Student Faces Tribunal for Calling Philosophy Professor “Racist”
Busi Mkhumbuzi, an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town (UCT), reports that she has been “summoned by the Student Tribunal” (part of the university’s apparatus for addressing offenses committed by students) for spreading “racist and defamatory remarks” about UCT philosophy professor David Benatar. Mkhumbuzi says she has called Benatar “racist, ableist and sexist in person and on social media.”[UPDATE (4/30/20): See “Benatar Responds to Student’s Accusations and the Reporting about Them” for new information relevant to this post, including news of the student’s retraction of key statements.]
I am largely ignorant of the legal matters here. The University of Cape Town is a public university, and the South African Constitution includes a right to freedom of expression. However, there are some exceptions to that right, leaving “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm” unprotected. Further, while defamation law in South Africa protects people from some speech that lower their public reputation, there is a “fair comment” defense that allows for the expression of opinion. Whatever the law, a further question is the extent to which the law bears on UCT disciplinary procedures. Readers in the know are welcome to share their expertise.
(This post does not constitute endorsement of Mkumbuzi’s description of Benatar, nor does it constitute a legal opinion on the merits of the disciplinary proceedings against Mkumbuzi.)
UPDATE: Courtesy of one of the commenters: Benatar’s comments on the situation (from February 3, 2016).
UPDATE (3/13/16): In an email he gave me permission to share, Professor Benatar writes:
Ms. Mkhumbuzi is facing university disciplinary procedures for a number of serious breaches of student rules. I am not at liberty to discuss these at this stage because the matter is sub judice and may, in any event, be governed by confidentiality requirements of the student disciplinary tribunal. Those who are passing negative judgments in your comments section should be advised not to believe everything they read and to suspend judgment until they have all the relevant facts. I hope that in due course I shall have permission to release them.
(University of Cape Town, photo by Richard Whittemore)
I can only judge Benetar on his writings (having not met the man) but I’ve never seen him stake out any racist positions, even in the links that Ms Mkhumbuzi provides as evidence. (Now, my reading of him is limited, so maybe there’s a vein of racist spew that I’ve missed). I think she is probably wrong, or at least overreaching, in her assessment. But…
the idea that she doesn’t have a right to that assessment is offensive, and for a Lecturer to use judicial action against a student for something like this seems problematic at best. Maybe he feels this is the only way to respond to the accusations, but it just seems like thin skin to me. Maybe that’s the way things are handled in the RSA, but then this wouldn’t be news.
I’m glad that at the least she will have an opportunity to present her case and have representation. Here’s hoping the truth will indeed out.Report
He may or may not be racist. But the fact that he dealt with this issue by sending an email to *other* students speaks volumes against his ability to handle his position of power appropriately.
That type of behavior is unconscionable, and it needs to stop.Report
Cripes. I didn’t see where he had done that! Source?Report
Mkhumbuzi writes, “He first reacted by sending out an email to ethics students vilifying me for calling him racist.” However, we don’t know anything about when and how she called Benatar racist, so it seems hasty to conclude that he ought not to have emailed his students, or that it “speaks volumes against his ability to handle his position.”Report
I’m having a hard time imagining a situation in which that would be an appriate reaction from a professor.Report
Although, it’s just one person’s word. So I should have said, “if that’s true, then it speaks volumes…” But it should be fairly easy to prove, right?Report
I agree that if Benatar sent an email to other students “vilifying” Mkhumbuzi, then he would have acted inappropriately. But by her own account, she called him a racist to his face. If I were called a racist to my face in front of the entire class (I’m not saying this is exactly what happened, but it’s one scenario among many possible scenarios), then I very well might send an email to the entire class (through Blackboard or whatever) addressing the issue. I wouldn’t vilify the student (or even mention the student by name), but I’d want to see the content of Benatar’s email before I conclude that he vilified Mkhumbuzi. Anyway, I think the details of the case are important. (One more point: Part of the issue, perhaps, depends on one’s attitude toward email. Most professors I know, youngish ones anyway, communicate with their students by sending emails to the entire class, and it’s not uncommon to address issues that were recently brought up in lecture.)Report
Yes, I must admit that, reading through the stuff she cites, it’s a reach to say that he “unconcernedly spews racist hate.” But I’m in my 30s, so I think the standard for what counts as “spewing racist hate” has shifted since I was an undergrad.
Also, I can’t find where he says anything that could be construed as sexist or ableist, though Mkhumbuzi suggests (in point 3 of her Facebook post) that he discriminates against students with mental health problems. No particulars are given, however.
I have to say that I don’t necessarily find it inappropriate to bring formal proceedings against a student who is spreading the word that one is racist, sexist and ableist. It depends on the details of the case, of course, but I can imagine situations where I would do so. I guess you’d say that I’m “thin skinned,” but in the current academic climate such accusations could be severely damaging.Report
I think you are spot on, and there are a lot of situations in which a proceeding might be exactly what is called for in the interest of both transparency and justice.Report
We also have the Equality Act, which lowers the bar somewhat in not requiring the “AND incitement” clause – it’s sufficient for something to be hurtful on various designated grounds. There’s an inconsistency between these laws, in my view, but they haven’t yet been tested in competition in any court, so that’s where we stand.
But besides the law, there are codes of conduct that apply at the university itself, around abusive language and creating a hostile atmosphere. On this immediate issue, though, I’ve had no sight of the alleged email in question, and I am surprised that, whenever I see it mentioned, nobody quotes it. The only public comment that I am aware of from Prof. Benatar is a statement that can be found on an SA philosophy group archived on Google (the link appears to be public), in which he expressly notes that it would be inappropriate to disclose personal details regarding the student: https://groups.google.com/forum/m/#!topic/zaphil/VylwxL6Zt5c
I’m not close to the issue at all, so cannot comment on any specifics. All I can say is that Prof. Benatar has been a colleague of mine for some 25 years now, and I have had no reason to believe that he is a racist or a sexist. He makes strong arguments in rather uncompromising terms, but they are always agent-neutral and typically on questions of principle. One can accuse him of a certain idealism in thinking that the logical gaze translates well to aspects of lived reality, and I’ve made that point to him, but the worst I’ve seen that translate into is a preference for objective analysis over subjective reporting, rather than any form of explicit prejudice.
Those of you who read the pieces linked in the student complaint will see what I mean. There’s nothing racist in them, unless unpopular arguments about race are, by definition, racist (which would be an odd, and absurd, definition of racist).Report
If you don’t think “unpopular arguments about race” aren’t racist by definition according to the new orthodoxy, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.Report
Jacques Rousseau said: “He makes strong arguments in rather uncompromising terms, but they are always agent-neutral and typically on questions of principle.”
Christine Overall, in her book, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, asserts that David Benatar’s argument in his book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, relies upon misogynistic presuppositions. Here is a relevant section from a review that I wrote of Overall’s book:
“Notwithstanding women’s reproductive autonomy, is there an obligation not to reproduce? Is bringing another human being into the world ever inflicting harm on the one brought into being? David Benatar, in his “chillingly titled” (96) book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, answers both questions in the affirmative. For Benatar, “coming into existence is always a serious harm” (Benatar 2006, 1, in Overall, 96; emphasis in Overall). The main argument behind Benatar’s claim is this:
Although the good things in one’s life make it go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence” (Benatar, 1, in Overall, 96).
In a set of several arguments, Overall shows that Benatar’s theory is “fatally flawed” (97) and does not establish the strong argument against all procreation that it claims to do. She also shows that Benatar’s theory has negative implications for women and could have detrimental effects for women and girls were it to be accepted and widely adopted. Overall argues, for instance, that Benatar’s theory implies that women’s reproductive labor produces bad consequences. As she explains, “the idea that it is better in every case never to have been implies that women’s reproductive labor in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and even rearing children contributes to the accumulation of net harm on this planet” (Overall, 115). Downgrading procreation in this way is unlikely to elevate women’s status, she points out, especially in societies where women’s status is centred primarily on their role as child-bearers. Indeed, Overall is concerned to show that Benatar’s theory relies upon misogynistic presuppositions insofar as it implies that one of women’s primary social contributions is a liability. Would this view, if widely endorsed, lead to an increase in the rate of infanticide of girls or to assaults on pregnant women? she asks.” (APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 2: 20-22).Report
I have not read Overall’s book, but I find the idea that Benatar’s anti-natalist argument is misogynistic quite a stretch. His conclusion is that it would be better if no one existed, and this is based on a general asymmetry regarding our intuitions about how the goodness and badness of pleasure and pain relate to our experiencing of them. Yes, he concludes that there is a strong reason against reproduction. But this applies just as much to men’s contributions to reproduction as to women’s. Further, that the acceptance of Benatar’s argument would have effects that are bad for women (quite conjectural, but whatever) does not imply that the argument relies on misogynistic presuppositions.
Perhaps more of Overall’s argument could be reproduced here, Shelley, to see what we’re missing?Report
On the basis of what is reproduced here, I agree with Justin. But Benatar’s *The Second Sexism* is more plausibily sexist.Report
From Alison Crane Reiheld’s review of Benatar’s THE SECOND SEXISM (pp. 24-26, APA Newsletter, Spring 2013, Volume 12, Number 2
“I recommend The Second Sexism to scholars who
investigate gender relations, and I urge academic feminists to
take Benatar’s thesis seriously and to respond to it with respect
rather than with disbelief or derision. Evaluating the strength of
his arguments is a welcome opportunity to reflect on whether
feminist premises and conclusions have become dogmas.
Benatar’s book raised my hackles on many occasions, but
it also provoked reflection. Students enrolled in introductory
level courses in women’s studies and in feminist philosophy
would also benefit from engaging with his positions.”
From Simon Blackburn’s review of THE SECOND SEXISM:
“…I do not at all doubt that there is a case to be made for the recognition of a second sexism, nor that Benatar makes it well. And it is not as if he himself is taking sides in these invidious comparisons. He is not a participant in the sex wars but a peacemaker who wants them to wind down. All that he aims to show is that if it is all too often tough being a woman, it is also sometimes tough being a man, and that any failure to recognise this risks distorting what should be everyone’s goal, namely universal sympathy as well as social justice for all, regardless of gender.”
Since we are swapping review, here is Ward Jones and Lindsay Kielland in Hypatia:
“As one would expect from David Benatar, his new book is clear, well-written, and tantalizingly contentious. It is also misguided, superficial, and, ultimately, very difficult to take seriously…. However, in the face of such weak arguments from Benatar, we believe that personal questions about him are raised. What is Benatar really up to, and what has motivated him to write this book? Although he says early on in the book that he is not interested in critiquing feminism, it is, in reality, the most significant target of Second Sexism. We think that Benatar is motivated less by a concern for men than he is with attacking feminism.”Report
Yes, but you should also include the aftermath of that review of THE SECOND SEXISM in Hypatia: namely, one of its co-authors publicly apologized to Benatar for its nastiness.
Here’s Benatar’s response to the review:
Benatar’s updated response to the review:
The Hypatia review co-author’s apology:
I would urge those motivated to smear Benatar as a person or as a philosopher to first visit his academic web site and check out the links to the critical reception of his books *and* his responses to them. He has also made available much material concerning his engagement in debate over affirmative action.
One of the central theses of Christine Overall’s book is that many of the arguments made in the field of reproductive ethics that are claimed to be “gender-neutral” in fact are not, suggesting that your claim according to which “this applies just as much to men’s contributions to reproduction as to women’s” is precisely the sort of argument that she sets out to dismantle. 🙂Report
Justin, I’d urge you to reconsider here. There is a fairly standard, traditional line according to which philosophers needn’t worry about the social effects of the things they say. They are, after all, just theorizing, and need only worry about truth-values. But some of us think that this traditional line is itself a form of ideology, one which allows a privileged class of scholar to deploy badly distorted intuitions about goodness and badness, intuitions that are partly the result of remaining totally disconnected from that same social reality. Don’t forget that Benatar is working within a society that is extraordinarily unfair to women in a great many respects, placing reproductive burdens on them in a manner that would shock most North Americans. To ignore that such choices are often gendered is to ignore a real-world feature of the reproductive situation Benatar is pronouncing judgment upon, and this ideological isolation is arguably a basic mechanism by which sexism perpetuates itself.Report
Hi Nick. Thanks for your comment. I have three kinds of responses.
For the first one, let’s just grant what seems to be your view, namely, that philosophers should “worry about the social effects of the things they say.” I take it that by “social effects” you mean some kind of impact on society or some sizable aspect of it, not just say, the social effect of me alienating a colleague by saying something horrific, or me making my students feel uncomfortable (right?).
If I’ve gotten that right, then, for better or for worse, the social effects of what most philosophers say are nonexistent. Of course, there are some exceptions. Is David Benatar’s anti-natalist argument one of them? I don’t know. They have been discussed, but hardly seem to be gaining traction with the people.
But suppose anti-natalism were to gain traction; would this be bad for women? Again, I don’t know. There are some speculations according to which the answer is yes (a la Overall), but it strikes me as just as likely that the answer could be no. Women’s status and welfare in general seems to go up the more they are liberated from the narrative in which they’re supposed to be baby makers, so maybe widespread endorsement of anti-natalism would be, all thing considered, better for women. This is of course speculative, too.
Given how much speculation is involved (whether there will be any effects, what they will be, whether they will be good or bad for various populations), and given how unqualified most philosophers are to predict said effects, it strikes me as unreasonable to hold that philosophers, in general, should “worry about the social effects of the things they say.” Perhaps there are exceptions to this for particular topics or even particular thinkers, but generally I think philosophers should stay out of the prognostication business.
Second, I would like us to be on guard against what my friends and I in grad school, and I’d bet others, called “the ‘that would suck’ fallacy.” That the conclusion of some argument is socially or politically objectionable does not itself give us reason to reject the argument. Yes I am a “traditionalist” here. Where I depart, perhaps, from this traditionalism, is in holding that the social or political objectionableness of an argument’s conclusion may provide us with indirect evidence that the argument is flawed in way or missing something which we initially overlooked. This is because we often have good arguments to back up our judgments of social and political objectionableness.
Third, let me stress that I agree the intuitions that play a role in philosophical argument are subject to all sorts of biases, that these biases can have a variety of sources (including one’s social position, but also our biology) and that we should be on guard against them. But to agree with that is not sufficient for showing that bias is operating in Benatar’s argument. I would be very interested in hearing which of his premises, or which of the intuitive claims he appeals to, is objectionably biased.
Let me add that I don’t know Benatar. But I do admire his putting out this argument. One of the things I love about philosophy is its exploration of the counterintuitive.Report
Justin, you wrote: “Women’s status and welfare in general seems to go up the more they are liberated from the narrative in which they’re supposed to be baby makers”
The suggestion that Christine Overall is advocating or even endorsing “a narrative in which [women are] supposed to be baby makers” is well off the mark. Few feminist philosophers have written more about women’s reproductive rights than Christine.Report
Shelley, I did not make that suggestion.Report
Really? How do you read what Justin wrote and get anywhere near that “suggestion”?Report
Shelley quoted Overall’s review, which included the sentence: “Downgrading procreation in this way is unlikely to elevate women’s status, she points out, especially in societies where women’s status is centred primarily on their role as child-bearers.” I believe Shelley, that you took Justin’s response (“Women’s status and welfare in general seems to go up the more they are liberated from the narrative in which they’re supposed to be baby makers”) to be attacking that statement?Report
To show that Benatar’s argument “relies on misogynistic presuppositions,” wouldn’t you need to show that some premise of the argument or some proposition supporting some premise of the argument is the sort of proposition the acceptance of which would make you (or, would tend to show that you are) a misogynist? Which proposition is it?
It’s certainly wrong (isn’t it?) that the mere fact that a proposition might be put by misogynistic people to misogynistic ends means that an argument for that proposition “relies on misogynistic presuppositions.”Report
Justin, remember all those posts about “chilling effects,” and how people anywhere to the right of Trotsky were just complaining too much? Being slandered by your student for totally and obviously baseless accusations of nonconformity to SJW orthodoxy is precisely the kind of “chilling effect” us people to the right of Trotsky were pointing to.
Kudos to the university for responding to this deranged accusation appropriately.Report
Perhaps I should clarify. The accusation is of racism/sexism/ableism, which is totally and obviously baseless. The upshot of this accusation, however, is nonconformity to SJW orthodoxy; on that count, Prof. Benatar would appear to be guilty. But I suppose the whole point is that nonconformity to SJW orthodoxy is supposed, in and of itself, to constitute racism/sexism/ableism.Report
If you are writing from outside sub-Saharan Africa, I strongly urge you to reconsider your sense that you are in a position to judge when accusations of racism are well-founded. This isn’t Princeton or Yale. This is taking place in a country where, barely 25 years ago, Apartheid was still leaving deep, hideous scars within the social landscape, scars that have by no means healed. As a child in 1990 I watched a black man beaten senseless on the streets of Durban by the white Stasi, and I watched ordinary white South Africans walk past the scene without so much as a glance. Until you can say that you genuinely, empathetically understand what it is like to be a black south African inhabiting the social context that has resulted from Apartheid, there is absolutely no way you are in a position to pronounce on this case.Report
Nick, I sincerely appreciate the difficulties presented by the history you refer to. But that history doesn’t change the fact that Prof. Benatar is being accused of “racism” (etc.) because he
1) wrote an op-ed noting that the secondary school system inadequately prepares some students for university studies
2) stated that “the whole affirmative action enterprise seems predicated on the citizenry’s acquiescence to a self-classification that is in keeping with how they were or would have been classified by the apartheid state,” and that therefore at least a few “excellent reasons to be deeply suspicious of affirmative action.”
3) published a book detailing the ways in which men and boys are discriminated against
Leaving aside the details of Ms. Mkhumbuzi’s allegations concerning lecture attendance, there is no way to interpret the accusation here as anything other than a pathologization of dissent from Progressive orthodoxy. To stress the importance of adequate preparation to a successful university program is not “ableism.” To problematize affirmative action is not, ipso facto, “racist.” To note the ways in which society treats men and women differently, and point out that men do not always receive the benefits of this differential treatment 100% of the time, is not “sexist.”Report
Folks are, of course, free to doubt the truth of the student’s claims, free to dispute what counts as racist — whether it be her description of the professor, or his formal complaint against her– and free to change the topic from what she actually alleged, but nonetheless, I’m pretty surprised at how much people are willing to ignore what she actually said when describing her allegations.Report
Please, humor me. How am I either changing the topic or ignoring what she actually said? Her post on January 24th specifically mentioned Prof. Benatar’s stance on high school preparation and affirmative action as positive evidence of his racism. I admit that she didn’t bring up The Second Sexism, but it’s hard to imagine on what other grounds she could be arguing that he’s a sexist, given the total lack of anything specifically concerning sexism (as opposed to ableism and racism) in her account of her interactions with Prof. Benatar.Report
You wrote, “To stress the importance of adequate preparation to a successful university program is not ‘ableism.'” She didn’t say that in itself it was.
You then wrote, “To problematize affirmative action is not, ipso facto, ‘racist.'” Again, she didn’t say that to problematize affirmative action is ipso facto racist — she critiques his problematization of affirmative action as racist, but that’s not the same thing.
And then you wrote, “To note the ways in which society treats men and women differently, and point out that men do not always receive the benefits of this differential treatment 100% of the time, is not ‘sexist.'” And again, she didn’t.
What she does seem to be alleging is that she was denied an accommodation she needed on mental health grounds; she’s claiming that she met the attendance requirements of the course once you factor in the absences that were excused with her note from her health professional, further she’s claiming that the process by which one seeks accommodations is skewed such that several black students have had trouble getting needed accommodations, and further she’s alleging that the professor made comments which seem racist (and which he denies having made) such that when you consider the total of circumstances she believes what he has said about affirmative action in their university indicates that he does not believe she is a deserving student and that perhaps she made it in on account of her race rather than her merits.
Now, he’s denying that he made those remarks, and even if he did, we can disagree about whether or not they’re racist, and we can disagree about whether the remarks he did make about affirmative action amount to racism either in themselves or through the lens of what she’s alleging she’s experienced — but considering that he has now accused her of racism for claiming that he is racist, it seems to me like pretty much anyone who doesn’t want to accuse both parties of acting inappropriately may want to refrain from implying that accusations of racism without clear and obvious grounds to all amount to pathologizing.Report
Me too. I’m not sure why people are so willing to gang up on this one South African student. Very strange.Report
I’m not sure either but I have a couple of guesses.Report
Some background: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1538191883160411&id=100009088426821 and https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1540045362975063&id=100009088426821Report
It’s worth saying in response to your comment that Benatar disputes many of the factual claims made in these Facebook posts: https://groups.google.com/forum/m/#!topic/zaphil/VylwxL6Zt5c. That being the case, it seems somewhat irresponsible to present these posts as “background,” since that implies that they objectively report what happened. (I admit, though, that I might be reading to much into that choice of words.)Report
Yes, you are reading too much into my comment — I take it as obvious he disputes some of the claims or else I presume he wouldn’t have filed a complaint.Report
Kathryn, In the second FB post to which you provide a link, the student characterizes her meeting with Benatar as “incredibly violent.” Is there anything in the rest of her post describing the meeting that you think could reasonably warrant that characterization?Report
Rob, why are you even asking me this? Is this supposed to be the moment where I say yes (and then you dismiss me) or I say no (and then we dismiss the student)? Since I haven’t endorsed the students allegations, and moreover, since even if I had, one needn’t endorse everything that a person says to think they’ve basically gotten the gist, the question seems pretty silly to me.Report
Perhaps Mkhumbuzi’s claims are defamatory, but if they only amount to “racist, ableist and sexist in person and on social media”, it’s hard to see how they satisfy the other conjunct in “racist and defamatory remarks”. Surely falsely calling someone a racist isn’t itself a form of racism, however wrong it may be for other reasons, any more than falsely calling someone a fascist is itself a form of fascism?Report
The student claims that she is being accused of racism simply for calling out someone else’s racism. But we don’t know what specific statements of hers are alleged to be racist (or even against what ethnic group they are alleged to be racist). I wouldn’t assume that the statements at issue are themselves in the facebook posts linked to here.Report
Check out Rivka Weinberg for an alternative perspective on Benatar’s antinatalism from a female philosopher who has written a book on reproductive ethics:
Her review of BETTER NEVER TO HAVE BEEN begins:
“Life stinks. Mel Brooks knew it, David Benatar knows it, and so do I. Even when life does not stink so badly, there’s always the chance that it will begin to do so. Nonexistence, on the other hand, is odor free. Whereas being brought into existence can be harmful, or at least bad, nonexistence cannot be harmful or bad. Even if life is not clearly bad, it is at the very least extremely risky. David Benatar argues, somewhat notoriously, that since it is better never to exist, one is harmed by being brought into existence and, therefore, procreation is likely always wrong and certainly always morally problematic. / Procreation is an activity widely engaged in and often considered virtuous, life affirming, and generous. It is important to know whether, contrary to most views, procreation is always morally problematic or even impermissible. Most people find it deeply counterintuitive to consider the fact that having children may always be wrong, yet many have found Benatar’s arguments difficult to escape. I have the opposite problem: I am very sympathetic to the intuitions that inspire these arguments and I think the conclusion is probably right. But I have yet to find an argument to support it.”
(I am responding here to prevent the difficulties associated with nested replies)
First, with respect to your first two points, surely these are distinctions that do not constitute meaningful differences. If e.g. problematizing affirmative action in so anodyne a manner as pointing out that it rests on shaky ontological foundations, which are both shared and presupposed by apartheid, while nevertheless agreeing with the basic underlying goals of affirmative action, constitutes “racism” … then there is clearly no critique of affirmative action whatsoever that would ever not be considered “racism.” So yes, on this account, problematizing affirmative action at all, ever, is ipso facto racist. This is nothing other than a pathologization of dissent.
Second, as far as I can tell, the accusation of racism on the part of Ms. Mkhumbuzi does not originate with Prof. Benatar, but the Student Tribunal, and may not even be accurate–the only evidence I can find that she is being accused of racism comes from her own Facebook post (though to be fair it is unlikely that the Student Tribunal would make its internal processes publicly available). Can you provide evidence for the claim that he has accused her of racism? Certainly nothing of the sort appears in the public Google Docs file linked above.Report
Alexander, we will have to agree to disagree on the first point because I think you are being incredibly uncharitable. On the second, I honestly can’t tell from your comment if you have read more than the one Facebook post, but if not, perhaps you should. And on the final question, see the first sentence of the post we are currently commenting on.Report
I have read all the Facebook posts you linked to and my question stands; there is nothing in either of them that specifically details an accusation of racism on her part. The first sentence of the post simply repeats what appears in her originally reported Facebook, which furthermore attributes the accusation of racism on her part to the Student Tribunal rather than Prof. Benatar.
As for agreeing to disagree, that’s fine, but I don’t understand the charge that I am being uncharitable. I understand that you cannot speak for Ms. Mkhumbuzi, but what, exactly, in your opinion, would constitute a non-racist objection to affirmative action? More to the point: do you think Prof. Benatar’s stated objections to affirmative action are racist?Report
Alexander, her post says that she has been called by the student tribunal on the accusation of spreading racist and defamatory remarks, and further that she has been called because he pursued a complaint through the student tribunal.
What I think of his arguments against affirmative action is not more to the point — from what I can tell, its entirely besides the point. And here’s just one way in which you’re being incredibly uncharitable: It’s an entirely standard critique of views against affirmative action that rely on a premise noting that race is socially constructed and identification can be messy, that they mostly serve as a diversion. The fact of the matter is that we treat people as if race were real, even if in some cases self-identification and treatment come apart, and even if intersectionality can complicate a race-only analysis of the phenomena of unjust disadvantage — this is, after all, what it means for it to be socially constructed — and so where there are systemic and structural racially-based disadvantages, ignoring race won’t undo its effects as a racial category, and moreover, it may serve to further entrench racial discrimination by robbing us of our ability to recognize it.
You are certainly free to reject that critique, but lots of very smart people don’t, and it is an argument that applies to Benetar’s critiques of affirmative action (in addition to that he seems to just reject that racial disadvantage exists). One can think that this style of argument against affirmative action is at least racist to the extent that is serves to, intentionally or not, uphold a racialized order while not thinking that any critique of affirmative action at all is necessarily racist.Report
Kathryn, as I keep noting, the only source for the accusation of racism against her is a single Facebook post. I’m only pointing out that 1) the source for this information is Ms. Mkhumbuzi herself; 2) the alleged accusation is being leveled by the Student Tribunal, not Prof. Benatar; and 3) the fact that he pursued disciplinary measures through the Student Tribunal does not necessarily entail that he accused her of racism herself. I don’t know how the Student Tribunal process works at UCT, but I don’t imagine that you do either. It’s entirely possible that he accused her of “racist and defamatory remarks,” of course, but it’s also possible that the Student Tribunal made the specific accusation of racism on its own, or that in fact nobody has accused her of racism, only defamation. My only and entire point throughout this exchange has been that the idea that Prof. Benatar has accused Ms. Mkhumbuzi of racism–specifically racism and not defamation–does not have much support in the public record.
As for affirmative action, you write, “this style of argument against affirmative action is at least racist to the extent that is serves to, intentionally or not, uphold a racialized order.” Clearly, then, on this account, a sufficient criterion by which any argument is may be judged as racist is that it “serves to, intentionally or not, uphold a racialized order.” But this supports my argument: any critique of affirmative action will, to some extent, intentionally or not, serve to uphold a racialized order, precisely insofar as affirmative action is supposed by its proponents to be an absolutely necessary condition for the dismantling of that racialized order. Therefore any critique of affirmative action is, by this criterion (and doubtless other, currently-popular criteria besides), ipso facto racist.Report
I did actually lookup their student handbook before commenting and it appeared to me that the tribunal investigates and adjudicates complaints, but does not initiate them — if you know otherwise, I’m happy to be corrected.
And no — you might think, for instance, that affirmative action does not on balance address inequity because it is too superficially located though it does tend to rile people up about “reverse discrimination.” That is, one can think particular styles of arguments uphold a racialized order without thinking affirmative action is a necessary, or even effective, correction.Report
I’m concerned with this discussion because it hasn’t really, as far as I can see, uncovered a convincing motive for the student accuser. This makes me wonder if we understand the force of dismissing a portion of the black students as uneducable, and disallowing a standard medical excuse to a student. She says she found this interchange violent. Is she saying that having a professor employ the discriminatory language and punnishing practices of apartheit seems to her to constitue a violent attack? I think I can get that. There is psychological abuse, which needn’t be physical.
I reviewed the second sex for the philosopher’s magazine. I found the view presented (dangerously.) blinkered. Here’s the central criticism I had:
“The very title asks us to compare the work with feminist contributions like that of
Beauvoir. Here it seems to me to be deeply flawed in comparison. Benatar deliberately
eschews the idea that sexism is a matter of a systematic possession and use of power by a
sex which is considered “by the society” as superior. Rather, sexism is simply a matter of
unjust discrimination on the basis of sex. However, if the first is true, then there are
systematic bases for sexism that the second will not discern. One consequence is that
explanations given are at least not on track.”Report
Anne, I want to address your point that this discussion hasn’t really “uncovered a motive for the student accuser.” I assume you mean a motive for her making false allegations about Benatar, or at least for purposefully distorting the nature of her interactions with Benatar. I guess I would agree that nobody has “uncovered” any such motive, depending on what that means. But, from a cursory reading of the Facebook posts and Benatar’s statement, it seems clear that a potential motive would concern the fact that Benatar refused to give her a DP (maybe he “disallowed her a standard medical excuse,” but that fact is in contention).
I don’t believe that the student acted from such a motive, nor do I believe that the student made false allegations or purposefully distorted the nature of her interaction with Benatar. I suspend judgment at this point. I just thought your remark about “uncovering a motive for the student accuser” was something worthy of response.
Nonetheless, I’m hesitant to post this response to you. For two reasons. One is that it doesn’t seem to me that it should matter much whether there is a potential motive for the student accuser. So, even if we were to agree that the student had some reason to make false allegations, we wouldn’t be entitled to dismiss her allegations. The second reason I’m hesitant to post this response is that my comment could be construed (uncharitably) as attacking the student. HFG has said that people are “ganging up” on the student, and Kathryn Pogin has implied not-so-subtly (and not-so-fairly, in my opinion) that these people are acting out of racism or sexism. Well, I plead not guilty. I’m just trying to trying to respond to Anne’s initial point, since she seems to believe the question of motive is relevant to the conversation.Report
Phil, since you read too much into my choice of the term “background” earlier, maybe before you say that I’m being unfair on the basis of what you take me to implying you could ask what I meant?Report
Kathryn, the honest answer is because I thought it was obvious what you meant given the context of your remark. I don’t mean just the topic of discussion, but also what was previously said in the discussion between you, HFG and Alexander (and the fact that you didn’t think it was necessary to elaborate). But my implicature detector is apparently busted, so I apologize. When HFG said they weren’t sure why people are ganging up on this one South African student, what did you actually mean when you said “I’m not sure either but I have a couple of guesses”?Report
I think a lot of folks are afraid of being called sexist or racist, and so read student protesters of various sorts uncharitably as a result because the background fears make them uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it’s going on here, but it would be my guess.Report
Ah I see. I agree that a lot of folks are afraid of being called sexist or racist. I sometimes wonder whether this fear is even greater among folks who are not sexist or racist (to the extent that it’s possible for there to be folks who are not sexist or racist in this society). I must admit that if someone were to repeatedly accuse me of racism on social media, I would be mortified (and I’m not even really white! (and I don’t even have social media!)).Report
Right, you definitely don’t have to have a prejudice to be afraid of being accused of it, and the more you do harbor it, the less intrinsic reason you have to be bothered by accusations of it (though there are obviously instrumental reasons too, like potential social or professional repercussions and the like). For my own part, I think we need to get better at responding to this kind of ethical criticism, both as individuals and bystanders, and that this is particularly pressing in the age of social media. You know, everybody screws up, everybody makes mistakes, and we should remember this when stories about people’s wrong doing, or alleged wrong doing, go viral. And defensiveness is too often the response even when criticisms are legitimate, and from the subjective perspective, sometimes it’s just really hard to tell when you have screwed up. So, while I find this fear very understandable I hope that if someone thinks I have said something racist, ableist, or sexist, people will be willing to challenge me, and that I’ll be willing to seriously consider what they have to say.Report
Phil, I should think it was obvious I didn’t mean that.
I’m concerned that a failure of imagination (=capacity to, among others things, grasp how different perspectives may bring in view different aspects) means that few of us are able to understand her. And really how could we, from such different cultures, expect to appreciate that she found an encounter threatenly denigrating.
Maybe it would be easier for us to think of some of our cultures bad guys in geographical areas where really awful things have happened to people like us; suppose they insinuate that we are not entitled to our views and that we probably shouldn’t be there in the first. That might get us near what she was feeling.Report
Well I shouldn’t be surprised that I somehow misunderstood you, since I seem to have misunderstood a few people so far in this thread (I must be exhausted from grading). When I read your original post, I was, in fact, confused by how the first sentence was supposed to relate to the rest of the paragraph, since I supposed that you were talking about the motive to make false allegations about Benatar, or to purposefully distort her encounters with Benatar. That’s not what you meant, sorry! Still, it’s not clear to me what motive you had in mind when you said this discussion “has failed to uncover a convincing motive for the student.” A motive to do what? I guess you mean “a motive to feel the way she did)”, or maybe “a motive to speak out against Benatar for the way he behaved”? Anyway, I think I can agree with many of the other things you say, insofar as they’re consistent with my suspending judgment about what actually happened.Report
A general question:
What is the appropriate response of a teacher or professor who is called “racist” by one student in front of the class? I take it that, in many or most cases of this happening, the student is just using the attack to air his or her frustration with the teacher, and is not actually pointing out a real case of racism. Is it out of bounds for the teacher to respond to such an accusation in front of the entire class (whether in person or via email)? Should the student face consequences for such an outburst?
For what it’s worth, as a high school teacher I’ve dealt with similar accusations on a number of occasions. Several other teachers at my school have as well. If two students are constantly talkative during class and you separate them, you could be faced with comments like “It’s because I’m black,” which is essentially just another way of saying that the teacher is racist. The first few times I just rolled my eyes at the comments, because I was taken aback. Subsequently, I was told that students need to be punished for these sorts of comments. Typically, their parents are not happy that they’re using charges of racism to deflect attention from their own misbehavior.
I can’t speak to the charges of racism against Benatar, except to say that my initial reaction (given my limited history with this sort of thing) is to wonder whether he’s facing a similar problem with unfounded accusations of racism as a way of lashing out against a teacher.Report
I tried to answer this earlier, but maybe my answer contained too much personal information. Not sure. But basically, if a student calls a professor something unpleasant, or accuses the professor of something unpleasant, I think the professor ought to take that seriously. I say this from the point of view as someone who has taught at the university level for several years at least as much as I say this from the perspective of being a student.Report
I should say that this student doesn’t seem to be concerned because the professor reassigned her seat or something like that. Reassigning seats is not oppressive. The “because I’m black” comment isn’t really an accusation of racism. It’s more like something teenagers do to make adults feel uncomfortable. Annoying, and completely different from the present case.Report
Justin, it looks like you may have the date wrong on Benatar’s comments in your first update. He dates them as 31 January 2016 at the end of the comments, and you have 3 February.Report
He dates the comments as 31 January 2016, yes, but the document was distributed on 3 February, so the update is quite right.Report