The speech of university academics has become a matter of hotly contested debate, not only in South Africa, but around the world. Adam Habib’s use of the “n-word” in a recent SOAS webinar — a matter on which I don’t want to express a view here — is a good example of the outrage academics’ speech can induce.
The latest example of such a controversy is UCT academic Dr Lwazi Lushaba’s claim in an online lecture — shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, no less — that “Hitler committed no crime”. “All Hitler did,” the senior political studies lecturer continued, “was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people.”
The Jewish community, unsurprisingly and justifiably, was outraged by the comments. Tzvi Brivik, chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, condemned Lushaba’s remarks as “deplorable”, saying that “to represent genocide as a justifiable action against a minority in a political education space is shameful at best”.
While some social media users called on UCT to fire Lushaba post-haste, others, especially on Twitter, praised him as a hero speaking truth to power. The university promised to investigate the incident, publishing a fairly generic characterisation of acts of genocide as “formal crimes against humanity and ongoing sources of pain”.
When battle lines are drawn in response to a controversy of this nature, two distinct camps tend to emerge: one that demands the academic be cancelled, fired and punished, and another that insists the academic did nothing wrong. Few seem to admit a third possibility: that the academic has done something wrong but should nevertheless be fully secure in their employment.
The reason why few seem to take the third view, I think, relates to contemporary liberal society’s inability to distinguish “public” from “private” morality and, furthermore, to recognise both these forms of morality as important. This is a forgivable mistake, given that many lawyers, political commentators and social scientists make it all the time. Still, it is one that we should correct if we want to have useful conversations about political controversies.
Private morality governs the way we, as individuals, ought to live our lives and concerns the moral duties we hold to ourselves and to others. Philosophers often use the term “ethics” to describe this domain of morality. Public morality, by contrast, identifies the instances when power and coercion (usually from the state or a large institution) may be used against an individual for breaching a duty. The term “justice” best describes this moral domain.
It is possible to have a private moral duty to do (or refrain from doing) something, without it being a matter of public morality; the fact that something is wrong, in a private moral sense, does not mean it has to be punished as an act of state or institutional power.
In a podcast series last year, Tami Jackson and I were privileged to interview a number of prominent South African academics, including Jonathan Jansen, David Benatar and Max Price, on academic freedom. The position I took was that universities should rigorously protect free speech for academics and students, and that the right to cause offence in an academic space should be defended.
With the exception of speech that incites violence or harm-causing, no one should be subject to punishment, cancellation, firing, expulsion or anything else for saying things at a university that others do not like.
The same goes for Dr Lushaba in this case. While deeply offensive and factually incorrect, it is unlikely that defending and justifying Hitler’s abhorrent actions credibly incites violence or harm-causing against Jews, homosexuals, blacks or any other victims of the Holocaust. This is purely a claim of public morality, however. As a matter of private morality, the situation is entirely different.
A perennial failure of classical liberals — and I count myself among their number — is to assume that because the law should not impose a public duty not to cause offence to others, that it is acceptable, in a private moral sense, to do so.
We do have private moral duties not to hurt others with our speech, I think, and to treat others with kindness, to respect their dignity and not to use others as means to our ends. We also have duties to tell the truth, keep promises and to try to use our actions and speech to make the world a better place.
While I don’t want to mount a full justification of this view here, I would invite anyone who disagrees with me to honestly make the claim that they’d rather live in a world where everyone regards themselves as being free from these private moral duties simply because the law doesn’t impose them.
With his claim that Hitler committed no crime, Dr Lushaba fundamentally breached his private moral duties to tell the truth and not to cause offence to others to prove a political point. His actions deserve widespread condemnation.
I do, however, hope UCT will not cancel or fire him on the basis of his egregious moral error. DM
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