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Academia and teaching Politics

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.

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.

3 replies on “Germaine Greer, universities and false dichotomies”

Can police ever be allowed on campus? My immediate reaction was “absolutely”, but I live in a country where guns are readily accessible and there have been gunmen on college campuses killing students, faculty, and staff. OTOH, I shouldn’t forget the students who were killed and wounded at Kent State in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired on a crowd protesting the Viet Nam war.

I have been reading the links you have been providing to reports of the student protest in SA with great interest. My college education would not have been possible if government financial assistance had not been available. I got a federal grant to cover books and dorm fees and, since I scored high on a state exam, I got tuition costs waived at the state university I attended. Education is vital. It’s probably the most worthwhile investment a government can make in it’s citizenry. There is a serious negative impact on society when people can’t afford to get the education they need to provide essential services like health care, etc.

It’s an enormously positive thing that these protests are highlighting the dire financial circumstances of many of our students, and hopefully more of the financial assistance you speak of will become available here also.

The particular problem for us, of course, is that black South Africans are often the first members of their families to go to university, and when they get funding, much of it goes to supporting that family. Understandable, but not conducive to a successful university career…

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