Jacques Rousseau on UCT’s Disinvitation of Flemming Rose

17 Aug 2016
Jacques Rousseau on UCT’s Disinvitation of Flemming Rose

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 Jacques Rousseau

Subsequent to the decision by the University of Cape Town Executive to revoke the invitation extended to Flemming Rose, much public comment has focused on Mr Rose as being a controversial speaker. The fact that he is controversial cannot be denied, but what concerns me – and should concern us all – is that some of those who support his dis-invitation are confusing arguments about whether he should have been invited in the first place with arguments for dis-inviting him.

Second, some arguments regarding whether he was an appropriate invitee or not depend on a false, or at least caricatured, impression of his views and the possible content of his talk.

Before I address these issues, it is true that the mere fact that the public perception of Mr Rose is of him being a provocateur, who is furthermore either insensitive to offending Muslims – or, according to some, downright Islamophobic – lends weight to the Executive’s decision.

Whether these perceptions are accurate or not is one issue, but an entirely separate issue is that of the extent to which those perceptions could have been exploited by those who might have wished to disrupt the TB Davie lecture, or even attempt to exploit his visit as a mechanism for disrupting “the positive interfaith relations which currently mark public life in the Western Cape”, to quote the Vice Chancellor’s letter.

While I am not convinced of the threat posed to “positive interfaith relations”, in that I believe it to misrepresent and inflate a perceived intolerance in the Muslim community, I do think the security threats were real, and that that Mr Rose’s appearance would have led to protests and perhaps even violence.

This is why I (personally, rather than the AFC) think that the Executive’s decision was understandable, even though their reasoning should have started, and ended, with the simple acknowledgement that pragmatism is forcing us to grant the heckler’s veto, given that the likely expense of securing the venue is difficult to justify at a time when the higher education sector is facing financial ruin.

The problems with acceding to the heckler’s veto are well-rehearsed in countless books and essays on free speech – in short, those who are most threatening get to win arguments they should not, and space for debate and dissent shrinks. It is true that more of us need to stand up against this, and show that it’s possible and desirable for uncomfortable ideas to be aired.

Yet, it can sometimes be difficult to do so when you are in charge of the safety and security of a lecture audience, and the reputation of an institution like a university. Simply labelling such decisions as cowardly, or attacking those who make such decisions, can be premised on an uninformed and simplistic version of the dilemma being faced.

To return to my initial points, starting with the matter of whether Mr Rose should have been invited in the first instance. The Academic Freedom Committee comprises 13 members, who receive nominations from the university community, and select a speaker from those nominated.

In March 2015, when the decision to invite Mr Rose was taken, it was in part because of threats to education posed by ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as emerging debates on visual representation (the Rhodes statue), that the committee considered him to be the strongest candidate of those nominated.

It would also be an error to view the 2016 invitee in isolation, rather than considering the history of the TB Davie lecture and those invited in the past. While the committee should, and no doubt will continue to be mindful of the appropriateness of potential speakers to the UCT and South African contexts, one lecturer in one year says little about the AFC’s sensitivity or lack thereof to the political context in which the TB Davie lecture occurs.

The second point, on caricatured impressions of Mr Rose’s views, also speaks to the decision to invite him. Few people seem aware of the falsehoods underpinning some objections to Mr Rose’s visit. He has published cartoons depicting Jesus, for example. He has defended a radical imam’s right to hate speech, demonstrating that he’s an “equal opportunity offender”. And finally, his reasoning for publishing the “Danish cartoons” is far more nuanced than many are aware.

To conclude: Even though we can do little about his dis-invitation now, we can at least ask supporters of that decision to be honest about their reasons for doing so, and use this as an example for demonstrating how important free speech is, in that it’s a caricature of Mr Rose that has been dis-invited, rather than the far more interesting person that was invited by the AFC.

When we allow this caricature to stand in for Mr Rose, and for a misreading of his views to be amplified by the sorts of reasons provided in the University Executive’s statement, we are conceding the argument not only to hecklers, but also to ignorance.

There are both obvious and subtle ways in which freedom withers. In this instance, we will never know what Mr Rose intended to say, because he wasn’t allowed to speak. In consequence, those who see him as a cartoon villain protect their prejudices from challenge, and we diminish the advance of reason, and the discovery of truth.

Jacques Rousseau is an author, academic and activist, who was serving as the Chair of the Academic Freedom Committee during the time these events unfolded.