Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

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.

Discussion of these and other disagreements is of course only possible in a climate of academic freedom more generally, wherein views can be heard and debated without fear of censure, and where proponents of any given view should expect to be asked for evidence and argument in defence of that view.

To my mind, it is this broader conception of academic freedom as having respect for arguments, rather than who they might come from, that is honoured through the TB Davie Memorial Lecture series, which began in 1959 with a lecture by former chief justice and UCT chancellor, Albert van de Sandt Centlivres.

In subsequent years, the lecture has been delivered by, among others, ZK Matthews, Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinka, Kader Asmal, Ferial Haffajee (in 2013, the year of the Brett Murray “Zuma’s Spear” controversy) and most recently, Max du Preez.

km11This year’s speaker – Kenan Malik – has chosen a topic that speaks directly to this conception of academic freedom. The August 13 lecture is titled “Free speech in an age of identity politics”, and Malik will discuss how identity politics can erode a perception of free speech being a universal good, and censorship by default something to oppose. Instead, identity politics can result in censorship being regarded as “a way of protecting people and social groups that are without power, and a tool with which to cut the powerful down to size”.

You’ll need to attend to hear his arguments, with the rest of this column being an expression of my views, rather than his. And as a starting point, I think it important to note that the concept of identity politics is itself the subject of contestation, although a fairly uncontroversial definition might say something like this: it is the tendency for people to form political alliances on the basis of some aspect of their identities that they consider fundamental to how they engage with the world, rather than on the basis of more agent-neutral or abstract ideas.

We would often expect to find identity politics in groups that are marginalised or discriminated against for some or other reason, whether it be on the grounds of their religion, race, sexual orientation or social background. And while identity politics can be an enormously effective mechanism for generating solidarity amongst the oppressed – and social awareness on the part of those who lack that element of “identity” – it can also shut down dissent, blind “insiders” to perspectives other than their own, and perversely, assume a position of privilege even as it seeks to put the case of the downtrodden.

To put it simply, this is because while speaking from a particular vantage point can mean that you have a better understanding of arguments related to that vantage point, it offers no guarantees of this. So, while a randomly selected person who identifies as a gay black woman might on aggregate be a more informed source on the implications that identity has for her lived experience, this does not mean that any particular gay black woman will be less or more informed or coherent on these topics than, for example, a straight white man who happens to have an abiding interest in the topic.

Yes, of course there’s one (significant) aspect of the situation he’s removed from – he cannot live and experience life from the perspective in question. Despite this, though, there might equally be elements of the situation he would understand better from a distance, not only because of having gathered a broad set of evidence rather than personal anecdote, but also because personal perspectives can be corrupted by emotional investment. Being close to an issue is not a guarantee of interpreting it accurately – in fact, the lack of objectivity can result in misinterpretation.

Ideally, one might want to get one’s information and analysis from someone who is both an insider, and also well-informed in a scholarly sense. But this is often not possible – and more to the point of what I’m trying to convey here, the issue is simply that it’s possible that the best arguments can come from the more counterintuitive sources, rather from those who you perceive as (or who assert a) “belonging” to the identity in question.

These issues need to be separated from a different (although related) aspect, which is that interventions might be perceived as more or less authoritative or informed depending on who the speaker is, and the sensitivity they display towards their status as outsider.

While some of us might be more or less sympathetic to the fact of their outsider status in these occasions, it’s important to remember that while this issue (in isolation) might speak to things like character and motivation, it cannot disqualify (or legitimise) the arguments being offered.

That aspect of the argument – using identity as a way of disqualifying or legitimising arguments – is how identity politics can shut down dissent and lead to the assumption of “insiders” having a epistemically privileged point of view. Where a point of view is epistemically privileged, that would be because the information and arguments are superior – not because of who is doing the speaking, even if it’s sometimes (even often) the case that insiders are better informed.

If we only allow people who identify with a particular identity to be authorities, there is no principled way to arrest the slippery slope into persons of identity X being the only ones qualified to speak on issues related to X-ness – and X could be defined with as much specificity as you like. And as much as marginalised groups would – and should – prefer informed comment over cliche and expressions of prejudice, extreme forms of identity politics would mean that they would themselves not be able to critique their detractors.

For, what do communitarians know of the lived experiences of liberals, or women that of men? Either we all get to say nothing about anyone besides ourselves – because that’s the only identity we know intimately – or everyone gets to comment on anything they like, and are judged by the quality of their arguments, rather than their race, gender or whatever other attribute you like.

To conclude, none of this is intended to refute the obvious truth that solidarity of various sorts can provide comfort, intellectual inspiration, political support and the like. The problem is simply that solidarity of these forms can also result in a kind of insularity, and blindness to the fact that just because we identify closely with a cause should never be assumed to mean we’re the only ones who get to talk about it – or that we’re guaranteed to be best placed to do so ourselves.

Postscript: Some commenters on Twitter and Daily Maverick seem to think that my pointing out that identity politics can lead to the argumentative blinkered-ness I describe here means that it always must, or that I’m ignorant of the fact that certain identities (like mine – that of being a white male) tend to be treated in a privileged fashion, and also get to dictate the terms of engagement themselves.

Other readers will hopefully recognise that talking about one problem in no way implies ignorance of other problems, nor a denial that those problems might be greater in magnitude or effect.

Jacques Rousseau is Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, UCT. To attend the TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture, RSVP at www.uct.ac.za/events or by emailing megan.White@uct.ac.za by 11 August 2015.

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