It’s not every day that I find myself in agreement with the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, but such is the nature of being a scholar in a democratic country. It entails the freedom to disagree with university management as well as, sometimes, to agree with it.
We know the story well enough: the university’s academic freedom committee invited Flemming Rose, who was the cultural editor of Danish publication Jyllands-Posten, to its annual flagship lecture, the TB Davie Memorial Lecture. In 2005 the magazine published contentious cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. The invitation was withdrawn after the special executive task team raised a number of concerns and the UCT council executive debated the issue extensively.
Price and deputy vice-chancellor Professor Francis Peterson’s respective statements on this matter can be found on UCT’s website.
I concur with Price’s interpretation of Section 16 of the Constitution and can only repeat some of what I have already said on social media: no right is absolute. It has to be balanced with the public interest. The same applies to free speech and academic freedom. If you are enabling hate speech, racism, misogyny, homophobia or incitement to violence, you are not acting in the public interest.
This is an important issue to consider in the global context where Islamophobia is on the rise and extrajudicial killings by drone strikes, detention without trial, the steady supply of weapons and military training to various militia in attempts to manipulate sovereign countries for financial gain do not receive the media condemnation they deserve. This has given rise to what hegemonic commercial media have termed “radical Islam”.
The xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia that we now see in Europe and the United States can be explained partly by the shift from biologically essentialist rationales for racism to cultural racism.
Writing about cultural racism in Denmark, Karen Wren, a geographer who specialises in international migration, writes that cultural racism “evolved from modernisation theory, and the associated assumption that nearly all significant cultural innovations emanate from Europe … thus relying on history rather than biology or religion to explain the ‘superiority’ of Europeans, who could be defined as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, in contrast to non-Europeans as ‘traditional’ and ‘backward’, an idea which has become particularly popular in Scandinavia”. Europeans are therefore culturally superior, as opposed to racially superior.
Wren contends that the “ways in which cultural racism has been articulated in Denmark are similar to the Thatcherite anti-immigration rhetoric in 1980s Britain, as public discourses have consistently portrayed Denmark as a country overrun with foreigners”.
In his analysis of the Prophet cartoons, cultural theorist Simon Weaver says the cartoons are examples of liquid racism, his adaptation of Zygmant Bauman’s work on liquid modernity.
Weaver writes: “Liquid racism is a racism generated by ambiguous cultural signs that encourages the development of entrenched sociodiscursive positioning, alongside reactions to racism, when reading these signs. The images are ambiguous because they combine the signs of older racisms alongside those of political and social issues that are not necessarily racist.”
Liquid racism offers an interesting means for us to make sense of the opposing responses to the Danish cartoons. Rose played this ambiguous cultural racism game; I am certain that this did wonders for his magazine’s circulation. He could hardly invoke free speech defences when his cartoonists generated racist stereotypes that fed into anti-immigration sentiments in Europe — sentiments that just happen to be racially inflected. This kind of editorial practice does not serve the public interest. It is reckless.
This raises the question: Why did the committee decide to invite Rose at all? Why import this brand of racism? If they want to host a journalist who champions free speech, why not invite an investigative journalist who elected not to compromise his or her ethics by becoming an embedded journalist during the US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan — someone who risked life and limb to seek the truth? Why not invite scholars who champion academic freedom under difficult circumstances? Right now, Turkish scholars are facing severe repression. There is also neoliberal economics’ threat to many universities around the world, in Greece for example.
But there is something rather troubling in Peterson and Price’s communiques on this issue. I think that foregrounding the possibility of violence makes it seem as if UCT is capitulating to antidemocratic forces. If you read the comments on UCT’s Facebook post about its decision, it seems many conservatives are interpreting their decision in this negative light.
The ways in which they frame their concerns about violence and safety in relation to recent student activism could easily be read as a slight on students and staff. Are those who are motivating for the decolonisation of the university being thrown under the bus by Peterson and Price’s statements? Judging by the Facebook comments, it is clear that some people are reading the decision as capitulation to the “barbarians at the gate”:
“I would not have expected a different position from UCT’s management; they capitulated a long time ago to violent students and the pampered UCT workers. They would be terrified to rile these groupings or the anti-Semites be they black, white, Muslim … whatever. UCT’s management and council are lucky those disgusting students never burnt the whole campus down last year. They will not always be so lucky …”
“Spineless academics bowing down and bending over to satisfy the regressive RMF hate brigade. Cowards.”
“University management have become total cowards and traitors to academia.”
“UCT is my alma mater … it was the institution that taught me ethics, freedom of speech, tolerance, respect and independent thought, inter alia … this type of censorship and presumptive thinking that UCT has licence to think for me is presumptuous. History will note this as another notch in the decline of the University of Cape Town, which is being engineered by very weak management.”
I don’t think that UCT management has been characterised fairly in these social media comments, but I do think that parts of Peterson and Price’s statements open the door to these sorts of negative remarks. Management has effectively assisted in caricaturing student activists and scholars in the worst possible light. These scholars and activists are merely asking UCT to become an inclusive and democratic institution.
Media scholars across the country recently made a public statement regarding the problems journalists are facing at the SABC. A key assertion that these scholars made was that the SABC is a public broadcaster. Its mandate is therefore to serve the public. It is not merely an elite faction in the ruling party.
Likewise, UCT is a public institution. Its mandate is to serve the public, and not an elite minority that employs the rhetoric of free speech to honour racists as if they are champions of academic freedom.
Adam Haupt is an associate professor of media studies at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies. He is a member of the Black Academic Caucus.