A reply to the "concerned philosophers"

David Benatar responds to the group denouncing his opinion-piece calling for the law to be enforced on the UCT campus

If only the “concerned philosophers” were more concerned.

It is a sign of the times that a group identifying itself as “concerned philosophers” – current and former students and tutors in the UCT Philosophy Department – has seen fit to join the bandwagon of campus groupthink.

In a statement, directed to the Philosophy Department they say that they are concerned “about 1) the increased militarisation of UCT including the presence of private security and the excessive use of force by private security and police on campus 2) the silence of the philosophy department on this issue and on the protests in general.”

They think that the use of private security and police on campus is both “morally wrong” and “imprudent”. They do not explain why it is wrong, but in support of the claim of imprudence they say that the “mere militarization of campus increases tensions and hostility, and creates an environment that is directly counterproductive to constructive engagement”. They do not consider the medium- and longer-term imprudence of capitulating to illegal protest.

They argue that the Philosophy Department’s silence is problematic because in the absence of a Department statement, a piece that I wrote in support of the enforcement of law on campus “is perceived as the department’s position”. At the same time they say that the Department’s silence, “perpetuates stereotypes about the department, its staff and its students” and makes the Department “seem untransformed and uncritical of current events”.

In presenting this constellation of views, the “concerned philosophers” express no concern at all about the campus protesters’ flagrantly illegal behaviour, including:

1. Blockading access to universities, thereby preventing people from getting to their place of work and study.

2. Disrupting teaching and intimidating academic and administrative staff as well as students.

3. Burning vehicles and historic paintings.

4. Causing nearly a billion rands worth of damage to universities around the country, evidently without a single person yet being convicted for these crimes.

5. Threatening the completion of the academic year, with all the knock-on effects that this could have, including, but not limited to:

a. An extra year of study for thousands of students, which will impact most significantly on the poorest.

b. Preventing the qualification of final year health science students, thereby negatively impacting on the provision of healthcare in the public sector, on which the poor are reliant. (Similar points can be made about at least some other graduating professionals.)

c. A loss of fees to the universities that are already under financial pressure and will thus be even less adequately equipped to meet the expensive demands of the protesters.

6. Stone throwing and other dangerous behaviour that appears to have resulted (although not at UCT) in the death of one person thus far.

As unconcerned as the “concerned philosophers” are about the rampant illegality that seeks to cripple South African tertiary education and is likely to have very serious costs for the rest of the country, they are very concerned about any attempt to enforce the law.

Indeed, they take exception to my call for the law to be enforced. They say that my article “endorses violence against the protesters”. This is a misrepresentation. What I actually said applies equally to them:

“What is lost on all of them is the fact that law is ultimately backed up by force. Many people comply with the law without the need for force to be used. However, the threat of force always lurks in the background and sometimes has to be exercised. For example, if one refuses to pay fines, one may be summoned to court. If one refuses to present oneself or to comply with the court’s verdict, one may be arrested. If one resists arrest, force will be used to effect the arrest. If one uses force in return, then greater force will need to be used. That is the way it has to be, for otherwise there would be no sanction attached to breaking the law. Laws without teeth are not laws.”

There is a difference between force and violence. It is true that force can escalate into violence, but they are not the same. Appropriate law enforcement will often begin with words, proceed to force, and escalate into controlled and proportionate violence to the extent that those breaking the law refuse to yield to the lesser force.

It is a similarly sloppy use of language to say that the campus was “militarized”. This is hyperbolic sloganeering. There is a difference between inviting private security or police onto campus and inviting the military. When the law is broken, at least in a legitimate state, it is entirely reasonable to call law enforcement agencies. A country’s streets are not militarized merely because armed police are to be found patrolling them.

I would like the “concerned philosophers” to look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that the claim I made about how law works is false. I would like them to similarly indicate whether they reject the concept of law enforcement. More specifically, would they want the law enforced should they become the victims of serious illegality? If somebody robs them, destroys their property, or blocks their access to their homes, would they be satisfied with “constructive engagement” with the criminals rather than have the police enforce the law? (If they think that the law should be enforced in such cases, they must explain why it should not be enforced in others.)

The “concerned philosophers” allege that when law enforcement was brought onto campus, excessive force was used and racial profiling employed. Insofar as that is true, it is a matter for legal redress. However, if the “concerned philosophers” are critical thinkers, they will recognize that sometimes perceptions and allegations can be inaccurate.

That is exactly why we have legal processes for dispassionately evaluating them and taking appropriate action. If security personnel have acted illegally then they should be subjected to sanction, but exactly the same should apply to protesters who have acted illegally. Asymmetric enforcement of the law would undermine the principle of equality before the law.

The “concerned philosophers” say that the presence of law enforcement “on campus creates a climate of fear and uncertainty which is not conducive to academic activities”. They fail to mention that the closure of the University and the intimidation of staff and students also “creates a climate of fear and uncertainty which is not conducive to academic activities”. Nor do they mention that repeated negotiations with the protesters – who are not elected leaders – have failed to end the illegal behaviour and restore the “academic activities”, the resumption of which they profess to want.

The “concerned philosophers” say that they “support the completion of the academic year in the context of a demilitarised negotiated settlement amongst UCT management and protesters”. They must ask themselves the following questions: What if a negotiated settlement and thus the completion of the academic year is not possible? Would they then want full capitulation to whatever demands the unelected protesters make? Or are they prepared to countenance the ongoing closure of the university? Or do they think that there comes a time when illegality can no longer be tolerated?

The “concerned philosophers” say that as “a discipline centred around critical thinking and analysis, we feel that as philosophers we can’t remain silent about events on campus” and they propose a “departmental mass meeting”. However, it is absolutely clear that breaking the department silence will not satisfy them unless what is said concurs with the views they espouse.

Indeed, statements such as theirs, as well as the proposed mass meeting, further the intimidation that has pervaded campus. People espousing the views of the “concerned philosophers” are entirely comfortable expressing themselves. Those with opposing views are, with very few exceptions, too fearful to express their dissent. (What sort of university has ours become when the defenders of illegality seek to condemn those who want the law enforced?)

Those who are brave – or foolhardy – enough to speak out, are cut down by the zealots who signal their own virtue by “naming and shaming” the dissenters. (In our context the preferred form of the “heresy” accusation is the charge of insufficient commitment to “transformation”.) Such denunciations are a recurring and noxious feature of human history. It would be good if the “concerned philosophers” were also concerned not to succumb to so familiar a vice.

* Those unable to discern should be advised that I write in my personal capacity.