The Freedom to Rescind by Gabeba Baderoon and Nadia Davids

17 Aug 2016
The Freedom to Rescind by Gabeba Baderoon and Nadia Davids

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 wrote about the matter here and called for responses, all of which can be found here.

The Freedom to Rescind: Universal Freedoms, Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom – Reflecting on the events surrounding UCT’s 2016 TB Davie lecture.

By Gabeba Baderoon and Nadia Davids

In 2015, UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) decided to grant its highest honour to the Danish journalist Flemming Rose, who was invited to give the T. B. Davie lecture.

In 2016, the Vice-Chancellor of UCT announced the university’s decision to rescind the invitation.

As PEN SA board members and UCT alumni we faced the urgent questions this set of decisions generated. We asked that we not be rushed into defending an undefined freedom and instead be granted the space to contemplate how the award was made in a year of student protests, exclusions and penalties and how the rescinding of that invitation has been understood by some as an act of censorship.

We considered the imagery Rose once published; the easy, cruel, deliberately inflammatory stereotyping, the blunt conflation of Islam with violence, the hooked noses and shifty expressions (a centuries-old trope in depicting ‘the other’ in Europe). We recalled the dreadful violence in response to the cartoons and we wondered at the currents of history and ‘the now’ that informed the AFC’s invitation.

It prompted a rich, difficult conversation around how freedom, civility, incivility, the right to protest, to be heard, to speak unguarded and un-fearful, is coded. We examined the specter of the violent protester conjured in explanation of UCT’s decision and we found ourselves circling, continuously, the twin principles on which PEN is built: the universal right to speak and the absolute protection of that right. Early in the public discussion, defending Rose’s right to give the lecture became entangled with proving one’s commitment to freedom and to the defense of our most fundamental beliefs. Missing from the conversation was the awareness that to defend Rose’s work and the invitation that would have brought him to UCT is to excuse other things. It is to engage in an act of erasure, to agree not to notice earlier transgressions on exactly such freedoms. It is to make invisible those who are not recognized as universal.

But to consider, instead, Rose’s work and the AFC’s decision to invite him within the longer flow of a tortured past and in relation to a wider spectrum of a painful present, is to understand that the universal is not quite so…universal. It is to acknowledge that the principles that we as writers and as citizens cherish, exist neither outside of systems of systemic, historical privilege, nor do they operate above the fray of left or right-wing politics. Instead, they are deeply, sometimes fatally, imbricated in them.

It is to acknowledge that freedom is not an innocent of history.

And it is within the framework of such acknowledgement that we’d like to consider the story of Rose and UCT, and ask how it demonstrates what academic freedom, universal freedom and freedom of expression might mean in South Africa today.

We ask these questions not to shut down debate, but to invite it.

I. The Present: An Image

There is now a dark shadow painted beneath the absent Rhodes statue. We imagine whoever did that wanted us to think about what is easy to see before us every day and what is not.

II. The Past: A Memory

We grew up with censorship, banned people, the state monopoly of radio and TV, a largely commercial print media and a small and often beleaguered array of brave voices to fight the erasures, droning certainties, monopolies and oppressive silences of apartheid.

We know, intimately, the consequences of censorship.

III. Today: Here, Now, a Call

We value the freedom of being able to think, read, consider, share, debate, critique and celebrate ideas.
We also know that we live in a world of many views and uneven access to voicing them.
Some voices are loud, some are commodified, some are amplified through that same commodification.
Some are violent.
A voice is not the only measure of freedom.
Simply to declare or simply to oppose are too simple.
We’ve had to learn how to take seriously, empathetically and ethically those who have different views. We’ve had to learn how to listen and in that listening to appreciate the textures of silence.

As Africans who are often the objects of others’ voices, we’d like us always to call for context, history and complexity, and to testify how the appeal to the universal can be oppressive in itself.

What would it mean to refuse an implacable insistence that the freedom of expression is the ultimate freedom?

What would it mean to refuse to care only about the abrogation of the sacred right of certain freedoms?

IV: The Letters

Part 1-The Invitation

We have not seen AFC’s initial invitation, but we can guess its content: We are writing to invite you… It would be a great honour…. Universal freedoms… Academic freedom…Freedom of Expression. University…Universal…

And in that imagining, we ask: Why is Flemming Rose considered universal?

Why did this man, whose public intellectual work is relatively slight but his dissemination of inflammatory and hateful imagery strong, receive one of UCT’s highest honours?

What made possible in 2015 the highly partial, inexplicably removed decision to grant a cherished public honour to a European journalist who proves his freedom on the bodies and beliefs of despised and beleaguered minorities in his continent?

Who stands for our universal freedoms, and who does not?

Whom do we invite in order to demonstrate how to co-exist amid difficulty, complexity and an unevenly weighted public sphere?

Why are we so abstracted from critiques of a guiltless, untrammeled “freedom of speech” which denies its exclusions and yet which we know springs from a particular political and cultural context in which some people exemplify freedom and others’ objections are seen undermining of universal freedoms?

Freedom, history, innocence.

Part 2: The Rescinding of the Invitation

UCT’s letter to the AFC rescinding the invitation offers two visions. In one it is because Rose’s work is understood as hate speech.
In the other, the threat of imagined violence hovers close. Which is it? Was the invitation rescinded because the university capitulated to predicted violence or because the university deemed Rose’s work (specifically the publication of the now infamous cartoons) as hate-speech?
If it is the former, then it was unequivocally an assault on free speech, if the latter then perhaps the university’s response is understandable, laudable, ethical, not a violation of free speech, but rather attempt to chart an inclusive path for a community riven by months of polarizing action and debate.
But the letter was unclear and it was in the cauldron of the university’s inclarity that the debate was cast.

V: The Specter:

Who is the imagined protester, the figure of ethnic violence stalking UCT’s letter?

The letter moves between local sensitivities and the rise of extremism at a breathtaking speed. Un-interrogated links are forged between acts of political violence, and with them a frightened and frightening warning about ‘consequences’. The Muslim community’s upset is predicted and yet within a paragraph we are told that Muslim leaders would have welcomed the opportunity to debate Flemming. A violent response from this community is intimated but this same community-as old as colonial Cape Town itself-does not have history of violent protest.

As the letter progresses the university itself is described as a ‘charged space’ and the ‘current climate’ a muted reference to the 2015 student protests. Is it onto the bodies of the students then, that the imagined violence is projected?

VI: Response

In Rose’s response he defends his commitment to freedom of speech by saying: “We, like most other Danish newspapers, published submissions to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest as well.”
This is a competition that encourages the denial of the Jewish Holocaust. Some of its finalists have mobilised distressing and unforgivable anti-Semitism. We would hope that the publishers of this newspaper are never honoured by an invitation from UCT’s AFC.

We do not presume, ever, to legislate what people say, or think, write or publish.

We believe that Rose is entitled to all the rights of free speech he (and we) enjoy, but we want to think, carefully, about what it means to grant someone like Rose the prestige of the AFC’s platform.

Who is heard?

Who is seen?

Who is not?

We end where we began.

There is now a dark shadow painted beneath the absent Rhodes statue. We imagine whoever did that wanted us to think about what is easy to see before us every day and what is not.

Gabeba Baderoon is a poet, academic and journalist and a member of the PEN SA Board. Nadia Davids is a writer, theatre-maker and scholar and a member of the PEN SA Board.