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.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.
I’m sorry to see that Prof Benatar has been involved in what sounds like a very difficult and protracted situation with a student. I’ve only read some of his work on antinatalism, but that stood out as the sort of uncommon work that philosophy needs.
It would also be lovely to see where Professor Benatar’s energies are spent supporting and affirming his less litigious minority students too. I would imagine he has been been as active supporting his other students as he has responding to his detractors. Has he not provided any statement of the sort? Or is this simply another thing that Daily Nous has not emphasized in their reporting?
This is an important ongoing message we need to provide to young philosophers. Particularly where allegations carry weight, we should be careful to continue messages of affirmation instead of being reactive.Report
I”m not familiar with Dr. Benatar’s views on decolonization or affirmative action. Are these tied to the anti-natalist philosophy somehow? That said I agree with intrepidquack.Report
Patrick, Benatar’s views on decolonization and affirmative action are not visibly tied to his anti-natalist views. They are, perhaps, similarly controversial, though as always his arguments are thoughtful and forceful.Report
“I would imagine he has been been as active supporting his other students as he has responding to his detractors. Has he not provided any statement of the sort?”
This seems like a pretty weird thing to say. Lurking beneath it seems to be the following thought: Benatar’s vindication on the substantive points notwithstanding, we could nevertheless criticise him if he had focused just (or largely) on defending himself rather than on doing the things you mention.
If that is the lurking thought, it seems very unfair. It’s surely understandable if someone, faced with allegations that could destroy their career and reputation, focuses on those to the detriment of other things we’d like them to do. Surely this is another aspect of the wrongness of false allegations like Mkhumbuzi’s: being the victim of such allegations imposes a serious cost in terms of time and energy, and deprives third-parties of the just and beneficial ways that time and energy might otherwise be used.Report
What a sly insinuation, intrepidquack! I would be ashamed.Report
Referring to minority students in South Africa does not mean what you seem to think it means.Report
It is the easiest thing in the world to apologize after one learns the truth about matters like this, and so I understand that this may be taken as an opportunistic apology. But nonetheless, I was “Nick” in those exchanges and I want to apologize to professor Benatar for joining in the pile-on. I was a grad student then, but now as someone with a lot more experience in the academy, I look back at those comments in horror.
Let me just say that there is a powerful vice that had me firmly in its grasp, a vice that I suspect is more common than we often admit. I was given over to abstract, detached *theorizing* about such things as racism, sexism and social ideology in the broadly progressive terms that had been provided to me by my academic context. For me, and for many of my peers at the time, the fact that Benatar was white and the student was a black woman in South Africa was enough to trigger a series of depressingly algorithmic judgments concerning his (or our) alleged blindness to subtle forms of racism or sexism. But this mindset–which so often declares itself to be more “in touch with reality”–is in fact frighteningly detached from actual, concrete power relations that constitute the actual particular situations we are forming judgments about. That is, in an ironic twist, the form of social-justice theory I was deploying was itself a harmful ideology, since it provided a satisfying and convenient excuse to moralize in a highly unreliable fashion about real power relations that affected real people.
Again, Professor Benatar, for what it’s worth, my sincere apologies. And grad students: just because lots of people around you (including some of your professors) are doing so, that doesn’t mean that you have to outsource your moral judgment to these lazy, prepackaged algorithms.Report
I don’t think it’s as easy to apologize after one learns the truth as you suggest. It can still be very hard. I admire your doing it!Report
I have to say, I find it stunning how little reaction there is to this, compared to the original discussion. Back then, many commenters seemed willing to give Prof. Benatar’s accuser the benefit of the doubt, or to at least entertain the possibility that Prof. Benatar may be racist, sexist, etc. Apart from Nick, where are these commenters now? Surely, if they were so interested in the possibility that a philosopher may have behaved in racist or sexist ways they would have something to say about the fact that he did not?
I am particularly disappointed in the comment by intrepidquack, which is easily read as a dogwhistle suggesting that if Prof. Benatar is not racist, then at least he may not be sufficiently anti-racist. It is tempting to think that some people do not want to let go of their condemnation, no matter the facts at hand.Report
Here is a troubling detail that I have not yet seen addressed. In the Politicsweb article that Justin links above, it’s stated that in a letter in which Mkhumbuzi threatened to further damage Prof. Benatar’s reputation unless he agreed to a favourable settlement, “[s]he added that the American Philosophical Association had offered her its support”.
Was this simply a lie? Or was someone with an official role in the APA in contact with Mkhumbuzi and said something that could have been interpreted as an offer of support from the APA?
Needless to say, if the latter is the case, that would be scandalous.Report
Also, the ‘American Philosophical Association’ is becoming an increasingly inaccurate name. It holds meetings in Canada now and, if this is true (a big if), take sides in individual legal disputes in other hemispheres. No wonder our fees are through the roof!Report
The APA has held meetings in Canada at various points in the distant past – it’s not exactly a new thing. Quine wrote the Two Dogmas originally for presentation at the 1950 APA – in Toronto.Report
Canada is part of (North) America, as one of my Canadian graduate student colleagues many years ago never tired of reminding me.Report
You should have heard the Falklander in my department!Report
Justin, given your prominent role in initially promoting this story, could you now help clear this up by asking Amy Ferrer for a comment? If somebody made an offer on behalf of the APA to intercede on Mkhumbuzi’s behalf, the profession really has a right to know.Report
Professor Benatar: I thank you for sharing your account here, and I’m terribly sorry to hear what you had to endure over the past several years. I have personally endured a similar case teaching in the U.S. However, I have not experienced anything as severe or as prolonged as what you experienced in your account. The sense of powerlessness in these kinds of cases can take a toll, and my hope is that you’re able to move forward positively from this.Report
Prof Benatar taught me for an elective “Ethics” course I took in first year. The course was very insightful and Prof’s interest in educating his students could not be missed. He made an effort to know and remember the names of his hundreds of students and was very approachable.Report
I’m honestly *this* close to completely turning my back on philosophy, after 12+ years of schooling, countless presentations, innumerable hours spent networking; playing the whole game, because events like this have convinced me that the discipline has become a cudgel with which we can beat into submission anyone who doesn’t conform to our chosen ideology. This applies to my peers and myself, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum; just look at the comments on the most popular posts on this very site. I can’t stand the posturing anymore, and despite spending years trying to convince myself and others that philosophy is intrinsically valuable, I can’t help but think, in light of blowups like these, that, as it exists -as it’s currently used- philosophy is primarily a vehicle for self-satisfaction by way of making oneself feel better [more virtuous, more moral, more rational, more enlightened, etc.] than others. I’m relieved that Prof. Benatar has been vindicated, and I also applaud Nick for his humility; I hope this is a sign of more justice and kindness to come. But I can’t hold my breath any longer, and I can’t keep playing this game.Report
Please don’t leave! If some of philosophy has moved disturbingly in the horrible direction you describe, then what it needs most of all is for those of us who know what philosophy is meant to be, and who don’t want to lose that, to stick it out and stand up for the discipline.
Yes, some very loud voices have pushed us in a bad direction on many fronts, and the inaction of so many of us up to now, and the complete lack of awareness on the part of some that anything is going wrong, is difficult to defend. But isn’t there so much hope in the fact that Nick has come to see and admit his error, and come to see what helped push him into this rash injustice? And Nick’s comment has over two hundred likes now. I don’t know whether I remember another comment on Daily Nous ever getting so many.
Behind the shrill voices and the trendy, arrogant posturing are many of us — hundreds, at least, and probably thousands — who stand for something better. We may well be a significant majority The trouble is that we have almost all, like you, been silenced and made invisible by a terror of losing it all by speaking up, because of this great illusion that we are alone. I very much think, though, that history will not be kind to those who switched off their minds and joined in the pilings-on in the name of frankly ludicrous principles. In the meantime, we need people like you to keep the flame of true philosophy burning. Please don’t leave over this. Stay and help us resist the darkness.Report
I met Professor Benatar quite a few years ago when I gave a paper on philosophical issues of parenting at a wonderful conference he organized on quotidian ethics at the University of Cape Town. I can write only:
David, I am so sorry that you had to endure this and for such a long time. You are a fine philosopher and, from the little I encountered, a very good man. The inevitable frustration and justified anger you must feel is a terrible burden. I wish you the best in making your way out of it.Report
Thanks for this article! I wish Professor Benatar much strength in this difficult working environment. People who, like Professor Benatar, hold unpleasant (but well-founded) views will always be exposed to serious hostility. This is a sure part of the human predicament. But there are also many people who appreciate his work and take comfort from his clearly formulated and humorously spiced arguments.
Therefore, keep up the good work!Report
Justin, The next time there is a thread where people may be drawn to make under-informed and harmful judgments you might link this thread at the top as the “Benatar Warning”.Report