The fine art of lying about UCT's art collection

Tim Quinlan weighs in on the university's defence of WOAC, and its critics


How does one caution UCT’s management against painting itself into a corner, via the communications department’s responses to criticism on the fate of UCT’s art collection, published in Elijah Moholola’s name (Politicsweb, 4th October; 6th November 2018) and, at the same time, disagree with some of the critics’ arguments (Politicsweb, 19 and 25th September 2018; 1st and 8th November 2018)?

I’ll venture from the far side.

In 2000, South Africans were subject to an extraordinary statement by a government spokesman. It was extraordinary for being a candid, albeit convoluted, defence of Thabo Mbeki’s views and government policy on HIV/AIDS. Thereafter, government spokesmen (they were men) mastered the art of lying by saying nothing; that is, being ambiguous with what they said on a topic so that they could deflect any question by replying that the questioner misunderstood the meaning of the statement or any particular part of it. In time, they excelled at their job after realising that the bigger the lie the easier it was to dissemble the truth.

Which brings me to UCT; it is sad to see the communications department playing the game of Mbeki’s spokesmen. Put differently, I presume that the communications department staff are committed to doing good for the university, its students and staff; hence, why did they respond to the criticism in the way they did and who authorised it? By the way, I presume nothing emerges from the communications department without management approval but communications departments do have agency.

This also brings me to questioning Elisa Galgut and William Daniels’ ‘BS’ (“bullshit”) characterisation of the UCT management’s explanations of its actions and Belinda Bozzoli’s and Sara Gon’s Orwellian take on Moholola’s retorts.

First, I question Galgut and Daniels’ argument for, at root, juxtaposing BS and lies and because the vulgarity of BS all too easily overshadows their argument in spite of its reasoned premises. They acknowledge that BS cannot be without a kernel of a lie and, subliminally, has to have a reference point of truth (i.e. there is articulation) but I am not convinced the core juxtaposition works.

In essence, does BS mean the same thing in SA as it might do in the USA? They draw upon a USA philosopher’s use of BS as a word which describes statements that ignore facts and truth whereas, I believe, the word in SA means a gross distortion of facts and truth. Therefore, arguably, Galgut and Daniels overreach their argument in suggesting that the UCT management is committed to ignoring facts and truth. It would be more accurate to say the management is on the road to that end in view of the content of Moholola’s articles. In other words, the communications department has not yet been authorised, nor displayed the temerity, to make the Trumpian leap from distorting, to ignoring facts and truth.  

Second, Bozzoli’s and Gon’s arguments. I question their Orwellian take on the UCT management’s responses for inferring dark strategy. The standard of lying in the responses simply isn’t good enough to indicate this. One can as easily read the content as flip-flopping excuses much like those of Mbeki’s spokesman in 2000. The management’s responses are actually a thorough muddle of statements.

To the crux of the matter: Critics show that the UCT management has lied and the latter replies by lying.

Readers of Politicsweb know how the critics have shown that explanations in terms of removal of art pieces for safekeeping (with good reason) changed into terms such as “creative curation”, “creating spaces for engagement and discussion” and such like and, purportedly, as temporary measures. All the while, close to three years of such explanations, there has been no credible presentation of progress and outcomes of the ‘dialogue’ (e.g. with whom; numbers of individuals canvassed; principles and decisions for a resolution). The explanations seem, primarily, to have been desperate attempts to counter possible accusations of censorship, which of course served to push the latter to the forefront of the dispute.  

With regard to the lies in the responses, Bozzoli sketches their form. To be more precise, Moholola’s words deflect reader’s attention from the substantive issues, deceive by guiding readers to believe something that is not true, and dissemble truth (i.e. conceal it).

For example, he castigates critics for insulting the WOAC; in the case of Galgut and Daniels’ argument, for “resort(ing) to expletives” (6th Nov.) and, in the case of Gon’s criticism, for suggesting similarities between the committee’s agenda and Stalin’s totalitarian agenda; specifically, that the committee is using “censorship to further their political views” (4th Oct.). The deflection is obvious: on the one hand and most risibly, for inferring there was no reasoning behind Galgut and Daniel’s use of the BS word - just inexcusable anger (OK, that is also deception) - and, on the other, for directing attention away from the sources and reasons for the ongoing political agenda to keep the art collection under wraps. Surprisingly, complexity of the matter is presented also as a reason for opening a dialogue and, it seems, for the time lapsed without resolution. Complexity is very difficult for UCT’s scholars? Isn’t it just grist for the mill? Is the expert-laden WOAC really not capable of solving a complex problem in the space of 3-4 years?

To illustrate deception. Moholola presents the management and the WOAC as if these bodies have worked transparently. However, he leaves out the fact there have been resignations from the committee (what were the reasons?) and that the university management prevented the former University Librarian from stating publicly her concerns about how the ‘review’ process amounted to censorship. As for trying to deflect and deceive via the hoary phrase, “(UCT) is on its way to abandoning the model of the detached ivory tower”, the less said the better. ‘Sho’ suffices.

The dissimulation of truth: the illustrations above indicate how it is done. The bulk of both articles obfuscate what has been going on; more than can be covered in this short rebuke. Besides, there is one key issue which should be brought into the open. I refer to the critical race theory-derived intellectual and political framework governing the art collection ‘review’ process.

The management’s responses sanitise this framework. Supposedly, the framework has encouraged dialogue and a “rational evolution of ideas and thought”; hence concerns about censorship, academic freedom, rights, and why there has been no resolution, are misplaced. But the review process is a contest; indicated not least in the management’s proclaimed commitment to “open and respectful debate”.

Leaving aside the odd, also stated, foreclosure of debate with any person whose views the management doesn’t like, the contentious precepts and logic of this framework are what the critics allude to (e.g. the limitations of the very broad ambit of notions such as privilege, hurt/offence; in praxis, the framework’s inability to accommodate reasoned, democratic resolutions).

Looking from the outside, it seems management and the WOAC are hostages to indecision as a result of a ‘dialogue’ designed without end. Is there even contemplation of an evaluation on the horizon? All the while, substantiated criticism mounts.

In sum, isn’t there someone in management, communications or the WOAC who can do better than what has been presented to date and, as importantly, who can confront the framework’s limitations? By this, I mean someone who can present a principled and evidence-based proposition, exhibit, engage in debate and, as necessary, acknowledge limitations of the proposition and refine, and allow the achievement of a solution. This is a premise of truth seeking. It also works for achieving social justice. I do not mean someone who is very good at lying.

Tim Quinlan is a UCT alumnus