Mental floss for the discerning
16 August 2017 21:30 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Disinviting Flemming Rose was deplorable – but should he have been invited at all?

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

The decision by the University of Cape Town (UCT) management to disinvite Danish journalist, Flemming Rose, from delivering the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom next month, raises important questions about power, about who is given a platform to speak, and what it says about those who make these decisions. It also, admittedly, raises questions about the nature of freedom of expression and academic freedom at a university.

In 1986, as the deputy editor of the Stellenbosch student newspaper, Die Matie, I wrote a column taunting then State President PW Botha, who at the time served as chancellor of the University. The column mocked Botha for his habit of phoning up the head of the SABC (who, I kid you not, was called Koedoe Eksteen) and instructing Eksteen to change news bulletins to depict Botha and his National Party in a more favourable light.

As satire goes, it was not particularly funny or terribly vicious. But Die Groot Krokodil (as Botha was then contemptuously known among some of us) was notoriously thin-skinned – like Donald Trump, but with (even) less hair – and I was called into the office of Prof Mike de Vries, the Rector of the University.

Prof De Vries (and I say this in all kindness) did not appear to be a man of great intellect. I always assumed that he had got the job because he benefited from affirmative action for Broederbonders, something that was a common occurrence during the apartheid years. He was also a nervous man who fidgeted with papers on his desk or, if I recall, compulsively scratched his lower arms and the top of his hands when he got agitated.

Old Mike (as I would never have dared call him) informed me that there was a complaint from the Presidency about my column and told me: “Give me one good reason why you should remain a student at this university. You, young man, must be expelled.”

I gave what I then thought was a devastatingly clever retort – although it was probably rather tame – knowing (although, at the time, I did not have the terminology to describe it thus) that I was a privileged white boy whose white middle-class privilege would protect me from the anger of an unexceptional apartheid bureaucrat under pressure from a dictator who happened to be chancellor of the university.

At the time, this event caused great excitement in my life as – like almost all students at any given time – I harboured the rather narcissistic belief that my every utterance and action was breathtakingly original and of earth-shattering importance to the world. The excitement I felt is testament to the insular and privileged nature of my apartheid-era university education at what was then an exclusively Afrikaans and (almost exclusively) white institution.

I recall the story not because I believe it to have been of any consequence, but rather to explain why I remain deeply suspicious of the actions of any university management (whether at UCT, Stellenbosch or at any other institution) aimed at dictating to the university community as to what its members may say, write, read or listen to.

I therefore believe the decision by UCT management to disinvite Mr Rose – because of unspecified fears that Rose’s presence might provoke conflict and might pose a security risk – is a deplorable one. As there is no tangible evidence that Rose’s presence on campus would have led to the destruction of property or violent attacks on individuals, the decision to disinvite him cannot be justified.

Rose was the cultural editor of the Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten, who caused an uproar in 2005 when they published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, some of them offensively stereotypical.

It would not have been surprising if Rose’s presence on campus resulted in vehement protest or even disruption of the lecture. That is to be expected when a highly controversial speaker is given a platform to speak. Freedom can be messy.

Once the invitation was extended, it needed to be honoured unless (for entirely pragmatic reasons) there was clear evidence that if the talk went ahead it would be impossible for the university to prevent people from getting hurt or property from being destroyed.

Of course, I am not part of the management and it may be easier for me to stick to my principles than for those who have the responsibility to steer the ship. But it is exactly at the moment when it is difficult to stick to your principles that they become important to respect. (Most politicians don’t.)

Having said that, it seems to me that the decision of UCT’s academic freedom committee to invite Rose to deliver a lecture on academic freedom says much about what is wrong with the institutional culture of the university. (Full disclosure: I have recently been appointed to this academic freedom committee but was not involved in the invitation or in the committee’s recent response to the disinvitation.)

No person has an automatic right to be invited by any university (or almost any other institution) to deliver a lecture. I imagine most universities will not choose to invite a Holocaust denier to deliver a prestigious academic freedom lecture at their institution in the name of displaying fearless respect for unorthodoxy. Neither will most universities (I would hope) invite a white supremacist to deliver such a lecture.

This is because when a university or one of its committees invites a speaker to deliver a prestigious lecture, it will make the decision based on whether it believes the speaker will have something worthwhile to say. Perhaps an invitation will be extended because the speaker is believed to have something provocative, thought-provoking, timely, even disturbing to say.

Or perhaps the invitation will be extended to make some or other political point. Say, one would invite one of the leaders of the US “black lives matter” movement to make a point about racism.

What could possibly be the reason for inviting Mr Rose to UCT?

The Vice Chancellor of UCT, Dr Max Price, wrote in his justification of the disinvitation that Rose is regarded by many around the world “as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberately provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech”. I don’t know Mr Rose personally, but he denies these allegations, describing himself as a “a classical liberal”.

To me this is neither here nor there. Neither do I believe the fact that the cartoons are blasphemous is in itself significant. I have no problem, per se, with insulting the religious beliefs of some – just as I have no problem, per se, with insulting non-believers like myself for being atheists.

Instead, I have a different concern that – had I been on the committee then – would have led me vigorously to argue against inviting Mr Rose to deliver an academic freedom lecture at UCT.

The cartoons were published in Denmark, where more than 95% of the population is either Christian, agnostic or atheist. Only 3% of the population is Muslim. Muslims are a small vulnerable minority in Denmark, but as is the case in many other parts of Europe they face Islamophobia and increasingly vocal criticism from the socially, culturally and economically dominant group, many of whom fear that they are “losing their identity” because of the presence of the symbolic and very real “Other” – in this case a tiny Muslim minority.

The publication of the cartoons can therefore be understood as the aggression of a dominant majority against a vulnerable minority – not as the act of a brave freedom-loving newspaper standing up for the marginalised and the vulnerable.

If this is correct, the publication of the cartoons, just then, in Denmark, was the act of the powerful and dominant group (seeing themselves as representing the values of the majority), putting Muslims “in their place” and asserting their own cultural dominance in what they see as their “own” country under threat from what they perceive to be the “intolerable”, “narrow-minded” beliefs and practices of a tiny minority.

Yes, Jyllands-Posten published satirical blasphemous cartoons depicting Christian figures, several years after it published the Mohammed cartoons. But two years before it published the Mohammed cartoons it rejected cartoons which depicted Jesus in a blasphemous manner, making one wonder whether the Christian cartoons were not published as an afterthought in an attempt to insulate the newspaper from valid criticism about its Islamophobia.

In February 2006 it also at first refused to publish Holocaust cartoons, which included cartoons that mocked or denied the Holocaust (the editor stating at the time that “in no circumstances will (we) publish Holocaust cartoons”), offered by an Iranian newspaper which had held a contest. Three of the less controversial cartoons were later reprinted in Jyllands-Posten.

When evaluating the claims of freedom, it is important to recall that power matters; who has it, who does not, how it is exercised and to what end. That is why, in my view, somebody who uses their freedom to challenge the socially, culturally and economically dominant ideas in society is far more radical and more worthy of an invitation to an academic freedom lecture than somebody who uses it to protect their dominant position against a perceived threat by those who disagree.

The invitation for Mr Rose to speak at an academic freedom lecture at UCT is therefore telling. It suggests a very specific conception of what academic freedom entails, namely the right to offend those whose world view do not accord with the world view of the (mostly white, mostly male) privileged private school educated and Oxford trained senior academics whose values are deeply embedded in the institutional culture of the university.

A university is supposed to air ideas that disturb you, that make you uncomfortable, that challenge your deepest held assumptions. (That is why I am not a great fan of somebody objecting to a statement merely because it “offends” them.)

Mr Rose’s ideas do not do that at all. These ideas – also about freedom of expression – dovetail neatly with the socially and culturally dominant ideas at UCT of what freedom of speech and academic freedom are all about: the freedom to offend the less powerful, the marginalised, the vulnerable, in order to put them in their place and to assert your own view of how the world ought to be.

While many academics, students and other staff would find it offensive that UCT invited Mr Rose in the first place, for those who look into the mirror that is UCT’s institutional culture and see themselves reflected back (perhaps without them even being aware that this is quite unique) the invitation makes perfect sense.

There is a world of difference between the Stellenbosch University of 1986 and the UCT of 2016. The latter is incomparably more free than the former then was (and probably still is). But it is time for UCT academics to think more carefully about power, about who is given a platform to speak, and what these choices says about the institution. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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