UCT and Sax Appeal: the Vice-Chancellor’s response

Dr. Max Price responded as follows to the controversy described in my previous post. My response to his is offered below:

Dear Colleagues and Students

This year’s edition of Sax Appeal, the annual UCT Rag publication produced by students, has elicited widespread reaction and debate. I feel it most important that our community discuss issues like these freely and I therefore share my views with you. I welcome your views.

This year’s edition elicited an outcry from many people – including many Christians – objecting strongly to a feature on pages 84 and 85 offering possible retorts for an atheist to certain imagined questions from Christian fundamentalists contained in 10 picture comic frames. Some also objected to a Zapiro cartoon, and to other statements in the magazine.

Following an intense discussion and interrogation of the content on the two pages in question, the RAG chairperson apologised unreservedly to those offended by aspects on these two pages. As Vice-Chancellor, I publicly expressed a view that the apology was indeed appropriate and I added my own apology, expressing regret at the publication of the two pages.

Both apologies are an acknowledgement that aspects of the two pages were offensive, hurtful and disrespectful, particularly to Christians.

The magazine as a whole is not in question and I regret to say that some people who complain about the general quality admit that they have not read it! There are excellent offerings in it. I believe the magazine is a good one – a typical student offering of satire and humour.

The RAG magazine has been produced by our students since the early 1930s and as you know it is sold to support an excellent cause – the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO). The popularity and appeal of Sax Appeal has always been through being provocative, irreverent, funny, satirical and often silly.

I have no doubt that – as is typical in most years – the content will continue to elicit varied responses from different people, from being thoroughly enjoyed to being seen as boring or juvenile.

However, an upsetting number of emails received were insulting in the extreme, even threatening the lives of UCT staff members and insulting individuals in the most grotesque, vitriolic personal attacks. Many have demanded that we discipline the students and institute controls to prevent this happening again. This is regrettable and dangerous, not just for the individuals being threatened, but for society, because such behaviour threatens freedom of speech more generally.

The RAG magazine is produced by a student editorial team that holds editorial independence. Prior to finalisation, the magazine is submitted to an editorial advisory board that this year included one staff member. Its role is to advise on content and other issues relating to the magazine. The emphasis is on advice. It is not – and never should be – the role of the editorial advisory board to edit or censor the content.

For the future, we will strengthen the seniority and weight of academic input into the editorial advisory board.

I think you will agree with me that the independence of students is in itself contributing to the learning experience and we all expect students to take responsibility and to work independently. If, as a result, an error occurs or problems arise, the students have to accept the consequences and we trust they learn from the experience.

In addition to the response from a segment of the community who were offended and wished to see future censorship, there have also been letters in the press questioning whether UCT should have apologised at all, arguing that this hints at self-censorship and concedes to limitations on freedom of speech.

UCT has a proud history of defending freedom of speech. Democracy and political freedom cannot exist if people are not free to express any views and beliefs they have. Furthermore, if this freedom were to be in any way restricted based on the content of the views expressed, it would require some authority to decide which views are unacceptable to society. But how can we trust such an authority not to pursue its own interests, or even with benign intention, to know what is best for all of us, particularly when we are prevented from hearing dissident views. So we tolerate the dangers of ill-informed views, lies, untruths, offensive comments, socially divisive propositions being given public hearing because we cannot trust anyone to hold the monopoly on truth. The evidence suggests that progress is better served through the market place of competing ideas.

A university like ours must defend free speech and enquiry even more vigorously than society in general for it is the basis of our pursuit of truth, and discovery and analysis. The danger of a religious authority prohibiting the expression of views that offend it is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the classic conflict between Galileo and the Church-ruled establishment, for whom the proposal that the earth and humanity were not the centre of the universe was heretical and led to his detention.

For all these reasons, this freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right. Why then would I have discouraged the publication of the picture comic frames, and why have I apologised for them?

Because no freedoms are absolute. The freedom of speech may be limited under certain circumstances. Hate speech is a recognised limitation. So is defamatory speech. In the case of these picture comic frames, they are not hate speech, nor defamatory – but I believe they are gratuitously offensive; they insult people of a particular faith and they insult their God.

If these statements were made in the course of a satirical article, or a political argument, in the pursuit of ‘truth’ or for the benefit of advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system – the offence caused could still be justified. But if they are simply the stuff of a joke at another’s expense through ridiculing the other, making a whole group of people out to be stupid, I think it communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights.

The consequence of these statements is to offer a few laughs for some at the expense of the dignity of others. It also has the consequence of causing social division and conflict. While this in itself is not an argument for censorship, it must weigh against making such statements if no positive purpose can be shown to be served. There is no other utility. So the negative social and individual consequences outweigh the positive. But that is a reason for being more considerate and not publishing them, it is not a reason for censorship, the practice of which would be far more negative in the greater scheme of things.

At UCT we welcome different views. Ideally they are expressed in a respectful manner.

I would like to make clear that we will not discipline the students involved nor will we censor the magazine in the future. We will ensure that the editorial advisory board plays its role appropriately. And we will ensure that the students who produce Sax Appeal understand that with every right – also that of expressing oneself – comes a responsibility.

Anyone wanting to comment is welcome to write to saxappealcomments@uct.ac.za. We value your views and learn from them.

Dr Max Price

To which I responded:

Dr. Price’s response to the Sax Appeal controversy is measured and thoughtful, and I remain delighted to have such a reasonable person leading our University. The response does, however, not succeed in making the case for an apology from the VC being merited, and thus leaves me still troubled by what this episode indicates in terms of the University’s commitment to both free speech and rationality.

The apology is redundant firstly because Dr. Price apologised in advance of any offense being incurred, in his introductory letter in the magazine itself. After this public disavowal of responsibility for the contents of Sax Appeal, the utility to which Dr. Price’s letter appeals could perhaps have been more properly served by letting those responsible apologise, assuming an apology was necessary. Dr. Price’s apology took responsibility on behalf of the University, and thus incurs the negative utility of indicating that UCT is perhaps prepared to sacrifice or compromise its commitment to free speech in cases where enough pressure – and perhaps pressure of the right sort – is applied.

Dr. Price’s letter indicates that restrictions on free speech are justified in the standard cases of hate speech and defamation, and correctly indicates that the offending sections of Sax Appeal are guilty of neither of these offences. The letter also correctly argues that if freedoms are restricted based on content, that this involves the dangerous move of granting an authority the right to decide what is acceptable and what falls foul of that authority’s standards. He then goes on to make a purely utilitarian argument for an apology being merited in this particular case, based on the premise that the offending sections of Sax Appeal were not “made in the course of a satirical article, or a political argument, in the pursuit of ‘truth’ or for the benefit of advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system”. He goes on to say that “if they are simply the stuff of a joke at another’s expense through ridiculing the other, making a whole group of people out to be stupid, I think it communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights.”

There are numerous problems here. First, it would appear that while Dr. Price finds an authority legislating on which views are acceptable to society offensive, that offense does not extend to granting an authority the right to conclude that the Sax Appeal content in question attempted none of the goals described in his letter, particularly that of “advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system”. Perhaps it was advancing the view that religion, and religious belief, is an irrational and dangerous force in society, and one that is so unfounded in common sense that it deserves to be mocked whenever possible? While I can’t speak for the authors, this view is at least compatible with the content of the magazine, and also surely qualifies as a “view on religion in general”.

Second, Dr. Price’s letter suggests that the offending sections, in “making a whole group of people out to be stupid, … communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights”. This analysis is poor: if Sax Appeal was offering any analysis of religion, it would perhaps be indicating that believers believe stupid things. This does not necessarily make them stupid as people, rather perhaps confused in the same manner that people who believe in homeopathy or astrology are. Asserting that Sax Appeal treated believers as “stupid” qua individuals – and then tying that claim to a human rights argument – could be said to serve the same rhetorical function as that South African classic of “playing the race card”. Once it’s been claimed that Sax Appeal does not respect (Christian) rights, we now all surely agree that they are misguided and simply wrong?

Lastly, pointing out confusions where people are victims of such confusions (even if those offering the lesson are themselves confused) in no way indicates a lack of respect for diversity and every individual’s innate dignity. It could in fact be said to be in furtherance of those noble ideals that confusions be addressed, and that faulty world-views are corrected or debated. In the absence of such corrective forces, it’s difficult to imagine that people will ever have the chance to be dignified and equal, or that diversity will be something that emerges out of informed choice, rather than simply being a matter of an accident of geography.

Yours sincerely,
Jacques Rousseau

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.