As By Fire – Jonathan Jansen on the 2015/6 university protests

The Cape Town launch of Prof. Jonathan Jansen’s latest book, As by Fire: The End of the South African University, was held last week at the Book Lounge. I was invited to be the discussant and, having already read the book a few weeks ago and found it to be worthwhile, was pleased to accept.

On re-reading it in preparation for the discussion, my initial impression persisted: relative ‘insiders’ to the last few years of university politics and protests might not learn much that they didn’t know, while the general public certainly could.

The book is grounded in Jansen’s interviews with 11 other Vice-Chancellors (Jansen was at the time VC at the University of the Free State), all of whom spoke fairly openly about their experiences and the challenges faced as they tried to balance the interests of competing parties – students, whether protesting or not, parents, staff, donors, as well as governing bodies like university Councils.

These people are all deeply-informed, even though they obviously speak from a perspective that is of necessity at least partly managerial. None of them had the liberty of doing whatever they might independently have thought ideal, because of those competing interests, and because many of their decisions had to be made in sub-optimal conditions, before all the facts were available, and under extreme pressure.

Jansen doesn’t hide the fact that the book only speaks from this perspective – he makes it clear, and also explicitly tells us that this perspective isn’t necessarily a privileged one, when set alongside the analysis that might be offered by students, or workers, or staff.

The political, social, economic and emotive weight of the events and background narrative discussed in the book doesn’t lend itself to consensus, whether on the interpretation of individual events, or on their collective overall impact and the consequences for our universities.

It thus seems crucial to me that we remind ourselves of the principle of charity when interpreting the contents of the book, rather than reading it – or engaging with Jansen – in a way that simply confirms our biases. Just as one would hope for Jansen to not dismiss a student perspective out-of-hand (for example, as people did with the infamous #ScienceMustFall clip), we would hope for the same when speaking about Jansen and his book.

That’s unfortunately not what we get in a piece by Zachary Levenson, published on Africa is a Country (AIAC), that describes Jansen as South Africa’s own David Brooks. Brooks, in case you don’t know, is a conservative American author who writes for the New York Times, and who frequently attracts criticism from the left for trading in stereotypes and lazy social analysis to make policy or political claims.

To my mind, Brooks is an example of the kind of conservative I’d hope for there to be more of, in that he at least seems thoughtful rather than irredeemably ideologically blinkered. Be that as it may, the headline is clearly intended as an insult, because AIAC’s editorial stance means that it, and its target audience, would be among those offering the criticisms described above.

But even so, one can be fair in interpretation of what people say, and one can certainly avoid presenting things in a deliberately misleading context. Consider this example (emphasis added):

I’m not in the business of kicking dead horses, but it would be bizarre to read Jansen’s transformation of one university as an indication that South Africa’s higher education system has been substantially integrated, decolonized, or whatever other concept we might apply. But in a talk in Cape Town on Wednesday night, July 12, this is precisely what he did. An employee at the Book Lounge in Cape Town’s city center told the audience that he couldn’t recall a bigger turnout for a big launch in the entire time he’d worked there. It was hard not to notice that the crowd was predominantly over fifty and white. This isn’t to say that it was entirely white — of course it wasn’t — and there were plenty of younger people there. But it’s worth noting that a talk on race in higher education by a black man — though he’d of course disagree that the talk was about race at all — was attended largely by older middle-class whites who seemed to hang on his every word.

How does the comment of a book launch discussant (yes, it was me, not an employee of the Book Lounge (but perhaps Levinson arrived late, and didn’t hear the introductions)) about the size of the crowd relate to university transformation?

How do the demographics of the crowd that he/I said this to make any point besides what we already know about Cape Town, book launches and their over-representation of whiteness? That’s a baseline reality – and a problem, sure, but one you write about in a piece about that problem, rather than shoehorning into a criticism of Jansen, while telling us a falsehood about what Jansen said.

Two paragraphs down, Levenson says

he [Jansen] told the crowd that the South African political scientist Susan Booysen’s edited volume Fees Must Fall (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017) conveys the student perspective — and even includes a couple of actual student contributions, as if it were shocking that people in their early twenties could pick up a pen — and that he was trying to bring the administration’s perspective. We also need workers to write a volume, he added, pushing the pluralism of “rainbow nation” post-racialism. If only the various perspectives could hash it out, everything would be fine.

One could have interpreted Jansen as making the sincere point that it was valuable to hear the student perspective – and would do so if you took him at his word, as described in the book and on the night, that he had an “open door” policy for exactly this reason. It’s an unfounded and uncharitable inference to make that he was being condescending about it (c.f. “as if it were shocking”, in the quote above).

In the same vein, unless you think that only one perspective has any explanatory value, it’s to Jansen’s credit that he would like to see more student perspectives (from both protesting and non-protesting students), as well as worker perspectives. That’s how we get the full picture, which is what those seeking understanding should want.

The motivated reading and motivated reasoning go on. When Jansen uses Stanford to make the simple point that one can do more with more resources, and that it’s thus a shame for resources to be destroyed in protests, Levenson asks

“Why was he comparing one of the richest schools in a country with some of the top universities in the world to a place in which all major universities are public?”

Well, because the point would hold true for that comparison, just as it would if he were to compare the relative value of having access to resources at a university with the same general value of having a well-resourced chicken farm.

Levenson then turns to some more Jansen-as-Brooks derision, before telling us “I couldn’t help but wonder why Jansen was focused so intently on signs of elite status in a country attempting to remedy the effects of decades of apartheid schooling” – on an evening where Jansen explicitly told us of his desire to get involved in fixing South Africa’s schooling system.

Then we move to decolonisation, a topic on which Jansen offered a fairly lengthy, and animated, exposition. I’d suggest that anyone who thinks we have a clear, and shared definition of what this means in practice at our universities is treating their ideological stance as non-negotiable, and that seems to be what Levinson does, in saying

“Let’s not overstate the problem,” Jansen continued. “Let’s not name it wrongly because that is disingenuous.” Given how frequently he was reminding the audience of his academic training as a social scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder why he would reveal that he hadn’t read any postcolonial theory written in the past forty years, or why he would feign ignorance, as if he couldn’t actually understand the meaning of the concept in its current context.

In naming the three books that he thinks foundational in understanding decolonisation, Jansen by no means confesses to not having read any others. And again, if you leave open the possibility that multiple viewpoints can help to clarify complicated issues, you don’t speak about “the meaning of the concept”. Jansen might think it means something different to what you do, just as I’ve heard various competing student interpretations of the concept.

Levinson then discusses the questions posed by Chumani Maxwele, who was present. Curiously, he doesn’t mention Maxwele by name, which made me wonder whether Levinson is indeed as informed as he presents himself as being.

The reason why Maxwele wasn’t named, according to Africa is a Country tweets, is that

One easy fix would be to leave that part (Maxwele’s questions) out of your account entirely, but that would be unfortunate, as Maxwele asked good questions. Which is precisely why, as this response notes, he should have been credited and identified:

AIAC then proceed to dig themselves a deeper hole, by claiming that they were trying to avoid the polarisation and sensationalism practiced by other publications, pointing to a TimesLive account of the same evening as example.

As the same Twitter user (@tomtom_m) responds, it’s perfectly possible to identify Maxwele without going down the silly distraction route that TimesLive chose – Maxwele’s questions, and Jansen’s answers to those, didn’t mention Drs Price and Surve at all, though the TimesLive reporter (who also tried to get me to comment on that) seemed intent on making that the story.

In short, this comes across as a very weak cover story for a writer having either failed to recognise Maxwele, or for having partially erased Maxwele’s voice, either of which would be unfortunate oversights in a piece that claims authority as well as purports deep affinity with the student protests.

In conclusion, another (long) paragraph from Levenson, describing the audience reaction to Maxwele’s question about why the black parents walking to and from work outside were not in the room:

I could see audience members rolling their eyes. It was the most substantive question of the evening, and easily the most thoughtful, yet Jansen gave it short shrift. He insisted that we can’t keep emphasizing race in every conversation, as if excising the concept from our repertoire would correspond to an eradication of racism (let alone racialism) in everyday life. But this corresponds precisely to the ideology of post-racialism in contemporary South Africa: it’s less about a verifiable observation than a strategy for shutting down any discussion of race whatsoever. No one could argue with a straight face that South Africa’s higher education system is anything approximating integrated, or that the geography of apartheid schooling doesn’t persist in a novel public v. private guise. But here was Jansen advocating an elitist schooling model in a post-apartheid context, all without so much as mentioning race, save for selectively denigrating the very concept.

This is a misrepresentation of Jansen’s answer, where Jansen made it clear that race isn’t the only important feature of an audience, and that there was value in talking to audiences of all descriptions. He was certainly not “denigrating the very concept”.

In fact, his answer even left room for Jansen agreeing that it would be ideal if those parents were in attendance – but that this doesn’t mean that gatherings without them are worthless. As Voltaire said, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Jansen also pointed out that this audience was a sample of one, and that he regularly addresses audiences where those parents are present. He proceeded to invite Maxwele to join him at the next one. Hopefully we’ll hear whether that happens or not in due course, and hopefully we’ll get a more honest account of the event.

Signs and significance, Vol. I: the UCT Library

In what will probably not ever become a series, consider this sign, displayed in the library of the University of Cape Town. The casual observer might simply pass it by, given that the casual observer is typically not that observant.

The slightly less casual observer might pause to reflect on the irony inherent in the fact that a university library approved, printed and now displays a sign that contains two spelling errors. Or, they might reflect on this a little later, shaking their heads while sipping their cognac. Continue reading “Signs and significance, Vol. I: the UCT Library”

Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise. Continue reading “Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall”

Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope. Continue reading “Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town”

Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.

While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC. Continue reading “Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture”

UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.

Germaine Greer, universities and false dichotomies

Student and worker protests continue, across South Africa, though it seems that we might be approaching a resolution at my university, at least. Getting back to (academic) work, including examinations and graduations, depends on whether protesting groups trust that they’ve received a good-faith commitment to addressing their demands, and I don’t know if we’re there yet.

But alongside discussion of (legitimate, as I’ve said before) demands, there are always elements on either side that hold things up, whether through acting unlawfully (for example burning books, at one university) or acting in bad faith, such as when academics, staff or other students disparage or insult what is, on aggregate, a coherent and disciplined group of disaffected students and workers.

Discussions get heated, and both the emotions and the urgency of the issues can lead discussions into attempts to make people choose between two extreme positions. Here are some examples:

Can police ever be allowed on campuses?

Answering this with a “no” is obviously correct for many of us, given the role police have historically played in the South African education system, and given the mistrust many South Africans have in the state in general, and the police in particular (thanks to events like the killings at Marikana).

Others would say “yes”, police should be allowed on campus, because they are the only way of dealing with people some of the “yes” group regard as hooligans, uncontrollable in no way besides the threat of legal censure. On this extreme end of the spectrum, the “yes” group is wrong, and is often just unwilling to challenge their own prejudices against those who disrupt the status quo.

Yet, treating the “no” answer as axiomatic would be a mistake also, in that it’s contingently the case that our police, in our circumstances, would be such an inflammatory presence. There’s no problem in principle with having police on campus, at least to my mind, although there’s certainly a problem with it now.

What counts as violence?

Various sides of these debates have cherry-picked examples of violence or non-violence to prove the point they want to make, but the fact of the matter is that the protests have been overwhelmingly non-violent, with the instances of violence I’ve seen mostly being perpetrated by police, or by students after provocation by police.

But focusing just on physical violence allows one to forget that simply not being physically violent does not yet mean that your actions might not be abusive in other ways. For instance, violations of rights are abusive. So, not being able to get to work, or to your car, or not being able to leave a meeting interferes with freedom of movement – and if an atmosphere is hostile enough that trying to assert those rights generates additional anger, we might have concerns even in the absence of physical violence.

Of course, forcing people into uncomfortable situations is one important way of making (or helping) them take your concerns as seriously as they should – so the tactical impulse is certainly understandable. My point is that the moral high-ground of being non-violent is at least complicated by these sorts of instances, and one should be able to discuss this also.

Demands for immediate action

It’s frequently been the case, during these university protests, that members of one or another group have demanded an answer to a complex problem immediately, even if the relevant decision-makers are not in the room. When this is said to not be possible, it’s taken as a sign of intransigence, so one is given the choice of appearing callous, or of capitulating.

Again, there is a middle-ground, because many decisions cannot be taken in the haste one or more parties might prefer. Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor of Wits, wanted time to investigate the economic implications of insourcing services at that university, but his request to have time to form a task-team to do so was mocked as evasive by students on social media.

Yes, asking for time to consider things can simply be a stalling tactic, but seeing as Wits had last considered the matter in depth over a decade ago, and seeing as it has enormous financial implications, it’s the sort of decision you don’t want to rush, and need to make with due care. (Because you might be able to insource some things now, others later, never mind coming up with creative schemes involving worker collectives and the like.)

And finally, is Germaine Greer transphobic?

GermainecropAccording to trans people and their allies, she certainly is. If you’ve been following the “no platforming” debate that has recently erupted around her being invited, then disinvited, and now again invited to speak at Cardiff University, you’d at the very least have been exposed to examples of her saying very dismissive things about trans people.

But as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper points out in this provocative but carefully-argued piece, the fact that someone doesn’t share your understanding of categories like race, gender, sex and so forth isn’t yet, and by itself conclusive of their either denying your humanity, thinking that your political claims aren’t worthy of consideration and so forth. It’s also not obviously hate speech in the legal sense, no matter whether some people find it offensive or not.

Reilly-Cooper presents examples and analysis of the excesses or extremes that identity politics can give rise to – and of course, it doesn’t necessarily give rise to those at all. Folks who want to dismiss her piece will say she’s caricaturing – and of course, a bunch of transphobes will claim her as a champion of their cause too.

You don’t have to make either of those choices, though. You can, as with all the examples I’ve given above and also others, say that our labels and analysis is often faulty, because we’re faulty reasoners with strong emotional commitments to various positions.

And, you can say that our best way of getting better at making good and clear distinctions is to let people speak, rather than demonising them or their views.

Choosing to be silent | Being barred from speaking

we-realizeDuring the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.

My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.

In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.

It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.

As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.

To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.

This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.

At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.

I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.

And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.

Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.

For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.

Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.

Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.

Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.

But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.

As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.


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.

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 or by emailing by 11 August 2015.