The Cape Town launch of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s latest book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, was held last week at the Book Lounge. I was invited to be the discussant and, having already read the book a few weeks ago and found it to be worthwhile, was pleased to accept.
On re-reading it in preparation for the discussion, my initial impression persisted: relative ‘insiders’ to the last few years of university politics and protests might not learn much that they didn’t know, while the general public certainly could.
In what will probably not ever become a series, consider this sign, displayed in the library of the University of Cape Town. The casual observer might simply pass it by, given that the casual observer is typically not that observant.
The slightly less casual observer might pause to reflect on the irony inherent in the fact that a university library approved, printed and now displays a sign that contains two spelling errors. Or, they might reflect on this a little later, shaking their heads while sipping their cognac.
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.
The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope.
The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.
While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC.
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.
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.
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.
During 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 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.
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.