Vindictive victimhood at UCT

David Benatar writes on the university's crybully medical students

“I hope y’all change before you become shitty doctors”:

The University of Cape Town’s crybully medical students

An “emergency class meeting” was recently called for the third year MBChB class at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was called by some students in the class and was scheduled at a regular lecture time. It ended up displacing all the lectures that would otherwise have taken place that afternoon. The purpose of the meeting was not conveyed to the class, but in the course of it, some students were berated and humiliated for allegedly being insufficiently compassionate. In other words, the self-appointed guardians of compassion and sensitivity displayed the opposite of that in haranguing and shaming their classmates. This irony was lost on the former, but certainly not on the latter who, it turns out, were not guilty of the insensitivity attributed to them.

First preludes

Earlier in the year, one component group in the class were being taught about the aetiology of substance abuse. Some students in that class opined that the legacy of Apartheid was the main contributor to substance abuse. One of their classmates – I shall refer to him as Scott – who had read the relevant literature, disputed this. He acknowledged that it was a contributing factor but said that the evidence did not support the view that it was the dominant factor.

Scott fielded many challenges, but a handful of students in the class became steadily more personal, eventually accusing him of “white privilege”. It turns out, as in this case, that one does not have to be “white” to be accused of “white privilege”. Scott says that he can only speculate why they assumed that he was “Caucasian” rather than of “mixed race” background. Either way, they were making assumptions about him on the basis of his outward appearance, which he notes is exactly what prejudice is.

As is to be expected, these sorts of accusations had a silencing effect. Other students in the class were too intimidated to speak up. At least four of them called Scott afterwards to let him know that they agreed with him. One of them said that she agreed entirely, but that if Scott ever mentioned that she did, she would deny it.

Scott was a lone voice on other occasions too. When UCT first year Film and Media student, Uyinene Mrwetyana was raped and murdered, the name of the person accused of the crime was released before he had appeared in court and pleaded. This is in violation of South African law, but some medical students applauded the fact that the accused had been named prematurely. Scott expressed concern about flouting the law, and was taken to task for this.

He had previously rejected the idea, expressed by some of his fellow students, that #AllMenAreTrash. He noted, among other things, that this was a form of prejudice. This led to his being asked whether he was opposed to rape. In the minds of his interlocuters one must either accept their view of (all) men, or else one is an apologist for rape. Predictably, such engagement silenced the other men in his group – or at least those who did not offer apologies for male trashiness.

In a discussion about abortion in their first year, one student reproached a male pro-lifer by telling him that if one does not have a uterus one may not speak about this topic. Although not himself the target of this comment, Scott pointed out the problems with such a view.

Nor are these the only examples. Other students have spoken of multiple cases of silencing and self-censorship. These reached new levels in a developing further prelude to the “emergency class meeting”.

Further prelude

When it became known that the aforementioned Uyinene Mrwetyana, had been murdered, UCT’s Vice-Chancellor announced that the university would be closed for a day. The closure was then extended for a further two days.

A few third-year medical students, feeling anxious about the impact of this closure on their studies, asked whether their small group could continue “if everyone is willing” (emphasis in the original). The student who initiated this request – I shall call her Davida – was subsequently subjected to substantial verbal and psychological abuse. Thus, it is important to be clear on exactly what she had said on the WhatsApp forum to which she had offered the comments. This WhatsApp forum was for her small group within the class, and not for the whole class. (The whole class is divided into small groups for various purposes.)

Davida spoke of the importance of being introduced to material in class, and of learning to “[d]eal with things while still doing our jobs”. She immediately acknowledged that that comment might be “contentious”. She also recognized that “obviously [the death of Uyinene] is very close to home for some people and they need a moment” but suggested that the appropriate response would be to “make a concession” for those students rather than “cancelling for everyone”.

Another student, whom I shall call Camilla, also wanted to continue with work. She said that she was a financial aid student and could not afford to fail. She expressed the “hope that protests don’t continue into [the] Clin[ical] skills [course] because some people get violent when you go to class and it’s not pretty having to deal with that”.

(Although the closure was not a result of protests, it is very likely that it was in order to prevent a forceable closure of the university. Moreover, there was some protest action aimed at forcing the University to close beyond the initial three days. It is certainly hard to see the closure as a matter of principle, given the high rate of rapes and murders in South Africa. The University does not close every time a student or staff member is raped or murdered. Indeed, when another first year student, Mhleli Cebo Mbatha, was stabbed to death on Clifton Beach less than a month later, UCT was not closed to protest his death. Murders of males, the vast majority of murders, do not fit into the orthodox “gender-based violence” rubric.)

Somebody else in the group responded: “I am disgusted by the insensitive commentary that is coming from all of you. I will not even make an attempt to educate you on how you have displayed your ignorance”.

Davida responded as follows: “I don’t think we doubt that any female has fears about these things and has them reinforced by this senseless violence. So let’s try not to make it us and them. I guess we all just deal with it in different ways and are at different levels of sensitisation to it”.

An uncharitable selection of Davida’s and Camilla’s posts were then taken out of context and posted on the WhatsApp forum for the entire class of 232 students, along with the comment: “I hope that y’all know that this is shitty, and I hope that y’all change before you become shitty doctors”. Because Davida’s and Camilla’s real names were displayed, everybody in the class knew exactly at whom this comment was directed.

A number of other people in the class then added, to the whole class WhatsApp forum, their own criticisms of Camilla and especially of Davida. One male wrote “that many of the things class members have said is very violent to womxn who have experienced these traumas, who have been (TRIGGER WARNING) harassed, assaulted and raped” and that “it is a frightening thought because these are people, many men especially, who will be interacting with people who have gone through these traumas as doctors … their opinions will bleed into the way they speak and interact with their patients”.

The author simply assumes that Davida and Camilla have not experienced any of these traumas he mentions. Perhaps this is because he assumes that anybody who has experienced them would share his own view. Is it inconceivable to him that different people could react in different ways? Then he pivots. He uses the words of female students to cast doubt on the suitability of male students in the class to interact protectively with patients who have suffered sexual assault.

This “kindly inquisitor” (as Jonathan Rauch would call him) then ends: “I do not want to come across as being violent to any of you and if I have done so, I sincerely and wholeheartedly apologise”. Perhaps there is a flicker of insight into his behaviour here, but it did not do his victims any good, because others then piled on (and he himself was later instrumental in arranging the emergency class meeting where the berating of Davida, Scott, and others became even worse).

A number of those scolding Davida on the WhatsApp group either misinterpreted her (perhaps because they rushed to judgment after seeing only some of her comments out of context) or they believe that it is “violence” if they (but not those with whom they disagree) are subjected to opinions they dislike.

Here were some of the comments:

“When you make people feel like fighting for their right to feel safe is such an inconvenience to you, you are (in essence) making them question if they were better off suffering in silence”.

“Just because it’s not personal to you doesn’t give you the right to dismiss and belittle the movement.”

“If you can’t relate then don’t disregard other people’s reality”.

“I hope that you don’t have to deal with victims of sexual assault or other violent crimes because I’m afraid you might re-violate them”.

“I’m tired of the faux ignorance people employ here to victimize and silence”.

“The victims can’t always be the ones making safe spaces!! We’re tired.”

“We don’t need safe spaces to educate violent people. Go read a flipping book and

make every place safe. READ A FLIPPING BOOK.”

“We can[‘t?] always be educating you guys!! It’s time you unlearn and relearn things yourself!!”

Contrary to these allegations, Davida never opposed anybody fighting for their safety. At most she questioned whether this was best done by shutting down the university for three days. She did not ask anybody to suffer in silence. She did not dismiss or belittle the movement for a safer South Africa. She did not disregard anybody’s perception of reality. (There is a difference between “reality” and “perceptions of reality”.)

She did not display any insensitivity to victims of violence. Instead, she displayed a strength to continue working in spite of the tragedy – a skill that doctors in training need to develop if they do not already have it. Saying such things is not violence. Anybody who doubts this, should read the relevant entry in this “flipping” book.

You are not a victim if somebody asks whether, by mutual consent, some students can continue their studies while those personally affected by the tragedy do not. You are a victim (albeit not of violence) if the response to that reasonable request is to shame you.

Some students who were uncomfortable with what was transpiring on the WhatsApp forum, started leaving it. In response, one student posted this:

“And before anyone else decides to leave this group because it may be an inconvenience to you please fucking check yourself”.

A few students did come to Davida’s and Camilla’s defence. One suggested that it was unfair to characterize their comments as “shitty” and to say that if they do not change they would become “shitty doctors”. However, one student who thought that there was nothing unfair about these characterizations offered the following “double speak”:

“It’s actually a very compassionate statement to make, because I’m assuming (still am) they have the ability to change, and acknowledge the shitiness of their statements. That’s more fair than necessary actually” (sic).

Another student noted that Camilla had said the following on the small group WhatsApp forum: “I’m sorry if my tone offended anyone”, but this did not placate the crybullies. One responded:

“It doesn’t matter that they apologised afterwards the problem is that they made those statements in the first place”.

Another said:

“Even if they did apologize it would be nothing! Because I’m still waiting for [Davida] to apologize for saying FMF activism killed Mayosi”.

To this another student responded:

“As a person who was part of FMF 2016, I’m disgusted that she said that … Fuck [Davida] actually”.

In fact, Davida had not said that. She had once said that the protesting students had played a role in Professor Mayosi’s suicide – a claim that Professor Mayosi’s own family had made. It is understandable that the Fees Must Fall activists are uncomfortable about their own culpability, but the appropriate response to this is not revisionist history. Instead, it is to learn the lesson that (cry-)bullying is much more harmful than hearing an opinion one does not like. That, it seems from the foregoing preludes and from the class meeting that followed, is not a lesson that has been learned.

Denouement: The “emergency” (and compulsory) class meeting

On Friday 27 September 2019, the MBChB III class was advised in an email from their class representatives that a compulsory whole class meeting would be held on the following Monday, 30 September 2019. The class was not advised of the purpose of the meeting. However, at least some staff members had been told that:

“many black students” had spoken to one of the class representatives, “expressing their frustration and unhappiness towards the class and how many white students have said violent and racist remarks to them. This is a feeling that has been growing since first year and, as such, we as black students have been feeling very vulnerable and victimized by our fellow students.”

The meeting, also attended by at least a dozen academic staff members, opened with a student facilitator from the UCT’s Office of Inclusivity and Change asking the class not to get defensive when they hear something that makes them uncomfortable. “Open your heart to that”, he said, “engage empathetically, try and understand and imagine the pain that someone might be experiencing”. (He and the other student facilitators left before the end of the meeting, evidently because their presence as facilitators was being ignored by those who organised the meeting.)

A class representative then read a statement, which included the following claims, among others:

- “As black students in this class, our struggles and experiences are constantly being erased”, and that since 2017 their “class has been a toxic, violent environment and a hindrance to learning for us black students”.

- During tutorials, “black” students’ “voices are never heard” and their “explanations will always be second guessed”, leading to their feeling “little” and “incompetent, even though we were all accepted into this degree because of our academic prowess”.

- The “way our white colleagues speak to us black students is condescending”, leading to the latter doubting themselves.

- That “white” students, when interacting with “black” patients, should understand that “raising your voice will not make the patient understand your English”.

- “Black lecturers are constantly being disrespected”.

- “Black” students “are ignored in the class by the lecturers” who “see the white hands above ours”. Tutors “gravitate to the side of the class that has more white students, again cementing that this place is not welcoming to black bodies”.  

He then shifted from racism to mention “gender, transphobia, homophobia … [and] fat phobia”. He said that “it’s really unsettling to be in this space” and asked everybody to be empathetic to those who were going to relate such experiences.

After he spoke, nine further students consecutively took the podium to express themselves. Many spoke about no longer having any confidence in themselves. One related how she “told somebody about something that I did and I thought it was pretty cool, it was quite great”, but the person to whom she told this had a look of “shock of disbelief”. The student said how hurtful non-verbal cues can be to one’s self-esteem. Another student spoke about having been raped.

There is no reason to doubt their sincerity. Some struggled or failed to retain their composure. It was clear that these were young people in great pain. They called on their fellow students to take that pain seriously – to be compassionate.

The irony is that they were failing the very standards they were saying their classmates had failed. For example, one speaker had this to say:

“Even if you can’t understand, how can it get to a point where, in the tutorial setting people are crying and within those tears you are seeing them cry, it doesn’t make you think that maybe what I said was wrong, something happened that probably was wrong? It doesn’t click. How does it not click? And yet you are taught empathy.”

He said this after Davida had already been reduced to tears twice during the meeting in which she had been repeatedly criticized. A number of students had attributed to her a lack of compassion. Although she was not mentioned by name, it was obvious to the class from the earlier WhatsApp posts, who was being spoken about. Moreover, one speaker at the meeting, looking directly at Davida – who was seated only a few rows from the front – wailed: “Are you human? ... Huh?”

Nor was this the only time they questioned the humanity of those they believed had wronged them. One student related that she had told her mother that she had “never met people as fucked up as this group”. “That’s literally what I said to her”, she told the class. She also mentioned that she calls them “Robocop”.

Another student said: “So I want you all to know that whatever you say there are consequences. We can’t keep it quiet. It is not our job to do so, and it is not right. But what we will do is hold you accountable to it, and do not – do not – play the victim when we do so.”

Scott too was subjected to repeated criticism, mainly around his comments about the aetiology of substance abuse in the Mental Health block. He was criticised by one student for having suggested then that there should be no divisions between “blacks” and “whites”. She thought that this was:

“ironic because many of us had to sit there for thirty minutes trying to refute, to show him that he must please understand that when your patient sits there she does not feel equal to you or as strong as you as you are in your white body.”

She spoke also of “trying to convince this white man that our struggles are real”.

She assumed that Scott is “white” – a convenient way to dismiss his alternative perspective. She also assumed that his diligent note-taking during her presentation was a sign of disrespect, rather than the opposite – an effort to engage, not only in the moment but also afterwards, with the concerns being expressed. She rebuked him as follows:

And if you hear only one thing – and will you stop writing and hear my words, just for today – please have compassion.”

Other students took issue with his referring to journal articles to support his views. Some joked about this. Others implied that their personal narratives were more authoritative than scientific studies. One suggested that “being human is not something you can look for in a journal”.

Scott was also picked out for having written to a class representative in advance of the class meeting to say that the subject of the meeting should be made public so that students could decide whether or not they want to attend. (That email, to which he never received a response, was obviously shared by its recipient with selected others in the class.)

This speaker noted that Scott was sitting silently. She attributed this to his shame, and shortly after noted that he was turning red. Here and in many other times in the meeting there were either peals of laughter from the class or loud applause. One wonders how this fits with this same speaker’s admonition that: “I would think that as a human being you would want everybody to feel inclusive, right?”

Immediately after her reference to Scott turning red, she ended her remarks with these words:

“I am smart guys. I run my ass off every single day and I never had anything given to me and I will be the first in my family to finish varsity and become a fucking doctor. An effing doctor! So who the fuck do you think you are to come and tell me I do not belong here. Who?! Who?!”

But nobody – certainly not Scott – ever said that she did not belong at medical school. One definitely cannot read that into a fellow student’s disagreement with one’s view, his citing of academic studies, or his suggestion that people of different races should overcome their differences.

Some staff members, including some of those present, were also subjected to criticism. They, like most of the other staff appear to have been intimidated into silence. At least two staff members endorsed some of the grievances.

Those calling for compassion were showing none. Those declaring themselves victims, told those they were chastising not to “play the victim” – presumably because the former think that the latter are not victims. But this invites the obvious question: How can we determine who a real victim is?

The accusers in this meeting cannot use the subjective standard – according to which you are victim if you think you are – because then those they were scolding would be victims if they took themselves to be victims. At the same time, those doing the scolding were criticising their peers for not simply accepting their own victim narratives. In other words, they wanted to employ the subjective standard for themselves but not for others.

That may work as a political tool. The speakers at this meeting certainly managed to silence their opponents. Nobody with an alternative view felt that they could express it in the chilling climate of that class meeting. One staff member explicitly invited non-“black” students to speak, but the only ones who did so were those who bought into the narrative that had been presented to them. However, because something works politically does not mean that it is appropriate.

Anybody can claim to be a victim. It is precisely for that reason that it is not disrespectful to somebody who claims to be a victim to evaluate such claims. Evidence is what enables us to differentiate the real victims from those who mistakenly think that they are victims (and from those who know that they are not victims but cynically claim victim status for the advantages of doing so).

Assessing the grievances

What are we to make of the complaints presented at the class meeting? Are “black” students’ “voices never heard”? It seems unlikely. They were certainly heard in this meeting and, by their own accounts, they expressed themselves amply in earlier encounters too. Perhaps they are confusing “being heard” with “being agreed with”. Alternatively, could it be that they are often not heard? If so, are they not heard because they are “black voices” or are they not heard because many people, irrespective of race, are often not heard?

Do “white” students speak in condescending ways to their “black” classmates or is this an inaccurate perception? (For example, it is not necessarily condescending for somebody to respond to one’s dogmas about the aetiology of substance abuse with evidence from scientific journals.) If some students are condescending, is it a manifestation of racism or simply the fact that that some people are condescending to others, irrespective of their race? If it is racist condescension, how widespread is it?

Are “black” students’ views “second guessed” any more than other students’? One student told me that in their “Problem Based Learning” module, they are taught not to take claims at face value but to seek the basis for them. She expressed the frustration of not knowing what was expected of “white” students. If they challenge their “black” fellow students as they challenge their “white” ones, they are liable to accusations of racism. If they do not challenge the “black” students but do challenge the “white” ones, then they will be guilty of racism.

Are “black” lecturers disrespected (more often than “white” ones)? Speaking at the class meeting, one of the Xhosa lecturers spoke of being respected on the main campus, but not by some students at medical school. Is that racism or is there some other explanation? There are lecturers whom (some) students respect and there are lecturers whom (some) students do not respect. Perhaps some students have less respect for those who teach the non-medical components of the curriculum. That is not an uncommon phenomenon. The organizers of the class meeting could plausibly be criticised for this. When they originally scheduled the meeting, their plan was to cancel only one lecture – bioethics – because they had decided, without consulting the lecturer, that that material could be covered in tutorials.

Do tutors gravitate to the side of the class that has more “white” students? Some tell us that this is so. Other students insist that this is utterly false. Is it true in some cases, but false in others? If so, how often does it happen? How often does the opposite happen?

These are very difficult questions to answer, because we do not have all the necessary evidence. However, there is good reason to doubt that those making the complaints are always correct. This is because those accusations that we can evaluate, at least to a significant degree, seem to be instances of gross hypersensitivity and entitlement, as outlined above. If, for example, you feel hurt by somebody’s suggestion that the university should not close down because somebody you knew was murdered or because you were traumatized, and you (and the murder victim, and most of the country) happen to be “black”, it does not follow that those making the suggestion have created a “space” unsafe for “black bodies”.

What explains why intelligent students can feel so earnestly aggrieved even when they have no cause to be? Part of the blame must go to the new climate on campuses in many (but not all) parts of the world, including South Africa. It is a climate of “identity politics”, victimology, intolerance, and shaming. However, part of the problem is attributable to the especially toxic climate at UCT, which UCT’s leadership has done nothing to counter. Indeed, it reinforces this climate by consistently pandering to the most toxic elements and betraying decent people.

The problem is also reinforced by many of the “humanities” components of the MBChB curriculum. These modules have titles such as “Power, Privilege, and Intersecting Identities” or focus on topics such as race and gender – almost invariably from an orthodox “woke” perspective. The ideas and readings to which the students are exposed is certainly not diverse. You will not find a book like this on the reading list.

It is thus no surprise that the crybullies kept referring back to such courses. They wondered why some of their classmates had learned nothing from them. (By “learned” they seem to have meant “came to accept the orthodox view”.) It is also no surprise that the crybullies’ speech and texts are peppered with references to “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, and “womxn”, for example.

Some might want to add another (partial) explanation for why the “black” students might feel so victimized. They might say that it is not easy to be a minority. If that explanation has any force elsewhere or in other times, it does not in this case. UCT keeps detailed demographic data on its staff and students (using the bizarre Apartheid-era categories). An inquiry to the relevant office, yielded this information about the 2019 MBChB III class:

41.81% of the class is “African” (97 students)

21.55% of the class is “Coloured” (50 students)

11.64% of the class is “Indian” (27 students)

1.72% of the class is “Chinese” (4 students)

17.24% of the class is “White” (40 students)

6.03% of the class is “Other” (14 students)

In other words, at least 75% of the class is “black” in the expanded South African sense of that term. Only about 17% is “white”. There are only thirteen “white” males in the class – the purported apex of privilege.

Earlier this year a class photograph was taken. Immediately thereafter, an informal “black” class photograph, which appeared to have been organised in advance, was taken. (When the photograph was posted online, one student added a note: “The beautiful melanin-popping future doctors”.) Clearly not all the “black” students participated, but about 45 of them did. It is not clear whether the photograph was open to all “blacks” in the class or whether it was open only to the “Africans”. In other words, it is not clear whether a minority was excluded or whether the largest single demographic was excluding all the others. Either way, it does not seem like a very good example of inclusivity (or diversity, for that matter).

Nobody is denying that some “black” students are disadvantaged. Some (but not others) are poor, for example. This makes life harder, despite the numerous forms of support provided by the university. However, it is not appropriate to read every hardship through the prism of race, or sex, sexuality, or any of the other standard categories.

When you look into the eyes of another human being, you do not know what hardships they have experienced. You do not know whether they suffer from a (physical or mental) chronic illness, whether they have been subjected to sexual or non-sexual assault, whether they have been bereaved, betrayed, or shamed, for example. You do not know their struggles or their torments. You are not entitled to make assumptions about them – one way or the other.

This does not entitle others to behave badly towards one, and it does not preclude one’s taking people to task when they do behave badly. However, a narrative of one’s own perpetual victimhood is likely to lead to the imputation of the least charitable – and sometimes outrightly vicious – motives and character traits to people who do not deserve to be so characterized. That is unfair to them, but it can also harm oneself. A university that encourages such narratives, as UCT continues to do, is failing everybody.