Tolerance has no place on campus

Andrew Donaldson says the last thing students need is to be discomforted by shocking images and art


WHAT the hell was Dean Dart thinking? That he was at a proper university, a place where ideas are contested and orthodoxies challenged?

On Thursday, the Maties BA student was suspended, along with two others, following the so-called Nazi poster squabble on campus. This is despite the fact that Dart denies making or putting up any of the 12 posters that, according to Stellenbosch University’s equality unit, had created an “intimidating environment” for students.

But Dart did apparently want to lead a discussion with students on intolerance, particularly the intolerance of the far left, using the posters as a “tool for introspection”. 

This at least is what he told the online student publication, Matiemedia.

The posters, suggesting a new extreme right-wing presence on campus, were certainly provocative and admittedly tasteless, with images copied directly from Hitler Youth propaganda: tanned blonde teenagers staring confidently off into the distance at an Aryan future that would last a thousand years or more.

The swastika flags had however been replaced with banners containing some fake neo-Nazi tosh. In heavy gothic type, the posters declared, “The Anglo-Afrikaner Student” and “Fight for Stellenbosch”. 

Students were suitably offended and, following calls by various groups, a mass meeting was arranged to discuss the controversy. 

Despite some students wanting to hear Dart’s views, he was denied the opportunity to address the crowd and was instead ignominiously marched off to the university’s transformation office by members of the student representative council.

Afterwards he claimed the aim of the posters was to open up a debate of sorts. 

“We were just hoping that people were going to arrive in protest and have a discussion about what is happening to the left,” he said. “The hope was that we could reason at least.” 

He said the extreme fascist imagery in the posters was intended to show that the left had grown increasingly intolerant of the opinions and views of others, an attitude they claim to despise.

“By not being allowed to speak, the crowd proved my point … What has happened with the left is that they are not even willing to listen. They’re very willing to be very derogatory and shut people down.”

Here at the Mahogany Ridge, we find Dart’s appeal for reason hopelessly naive. Such idealism has no place at our institutions of higher learning.

The University of Cape Town, for example, has wisely removed scores of artworks from its walls for an indefinite period as “part of the transformation agenda” there.

A report compiled by an artworks task team well-versed in groupthink has concluded that the art created an unsafe, uncomfortable environment for certain people on campus. 

“In our deliberations,” it said, “we found that while there may not be a problem with individual artworks, their cumulative effect, coupled with the lack of a considered curatorial policy, creates a negative feeling amongst some students and staff. We found that currently, UCT does not have a curatorial policy and would need to develop one that is transformation-sensitive.”

Students and staff will now hopefully be spared the discomfort and confusion that comes with accidentally glancing, let’s just say, at Breyten Breytenbach’s painting, Hovering Dog, and noticing that it features, in the background, a naked black woman with a whiteface mask inexplicably sitting on the lap of a naked white man with a blackface mask.

There has, predictably, been a lot of chatter about assaults on freedom of expression,  artistic expression, the rights of artists on campus and the like. 

Naturally, most of the bickering has come from artists, who can hardly be relied upon for objectivity or balanced considerations on the matter, as it is their work that is the collateral damage in this drive for a brave new world, and they do go on and on about such things.

Breytenbach, for one, was annoyed that his Hovering Dog has been “removed for safekeeping”, and has muttered darkly about the cultural work of such groups as the Taliban, Islamic State and, yes, even the Nazis. 

But perhaps he and others like him will be less noisy once the university has drawn up its transformation-sensitive curatorial policy and they will then know exactly what it is they would be permitted to paint, sculpt or photograph.

With the policy in place, the task team would then be freed up to devote its attention to the libraries.

There are certain books, after all, on their shelves, and we wouldn’t want any of the strange ideas in them to suddenly leap up off the page and give the unsuspecting imagination a good old-fashioned rogering.

Think, or rather not, of the trouble we’d be spared.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.