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A clash of rights: Part three



After last week’s discussion of the poem “First they came” I now return to the main focus of “A Clash of Rights”: the question how does one uphold the right to freedom of speech and, at the same time, protect people from hate speech? As I warned you two weeks ago, there seems to be no easy answer to this. For higher education (and I would argue for education of teeny-tots upwards) freedom of expression is an essential requirement. Students need to know how to describe and criticize the world they live in and do so without resorting to cheap rhetorical tricks such as personal insult. Not all universities are able to uphold this principle. In Swaziland, for example, freedom of speech is severely restricted, as are many other freedoms. I remember how impressed I was when I met there two young female trade unionists, who were battling away in defence of workers’ rights despite their government’s clampdown on such activity. Year after year I was an external examiner at the University of Swaziland and had great admiration for the work they were doing within the restrictions placed on freedom of speech. But two crises arose during the years I was visiting the place. The first of these was remote from my work and I’m not going to go into detail in case I get things wrong. Briefly, a Swazi academic and a Nigerian colleague of his collaborated as authors of a book on human rights (or lack of them) in Swaziland, published by the renowned Zed Press in London. When the book appeared and was reviewed in the international media, the authors realised they were in trouble. The Nigerian fled the country; his Swazi colleague was hacked to death in his house on campus. The other case was closer to my work, as it involved a friend and colleague, a female Nigerian dramatist. At a point she had started teaching and putting into practice TfD (Theatre for Development), a form of participatory community theatre that has been carried out with great success in Lesotho. The point of TfD is that it addresses critical life issues, the sort of issue that you’re not exactly encouraged to talk about in public in Swaziland. She was warned to desist, and when she didn’t her contract was not renewed. What happens, though, when the two rights that this article addresses come into conflict in the context of higher education? What happens when an academic engages in public in hate speech? (There are issues here that have to do with authority, intention and audience, but these are too elaborate for me to take up in this brief survey). I’ll start off with the case of Jordan Peterson, a right-wing academic whose right to say what he liked was defended by the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph (and I have to point out that the Telegraph is not a paper written for morons or bigots; it is highly articulate, but you do need to read it through a lens that reminds you which end of the political spectrum it’s coming from). The paper commented: “Staff at [the publisher] Random House tried this week to block the publication of a new book by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic whose contempt for identity politics has earned him a huge following on the Right. They are so easily rattled, these new inspectors of literary hygiene. The argument against Peterson seems to be that, even if he isn’t a neo-Nazi, some of his fans are. But since when did we judge a book by its readers? If reading has any moral purpose, it is that it broadens our understanding of the world by exposing us to different ideas. This is what makes publishing an exalted profession.” My take on that op-ed (opinion piece) by Jemima Lewis? It’s that clash of rights thing again, except that (i) it is integral to the responsibilities of an academic not to pander to bigotry; and (ii) when Lewis refers to “different ideas” maybe “ideas” is too elevated a word for what Peterson was trading in. I wrap up this week with an anecdote that is only marginally relevant to my theme, but may allow some lightening up as I proceed with this grim subject. Years ago I was spending a week on resaearch at WITS University, Johannesburg and, during a coffee and cig break found myself sitting at the edge of an arena where student union hustings were taking place. I knew that the union was dominated by ANC members and they were certain to win most seats at the upcoming election. There was only one white student campaigning, a female, and at least two of the other candidates made sceptical comments about her ability to understand the needs and problems of black students. When she came to speak she was rather impressive, but ended with the assertion “I pledge to defend the rights of students of all races and all diversities.” The event ended and, as the candidates left, passing right next to me, I applauded them and then beckoned the white student over and whispered “you really should learn how to use the word ‘diversity.’” To be continued Chris Dunton

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