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UCT’s deployment of Assassin’s Veto exposes unprincipled leadership

Recovering Mad Man, occasional writer, wine enthusiast, coffee addict and unpredictable wildling, Justin is a lifelong student of behavioural economics, politics and the irrational human psyche. Commercially he focuses on the intersecting stacks of media, marketing and technology, particularly in the telecoms, consumer technology, retailing and media sectors. His opinions represent no organisations or interest groups and he receives no recompense save for namedropping. He also likes nuts. Follower discretion @justininza is advised.

In an act of ill judgement, UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price issued a memo to the university’s Academic Freedom Committee overturning their invitation to Flemming Rose to deliver the auspicious annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

It is an act of wretched leadership, burying under a heap of dank, soiled boarding house laundry in the very cornerstone of independent academia. Worse still, it was a decision made with a superfluity of analysis-paralysis, over-consultation and limp-wristed hand wringing under the grotesquely misguided assumption of conflicting principles.

Assassin’s Veto (also known as Heckler’s Veto) is when an acting party’s right to freedom of speech is curtailed or restricted in order to prevent a reacting party’s behaviour. It is often deployed by compromised governments (ahem) and spineless parties buckling to irrational external pressures. Which is precisely what the UCT Executive demonstrated in effectively deplatforming Mr Rose (the Danish journalist and author).

While this may appear to be a storm in a polite Rondebosch committee teacup, it’s not. It undermines the very principles of academic freedom that universities are mandated to hold in highest esteem. To make an even greater mockery of this determination, the heckler’s veto in this instance is a figment of torpid adult imaginations fettered and preoccupied with pallid administrative bother, foregoing the infrangible principles of academic rigour, cowed and pandering instead to the enervated forces of gutless miscreants threatening malice under the contemptuous shibboleth of safe spaces and emotional triggers.

Thomas Benjamin (TB) Davie was vice-chancellor of UCT from 1948 until 1955 and in the university’s own words “is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom”. The annual lecture, established by UCT students to commemorate his work, is organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, and is delivered by distinguished speakers who are invited to speak on a theme related to academic and human freedom.

Flemming Rose is best known as the culture editor of Danish magazine Jyllands Posten, who in 2005 commissioned the infamous Prophet Muhammed cartoons. He subsequently became an international speaker and free speech advocate, hence his eminent suitability to deliver the TB Davie lecture. His decision to publish the cartoons also earned him a spot on the Al-Qaeda hit list, along with several of his cartoonists and the entire crew at Charlie Hebdo.

The entire point of the lecture is to celebrate, cherish and uphold not only the resistance to apartheid era bigotry and censorship, but also the core institutional tenets of rigorous debate, challenged viewpoints and open minds. Kenan Malik, a widely celebrated neurobiologist who writes and lectures on many subjects including free speech, put it most eloquently in his 2015 TB Davie lecture:

“The university is a space for would-be adults to explore new ideas, to expand their knowledge, to interrogate power, to learn how to make an argument; a space within which students can be challenged, even upset or shocked or made angry… To be at a university is to accept the challenge of exploring one’s own beliefs and responding to disagreement.”

This sits very comfortably alongside UCT’s own version of this principle:

“In the classic expression of freedom of speech and assembly, UCT’s policy is that our members will enjoy freedom to explore ideas, to express these and to assemble peacefully.”

Yet Dr Price, representing the executive, the UCT Council Executive Committee and the full UCT Council, unapologetically contradicted this position while contorting himself into a koeksister of knots in a fatuous attempt at justifying it. Arguing for the withdrawal of Rose’s invitation he postulated that Rose’s presence might “provoke conflict”, create “security risks” and help “retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus”.

The latter contention is particularly loathsome, reminiscent of an alarmingly vacuous offering concocted around the putrid PR mixing desk of a Zizi Kodwa and Hlaudi Motsoeneng house party. How does the entire leadership of a globally acknowledged university, acting in good faith and upholding their oaths of office, possibly conflate reasoned free speech with the retardation of academic freedom? It’s preposterous, disingenuous and diabolically contemptuous and they should to a person retract, apologise and resign for wilfully betraying the most sacred of academic principles.

The administration might be deserving of a smidgen of sympathy if there was a basis for the contentions of conflict and security risk, but there isn’t. Dr Price openly admits broader Muslim community consultation, yet doesn’t present a shred of evidence that the community or elements thereof threatened conflict or violence. In fact, many of them welcomed the opportunity to engage Rose in public debate, which is precisely what universities should be fighting cucumber sandwich and green tea for.

Instead he relies on the past year of campus unrest, not one iota of which had anything to do with Islam or even free speech. UCT’s campus was beset with issues pertaining to a long extinct colonial named Rhodes and a handful of pillagers, poo chuckers and petrol bombing shack dwellers. All of which the administration has swept neatly into a shoebox as evidence of the fragility of the university psyche, incapable of mustering the courage to engage its collective mind to debate the merits of the rock that sheaths the King’s sword upon which its own foundations rest.

In a poorly disguised attempt to use the Constitution as cover, he quotes it liberally. The double-speak is insidious: “Let me start by affirming our commitment to the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression as enshrined in the South African Constitution. As an educational institution of higher learning we view these rights as fundamental and a cornerstone of our institutional culture.”

Well blow me over if that isn’t a contradiction as high and solid as the Himalayas. He continues the platitudes with, “We recognise that a decision not to provide an official platform to Mr Rose is an acknowledgement of the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus.”

There you have, in plain English, an acknowledgement of a breach of the principles espoused, before shifting to the inevitable “but”, hauling out the old caveat of absolutism.

The argument is manifestly hollow, as there is absolutely nothing in Mr Rose’s well documented lectures or writing to remotely suggest he might suddenly, overwhelmed by a random uncontainable urge, incite violence or gambol with hate speech in the shadow of Table Mountain. This isn’t The Donald we’re dealing with; it’s the past cultural editor of a liberal Danish newspaper who, it just so happens, is the very embodiment of the values that the university indulgently espouses.

My distaste for such disingenuous trumpery brazenly presented as wisened consideration by high priests of tertiary education is grounded in an abhorrence for the contortion of principle to accommodate the possibility of creating offence. It’s an extremely dangerous and slippery slope as it’s precedential.

Perhaps to ensure ridicule, Dr Price offers this gem following his argument for withdrawal: “This is a deeply worrying situation which all adherents of academic freedom should find disconcerting, and ultimately unacceptable. Academic freedom cannot survive, let alone flourish, in such an atmosphere.”

No kidding Dr Price. So what on earth are you actually trying to convey, because your logic is riddled with contradictions, your claims to principle hollow and your decision dangerous. On the basis of your decision, there is no hope of the university upholding academic freedom as it now stands brutally exposed to the spectre of the Assassin’s Veto. DM


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