Benatar Responds to Student’s Accusations and the Reporting about Them (updated)

In March, 2016, a student at the University of Cape Town publicly announced that she was facing a disciplinary proceeding at her school because she called her philosophy professor a racist. I reported on the story here

[University of Cape Town]

At the time, the professor, David Benatar, was limited in how he could respond because the evaluation of the student’s actions was underway. Professor Benatar has now shared with me further details about the story, which are presented in his own words, below.

It can be difficult to figure out whether and how to report on certain news. There are sometimes reasons to report on stories prior to the point, often years later, when all of the possibly relevant facts will be available.

In this case, the fuller accounting reveals that my initial reporting was incomplete. The student was facing hearings on several matters. In retrospect, I realize that the focus on the accusation of racism may have contributed to a misleading picture of Professor Benatar, and I apologize for that.

Last year, the student, Busi Mkhumbuzi, submitted to the university an official apology for the accusations she made in which she offered “an unconditional retraction of the derogatory social media posts I put in the public domain in 2016.” The apology and retraction was recently made public in this accounting of the relevant events.

Here is Professor Benatar’s response:

On 11 March 2016, the Daily Nous published an item under the inaccurate headline “Student Faces Tribunal for Calling Philosophy Professor ‘Racist’”. The source of this headline, even if only indirectly, was Busi Mkhumbuzi, the student who was facing the tribunal. I, the professor in this story, was unable to comment in detail at the time because the matter was sub judice. I did advise those who were offering negative judgments in the comments section “not to believe everything they read and to suspend judgment until they have all the relevant facts”. I am now able to break my silence and furnish further information.

First, Ms Mkumbuzi faced not one but a number of disciplinary complaints arising from:

1. Fraudulently signing a lecture attendance register. 

2. Defaming me, not simply by calling me “racist, sexist, and ableist”, which some might argue is merely the expression of an (incorrect) opinion, but by making demonstrably false claims in support of these damaging characterizations. These included, but were not limited to, the following claims:

a. That I did not accept her medical certificates. (I accepted every one she provided and excused those absences accordingly.)
b. That she was signed off for nine absences by a medical professional. (In fact the medical certificates covered no more than four absences.)
c. That, with the medical excuses she missed only 3.5 lectures and therefore met the Duly Performed requirements. (In fact she missed in excess of a third of all the lectures and therefore did not meet the Duly Performed requirements.)
d. That I lied in claiming that a meeting was cancelled. (It was indeed cancelled, and by somebody other than me.)
e. That I placed her confidential medical information online in a limited statement I made in response to her earlier defamation. (The statement I made included no confidential information.)

3. Invading the Philosophy Department administrative office, harassing the staff there, including shouting, spittle flying, in the face of one administrator, and refusing to leave the office even when the administrators had to close for the day. This traumatized the administrative staff.

In other words, the student faced the disciplinary tribunal not for an unwarranted accusation of racism, sexism, and ableism but for multiple charges, including lying in order to bolster the credibility of those accusations. She was refused her Duly Performed certificate not because I am racist, or sexist, or ableist, but because she failed to meet the attendance requirements even once her medical certificates were taken into account, which they immediately were. 

The disciplinary proceedings against Ms Mkhumbuzi dragged on for three years, partly because of the University’s failures and partly because of Ms Mkhumbuzi’s skilful avoidance techniques. It is noteworthy that this purportedly impoverished, disempowered student lawyered up for part of the latter part of the disciplinary process. After three years, her lawyer asked the new Vice-Chancellor to withdraw all the charges against his client. The Vice-Chancellor, after assuring me that she would not drop the charges, reneged and did precisely this. A public account of this saga is now available here, and a detailed timeline here. Those who want contextual understanding of the more general toxic environment at the University of Cape Town can see here, here, here and here. This is the environment in which I have to work.  

I am grateful to those readers of the Daily Nous who came to my defence in the comments section. Disturbing, however, was the number of people who rushed to negative judgment about me in utter ignorance of the facts. Then there were those who, though covering themselves with careful qualifications, oxygenated the defamation by entertaining the possibility that I might be the monster the student was alleging I am. Finally, there were those, who took the opportunity of the student making these self-serving allegations to speculate in purportedly learned ways on whether parts of my philosophical work amount to racism and sexism. 

 Here are a few specific responses to various Daily Nous commentators:

 “HFG”, said that the fact that I “dealt with this issue by sending an email to *other* students speaks volumes against” my ability to handle my “position of power appropriately” and that this “type of behaviour is unconscionable”. Pushed by another commentator, “HFG” said that he or she was “having a hard time imagining a situation in which that would be an appropriate reaction from a professor”.

 Perhaps “HFG” will struggle less now that the facts have been presented. A student falsely claimed that she had been unfairly treated by a professor. She supported this claim with brazen lies. This was likely to undermine other students’ confidence in the professor’s fairness. It is entirely appropriate for the professor to respond to this in the measured way I did, by notifying other students in the class that they were being fed falsehoods.  

 Anne Jacobson was “concerned with this discussion [in the Daily Nous comments] because it hasn’t really … uncovered a convincing motive for the student accuser”. The motive should be obvious to those who know the facts. The student failed to meet the course requirements. This was duly recognized up the mandated chain of appeal. Exhausting all other options, she cynically—and very successfully—presented herself as a victim of prejudice and discrimination. This required lying. That won over people like Anne Jacobson who naively believed, among other things, that I was guilty of “disallowing a standard medical excuse to a student”.

 Professor Jacobson notes that Ms Mkumbuzi found a meeting “violent” and asks whether Ms Mkhumbuzi is “saying that having a professor employ discriminatory language and punnishing (sic) practices of apartheit (sic) seems to her to constitue (sic) a violent attack”. Professor Jacobson says that she can “get that. There is psychological abuse, which needn’t be physical”. Professor Jacobson should be advised that I did not “employ discriminatory language and punishing practices of Apartheid” and that the meeting which Ms Mkhumbuzi described as “very violent” was one in which only she spoke. She delivered a tirade against me and, when it came time for me to respond, she got up and left. As she was leaving, I noted that she had defamed me, to which her response was “Sue me!”. (She then did everything she could to avoid facing such charges in the Student Disciplinary Tribunal.) Can Professor Jacobson “get” that (my) being subjected to a sustained programme of (false) defamation (with international reach), especially without support from one’s institution, could constitute “psychological abuse, which needn’t be physical”?

 “HFG” and Kathryn Pogin wonder why other Daily Nous commentators “are so willing to gang up on this one South African student”. Given what actually happened, I have the opposite wonder—why are “HFG”, Ms Pogin and others so willing to sympathize with her rather than with me. To quote Ms Pogin, “I have a couple of guesses”.

 Ms Mkhumbuzi, in support of her allegations that I had treated her in a discriminatory manner, offered not only lies but also caricatures of my philosophical views on affirmative action and decolonization. A number of Daily Nous commentators leapt at the opportunity to construe my philosophical views as prejudicial, adding to Ms Mkhumbuzi’s list, my anti-natalist views, and my arguments that not only women but also men are victims of sex discrimination.

 These are really cheap shots, for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, they are a distraction. Did I or did I not treat Ms Mkhumbuzi in a discriminatory manner? The answer is that I did not. Even when Vice Chancellor Max Price capitulated to her protest and awarded her a Duly Performed certificate, he explicitly stated: “I reject emphatically any suggestion that the original decision by Prof Benatar, or the subsequent appeal decisions, were in any way racist, as alleged by Ms Mkhumbuzi”. In a covering email to Busi Mkhumbuzi (on 16 February 2016), Dr Price encouraged her to apologise to me for her allegation that my refusal of her Duly Performed certificate was racist. Although Ms Mkhumbuzi refused to do so at the time, she eventually (in 2019) begrudgingly and half-heartedly conceded that my decision had not been discriminatory, when making that apology was a condition under which the subsequent Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, withdrew all charges against her.

Thus, Ms Mkhumbuzi’s allegations about my philosophical views were an opportunity for those who have axes to start grinding. A few of them actually quoted their own criticisms of aspects of my work, as if those excerpts proved anything. Shelley Tremain also quotes Christine Overall, parroting the latter’s claim that she “shows” that my antinatalist view is “fatally flawed”, and that my theory has negative implications for women. I have argued here that Professor Overall’s arguments show no such thing.

Similarly, my arguments that there is a second sexism are construed by some as sexist. In other words, if you argue that men and boys are also victims of sexism, you are a sexist. The label “sexist”, like “racist”, is a convenient way to discredit somebody with whom one disagrees. For those who are interested in power dynamics, I should note that such labels work in only one direction. Imagine that a female feminist professor were accused by a mendacious male student of discriminating against him on the basis of his sex. Imagine further that a Daily Nous commentator noted that this particular female feminist professor denied that men are (ever) the victims of sexism, and concluded that the professor was therefore indeed a sexist. How likely is that scenario? If it did occur, how much traction would such a comment get? Again, “I have a couple of guesses”. Either way, those who can wield power with accusations such as “racism” or “sexism” have an obligation to be extraordinarily careful in wielding that power, given the damaging effects of false accusations. More specifically, they must beware of responding to reasonable disagreement in this way.

Finally, I turn to “Nick”, who seems to think that because I work in the current South African context, my philosophical work should have remained silent on matters of procreation, sexism, and affirmative action (or I should have expressed orthodox views about them). Let’s set aside the chilling effect of following that view, and the fact that Nick conveys very limited understanding of the contemporary South African context. He says: Until you can say that you genuinely, empathetically understand what it is like to be a black south African (sic) inhabiting the social context that has resulted from Apartheid, there is absolutely no way you are in a position to pronounce on this case.” I would say instead that until you know all the relevant facts of this case, there is absolutely no way that you are in a position to pronounce on it. This is why I am so surprised that Nick and others offered the pronouncements they did in almost complete ignorance.

 UPDATE (5/7/20): Professor Benatar asked the following be added to the post in light of the comments on it to date:

I am grateful for those who posted comments of commiseration and support. I am especially grateful to “Nick 2020” for his heartfelt apology. It is a pity that other of my 2016 critics have not (yet) followed his fine example. My own sympathies go to “Sympathy” and especially to “Rope’ End”. If it would help either to communicate their experiences privately to me, they should feel free to do so.



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