Fallism: Into the intellectual abyss

Michael Cardo dissects the "ScienceMustFall" video that has gone viral on social media

Dogma must fall and leadership must rise

The clip of a “Fallist” student telling the UCT science faculty to decolonise science by “doing away with it entirely and starting all over again” had garnered over 430 000 views on YouTube at the time of writing.

For all its humour and pathos, the video manages to convey in just over four minutes the sinister underbelly of Fallism. This is the movement’s tendency to pass off as intellectual engagement the empty rhetoric and sloganeering of racial identity politics; its dogmatism and authoritarianism; its enforcement of conformity and intolerance of dissent; its unwillingness to engage with interlocutors; and its privileging of feelings (offence, anger, outrage and “pain”) over reasoned debate.

The video has generated a great deal of incredulous and derisive online comment, much of it catalogued under the hashtag #sciencemustfall. Predictably, it has also mobilised an assortment of hand-wringers, teeth-gnashers and pedal-softeners in defence of the palpably preposterous.

Some commentators claim that the young woman leading the interaction has been misunderstood. She isn’t rejecting science per se. Rather, she is suggesting that before Africa was colonised, there was an alternative conception of science, and a different framework of knowledge for understanding phenomena like lightning or gravity. Obscured and erased by a long and violent history of colonial oppression, that framework needs to be rediscovered, rebuilt and fortified through a process of decolonisation.

This line of legitimation is difficult to swallow when the student in question is so emphatic in her rejection of what she terms “Western” modernity, knowledge and science. “Western knowledge is very pathetic to say the least”, she proclaims at one point, with all the confidence and authority of a Nobel Prize-winner looking back on the accomplishments of a long and distinguished career. “Science as a whole is a product of western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off”, she demands at another.

Another defence is that the student is simply callow. She has been unfairly maligned because it is easy, after glancing at the video, to be snide, scornful and dismissive of what might more generously be construed as youthful exuberance.

In other words, we shouldn’t get too hung up on her simplifications, such as: “Western knowledge is … saying that it was Newton and only Newton who knew and saw an apple falling and out of nowhere decided gravity existed and created an equation and that is it”.

We should overlook her occasional inarticulacy in statements like this one: “I did science throughout my high-school years. And there’s a lot of things that I just, erm, ja, but it’s fine”.

Instead, we should address the serious questions spurred on by her intervention: issues to do with the philosophy and sociology of science, the epistemology of the scientific method, how that method structures the way in which research is conducted, and which subjects (or even groups of people) might be privileged as a result.

There is merit in that. The very least a university owes its students is to engage them with an open mind. (It’s also quite beneficial when that approach is reciprocated).

However, it is equally important for a university to provide thought leadership. It is not good enough for academics to pander and kowtow to the half-baked ideas of their students – or worse, provide those ideas with a veneer of intellectual legitimacy. 

Caught in the crucible of student protest, too many universities have now simply appropriated the discourse of decolonisation – with all its attendant racial identity politics, by turns trite and toxic – without even trying to understand or define what that amorphous and malleable concept might mean.

At UCT, the Fallists’ demand for free, decolonised education has now been taken up by the administration.  This is an approach, to misquote the nineteenth century French politician, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, that posits: “There go the students. We are their leaders and therefore we must follow them”.

Ideas need to be robustly interrogated, debated and tested, with a view to refinement or rejection. You cannot do that if you cocoon yourself in a “safe space” of mindless conformism, regard the expression of dissenting views as an act of “antagonism”, and then suppress others’ right to engage.

That is not intellectual engagement; it is totalitarianism, plain and simple.

Yet this is precisely what occurred at the UCT science faculty last week, as the YouTube clip reveals. After the student leading the interaction suggests there is a place in KwaZulu Natal called Umhlab'uyalingana where residents believe that through witchcraft people are able to send lightning to strike someone, a member of the audience yells, “It’s not true!”

Immediately, a thundercloud settles over the face of one of the other Fallists on the panel, her mouth rounding in outrage.  She bangs her hand repeatedly against the table, like an angry schoolmarm admonishing a class of errant Grade 1s, before leaning back to take a swig from her Energade bottle.

Meanwhile, the individual chairing the panel rises to her feet, hands on hips, fixes her glare on the heckler, and intones disapprovingly:

“I need to address you directly. When we started this…we agreed on certain house rules. By you doing that you are disrespecting the sacredness of this space. And so I’d like to ask you to first please apologise to the panel directly [interjection of “sorry”] and then, number two, understand the rules that we went by in this space, because it’s going to be very problematic. This is not an antagonising space, and so what you are trying to do is collapse this space and make it antagonising, which we will not allow.

This is a progressive space for people to say their opinions…So I would like you to first apologise and then go on and agree to abiding by the rules of this space, otherwise… if you are not willing to do that I would please ask you to remove yourself from this space…Those are the rules…of this space.  [Interjection of “I am very sorry”]…Ok, and do you agree to abide by those rules?  [Muffled interjection of “yes”].”

Apart from the hubris of a non-scientist instructing scientists in their field of expertise, the situation is pregnant with irony. The space is indeed antagonistic: to dissenting voices.

Only one, dogmatic, point of view can be heard. Indeed, the space is neither “safe” nor “progressive” (on the Fallists’ own terms) because contrary opinions are immediately silenced. Far from being progressive, the space is utterly regressive.

In fact, it is hard to think of anything more backward-looking or atavistic than would-be pursuers of knowledge setting out in search of some fabled past of epistemic purity while repudiating other perspectives in so hostile a fashion. This suggests an impulse to erase, destroy and purify.

As some online commenters have noted, taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of dogma results in the sort of thing propagated by Boko Haram. The name of that organisation has variously been translated as “Western education is forbidden” or “Westernisation is sacrilege”.

Of course, it is possible to read too much into all of this.

Students should have the freedom to figure things out for themselves, to say ridiculous things, to sloganeer and to be censorious. Be that as it may. But universities have a duty, too.

Long before the dogmatism of students turns to violence, long before academic freedom is sacrificed on the altar of “safe spaces”, and long before parochial essentialism threatens to destroy the universalism on which universities are based, university leaders need to stand up – and lead.

Michael Cardo is an MP and member of the UCT Council, but writes in his personal capacity.