VC Desk: UCT values, free speech and silencing
5 May 2017
It feels to many of us that in the last year, the space for free speech at UCT has become more contentious than previously – sometimes for good reason, but sometimes not. I want to address this in this Vice-Chancellor’s message.
One of the reasons UCT is both a stimulating and challenging learning environment is because of the diversity of our community. We have more than 28 000 students and more than 5 000 staff from all over South Africa and from about 112 other countries. We all have opportunities every day to meet someone with an interesting story to tell, to hear a view that may surprise or enlighten us but also may upset or offend us. It is a positive virtue of universities like UCT, which value and consciously pursue diversity, that we will often be shifted out of our comfort zone.
The South African Constitution, which celebrates the diversity of this nation, upholds the rights of all people to freedom of speech and specifically protects academic freedom. All rights are qualified, and statements intended to incite violence, for example, constitute hate speech and are not allowed. As citizens we all have the responsibility to uphold these constitutional values. As members of the UCT community, we have the even greater responsibility to exercise tolerance, to listen, to engage with strongly divergent views and to do so in a manner that is respectful, so that it expands the space for debate, to build understanding even if we cannot reach agreement.
Yet in many universities around the world, over the past few years, we have witnessed a declining tolerance of controversial and potentially offensive opinions, and a consequent closing down of the space for free speech and debate. For example, at Middlebury College in Vermont, USA, on 2 March 2017, protesters swarmed controversial political scientist Charles Murray and injured the professor who was supposed to act as moderator of the public event where Murray was to speak. Many of the protesters were Middlebury students. In a noteworthy response, two other US academics, who have debated against each other vigorously in the past, joined forces to write a joint statement calling for universities especially to be places where controversial views can have free and safe expression – even in the face of opposing views.
Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, and Cornel West, a professor in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, wrote: “[A]ll of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree – especially on college and university campuses.”
In the past two weeks, at the University of California, Berkeley, a visit by conservative commentator Anne Coulter was effectively cancelled because of the threat of violence from within the campus community by those opposing her being give a platform.
There have been many similar such incidents across in other US and British universities. Closer to home, we have seen university students shut down the Higher Education National Convention in Midrand on 17 March. A UCT guest lecture by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, speaking in the Baxter Theatre on 3 March, was interrupted by protesters who objected to the presence of white people in the audience. The lecture continued but in the question time afterwards, a member of the audience wishing to ask a question was shouted down apparently because he was white, leading to the chair terminating the meeting. And Orientation Week activities in Jammie Plaza at the beginning of March were disrupted by students who objected to the message presented by members of the UCT Pro-Life (anti-abortion) society.
Silencing voices, suffocating debate
To shut down the right to speak or ask questions in the context of a public debate is inimical to the core values of the university. I can’t see that this kind of racial silencing serves the cause of respectful listening and acknowledgment. Rude or violent behaviour rarely serves to change how people think about any particular issue; on the contrary, it polarises views and makes it harder to listen to one another. When we respond to others with violence or contempt, we not only lose the opportunity to learn from one another but we also weaken our own platform for engagement; we discourage other people from wanting to listen to our views. The university must condemn such behaviour.
However, while it is easy to see how violence or disruption creates a climate of silencing debate, we must also understand the many other ways in which voices may be silenced, which are equally limiting – and are perhaps more insidious because they are invisible to many of us. When we criticise or correct someone’s use of English, or mock their accent, or roll our eyes at what someone has said, or respond to a view in a way that suggests they are ignorant or less educated – we silence them.
Or when we pin labels on the speaker such as “racist” or “anti-Semite”, rather than tackling the substance of what they are saying, we suffocate debate.
When we ignore someone’s view but then pay attention when the same view is expressed by someone else (usually because they are more like us), we send a message that silences the first speaker. When, in a meeting or class, we display differential behaviour to different speakers – looking some in the eye and paying attention when they speak, but texting on our mobile or reading emails while others are speaking – we communicate a view that says we don’t respect the latter speakers; and in aggregate over time, this has a silencing effect. If we laugh at what seems to us a silly question asked in class, we silence others – not just the questioner but those who are afraid to be laughed at. This includes most of us but especially those who have not grown up in the cultural and social environment that is dominant at UCT – English, middle class, white. The silencing of those who have felt marginalised in our UCT community has been going on for decades. We need to see that and change that.
In a diverse society like South Africa, it helps to be aware of how our identities may inform how we share ideas and how we listen to others. Radio 702 presenter Eusebius McKaiser and UCT lecturer Jacques Rousseau explored this topic at some length in a broadcast interview on 29 March.
The educational goal of improving each of our understanding and advancing knowledge is the primary reason for protecting and promoting free speech in a university. But there is a secondary goal. Part of the educational experience is to learn from our differences so that we can grow as a community. This is how a democratic society is nurtured: by dealing with conflict in a constructive manner that helps to build up relationships between people who disagree on a particular idea. It is the promotion of social cohesion – first within the university community, and then in society more broadly.
While the university as an institution must do its best to protect the platforms for speakers with controversial views, and protect their right to speak, that is a relatively easy task compared to changing individual behaviour that sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, silences others. I ask you all to make the commitment to respectful listening.
Dr Max Price
Issued by UCT, 5 May 2017