When a university loses its mind

Elisa Galgut says at the root of UCT's recent travails lies the inability to think clearly anymore

The University of Cape Town’s descent into chaos has been the subject of much commentary: the rescinding of Flemming Rose’s invitation to deliver the 2016 TB Davie lecture on academic freedom; the burning, covering up, and removal of artworks; the vandalism and destruction of property; the disruption of lectures and meetings; and the disastrous attempts to set up an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC), inter alia. These failures are linked to a more general malaise that is afflicting the university: the failure to think.

Thinking well is difficult: it requires highly developed cognitive and emotional functioning. Humans are by nature irrational creatures, and our thought processes are prone to unravel, especially in times of stress or distress. It is thus vitally important that we - as individuals and even more so as a society - develop ways in which thinking is protected from the assaults of irrationality. Universities are among the few places that society has set up to protect and foster the claims of reason.

There are many ways in which reason can go astray: it can fail on its own terms, such as when we commit logical fallacies or fail to see the implications of our arguments. We can draw conclusions for which we have insufficient evidence, or fail to notice that some of our beliefs are mutually inconsistent. We can perhaps think of such errors as failures within reason - they are amenable to correction once they are pointed out to us, and are thus usually insufficient to jeopardise rational agency. Even when we commit these kinds of cognitive errors, we are still in the business of giving reasons for our actions. One of the aims and benefits of education is to teach us how to reason well, and how to avoid the failures to which we are prone.

But there are other, more treacherous, ways in which reason can go awry. What I’ll term failures of reason occur when reason itself is hijacked: if we cannot think coherently because we are overwhelmed by feelings, this would be a failure of reason because we are motivated to speak or act in ways that are not amenable to the constraints of reason. Such kinds of irrationality are more insidious because, not being governed by principles of reason at all, they are not usually open to correction via rational persuasion or education. Indeed, someone in the grip of this kind of irrationality may view reason with suspicion. John Stuart Mill, in his essay “The Subjection of Women”, notes that sometimes reason-giving only strengthens the stance of those in the grip of an irrational belief: He writes:

“So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach.”

The discovery of the dynamic unconscious by Freud and his followers provides us with more insight into how reason can go astray. Freud, Klein, Bion and others outlined how unconscious mentality governed by so-called “primary processing” operates differently from ordinary rational thinking governed by “secondary processing”. Primary processing has some of the following characteristics:

* No distinction between fantasy and reality. What I think or feel reflects just how the world is.

* No distinction between words and things, which results in an inability to symbolize. The psychoanalyst Hanna Segal distinguished between “symbolic equation” and “symbolic representation”. In the former, there is no distinction between the symbol and what it represents - “The symbol’s own characteristics are not recognised. They are treated as though they were the original object”, writes Segal. She gives as an example a patient who gave up playing the violin because he said that he did not wish to masturbate in public. In symbolic representation governed by secondary processing, on the other hand, the symbol is understood not to be the object, but to represent the object, and “its own characteristics are recognised and respected”.

* Splitting. The world is divided into all-good and all-bad objects, and there is little ability to recognise nuance.

Primary processing distorts thinking - it leads to a misperception of both internal and external reality, and a compulsion to act (“acting out”) rather than action that is amenable to the constraints of deliberation. The more our thinking is dominated by primary processing, the more irrational is our behaviour, the less amenable are we to rational persuasion, and the less agency we have. We tend to act compulsively and in ways that are likely to be counter-productive.

One does not have to look very far to see evidence of primary processing in some of the activities at UCT. The outpouring of antipathy towards the statue of Rhodes, and the destruction and covering up of the artwork, are the most flagrant examples. The statue of Rhodes engendered responses from many that were more appropriate towards the man himself - more indicative of symbolic equation than symbolic representation. It took just a month from the day the statue was first anointed with human excrement for UCT to remove it - hardly sufficient time for reflective deliberation by members of a university community.

The Sara Baartman statue in the Oppenheimer Library has been covered up twice - “first in April 2015 by student protesters and again on 9 March 2016 when students covered it as part of their procession to the Centre for African Studies Gallery meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Rhodes statue being removed.” Members of the Rhodes Must Fall collective objected to the statue being “placed on display” so as, in the words of Max Price, to “prolong her humiliation.” The artwork remains covered to this day. And even those who might be sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis could not but be horrified at what is clearly an expression of murderous intent flagrantly on display in the destruction of many historic portraits.

These responses towards statues and artwork are indicative of the conflation of the symbol with what it represents. So powerful are these feelings that UCT has capitulated to them, even in violation of the freedom of expression of the sculptor Willie Bester, and of the Library and Information Association of South Africa’s code of conduct, by which UCT claims it abides. More than 70 artworks have been removed from the library and other buildings, despite heavy criticism from artists such as Bester, Breyten Breytenbach and David Goldblatt.

In an attempt to rationalize its behaviour, UCT has engaged in some window dressing. An Artworks Task Team (ATT) was set up by Council in September 2015 “to conduct or commission an audit, an assessment and an analysis of statues, plaques and artworks on campus that may be seen to recognize or celebrate colonial oppressors and/or which may be offensive or controversial.” UCT claims that this “consultative process should be an open process involving all members of the University community” but the only views the ATT seems to have considered are those of “some students at the University” who found a number of artworks offensive. So much for due process and inclusivity.

In November 2016, UCT signed an agreement with “SRC Candidates / Shackville TRC and other student formations” to set up a Steering Committee (SC) with a view to establishing an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission. As William Gild notes, “the only (student) parties to the negotiations and Agreement were violent, law-breaking individuals”. A year on, the IRTC SC has still not named the IRTC commissioners, and even the drafting of Terms of Reference has been mired in controversy.

This comes as no surprise: when ideology and expediency rather than principle are the guiding forces of “transformation”, then a university is led by those who shout the loudest - or worse. Instead of engaging the university community as a whole via the appropriate channels, and subjecting the various (and ever increasing) demands of the protesters to scrutiny, UCT has indulged them, often by undermining its own rules of governance. UCT senior management has engaged on numerous occasions with the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall collectives, despite their having no formal standing at UCT. This side-lines legitimate student and staff organisations, and indicates the “university’s lack of regard for its own structures and procedures.”

We are in a situation where even questioning the new “transformation” or “decolonization” orthodoxy is sufficient to be labelled racist. This is symptomatic of “splitting” - the world is divided into believers and non-believers, where nuance and critique are either not permitted, or allowed only on the believers’ terms. The various task teams and steering committees have been established to carry out an ideological mandate - but since they are built on foundations that have not been subjected to rational scrutiny, it’s little wonder that they flounder.

When individuals suffer in deeply irrational ways, it is the job of the therapist to help the person find a way back to sanity. What this requires in part is the establishment of very clear boundaries to enable the person to distinguish fantasy from reality. A therapist who, say, colluded with her patient’s paranoid fantasies would be doing the patient a terrible disservice. The UCT Executive has, in my view, engaged in this kind of collusion: rather than subject the various demands and actions of the protesters to rational scrutiny, UCT has for the most part yielded to ideological pressure and kowtowed to violence. But if I am right that many of these demands and actions are expressions of unconscious fantasy, then the decisions made in the light of these demands are highly likely to be irrational as well.

This does not bode well for the future of either UCT or higher education in the country more generally. This year’s protests seem to bear that out: the tide of violence has not been stemmed, and the demands continue to grow. UCT has spent millions of Rand to construct tents on the rugby field so that students can do what should be routine at any university: write their final exams under appropriate conditions.

Last year, I wrote an article in which I commented, in reference to the novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer, that “unless the transformation agenda is tied at the helm to the tenets of both rationality and liberal democracy, we, like the citizens of Goray, invite not the Messiah, but his nemesis.” Perhaps another literary allusion is now more apposite: are we witnessing the hour of that “rough beast” that now “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”