will of the student body. Secondly, the constitutional and legal basis for a company silencing the utterance would be that her speaking freely infringes their right to property. This is not at all the same as her expressing her sincerely held views about homosexuality, which doesn’t infringe on any right of the company. It might make the company unpopular, but again it pits public sentiment against the individual’s right to free speech. The harm principle would again favour the individual, as it would should public sentiment be against utterances such as, oh, the earth revolves around the sun or that human activity causes global warming.

I understand as an atheist you might be opposed to any views based on scripture. And you might agree, as do I, that social censure is appropriate. However, that is no basis to determine what is and isn’t speech worthy of defence against state and institutional censorship.

In my example of a Christian institution…what I meant was that what if UCT were a Christian institution that had a values charter compelling staff and students to espouse, for example, creationism under penalty of never being allowed to hold office should they stray from that line. Would you then defend the institution’s right to suspend someone who dared advocate the theory of evolution? I sincerely hope you wouldn’t, but I’m all ears.

I was suggesting that chilling effects operate on a spectrum, from the example of social contexts where they are implicit, to contexts in which they are backed by legal force. This was in service of the argument that it’s not informative to appeal to chilling effects as necessarily being problematic, in the sense that some pressures to silence/moderation of tone are appropriate.

Agreed with your summary take on both Salaita and Broomberg. Ms Pae, though, uses her Facebook page actively for student engagement. She has obliterated the public/private distinction, and made it plausible to think her an agent of the SRC. (I agree with you re. UCT more broadly).

Because it’s vacation, they cannot meet now to decide what to do. So, they suspend her until term starts, where they might well simply say “be mindful that many of those you represent are gay” or somesuch, and reinstate her. We’ll see. I’m arguing that until that conversation can be had, where they are able to consider the extent to which her remarks contravene the code of conduct she agreed to (and the answer might be “not at all”), it’s reasonable to suspend her, because she seems to have contravened the values her job asked her to promote.

I can’t agree with your interpretation of the harm principle, unless you’re referring to something other than Mill. Harm to society via propping up prejudices is compatible with non-libertarian readings of Mill – never mind whether we even need to accept his views as a starting point, rather than competing views on free speech, liberty etc.

On your question in the last paragraph, yes, I would defend the right to suspend a proponent of evolutionary theory in that context (i.e. if they took a job where the rules were that they should appear to be creationists).

I was thinking about either an update or a fresh post, yep. As for Dr. Price’s statement, I’m broadly in agreement – as he noted, a key issue is whether her expulsion is in accordance with the SRC constitution. From what we’ve seen of their minutes in their Facebook posts, it does seem to be, which was my assumption in the post above. (A separate matter is whether the meeting that expelled her was properly constituted and conducted, where the answer might well be “no”.)

I also agree with him – and stated above – that some protests against her were abusive, and should be condemned. Where I disagree is where he asserts that “On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.”

lt might not have been intended to insult or hurt, but it can easily be predicted to have that effect in a homophobic climate. On my reading – and again, depending on the SRC’s rules of conduct – this is the sort of detail that an SRC member needs to be accountable to.

So there’s nothing that changes my mind about the above post – they were right to suspend her from the acting position, pending full discussion. What’s not clear is whether that full discussion has been held, nor whether or not it led to the correct decision to expel her.

This from a man who regularly berates anyone on Twitter who doesn’t conform with his view of homosexuality? Crikey, that’s rich.

I would be very wary of giving any weight to Erol Naidoo; it’s a bit like critically engaging with AfriForum’s views on sponsors pulling out of supporting Steve Hofmeyer’s concerts. Anyway, my reading of the SRCs decision to suspend Pae is more about the implications of her comments for the #Rhodesmustfall than grappling with what the SRC’s values broadly. #Rhodesmustfall is a young political movement that does not have the structures and internal discipline to ensure that personalities can’t create opportunities for critics to damage legitimacy.

Immediately following her comments there were comments on Twitter and Facebook chastising #Rhodesmustfall for remaining silent on her comments. But seriously, who can speak for a collective that remains fairly loose at the moment? SRC action was the only way the movement could respond. Interestingly, immediately following her suspension, I read a few Facebook posts using the SRC’s swift action as an example of why #Rhodesmustfall is an exemplar of how movements should deal with views that run contrary to political positioning.

Errol Naidoo has been a regular source of amusement here over the years, and I don’t regard highlighting his hyperbole, bigotry etc. as giving him weight. His constituency can’t be grown by anything I say here, I don’t think.

As for your comments on the political strategy, I’d be reluctant to agree that RMF dictated (or strongly influenced) an SRC choice in that way. And as someone at UCT, closely involved in the politics, Facebook comments on these issues have seldom proved informative or reliable.

Ms. Pae’s response to the SRC President:

“Dear Mr Mahapa

It is a matter of public record that I was an independent candidate and I was elected through a campaign platform which was ‘Here I am, Send me’. My campaign, which stems from Isaiah 6 verse 8 was based on Biblical Foundations which have guided and continue to guide my life and actions throughout my term of office. As a Bible believing Christian, I want my first response to be that the core/fundamental message of the Bible is about a God of grace and love, who forgives sin and extends mercy to all people.

The Biblical position on same-sex marriage has sparked a massive world-wide debate, I do not intend on trying to resolve these debates in this response. However, there are clear scriptures in the New Testament which refer to homosexuality (together with sex outside of marriage, lying, drunkenness etc) as sin. What I inferred in my post, was not something new. I do not believe that this, in the context of a God of grace, who forgives sin, can never constitute as condemnation, hate-speech or homophobia.

I would like to place on record, that I am not and have never been homophobic. Homophobia is by definition a fear and/or a dislike of a person because they practice homosexuality. I have always treated people, regardless of their sexual orientation, with the same level of respect, dignity and love. And I will continue to do as such.

I would like to refer to a quote that I shared on my facebook wall which highlights that our society has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are untrue. You do not have to compromise convictions to be compassionate. Similarly, I wholeheartedly believe that loving someone, does not mean that you agree with their choices. As Christians, we are called to love people, but hate sin. Additionally, I am actually aware, that I too, am one of those who need God’s grace, mercy (forgiveness) and love on a daily basis.

We as an SRC have often said that different views and opinions can and must coexist on the UCT campus. I thus find it rather confusing that all views and opinions must coexist, except for those of Christians.

The intention of my status was not to hurt and/or anger anyone. In conclusion, I hold steadfast to the foundation of my life, which is Christ. I am a firm believer that we are an important people; born with a sinful nature but above all, that we have hope for love, grace and FORGIVENESS of all sin, in Christ Jesus.


It is just sad to see someone at the head of a student body, at what is supposed to be our best university, saying something so completely idiotic.

Interestingly I made a comment on this site that has been censored, free speech?
It appears its not so free when it doesn’t align with the pre-determined rhetoric and narrative of agent UCT and like-minded institutions.
Bah Humbug!

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