The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.
What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise.
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?
According 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.
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.