Choosing to be silent | Being barred from speaking

we-realizeDuring the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.

My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.

In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.

It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.

As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.

To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.

This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.

At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.

I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.

And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.

Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.

For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.

Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.

Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.

Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.

But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.

As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.


The 2015 #SaxAppeal cover


This is not a “rage-blog”. I’m not indignant, offended or any of those things by the Sax Appeal 2015 cover that I saw via Twitter this morning. It depicts Christian Grey (a rich white guy who is into BDSM) looking out over shacks where poor black people live.

I do, however, think it was a poor choice of image, for the two reasons I’ll outline below. But first, a general point, which is the actual motivation for this post: there are usually intermediate options between the polarised sorts of shouting at each other that social media seems to encourage.

Criticism is quickly read as outrage, and in a case like this, can also lead to accusations of conservatism, fuddy-duddyishness and so forth. On the other end of the spectrum, those who support the image can overstate its virtues, and not recognise any value in concerns expressed by others.

There’s a gulf between those options, and that’s where I’m speaking from. I was shocked by the image, but I mean shocked in a descriptive sense, rather than as an index of moral outrage – it took me aback. So, that’s a plus for the “good satire” reading, in that being forced to take notice is a good start.

But the cover ultimately misses the mark, and was a poor choice. First, because risky satirical choices are only a smart move if you’ve got credibility as a satirist or satirical publication. Without that, you can appear to be simply echoing the reality you’re trying to critique, or appear oblivious to dimensions of it.

Simply being known as a satirical magazine one isn’t the same thing as people knowing you to be good at that job, and therefore interpreting you in that light – and sorry to say, but I don’t think Sax Appeal been good at it for a while.

Second, you significantly increase your chances of being read uncharitably by virtue of the targets that you pick. In this instance, there’s a context of:

  • 5 years of debate on admissions policy, race and transformation
  • public criticism from UCT academics on the perceived slow pace of transformation at UCT
  • a funding crisis at a national level, affecting the ability of poor students to enter universities
  • a rather public tantrum by a prominent media house owner on UCT’s transformation track-record
  • a university that is situated in a city that is perceived by some as racist

And so forth. In other words, this was a very risky issue on which to push the boat out. I certainly don’t think they were intending to be crude or offensive – in fact, I know some of the people involved, and trust them in this regard – but this was a poor decision.

(Sax Appeal has taken note of the reaction, and posted the statement quoted below to Facebook.)


On behalf of the SAX Appeal Editorial Team, we regret the hurt caused by this year’s cover photo.

We understand the concern about what is perceived by some as racist or patronizing undertones of the image; but we would like to state unequivocally that our intention was not to make light of racism or to humiliate its victims.

Our intention was to open up discussion about the problematic power relations in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid has left a tragic divide between rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban – a divide that is still perpetuated daily.

Just as the themes of 50 Shades of Grey allude to power dynamics in sex, our hope with 50 Shades of SAX was to discuss the other power dynamics that still pervade our society. Even though the privileged no longer oppress the underprivileged daily with batons or whips, we hoped that the cover image would inspire discussion about the secretive, underhand ways in which the privileged still get their way.

These issues, including those within the magazine, such as the discussion around homophobia in Islam, the psychiatric profile of God and of golf being representational of white privilege, were included in the magazine to bring about such discussion.

In this way, SAX 2015 has taken a very different turn compared to previous editions. Sensitive topics were not written about to ridicule the marginalized or disadvantaged but to induce meaningful discussion about these topics. These are issues that we did not think we could avoid discussing, but if we missed the mark in our attempt at discussion, we regret the effect that this has caused.

We hope that this perspective might add to the debate that has been sparked on social media and that it might point it in a direction that is critical and constructive around issues of race and socioeconomics.

The future of South African tertiary education?

The original text of this article in The Daily Maverick.

A Higher Education summit hosted by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, is taking place at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on April 22 and 23. Much of the focus at the summit will be on “transformation”, one of the more flexible words you’ll encounter while working at a South African university. This is saying a lot, especially since many departments – at my university at least – still seem completely enamoured by the liberating brew of postmodernism, which of course allows for infinite lexical flexibility.

Perhaps this is simply another example of political correctness gone awry – we all know that transformation relates primarily to race, but to explicitly say so may be impolitic, in that colour-blindness is a virtue that we’re all meant to be aspiring to, even in cases where economic inequalities premised on race persist. Instead, transformation becomes code for various social issues, and allows us to collapse concerns around equity, throughput, policies on wheelchair ramps, and whatever else does not currently have its own committee under one handy banner.

For example, the most recent message from the Transformation Officer in my Faculty related to the “Executive Secretaries and Personal Assistants International Symposium”, which I had a difficult time relating to anything obviously to do with transformation. But then, perhaps I’m not transformed myself, or perhaps I’m simply insufficiently postmodern.