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. Continue reading “As By Fire – Jonathan Jansen on the 2015/6 university protests”

No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”. Continue reading “No, that doesn’t actually beg the question”

The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy

There’s an interesting – and important – discussion going on in South African professional philosophy at the moment. You can read about it on the Mail&Guardian, but the nutshell summary is that tensions regarding the “apparent supremacy of European philosophy over African philosophy” have resulted in the president and “several black philosophers” resigning from the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa (PSSA). Continue reading “The (unbearable?) whiteness of philosophy”

Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)

As you’ve no doubt heard, “post-truth” has been named “word of the year” by Oxford dictionaries. But that shouldn’t lead us to think that truth or evidence has ever mattered as much as we might prefer, or that this post-truth world represents a complete break from the past.

All of us have always been susceptible to various forms of irrational thought resulting from bias in how we interpret – and even recognise – evidence, as elegantly illustrated in the work of people like Kahneman and Tversky, as well as in popular science books by Dan Ariely and others (like me and Caleb Lack (sorry not sorry)). Continue reading “Emotion trumps evidence in a post-fact world (same as it ever was)”

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”

On opinions, and how the world needs editors

The reading material for my “Evidence-based Management” course at the University of Cape Town contains an early draft of what ended up becoming chapter 1 of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience.

Springer book coverIn the book, Dr. Caleb Lack and I argue that phrases like “everybody is entitled to their opinions” are typically trite or misleading.

They can be meaningless, in the sense that of course it’s true that everyone is legally entitled to hold whatever opinions they like.

This doesn’t seem to be what we mean when using the phrase, though – we typically say: “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” precisely when an opinion has been expressed, where we disagree with the expressed opinion, and where we express that disagreement by using the phrase in question. Continue reading “On opinions, and how the world needs editors”

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”

The mutual symbiosis of a “regressive left” and a “reactionary right”

It’s not insightful to say that social media are probably unrepresentative of what the common person thinks, nor that platforms like Twitter encourage hyperbole and argument.

I do however think that the hyperbole is an expression of the same lack of charity and unwillingness to find a middle ground that we see in newspaper coverage of contentious issues such as Hilary vs. Bernie, whether Trump is a fascist or not, or whether South African students need to be applauded or pilloried.

It’s possible for us to disagree with each other, but to do so in such a way that doesn’t caricature, and that doesn’t disincentivise any future attempts at debate. And, there is of course little chance of persauding someone that they are wrong, if they are no longer talking to you.

That last point is why last night, I tweeted:

Consider this example, from yesterday’s Washington Post, titled “College students run crying to Daddy Administrator“. I’m sometimes as annoyed by students as anyone could be – it’s difficult to avoid being so when you deal with 1 500 of them a year. They can be lazy, oversensitive, rude, and so forth.

But, they are also inexperienced at being a small anonymous cog in a large machine that isn’t necessarily geared for giving them personal attention, or for allowing them the time to discover, and explain, what it is that feels alienating, oppressive or offensive.

They also, quite simply, haven’t necessarily learned the conventions and language of what it is to negotiate in good faith in a civil society – why would they have, having grown up on discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook?

Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.

They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.

That (from the Washington Post piece) is all true. But I think it’s also true that calling people “babies”, or mocking them for taking offense too easily, can serve to simply validate their concerns.

Likewise, insisting that everyone who disagrees with you – no matter whether their disagreement is polite and thoughtful (even if wrong or confused, by your lights) is a member of some out-group like the “regressive left” can serve to simply confirm to them that you’re part of some “reactionary right” – and neither side is then left feeling that there is any point in talking to the other.

It is indeed a problem that people can have overly thin skins, because robust debate and disagreement is necessary to improve our arguments and our characters. But it’s also a problem when you have concerns (even if they might be trivial or unjustified concerns to others), and those you express the concerns to respond with ridicule.

Both these extremes are a problem, and there’s no reason you have to choose either of them.

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.