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.