Opinion: Elisa Galgut

04 August 2016 | Story by Newsroom

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Judy Favish wrote on 26 July 2016 that the executive's decision to disinvite Flemming Rose as the 2016 TB Davie speaker was “a correct one”. She argues that her view is guided not by pragmatic concerns such as “possible threats to security” but because she is opposed to the “promotion of prejudice”. Presumably she thinks that Mr Rose promotes (unjustified) prejudice and has “violated the rights and freedoms of others”. Although she claims that possible security threats were not her main concern, she does appeal to anecdotal evidence about the recent terrorist attack at Ataturk airport, which she witnessed firsthand. The attack, she said, prompted her to think “about the importance of understanding the factors that prompt people to become suicide bombers and what can be done to eliminate these”.

Ms Favish does not say explicitly how the terrorist attack at the airport is connected to the invitation by the UCT Academic Freedom Committee to invite Mr Rose to deliver the TB Davie lecture; I have thus taken the liberty of constructing the following in an attempt to explicate Ms Favish's argument in what I hope is a charitable way.

  1. Unfair discrimination is morally wrong.
  2. If people feel unfairly discriminated against, they may resort to violence.
  3. Understanding the causes of violence will help in its prevention.
  4. Mr Rose has discriminated unfairly against Muslims.
  5. Therefore, Mr Rose has acted immorally and is not a fitting TB Davie speaker.
  6. Mr Rose is also culpable to some extent for the Danish cartoons violence.

These are just the bare bones of Ms Favish's argument, but I think this covers the main points.

Note that it would have been sufficient for Ms Favish's conclusion 5 if her argument had only premises 1 and 4. However, she seems to be making a more extensive claim – although she doesn't spell it out explicitly, the fact that she refers to the Ataturk terrorist attack indicates that she thinks that this is relevant to her argument. It is thus fair to assume that Ms Favish believes that Mr Rose, by publishing the Danish cartoons, is to an extent morally responsible for the violence that followed. She claims, for example, that UCT was right to disinvite Rose because “if there are grounds for fearing that these rights can be used to violate the rights and freedoms of others … then the limitation of these rights can be justified.” Thus Ms Favish does not believe that Mr Rose was simply foolish or naive in publishing the Danish cartoons, but that in doing so he “violated the rights and freedoms of others.” If my reading of her argument is correct, there is an implied premise that runs something like this: “Those whose actions cause others to commit acts of violence are, to an extent, morally culpable for this violence.”

The implied premise is a broad claim, and I doubt that Ms Favish would accept it as it stands, but it's unclear where she would set the limits. I take it, for example, that she would not think that Fouzia Azeem was in any way responsible for her own murder in a so-called honour killing – Ms Azeem had posted “provocative selfies and videos” of herself on-line, which her brother considered disrespectable to the family. Nor would she think that women who wear short skirts and high heels are culpable if they are raped. Thus the fact that some Muslims reacted with extreme violence in response to the publication of the Danish cartoons is not, ipso facto, a reason to blame Rose. The only way it would be reasonable to blame Rose is either if one thought that the violence was somehow justifiable (and not merely understandable) or if one thought that Flemming Rose incited the perpetrators to violence. But neither of these claims can be reasonably defended. Thus further conclusion 6 is unsupported.

We still have conclusion 5 to address – namely that Mr Rose acted immorally by publishing the Danish cartoons and is not a fitting TB Davie speaker because, in so publishing them, he unfairly discriminated against Muslims. Conclusion 5 requires premise 4 (Mr Rose has discriminated unfairly against Muslims), which, if it were true, would indeed constitute good grounds for disinviting Mr Rose. But is 4 true? For all her talk of context, it's decidedly odd that Ms Favish does not look at the reasons Mr Rose decided to publish the cartoons. These are significant in deciding what his intentions were, which are relevant in deciding whether 4 is true. (It's possible, of course, that one can be unaware of one's own reasons for actions, but unless Ms Favish can provide evidence of this, we need to take Mr Rose's explanations of his actions at face value). Mr Rose gives the following explanation for publishing the Danish cartoons:

“Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter … I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them 'to draw Muhammad as you see him.' We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the prophet.”

Read the full text of Flemming Rose's Why I Published Those Cartoons...

Of course, one can disagree with Mr Rose about whether one ought to satirise religion, but the claim that Mr Rose discriminated against Muslims, or violated their rights, has little to support it. It is simply thrown around as an ad hominem, as a way of blaming Mr Rose for the violence committed by others, and for refusing to engage with the difficult issues surrounding freedom of expression and its limitations. There are, indeed, many who think that mere offence is a sufficient reason to limit freedom of expression, but this is not, to put it mildly, an uncontested view. Unfortunately, by disinviting Mr Rose, we cannot engage with him on this issue.

If I have outlined Ms Favish's argument correctly, then her conclusion that the UCT Exec was right to disinvite Mr Rose is unsupported.

Opinion Elisa Galgut, UCT Department of Philosophy.

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