Freedom of Speech by Gillian Godsell

17 Aug 2016
Freedom of Speech by Gillian Godsell

This is one in a series of articles responding to UCT’s decision to rescind an invitation to Danish journalist and writer, Flemming Rose, to give the TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom. PEN SA President Margie Orford spoke about the matter here and called for responses, all of which can be found here.

By Gillian Godsell

Freedom of speech is about disseminating and protecting dangerous ideas. There is no place where these ideas are more important than on a university campus.

The old model of Freedom of Speech has served us well, drawing up ideas from considerable depths to feed democracies in lots of different environments. But perhaps, in South Africa in 2016, we need a new model?

Reflecting on the #silentprotest @Revolting_Wolf tweeted: “We need to be always aware of our positionality (and social privilege) as activists. It is why I never publicly speak about my struggle in platforms not accessible to everyone, because I refuse to want MY STORY to be the epitome…I didn’t want my story to overshadow other victim’s stories” (tweeted 9:42 PM 2016/08/06)

How do we re-arrange our concepts of freedom of speech so that we can tell strong stories without casting shadows across other stories? Can we debate who is silenced and who is privileged by our current conceptions of freedom, not just freedom of speech?

These are the questions that the welcome hiatus in the TB Davie lectures give us a chance to answer. I say welcome because a blank page is not necessarily a bad thing. Meant as pages of shame, denoting the absence of a particular conception of free speech at UCT in 2016, perhaps the empty spaces in the TB Davie record will turn out to be pages of hope, like the blank pages at the beginning of a new book.

We are engaged in all sorts of terrifying and exhilarating thinking in South Africa right now. On university campuses, staff and students are trying to sift out the essentials of academic life and thought from the clinging chaff of prejudice and custom. Beyond the university, history, race, gender, class, the way we define out own self-worth, are all being challenged and reconfigured. New ideas and old ideas about land, growth, markets, reparation, freedom, are jostling for a role in the shaping of the nation.

What form or forms of freedom of speech will support this process, and what is likely to shore up the old 20th century forms of silencing and privilege? Should we be offering yet another microphone to someone who stands behind so many microphones, that he must be booked a year in advance? Should we be amplifying voices which are already loud, or providing platforms for the other voices? Voices which are harder to hear because their language or vocabulary is unfamiliar, their message is unwelcome, or because their status is often one of silence? How do we respond to the younger generations’ demand that we just shut up and listen – freedom from speech, perhaps – embodied in hashtags such as #luister, #silentprotest, #witsuntold?

What context will nurture what Margie Orford labels as “reciprocity and generosity of thought in a world increasingly riven by polarized views and a refusal of the views of others”?

Some of the consequences of increasing polarisation are described by socio-linguist Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture. Tannen, who specialises in understanding the social effects of language, pleads for less personal attack in both language and institutions in the USA and the UK. Vitriol masquerading as debate, she says, is destroying the social fabric.

Our social fabric, our social cohesion, in SA is still pretty fragile. Can we develop a form of freedom of speech that doesn’t polarise, enrage and tear us apart? Tannen suggests that we should focus on dialogue rather than debate. Debate encourages squeezing complex ideas into a narrow space which has only two sides, and then declaring one side the winner. Dialogue encourages us to acknowledge that there might be three , or seven, sides to an issue; that I don’t have to be wrong in order for you to be right. Although the book was written in 1998, it fits well into current concepts of a non-binary world.


While I welcome the space and the discussion that cancelling the TB Davie lecture has engendered, I cannot agree with the Vice-Chancellor’s reasons for doing so. To stop the propagation of an idea because students, or Muslims, or whoever we currently label as the Ungovernable Other, might riot, is demeaning all round.
Universities are inherently risky places. To enter a university, as a visitor, student, or lecturer, you risk having your world-view upended, your prejudices exposed, your view of yourself and your place in the universe irrevocably changed. These are the terms and conditions.

By these criteria, the speaker selected by the Academic Freedom Committee was not too risky; he was not risky enough. Mocking someone else’s religion may put your life in danger, without threatening any of your own certainties. Once, in the West, criticising Christianity meant challenging secular powers, religious authorities, and your own view of the physical and spiritual world you lived in. Now religion is a soft target, the last fat boy at whom it is still permissible to laugh.

Not that laughter shouldn’t be part of freedom of speech. It should all be there: laughter, poetry, songs, expanding way beyond the single speech, the single voice that wins the debate, whatever the cost to the rest of us.

Gillian Godsell is a senior lecture at the Wits School of Governance.