Daily Maverick

Letter to the Editor: Appeasing the UCT Taliban

Many people are bemused by what is happening to the pictures at UCT. It would be bad enough if they were being taken down to protect them from the students, but the truth of the matter, as emerges from two recent GroundUp reports, seems to be more bizarre – that this move is being undertaken to protect the students from the pictures. By KENNETH HUGHES.

Hughes is a professor at UCT.

As George Orwell once remarked, there are some ideas which are so bad that you will really need to have a Ph.D to believe anything so stupid. And the subject matter which is supposed to be so threatening is here interpreted with a certain bias: as one witty student remarked, “Oh, they are just doing ethnic cleansing on the pictures!”

But there also are here deep questions about what a university is, or should be, and whether a university which adopts the “offense principle” – of protecting students against possible offense – is not abandoning its true calling and abdicating its responsibility to provide a proper education to its students.

What for example would one think of a university which stopped teaching evolution because it feared it would give offense to Christian fundamentalists? Surely no modern person could take such an institution seriously? And imagine what an outcry there would be if some condescending person attempted to shut down the study of the Holocaust and all the Holocaust museums.

There is an old etymology for the word “education” which says that it is an activity that aims to “lead out of” a state of ignorance and prejudice, towards true knowledge. And since the 18th century we also have “higher education” which aims also to instill a proper critical attitude.

If we adopt the “offense principle”, that will ensure that some people will remain in prejudice and ignorance forever. Turning higher education into lower education is a really bad idea. And all this is being done in the name of “inclusion”. The rhetoric about inclusion is deeply confused – does anybody really want to include Philistines and fascists?

For one can easily see that the people who hate images are, to start with, intolerant, and all this, in fact, is intolerance masquerading as sensitivity.

And one also can predict that the policy will be futile – for after the last picture of a real colonialist has come down, the intolerant will still be oppressed by the fantasy of being pursued by millions of imaginary ones. (How can anyone recognise a colonialist anyway?)

Let us say outright that giving the intolerant the right to censor works of art is utterly morally abhorrent. In fact, censorship – which always gives power to the few and infantilises the many – should have no place in a modern university.

Where, then, is the Academic Freedom Committee?

I am told they are currently contemplating censorship in Denmark. Most of us, I should have thought, will feel that there are altogether more urgent examples of censorship closer to home.

I suppose it is just possible that there are indeed students whose personalities are so hypersensitive that they tremble at the thought of encountering a colonialist. But if so, they must be deeply psychologically disturbed. They will need therapy: for it is clear that it is the students, not the pictures, which are at fault.

And one should note that one of the most common forms of therapy for people afflicted with disabling phobias is desensitisation, through repeated exposure to the disturbing object. In that case, hiding the pictures is going to be denying colonophobes the opportunity to heal.

But of course, we believe it is not a psychological condition which is involved here at all, but a matter of ideology: the ideology of the peculiar and bizarre student movement called Rhodes Must Fall.

Now this brings us to the crux of the matter: what is this ideology?

When in a climactic moment, during the recent looting spree to find university pictures to put on the bonfire, the members of Rhodes Must Fall entered the university residences, they encountered a number of foreign white students, whom they harassed and harangued, and eventually tried to chase away, telling them, “you have no right to be here”.

By this act Rhodes Must Fall showed its true colours: for its bottom line is really xenophobic racist violence.

Let us return to the pictures. Here we find that the UCT official line goes somewhat as follows: The rationale for removing the artworks is that people who are sensitive find the presence of the pictures painfully disturbing, and if it is allowed for them to be displayed on campus in public spaces, there is nothing the sensitive can do to voluntarily avoid them.

But this feeble, mildewed argument really should be applied elsewhere. For the logical extension of this would be to ban all foreign whites.

Just imagine! Some adherents of advanced postcolonial theory might find their presence painfully disturbing – and if the foreigners are allowed to wander freely on campus, the foreign whites too will be completely unavoidable?

The sociologists Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley have recently given a persuasive analysis of xenophobic attacks. They see them as rituals of humiliation forced on alien “others”, meant to reverse the subjective feeling of shame suffered by the perpetrators.

And they point out that it is not the truly disadvantaged who perpetrate these attacks, they are too busy looking out for subsistence. The truly poor have to learn to swallow their pride every day. It is rather semi-educated, under-employed youth – some of whom may even be members of the lower middle-classes – who are most likely to become perpetrators.

(A study by Alan Krueger on jihadis, who also have an overdeveloped shame complex, shows zero correlation with income.)

More important than social class may be the psychological condition of ego strength, but unfortunately this is something that is very poorly understood. In this regard, it is revealing that the main complaint of postcolonial theory about colonisation is not a left-wing criticism, say about an alleged deterioration in the welfare of the common people.

(That would, in fact, be hard to sustain, because colonialism, whatever its political and cultural sins, did generally improve the economic lot of the poor – better public order, improved food and public health all lead to longer lives and growing populations.)

No, instead, it is all about the sense of of shame suffered by upper-class and middle-class adherents of Nationalist ideology.

And we must confront the fact that anti-colonialism, like extreme nationalism generally, is racism’s second cousin. We need only think (to name the crucial example) of that very outstanding method to end all national humiliation, the adoption of a policy of thorough-going ethnic cleansing. On this analysis, what UCT has recently experienced is really an analogue in miniature of the experience of a Somali trader who is forced to watch while his family photographs get burnt one-by-one in front of his face, before his shop is finally looted and he himself is strung up to be either beaten to a pulp, strangled, garroted or necklaced.

And I think it is clear that hiding away the pictures won’t work.

If the Adam and Moodley analysis is correct, what causes pain in the racialised consciousness of young hoodlums is not in fact encountering the faded relics of a vanished past, but contemporary encounters with people who put them to shame – usually by being high-performing “others”.

Why then did Rhodes Must Fall burn the picture of Nelson Mandela?

I think the answer is perfectly plain: they resented the achievement of the painter: UCT’s first black graduate in the Fine Arts. (On social media, I am told, they referred to him as “UCT’s tame house-nigger}.)

Thus, in fact, the only way the university could effectively appease the rabid xenophobia of Rhodes Must Fall would be by expelling all foreign employees, shutting down the university’s Foreign Exchange Programme and applying a purging policy at admissions, to ensure that all students admitted to UCT are of the exact same (low) calibre.

But there is more. At the beginning of the year last year, a bright and perceptive black student protested that his self-esteem as a self-confident black intellectual was being undermined by the university’s race policies, which constantly act “to treat blacks as if they are brain-damaged whites”.

I think this too is worth pondering. When UCT was an all-white university, it always tried to treat students as if they were adults. It offered them advanced difficult courses (such as post-1970 mathematics) and it despised courses like the current crop of politically correct fillers and “soft options”. Student politicians were expected to be masters of Roberts’s “Rules of Order”. Academics were hired on the basis of their knowledge and capacity for scholarly rigour, and for possessing a critical attitude. And students were subjected to a challenging education (which included exposure to challenging works of art.)

But after UCT was opened up to blacks all this was dumbed down. Many advanced courses (including advanced mathematics) were terminated. Student politics became an intellectual no-go area. The practice of debate was neither to be seen nor heard. Academic hiring was by the numbers, and did not attempt to assess scholarly knowledge or critical acumen. And in another sphere, instead of the intellectuals’ lonely quest for justice, UCT academics were enjoined to follow the ludicrous and faintly totalitarian idea of “celebrating” “positive” “role models”.

And the usual response of university authorities like Max Price was, instead of challenging student movements of a confused right-wing nature, to just feebly say: Yes, baas.

Currently, as a result of the UCT authorities blindly and weakly giving in to the demands of the student movement Fees Must Fall, many academic staff are facing current austerity, and possible future retrenchment. Some staff are contemplating moving elsewhere, and some are contemplating early retirement. There is in place a policy of inviting staff to take a package deal.

And this will predictably have dramatic consequences in terms of further quality decline, for the first people to go will be some of the best, for they are the ones with the brightest prospects for getting a job elsewhere.

The major part of this long and sorry saga of wreckage is undoubtedly due to implementing the appalling doctrines of the New Managerialism, which were put into place 20-odd years ago. This replaced all consideration of intrinsic quality, academic excellence and solidarity, by appeals to the crude nexus of budgetary and bureaucratic convenience.

Almost at once, managerially manipulated incentives had a chilling effect on the disinterested pursuit of truth, and a little later, completely destroyed the idea of the university as a moral community.

The watchwords of this age were “downsizing” and “outsourcing”.

As someone once remarked, UCT was a better university before it became an “excellent” one.

And finally, managerialism is bad for a university in the same way that dictatorship is bad for a country – it puts too much power and money in the hands of a single limited individual.

But what am I to say to my student friend, who sees only a racial agenda in these developments? And who argues that the real truth about “inclusivity” and not exposing students to challenging learning experiences is that it is once again being assumed that black students are just like brain-damaged whites?

Or to put it another way, what bright critical students believe is that UCT is once again reverting to the rotten old South African practice of offering an inferior education to people who are deemed to be inferior. Some other people have come to related or rather similar conclusions in the last few weeks.

Thus the historian and struggle veteran Randolph Vigne delivered a magisterial rebuke to Max Price for his unscholarly values and attitudes in the renaming affair; and went on to denounce Price’s idea that the founding fathers of UCT were all “colonial oppressors”, as “paranoid”.

And with regard to the affair of the pictures, the poet and artist Breyten Breytenbach, in his inimitable passionate way, attacked the UCT executive for what he saw as brown-nosing adolescent racists.

Now, I think it is always a mistake to get side-tracked into discussing personalities rather than issues, but I do want to say this one thing: I and many others are worried about Max Price. He seems to have adopted a whole panoply of strange ideas.

And – how can I put it delicately?: We are afraid that he has lost all moral clarity on the subject of race. This would explain the diversity of views about him.

Smart kids think he is just an old-fashioned white racist (because he thinks black students are too limited to be able to cope with challenges which white kids take in their stride); while struggle veterans think he is a new-fangled black racist (because he apparently supports an Azapo-like policy of wanting to expel whites from the university history. “This is not what we struggled for,” was one of the comments.)

On the other hand, Rhodes Must Fall does not trust him either, despite his repeated assurances that he agrees fully with them on their long-term transformational goals. They describe him as “the Colonial Governor” and this is why, presumably, someone from this movement fire-bombed his office.

Poor Max Price! The ordeal of having to live with Rhodes Must Fall for nearly a full year seems to have clouded his judgement and weakened his capacity to take critical decisions.

But the serious worry is that he seems to have acquired a taste for fanciful – and surely very expensive – experiments in racial engineering, and this at a time when the university is in deep financial distress, and can ill afford to do anything other than try to ride out the storm.

For example, management continues to have the hubris to believe that it can instantly manufacture a complete new black professoriate just by dangling a few novel financial incentives.

Now modern psychology shows that incentives can have at best a superficial effect, and at worst can be counterproductive – people who are incentivised may “choke” and actually end up delivering a worse performance than those who are not so motivated.

International experience shows that the next fiddle is often to lower standards: quotas can be attained provided enough people hold their noses. Skills have not been transferred, but appearances have been maintained. Once again this is a farrago, which is deeply insulting to those blacks who are genuine high-achievers. The classic critique of this process is to say that it seeks to replace social change by lying.

And Max Price also seems to be interested in introducing new courses by racialising (or “de-colonialising”) the curriculum. This latter is a truly ghastly idea because knowledge is universal, and somebody needs to tell him why the Germans were so deeply misguided when they wanted to set up an Aryan physics.

Now the term “Aryan” in 1930, like the term “colonialist” today, is part of an elaborate mythological system of racial discourse, but that wasn’t the main cause for the German failure. No. The real trouble was that when it tried to follow the route of radical German nationalism, German physics cut itself off from world physics.

If UCT were to try to do something similar today – say to replace analytical philosophy by African philosophy – it would be similarly amputating the major part of the discipline.

There is a deep divide here. Max Price needs to choose between the black high-achievers (like the student who complained about being treated as a brain-dead white) and the black low-achievers, like the too-many members of Rhodes Must Fall.

Unfortunately it is a sad fact of life in the New South Africa that there has emerged a lumpen intelligentsia who are fearful and resentful of real black achievers, and whose demand is for more sinecure jobs and Mickey Mouse courses, so they can pad out their own CVs.

Max Price needs to be challenged to say exactly where he stands, and why he seems to be following Rhodes Must Fall in the direction of replacing nonracialism with a form of racialism.

Please remember that according to its own manifestos, “Fallism” means hatred of – and war to be declared on – “rainbowism”: Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s consoling and inspiring vision of the New South Africa as the “rainbow nation of God”.

But let me return to the main charge. To put it bluntly: the University of Cape Town must choose whether it is going to stand by its old historic ideals of aspiring to promoting human equality through nonracialism (and recognising no impediments except lack of academic merit), or is it going to try some fancy new-fangled thing based on a blurry vision of racial quotas and targets?

The traditional ideal depends on treating individuals as individuals, and not as token members of racial or ethnic groups. This meets the ethical requirement of treating all persons with full respect.

The alternative policy which UCT might be going to pursue is some ill-defined form of groupism, which automatically infringes on individual dignity. If we contemplate going this way, let us remember that in the most explicit form of the new vision currently on offer, the university runs the grave danger of being turned into a haven for xenophobes and mediocrities.

What ultimately I want to say is this: that we cannot hope to achieve anything worthwhile or useful by embracing – and by confusedly attempting to swallow – the new racism’s nonvalues.

The university which seeks to replace education by “idiotification” condemns itself. And this must not be covered up, or mystified, by “race”.

During the struggle we used to say: Don’t play with apartheid!

And the Bible says: he who toucheth pitch, shall be defiled. DM

Photo by GroundUp.

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