Pandaemonium

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND ACADEMIC COWARDICE

rich white censored books 3This is in response to the decision of the University of Cape Town to ‘disinvite’ Flemming Rose, former cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten responsible for publishing the Danish cartoons, from giving this year’s TB Davie Lecture on Academic Freedom.


Last year, I was honoured to be invited to the University of Cape Town to give the 2015 TB Davie lecture. It was a privilege to have been able to become part of the history that is the TB Davie lecture, a history of resistance to apartheid and to censorship, a history of refusing to think as one has been told to think but, rather, of challenging people to open their minds, a history of continually rethinking the meanings of freedom, and of academic freedom. It was a privilege, too, to be able to sign my name in a speakers’ book in which other signatories include such great figures as Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinke, Orlando Patterson, Juliet Mitchell, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.

Even though I spent but a short time at UCT, I came to have great affection for the university, and its students and staff. It comes as a shock, therefore, to discover that the UCT has decided to disinvite Flemming Rose who was to be this year’s TB Davie lecturer. The public statement on the disinvitation, put out by the Vice Chancellor Max Price on behalf of the UCT executive, in the form of a letter to the Academic Freedom Committee, claims that were Rose to deliver his lecture, it might have ‘provoked conflict’, created ‘security risks’ and helped ‘retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus’. The first two justifications are the kind of weasel excuses used to censor anyone considered ‘provocative’ or ‘offensive’ from Salman Rushdie to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti to MF Hussain. The third justification eviscerates logic (and, perhaps, the English language, too). The decision to disinvite Rose suggests that the UCT executive understands neither the meaning of academic freedom nor the significance of the history embodied in the TB Davie lecture.

Particularly dispiriting is the cowardice of the UCT executive in using the views of others as excuses for its own censoriousness. According to the public statement, ‘Mr Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberately provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech’. Does the UCT executive believe that Rose is a bigot and a purveyor of hate speech? Is it not necessary for the executive to form a view on this issue before taking a decision? Otherwise, presenting other peoples’ views about Rose and using those views as reasons for disinviting him becomes an exercise simply of character assassination by proxy – of using others’ claims to defame Rose. And that is the exercise in which the UCT appears to have indulged.

The UCT statement acknowledges that ‘all these claims [about Rose] can be contested, and the precepts of academic freedom should require us to hear him out’. Yet the UCT executive has decided not to hear him out, but rather to disinvite him. What can one conclude but that the UCT no longer adheres to ‘the precepts of academic freedom’?

According to the UCT statement, the presence of Flemming Rose would ‘lead to vehement and possibly violent protest against him and against UCT’. Is it the UCT’s view, then, that any threat of violence should lead to the speaker being disinvited? And, if so, is that not giving in to the Assassin’s Veto – allowing those who threaten violence the right to define what is acceptable speech or who is an acceptable speaker?

I appreciate that, as the letter puts it, ‘Our campuses have become charged spaces, in which ideological and social fault-lines have become intensely politicised, sometimes violently so’. I recognize the heat and friction generated by issues from the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign to debates about Israel, and by the simmering conflicts, not just on campus but throughout the nation, over matters of race, religion, identity and representation. But it is precisely because there is such discord and tension that free speech becomes even more important. These issues cannot be resolved by censoring one view or the other, but only by open, robust debate. As I argued in my TB Davie lecture last year:

The university is a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument; a space within which students can be challenged, even upset or shocked or made angry… To be at a university is to accept the challenge of exploring one’s own beliefs and responding to disagreement.

In disiniviting Flemming Rose, in seeking to protect students from his views, in signaling that it would rather censor than risk conflict over contested ideas, the UCT executive suggests that it fails to understand the significance not merely of academic freedom but of the university, too.

drobny

Perhaps the most deplorable line in the UCT statement is the rhetorical question that asks ‘will progress on this issue be advanced by inviting someone who represents a provocatively – potentially violently – divisive view to make the case for a considered version of academic freedom that is avowedly sensitive to the concurrent rights to dignity and freedom from harm?’

It is deplorable because it appears to blame Rose for the violent actions of others. Rose has not been responsible for violence. He has, rather, been the object of death threats. If there were to be a violent protest against Rose on the UCT campus, why does the executive imagine that the issue would be Rose’s ‘violently divisive view’ rather than the actions of those who were violent?

It is deplorable, too, because the executive appears to have set itself as the arbiter of what constitutes a ‘considered version of academic freedom’ and of how to define ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom from harm’. Is it the executive’s view that only those who accept its understanding of ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’ and ‘harm’ should be allowed to speak on campus?

Yes, the views of Flemming Rose are provocative and they are divisive in the sense that many people find them offensive and unacceptable. I myself disagree with many of his views. But that is true of many public intellectuals – including many, perhaps most, of those who have given the TB Davie lecture in the past. Noam Chomsky could hardly be called a consensual figure. Edward Said’s views were, and remain, highly divisive. It is precisely because their ideas provoke and divide and make us think that they are valuable. Bland ideas rarely disclose truths about the world, or incite us into thinking more deeply about such truths. There can be no freedom (academic or otherwise) without provocation or offence.

Does the UCT executive really believe that the preservation of academic freedom requires it to invite only those speakers who cause no provocation or raise tension? Does it imagine, in other words, that one can only preserve academic freedom by inviting speakers with whom the audience is likely to agree? In which case, what is the point of such speakers speaking?

In disinviting Flemming Rose because some condemn him as offensive or Islamophobic, the UCT executive is not only undermining academic freedom, it is also blindly entering a fraught debate within Muslim communities – and supporting the conservatives against the progressives. What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions. There are writers, artists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Sabeen Mahmud, the Pakistani rights activist shot dead last year by religious militants; or Bangladeshi bloggers such as Nazimuddin Samad and Avijit Roy, hacked to death for their blasphemies; or Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a thousand lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Such issues are live in South Africa, too. Last year, the writer ZP Dala was violently assaulted in Durban for expressing her admiration of Salman Rushdie, and subsequently forced by the local community into a mental hospital, apparently to cure her of her blasphemous views. For such figures a ‘safe space’ means not a place in which to hide from unpalatable ideas, but a space in which their lives are not threatened. Every time an institution such as UCT attempts to censor a speaker for ‘giving offence’ or for their ‘blasphemous views’, it betrays the struggles of those such as Sabeen Mahmud, Nazimuddin Samad, Avijit Roy, Raif Badawi and ZP Dala.

I concluded my TB Davie lecture last year with the following lines:

Free speech – proper, full-blooded free speech – is the lifeblood of any progressive politics and of any progressive transformation of society. If we treasure the one, we must treasure the other.

The question is: does the UCT executive treasure either?

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The images are from Rich White’s ‘Censored books’ series and a poster by Grzegorz Drobny.

16 comments

  1. Fayyaz

    Let us back a little. Let us assume that UCT considered inviting Mr. Rose in a meeting but decided not to invite him because of his divisive rhetoric and possibility of violence. Would this had been also against freedom of speech for not inviting Mr. Rose from the beginning?

    • If you mean whether there was an obligation on UCT to invite Flemming Rose in the first place, the answer is no. if you mean whether there is a difference between not inviting someone, and stopping someone who has been invited from speaking, the answer is yes.

  2. Fayyaz

    I agree, UCT should have considered all consequences before inviting Mr. Rose, once invited , cancelling invitation is cowardice especially when Mr. Rose did not do anything new out of his character between invitation and cancelling of invitation that warranted to revisit the invitation.

  3. John Vallmont

    Once again UCT is forced to bend to inane, bigoted and racist views of the vocal but strident minority of its own student body. The campus had come to fear those who deserve to be tossed out.

    • steve roberts

      Surely the UCT were not forced at all, what does that mean, physically forced, threatened with violence or withdrawal of student activities or some other method of force ? No ,they were probably put under pressure ,possibly intense from a particular perspective, well that’s just the cut and thrust of contested political and social life, the point is judgements have to be made and defended if they are to be worth anything and we all have to stand by those decisions. The points that Kenan makes are absolutely correct and i find it hard to believe that considering their previous speakers those who have made this decision probably would agree in private with the principles Kenan outlines, importantly though they have failed the test in the most important arena for political matters the public one ,they have cowardly given in to this regressive attitude and failed to defend free speech, disgraceful.
      It may enable them to continue with their careers, to take the silver but they can no longer speak of freedoms and all that flows from having more of it, are these the sort of people who ought to be at the head of academic institutions ?

  4. Mike

    As a UCT student, I was disgusted by this decision. I wonder if UCT would react in the same way if a hypothetical militant atheist organisation were to threaten violence at a talk by a muslim – by branding the muslim in question a jihadist or something along those lines (This is essentially what was done to Rose, who actually considers himself a classical liberal). Something tells me that they would not. There are many progressive muslims who will agree with me that affording this sort of privilege to the Islamic doctrine – that it is not allowed to be criticised or debated – only serves to prevent reform and modernisation of its flawed aspects. I have begun writing a letter to Dr. Price in the hope of fighting back against this sort of ideology but I certainly feel outnumbered by those who would rather just shut out any ideas they find unappealing.

    • Andrew

      Hi Mike,
      I’m also a student at UCT. I’m also writing a letter. Perhaps we could cosign a letter. It would be good if we could get more students to express their dissent. Just repost here if you would be interested.

  5. Yes. The University showed itself to be craven.These vacillations are embarrassing and inexcusable. As was the removal of Rhodes’s statue, when it would have been better to flank that unlovely man with a statue of Steve Biko on his left and one of Robert Sobukwe on his right.Universities have the responsibility to think creatively rather than defensively, and students have the responsibility of listening to views which contradict their own. Otherwise, why bother to be at a University in the first place?

  6. Stergios

    I am not sure where I stand on this… Criticism of religion as a social phenomenon and criticism of any given religion on a philosophical or historical basis is indeed an exercise of free speech that should never be stifled by academia. However, blasphemy is not criticism, it is a sadistic form of insulting fellow human beings. I am a Christian but I would have very much enjoyed a lecture of Sir Bertrand Russell against Christianity. I cannot say the same about a person whose only claim to fame is gratuitously insulting persons and symbols that are sacred to millions of our fellow human beings.

  7. Fantastic piece Kenan, particularly poignant is the straightforward moral clarity: “For such figures a ‘safe space’ means not a place in which to hide from unpalatable ideas, but a space in which their lives are not threatened.”

  8. I am ashamed of my University: I have been here since 1974; I have heard many “divisive” speakers in that time, from the then Prime Minister John Vorster to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to various TB Davie lecturers – and never, ever have I heard of one being “disinvited” [a terrible term: please let’s use “uninvited”?].

    I am also very unhappy with the way the protests and protesters from our last year of discontent were handled: a small body of people were allowed to effectively terrorise the University with simple-minded slogans, overt racism and physical intimidation, with the fallout being an atmosphere of fear in academic meetings, where students are scared of being labelled racist if they don’t either keep silent, or agree unreservedly with fringe opinions and slogans derived from American protests.

    The climate of fear and distrust and abject political correctness that we now live in has resulted in Flemming Rose being insulted, and the whole institution of the TB Davie Lecture on academic freedom being severely weakened.

    I think Flemming Rose ought to be invited to video the lecture he would have given, put it up on YouTube, and have those of us at UCT who are shamed by this whole controversy, publicise it as widely as we can.

    • A very small point: “uninvited” means “never invited inthe first place”, as in “uninvited guest”. “Disinvited” means invited, but the invitation was then cancelled, as in this case. So we need both words and the distinction between them.

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