This 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.
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?