UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.

Critical thinking, science and pseudoscience

Monday 28 March sees the release of Critical Thinking, Science, & Pseudoscience: Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain, co-written by Caleb Lack and me. Caleb is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma, who I met at TAM 2013 in Las Vegas.

As Caleb notes in his announcement of the book (where much of the text below is copied and pasted from),

it is based largely around the critical thinking courses that Jacques and I have been teaching at our respective universities. The book is designed to teach the reader how to separate sense from nonsense, how to think critically about claims both large and small, and how to be a better consumer of information in general.

Although it’s being mostly advertised towards the academic market, we have purposefully written it to be highly readable, entertaining, and great for anyone wanting to sharpen (or build from scratch) their critical faculties.

South African readers will be alarmed at the price of the book, which is a factor of exactly the point Caleb makes above – that it’s been pitched at the textbook market by the publisher. We are hoping to arrange a local distributor, which should bring the price down substantially.

And if you’re planning to attend the Franschhoek Literary Festival this year, I’ll be in conversation with John Maytham about the book and its themes on Sunday, May 15 at 10am.

The early reviews we received are gratifyingly positive. Michael Shermer (Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University) said:
Michael Shermer

This is the best collection of ideas on critical thinking and skepticism between two covers ever published.

Lack and Rousseau have put together the ideal textbook for students who need to learn how to think, which is to say every student in America.

I plan to assign the book to my Skepticism 101 course at Chapman University and recommend that every professor teaching critical thinking courses at all colleges and universities do the same. Well written, comprehensive, and engaging. Bravo!

Elizabeth LoftusElizabeth Loftus, past president of the Association for Psychological Science, Distinguished Professor at the University of California – Irvine, and one of the foremost memory researchers in the world, wrote:

What’s wrong with believing in pseudoscientific claims and why do so many people do it? Lack & Rousseau take us on a fascinating excursion into these questions and convincingly show us how junk science harms our wallets and our health.

Importantly, they teach us tips for spotting true claims and false ones, good arguments and bad ones. They raise awareness about our “mental furniture” – a valuable contribution to any reader who cares about truth.

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist, and Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. She is the coauthor of the textbook Psychology and the (highly recommended) trade book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). After reading our book she wrote that:

Teachers and students will find this comprehensive, well-written textbook to be a helpful resource that illuminates the principles and applications of critical thinking–a skill that is crucial in our world of bombast, hype, and misinformation.

Russell BlackfordFinally, we have Russell Blackford, noted (and prolific) author (most recently of The Mystery of Moral Authority and Humanity Enhanced) and philosopher.

He’s a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, a regular op.ed. columnist with Free Inquiry, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

An entertaining introduction to clear thinking, science, and the lure of pseudoscience. Lack and Rousseau clearly explain the principles of logical reasoning, together with the human tendencies that all-too-often undermine it. They show how easily motivated reasoning can prevail over clarity and logic; better, they offer tools to think more critically, whether in science, policy, or our everyday choices.

For those instructors interested in using this in their class, we have also constructed full lecture slides for the book and an instructor’s guide with sample assignments, recommended videos, and more. Feel free to let our publishers know if you’d like to be considered for an adoption copy.

The politics of protest, and the (rightful?) death of nuance

It’s very odd to be re-tweeted by Steve Hofmeyr, because a person like me never imagines that something I say might seem agreeable to a racist Afrikaner nationalist, never mind one who once sued a puppet.

And just yesterday, I saw a tweet from the puppet in question that was so illogical, and morally questionable, that I had to have sympathy for the anti-PC (and often, libertarian-leaning) folk on SA Twitter who deride said puppet for having no political backbone, or for drinking too deeply from the well of some kind of cultural relativism. Continue reading “The politics of protest, and the (rightful?) death of nuance”

Culturally appropriative cuisine and “institutional collusion”

There certainly are offensive ways of stereotyping people or appropriating cultures, regardless of whether or not one intends to be offensive. Blackface is one, as is describing Jewish people as greedy, or Scots as miserly, or “immigrants” as lazy, and so forth.

Other stereotypes cause less offense, for example regarding lawyers as predatory or accountants as boring. Clearly, there’s are difference between these sets of examples, in that ethnic slurs – particularly those directed at marginalised groups – are likely to hurt more. Continue reading “Culturally appropriative cuisine and “institutional collusion””

Germaine Greer, universities and false dichotomies

Student and worker protests continue, across South Africa, though it seems that we might be approaching a resolution at my university, at least. Getting back to (academic) work, including examinations and graduations, depends on whether protesting groups trust that they’ve received a good-faith commitment to addressing their demands, and I don’t know if we’re there yet.

But alongside discussion of (legitimate, as I’ve said before) demands, there are always elements on either side that hold things up, whether through acting unlawfully (for example burning books, at one university) or acting in bad faith, such as when academics, staff or other students disparage or insult what is, on aggregate, a coherent and disciplined group of disaffected students and workers.

Discussions get heated, and both the emotions and the urgency of the issues can lead discussions into attempts to make people choose between two extreme positions. Here are some examples:

Can police ever be allowed on campuses?

Answering this with a “no” is obviously correct for many of us, given the role police have historically played in the South African education system, and given the mistrust many South Africans have in the state in general, and the police in particular (thanks to events like the killings at Marikana).

Others would say “yes”, police should be allowed on campus, because they are the only way of dealing with people some of the “yes” group regard as hooligans, uncontrollable in no way besides the threat of legal censure. On this extreme end of the spectrum, the “yes” group is wrong, and is often just unwilling to challenge their own prejudices against those who disrupt the status quo.

Yet, treating the “no” answer as axiomatic would be a mistake also, in that it’s contingently the case that our police, in our circumstances, would be such an inflammatory presence. There’s no problem in principle with having police on campus, at least to my mind, although there’s certainly a problem with it now.

What counts as violence?

Various sides of these debates have cherry-picked examples of violence or non-violence to prove the point they want to make, but the fact of the matter is that the protests have been overwhelmingly non-violent, with the instances of violence I’ve seen mostly being perpetrated by police, or by students after provocation by police.

But focusing just on physical violence allows one to forget that simply not being physically violent does not yet mean that your actions might not be abusive in other ways. For instance, violations of rights are abusive. So, not being able to get to work, or to your car, or not being able to leave a meeting interferes with freedom of movement – and if an atmosphere is hostile enough that trying to assert those rights generates additional anger, we might have concerns even in the absence of physical violence.

Of course, forcing people into uncomfortable situations is one important way of making (or helping) them take your concerns as seriously as they should – so the tactical impulse is certainly understandable. My point is that the moral high-ground of being non-violent is at least complicated by these sorts of instances, and one should be able to discuss this also.

Demands for immediate action

It’s frequently been the case, during these university protests, that members of one or another group have demanded an answer to a complex problem immediately, even if the relevant decision-makers are not in the room. When this is said to not be possible, it’s taken as a sign of intransigence, so one is given the choice of appearing callous, or of capitulating.

Again, there is a middle-ground, because many decisions cannot be taken in the haste one or more parties might prefer. Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor of Wits, wanted time to investigate the economic implications of insourcing services at that university, but his request to have time to form a task-team to do so was mocked as evasive by students on social media.

Yes, asking for time to consider things can simply be a stalling tactic, but seeing as Wits had last considered the matter in depth over a decade ago, and seeing as it has enormous financial implications, it’s the sort of decision you don’t want to rush, and need to make with due care. (Because you might be able to insource some things now, others later, never mind coming up with creative schemes involving worker collectives and the like.)

And finally, is Germaine Greer transphobic?

GermainecropAccording to trans people and their allies, she certainly is. If you’ve been following the “no platforming” debate that has recently erupted around her being invited, then disinvited, and now again invited to speak at Cardiff University, you’d at the very least have been exposed to examples of her saying very dismissive things about trans people.

But as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper points out in this provocative but carefully-argued piece, the fact that someone doesn’t share your understanding of categories like race, gender, sex and so forth isn’t yet, and by itself conclusive of their either denying your humanity, thinking that your political claims aren’t worthy of consideration and so forth. It’s also not obviously hate speech in the legal sense, no matter whether some people find it offensive or not.

Reilly-Cooper presents examples and analysis of the excesses or extremes that identity politics can give rise to – and of course, it doesn’t necessarily give rise to those at all. Folks who want to dismiss her piece will say she’s caricaturing – and of course, a bunch of transphobes will claim her as a champion of their cause too.

You don’t have to make either of those choices, though. You can, as with all the examples I’ve given above and also others, say that our labels and analysis is often faulty, because we’re faulty reasoners with strong emotional commitments to various positions.

And, you can say that our best way of getting better at making good and clear distinctions is to let people speak, rather than demonising them or their views.

#FeesMustFall – the student protests at South African universities

While I’ve co-signed a (as yet unreleased) statement from the academic community on the current student protests, there are of course pieces of that statement that I’d support more strongly than others. I have, however, recently sent the text below out to members of the Free Society Institute, and I reproduce that below for your interest.

It would not have escaped your attention that students, nationwide, are currently engaged in protests regarding university fees as well as other causes such as the outsourcing of workers on university campuses. In fact, the protests have already spread beyond campuses, with workers and protesters gathering at a local Shoprite to campaign for #ThePriceOfBreadMustFall.

Of all the things that need to – or will – fall, one thing that shouldn’t fall is our deep sympathy for the struggles of those who are unable to gain access to things that some of us take for granted, and are no less deserving of those things than we are. Our understanding of the frustration should also not fall, in that the significant State subsidy cuts to universities are arguably “deliberately retrogressive measures” and also unconstitutional – and yet are also part of what has caused university fees to become a serious barrier to entry.

Despite our sympathy and understanding, there is of course another side to the story – my university, for example, makes the case that fees are set high precisely in order to (at least in part) run the most generous financial aid scheme for poorer students currently available in the country. In other words, a fee cut at UCT could plausibly be described as benefiting the rich rather than the poor, as argued in this related piece by a Stellenbosch academic.

We can also be sympathetic to students and staff – and even just members of the community – who are being inconvenienced in various ways, but some of them significant in that exams are currently being written. Some have felt intimidated, and some have even felt themselves to be victims of violence – but even if true, this would surely pale into insignificance by comparison to the violence of tear gas and rubber bullets.

This is not a time for facile judgments, often made outside of context or awareness of the complexities of how the universities have grappled – sincerely – with these issues. I’m frustrated with the protests myself, at times, because I know how seriously UCT takes the issues that are provoking the protests.

However, that has little impact on the legitimacy of the protests, and (in all but the most exceptional of circumstances) the legitimacy of how they have been carried out. From what I have seen in reaction to the protests – the aforementioned riot police, or racist abuse on social media – there’s no question in my mind that the reaction to the protests has been by far the least legitimate aspect of this situation.

Between 2011 and 2013, student protests in Chile demanded a new framework for education, one that would make it more egalitarian. This is a model of an economy closer to ours, when compared with wealthy countries that provide free education, such as Germany – and Chile has announced plans to do just that also. There are of course practical difficulties, and practical differences. And maybe you’d disagree that education should be a right at all, as it currently is in our Constitution.

These issues are by no means simple, and I am aware of instances in which the protests have overstepped various bounds, including practicality and even reason in the sense that some of the demands cannot possibly be implemented. It is also indisputable that universities should be institutions of elite learning, and that this costs money – money which can currently only come from student fees, at least in part, thanks to declining government subsidies. Yet, education is a right, and it’s one that we’re not fulfilling. No wonder students are angry.

TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture 2015 – Kenan Malik

km11The University of Cape Town today welcomed Kenan Malik, who delivered the TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture for 2015. As chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, I had the pleasure of welcoming him, and the text of my remarks is pasted below. I’ll link to the podcast of the lecture itself once it becomes available (here’s the transcript in the meanwhile).

Free speech in an age of identity politics – opening remarks

Three recent examples of disagreement regarding identity and its implications are: what is meant by transformation at UCT; what is meant by “black” or “white” in the Rachel Dolezal case; and how should we understand gender and sex, as in discussions sparked by Caitlin Jenner.

Two positions are commonly found when we disagree on issues such as these. First, you’d find a group of people who have borne the brunt of misunderstanding, mockery, prejudice and so forth. Second, you’ll find some who assert that the first group is poorly or incoherently defined, in that they are allied on grounds of purported identity alone, rather than shared arguments or ideas.

Regarding the first group, there’s no question that collectives of people – defined however they would like to define themselves – can mobilize around a shared conception of identity, finding courage, inspiration, ideas, or political heft through association.

And the second group can impede all those goals, often callously. It is surely beyond dispute that glib dismissals of these identities and their concerns can be used to silence, or to entrench existing power structures and so forth.

Consider the idea of “political correctness”, where those who deride the concept are sometimes largely interested either in being abusive, or simply in preserving their ideological positions. You don’t find a discriminated-against group complaining about “political correctness” as much as that complaint occurs amongst heterosexual white males, for example.

Over the weekend, you might have read about a programmer from New Zealand named Byron Clark, who devised a way to illustrate what some folk really mean when they talk about political correctness. He created a web browser script that automatically changed all mentions of the term “political correctness” to instead read “treating people with respect” – with the result that headlines might read “Donald Trump says that treating people with respect is getting out of control”, or somesuch.

But on the other side of the equation, politics premised on identity can also involve a suggestion or demand that those who don’t share the identity remain silent. This last week, in the debate on Amnesty International calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, certain interventions were ruled out of order not because they were necessarily uninformed, but because they came from rich white women, rather than from sex workers.

Of course, the interventions might also have been uninformed – but this feature could itself then serve as sufficient reason to reject them, rather than using the identity of the speaker to do so. In other words, some expressions of identity politics seem to entail that the identity of the speaker either confers – or diminishes – credibility as an independent feature, regardless of what they might be saying.

And yet, the liberal impulse of treating ideas according to their merits can be criticised for assuming the possibility of cultural and value-neutrality – and that possibility might well be a fiction, where it’s simply the case that one set of norms has become the default.

A related question is whether it is politically useful, rather than permissible – in terms of advancing whatever cause is at issue – for people outside of a particular identity to offer comment. If our answer is “no”, then we run the risk of silencing ideas that might be useful. If our answer is “yes”, the consequences would involve hearing at least some uninformed and prejudicial comment, but hopefully also some that adds value.

As a recent article in the New Yorker put it, Mill’s so-called marketplace of ideas is, “just like any other market, imperfect, and could … be improved by careful government intervention”, as in the case of hate speech. One concern raised by identity politics is that the marketplace is sufficiently distorted that not only do the historically advantaged get to define the terms of debate, but also what is worth debating, and that we might therefore want to recognise some self-imposed, socially constructed constraints on speech.

The question in short is: is the classic liberal position regarding free speech simply a way to legitimise existing power dynamics, or is it our best strategy for separating sense from nonsense, and learning which ideas are worth taking seriously?

These and related ideas are among the themes that Kenan Malik has been reflecting on in many of his columns, books, lectures and documentaries for over two decades now. He is the author of 6 books, including “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy”, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize, and “Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate”, which was on the 2009 Royal Society Science Book Prize longlist. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, published last year.

His website, Pandaemonium, is not only a valuable archive of hundreds of thoughtful columns, but also a model of robust and fair debate, where Malik takes time to engage thoughfully with many of his readers – some of whom, as is typical with online comments, seem to have read an entirely different column to the one the author likely thought that they had written!

On Pandaemonium, he tells us that politically, he takes his cue from James Baldwin’s insistence that ‘Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take’, before going on to note how the Rushdie affair exposed the left’s partial abandonment of Enlightenment rationalism and secular universalism in favour of identity politics, and how as a result, much of his work is now in defence of free speech, secularism and scientific rationalism. Given his abiding interest in these issues, today’s lecture on Free Speech in the age of Identity Politics will no doubt provide plenty of food for thought and debate. Please join me in welcoming Kenan Malik to the University of Cape Town.

Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

The University of Cape Town’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) hosts an annual lecture that explores issues related to academic freedom – the TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture. TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955, and is remembered as a fearless defender of academic freedom, including the autonomy of the university.

TB Davie defined academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit. This definition is not without its detractors, with some arguing that the concept of “academic merit” is itself prone to embedding and perpetuating certain biases, in particular biases related to class and race. Continue reading “Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech”

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.

Rhodes, “mad panics”, and inappropriate analogies

Since leaving the Democratic Alliance, Gareth van Onselen has become one of the more consistently interesting columnists we have in South African media. “Interesting” might seem to be a weasel-word to some of you, but having now spent a few minutes trying to find the right word, I find it’s the best I can do.

His columns are seldom bad, and are sometimes very good. They are often challenging, especially to folks like myself who think of themselves as liberals, and challenging our views – and making us think – is the primary task of a columnist.

It’s true that some use the “liberal” label, as well as his past party affiliation, as convenient means of dismissing van Onselen’s contributions. These critics miss the point, I feel – mostly because those are fairly straightforward ad hominem comments rather than engagements with substance, but also because they see his dogged adherence to principle as evidence of ideological blindness.

Van Onselen isn’t subtle in his criticisms, but they are typically very thoughtful, and thought-provoking for those who choose to engage with them. He is also deeply committed to certain values, which can loosely be described as those of classical liberalism.

He makes no attempt to hide that ideological conviction, and applies it consistently – which means that we can either try to undermine the foundation itself, or his interpretation of it.

As with the Michael Cardo piece on UCT’s “pathetic capitulation” on the question of the Rhodes statue, I think van Onselen’s recent column on the same topic gives UCT too little credit, and also exaggerates the likely consequences of the Rhodes statue removal.

1339056551-fahrenheit451Furthermore, I find its liberalism unduly prescriptive, in that it asserts that the status quo (at least in terms of the historical record, and the statue in particular) must be preserved, because removing it is to succumb to an unthinking populism, or even worse, a re-programming of society, of language, and of value (as was portrayed in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), rather than seeing how changing the status quo could better serve a liberal outcome.

He also uses the analogy of Brett Murray’s The Spear, and this analogy is to my mind equally poor – not for being hyperbolic (as is the case with Farenheit 451), but because the two things are crucially dissimilar.

You need to read his column (in fact, the transcript of a speech), because I’m not going to do it justice here. There is plenty in it to think about, and to be challenged by, especially if you regard yourself as a liberal. It’s long, and I want to be brief – so apologies for only picking up on a few things below.

First, the column takes a value-laden starting point – the presence of the statue at UCT – as a legitimate normative and neutral starting point. This is why the Farenheit 451 analogy is hyperbolic. If we are liberal, and committed to individual freedom, it is of course a concern if we start privileging certain views (by extension, cultures, artistic expressions and statues) above others.

But the point about the removal of Rhodes (for those who supported that decision, like me) is that its presence did that privileging already, and that its removal is therefore more compatible with this liberal goal, in that it was its presence in such pride of place that resulted in some students being unable to feel as much part of the institution as others.

A focus on the underlying goals and values of liberalism should not be obscured by historical contingencies, and should certainly not be defined by a privileged set of norms that are thought to be beyond question. We can agree that all things being equal, statues should not be torn down, sure – but all things were not equal in this case.

By contrast to burning books, students were forced to see this statue, and to see it as emblematic of their university. They could choose to not read a book, but they could not choose to have the statue standing in pride of place at UCT. There is no reason to burn a book, because you have the option of not reading it – here there was no analogous option.

Likewise with The Spear – the analogy fails because the cases are too dissimilar. An artwork like The Spear is created for a community who typically self-select to engage with it. This is not the case with the Rhodes statue. The Spear was a case in which people were perfectly entitled to their offence, but were not entitled to the remedy of destroying it or removing it.

Neither the Goodman Gallery, nor Brett Murray, are established as institutions for the national good, that are intended to serve an educational purpose while trying to avoid privileging people by virtue of their race, class and so forth. You can object to The Spear, lament its existence, and then move on – it’s wrong to destroy it. UCT, by contrast, is being negligent if it picks at some scab of yours every day you are there.

Our understanding of liberalism should not be allowed to ossify, as I think it can do when we take the current situation for granted, instead of being more Utilitarian about maximising liberty – even when that means changing something about the present (like moving a statue).

As I noted in the third part of this piece on modern challenges to free speech, other aspects of liberalism might need updating also, in that if the environment changes, different sorts of remedies or interventions might work better than those we used in the 19th Century.

Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”