Today’s Lecture Has Been Cancelled by David Attwell

17 Aug 2016
Today’s Lecture Has Been Cancelled by David Attwell

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 David Attwell

The cancellation of the 2016 TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at UCT is a sad, sobering event. The Academic Freedom Committee, which manages the annual Lecture, says that the published series will note the absence of 2016, and record the fact that the speaker, Flemming Rose, was dis-invited on instruction by the Vice-Chancellor, Max Price.

So it comes about that the actions of the university’s management will be remembered in the same way that apartheid-era censorship is remembered – through blacked-out passages of text. Sad and sobering, also shameful.

There is another history, one of controversies at UCT around the concept and practice of free speech and its relation to academic freedom. Conor Cruise O’Brien (1985), Salman Rushdie (1988), and now Flemming Rose (2016). One would hope that by now, the institution had enough institutional memory to be able to head-off such conflict. Such wisdom is around, as is reflected in English Professor John Higgins’s Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa (2014). Was it drawn on? Where was the tactful pragmatism of a Stuart Saunders, who in the midst of the conflict of 1985 rang up Conor Cruise O’Brien to say, ‘If I think it necessary in order to avert serious violence, will you authorize me to say, on your behalf, that you have cancelled your remaining classes on campus?’ (Passion and Cunning, 1988).

It is commonplace that free speech and academic freedom are not transcendent values to be adhered to without question at any time or in any place. As Margie Orford says, there are asymmetries of power, there are contexts and histories. The grand freedoms are constructions; in old-fashioned language, social values. They carry emotional investments, but how they are actualized depends on how they are managed in and by institutions.

The PEN Charter could not be clearer. It is an advocacy body. It binds its members to stand ‘for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations’; its members ‘pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.’ Did anyone say this would be easy? As Pierre de Vos says in his contribution to the debate, ‘it is exactly at the moment when it is difficult to stick to your principles that they become important to respect.’

We can agree that Jyllands-Posten is not the most exemplary vehicle for free speech; we can agree that whether he chooses to or not, Flemming Rose represents a privileged constituency; we can agree that no one needs to accept the jurisdiction of liberal secularism; we can agree that mocking and stereotyping Islam goes hand-in-glove with industrial-scale atrocities, perpetrated in the name of democracy. Such agreements are humane and instructive but they do not change the PEN mandate.

Members of PEN are required to err on the side of tolerating offensive speech. If they balk at this, they should ask themselves whether their advocacy belongs in PEN or somewhere else—a specific political movement, perhaps. After all, PEN has standing committees whose work year-round is to defend the rights of those who have been incarcerated for speaking out; the work of these committees is not to defend the arguments of the incarcerated. PEN SA should act on the basis of the clarity of its mandate, and object publicly to the cancellation of the 2016 Academic Freedom Lecture. Its position is indistinguishable from that of Index on Censorship.

Universities are in a different position. Their managers can’t afford to be quite so absolute because they are accountable to a complex and quite fragile organization, a complexity and fragility that is the underside of any university’s high-mindedness. Behind Stuart Saunders’s appeal to O’Brien, who was nothing if not high-minded, there is an appeal for just such a recognition. The best administrators lead with big ideas while governing with understatement.

Feel sorry for UCT: it is a high-minded institution, so much so that it has committed itself to being the host and platform of an annual lecture in support of academic freedom. During apartheid, the rightness of that position was unquestionable; now it discovers that the community is at war with itself, too much so to host this lecture without the prospect of serious conflict.

Some voices have asked to see the evidence that violent disruption involving personal injury and destruction of property was likely if the lecture went ahead. But let’s give the university managers the benefit of the doubt—after all, risk assessment works not on the basis of hard evidence, but on the basis of speculation and measurements of probability. Let’s assume that risk assessment of this kind was rigorously done and that management was acting responsibly.

What then? What happened was that Vice-Chancellor Max Price, acting on a mandate from his executive and Council, cancelled the lecture and made public his rationale in a document written to the Academic Freedom Committee. In making this document public, following the intuitions of liberal legality, he was appealing to the reason of the public sphere. That turned out to be a miscalculation, because what the public read was not reason but sophistry.

The document’s basic contradiction is that while it begins with a high-minded affirmation of free speech and academic freedom, it proceeds to revoke them in the specific instance of the Lecture to be given by Flemming Rose. The more Max Price deploys a rational, legal discourse, explaining how and why such freedoms are not unlimited, the more stark the hypocrisy becomes. So the public stops following the language; instead, it places the language alongside the action. (There are whole courses in Shakespeare devoted to analyzing this problem.)

But it gets even worse. Max Price then blames Flemming Rose for being the cause of the problem. He does this by attribution, giving rein to Rose’s accusers who speak of his cultural chauvinism and provocation and Islamophobia, without sufficiently distancing himself and his own views from the accusations. In doing this, Price compounds the earlier contradiction: speaking a language of liberal-mindedness and due process, he commits the error of tainting Rose with the opinions of his opponents. This is speaking with a forked tongue; it’s the sort of thing that gives liberalism a bad name. Confronted with an irrational, absolute demand (the lecture must be cancelled) the Vice-Chancellor tries to maintain appearances through casuistry.

What might he, or his executive, have done instead? There is a glimmer of honesty in his document, which he might have used to produce a more powerful position. He writes that regretfully, ‘we recognize that a decision not to provide an official platform to Mr Rose is an acknowledgement of the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus.’ The regret here might have something to do with the fact that Max Price had previously associated himself with a statement by Vice-Chancellors world-wide, affirming free speech on campus and objecting to the ‘no-platforming’ of controversial speakers. His fellow signatories will be raising an eyebrow.

However, the shame could have been turned into powerful moral leadership. If the Vice-Chancellor had come out saying that free speech is impossible at UCT in the present climate, it would have been a jolt. He would have reminded everyone of the value of open intellectual inquiry which, in John Higgins’s terms, is ‘essential to realizing the full public value of higher education.’ If the Vice-Chancellor had said that UCT was failing in its mission, that the necessary cancellation of the T.B. Davie Academic Freedom Lecture was proof of that failure, in a frank admission of the current state of affairs—as an act of protest by the Vice-Chancellor against the community itself—it would truly have meant something.

David Attwell is an author and Professor of English at the University of York.