Written by: Frederik van Dyk
As a new member of my university residence’s house committee, I was obliged to attend the annual SU Leads Conference, a rigorous leadership development course for new student leaders, during the first fresh spring days of September.
Despite my fundamental disagreement with all of the pseudo-arguments emanating from the ranks of the Critical Theorists and Identity Politicians (popularly known as the ‘regressive left’, for very apt reasons), I had to attend a conference with the overarching theme “Decolonise, Reimagine, Recreate”, hosted by the Frederik van Zyl-Slabbert Institute. For someone with strong libertarian views and a commitment to the Socratic questioning of all statements plattered before me, the theme of the conference immediately signalled red lights.
What followed was a two day course filled with two dominant yet highly opposing viewpoints, clashing with a subtle ferocity that was only apparent to those who listened very carefully. The first was the ‘traditional’ pro-Constitution one, glorifying the idea of a South Africa, and by extension, a Stellenbosch University, built on the principles envisioned in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. This view can particularly be favoured by libertarians, as it emphasises the importance of individual dignity and free choice.
The other, however, came forth in the most viciously aggressive, extremist and reckless way that any critical thinker can imagine. This viewpoint was built on an array of assumptions and half-baked convictions, resulting in a dogmatic concoction of Critical Theory and Identity Politics, served with a surplus of attitude to quell any dissenters or moderates who might dare to question or appeal the power of the facilitators involved.
My aim through this piece is to highlight and criticize the instances where the abovementioned viewpoint was presented. Notice that my criticism does not focus mainly on either the validity or truth of the content presented to the course attendees. Rather, I proceed to focus on the unbalanced and thus wholly un-educational nature of how some sessions of the conference were presented. My reason is in keeping with the old classical liberal maxim (which is also at least partially envisioned in Section 16 of the Constitution of the Republic): I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.
The first session
For the libertarian-minded among us, when walking into a session named “#power#privilege#protest”, the irony of leftist jargon so liberally cloaked with the hashtags of the multibillion-dollar business of Twitter is an absolutely beautiful phenomenon.
That the hashtag rose to great importance in political discourse during the Arab Spring (directed against authoritarian and collectivistic rulers) is a fact also seemingly lost to the facilitators, or whoever decided on the session’s name.
Nevertheless, my initial smirks came to an abrupt halt when the two female facilitators, both allegedly sympathisers of the regressive-left kingpin Open Stellenbosch, launched into what sounded to any critically-eared philosopher like a Sunday-morning sermon in the Deep South. Privilege Theory was taken for granted. Protest was insinuated to be a justified form of acting out one’s frustrations at all times, and therefore, as campus leaders, we are expected to listen and understand, despite the nature of any said protest. Power was oversimplified to the extent that the word acquired a totally negative meaning in the room’s context, coming to mean something that should be continually protested and questioned, without considering the various other interpretations that can be given to power, or the sources of power on a university campus.
All through this session, not a single reference was made to the Constitution. In fact, the facilitators at one point questioned the concept of the Rainbow Nation, without the decency to put the slide’s title (“The Myth of the Rainbow Nation”) between quotation marks, or add a question mark to indicate the fact that the statement is debatable.
The fact that opportunity was given to ask questions didn’t change the vicious power-dynamic within the room. Early in the session, upon being questioned on her rife logical fallacies and sweeping statements, one facilitator made a point of patronisingly silencing or cutting off the conversation when she was caught in a corner. Her infamous efforts were supported by a group of students, clearly followers of the ideological atmosphere, who religiously clicked their fingers or made strong-worded (I might as well use ‘offensive’) comments as the facilitators spoke. The incredible bias, the accusatory and arbitrary comments of ‘racist!’ or ‘sexist!’ when (specifically and sadly) white students rose to speak, didn’t do much to improve the situation.
My disgust was validated even more when one facilitator, in a way that cannot be described to be other than arrogant and narrow-minded, stated matter-of-factly that the Afrikaans language (seemingly a point of irritation for many Africanist nationalists at Stellenbosch University) was brought into South Africa by slaves from Malaysia. You do not need to be a sociolinguist to laugh passionately at this claim, but that is only a part of the story. The mere fact that a person who should be educating leaders makes statements like this, in a way that shows mindless dogmatic conviction and a total disregard for facts, is (to use some spicy regressive-left jargon) ‘highly problematic’. Parents should worry. Deeply.
An outrageous panel discussion
The last session I attended consisted of four panellists and a supposedly objective discussion leader. Incidentally, the discussion leader was one of the facilitators who preached at the first session.
The session’s theme was named “Language, Culture and Identity at SU”. The discussion leader quickly launched into yet another patronising air of intolerance for dissent, expressing her ‘disappointment’ in the audience for questioning what she seemed to regard as axioms. When attendees questioned the panellists’ views on language and the removal of ‘problematic’ symbols and statues, they were met with an aggressive backlash of ad hominem insults, cries of outrage and, crucially, a lack of intervention by the discussion leader. In fact, she simply skipped the audience members who had questions and were deemed to be possible dissenters. Her racial biases, sadly, could be seen in the way that she cherry-picked people of colour or women, as opposed to the various white males who waived their hands like marooned sailors.
The discussion reached a point where it was clear that no critical evaluation or thinking was deemed important. It turned into a praise-singing of Critical Theory as an axiom for all arguments, with identity politics as an inevitable runner-up. Abstracts such as ‘whiteness’, ‘privilege’ and ‘oppression’ were thrown around in an orgy of vitriolic, uncritical mouth-washing. By the end of it, the single (token?) white and male panel-member had only been given one chance to speak. The discussion leader closed the session by again expressing her disappointment in the cases of dissent, and the abused audience walked out in total confusion.
Other similar events at the conference, and the ‘Cross the Line’ calamity
One can hardly generalise by describing every session as having the same indoctrinating format. However, two colleagues later reported that the facilitator in their session caused havoc by allegedly instructing whites to “shut the f*ck up and sit down”, and by expressing a high level of intolerance for dissent after preaching her Critical Theory interpretations of feminism. In another session, a facilitator showed the fundamental extent of her bias, by agreeing with a radical student that emotion should start taking precedence over rational thought, since the latter is apparently a construct of colonial thinking that excludes African takes on matters.
One of the most worrying activities was the so-called ‘Cross the Line’ game, which consists of a facilitator asking certain questions about student participants’ backgrounds. If a participant can affirm a question as being relevant to his or her background or identity, a step is taken forward, based on a certain number of lines drawn on the ground. Depending on the question’s nature, participants can also be asked to take a step backwards, should the question be relevant to them. The goal is to show privilege, and immediately deduce that ‘structural privilege’ must be apparent. Not only is this making a fatal fallacy of confusing the parts with the whole, but the experiment itself is highly inaccurate and designed in complete disregard for the scientific method. By asking the right questions, one can theoretically achieve through this game exactly the result you want. If I wished, I could emphasise farm murder rates in my set of questions, and white men and women would easily end up to appear at the lower end of privilege. Similarly, I could play the game with a set of black millionaires, and using the correct phrasing, I can show them to be pulling the short side of being privileged. So farcical is this game that the lack of a controlled variable, as required by scientific method, doesn’t even have to come to mind!
My disgust and fear for the future of student leadership after the conference was a sad reality. Unless the rationalists who campaigned for the Constitutional viewpoint retake the essence of the conference by liberalising the presentation of the content to students, most of this conference will continue to amount to a system of reckless indoctrination instead of education. The moment that opinions are forced in such an aggressive and unqualified way, especially when no counter arguments are provided for the sake of balance, we can never accept the situation as having educational value. The fact that this is accepted practice at a top South African university, which claims to be ‘inclusive, innovative and future-focused’, is indeed more than just unsettling.
When, at a course hosted by the Frederik van Zyl-Slabbert Institute, which carries the name of one of South Africa’s most important historical critical thinkers,
- a facilitator tells the audience that white people should “shut the f*ck up” and continues their sermon without giving a single moment or tolerance for much-needed intellectual dissent;
- another, who was supposed to be the objective leader of a panel discussion, patronizes and ridicules listeners for having ‘resistant’ views
and explaining that ‘feeling uncomfortable’ is a sign that you must unlearn your current socio-political views, not considering that people might have very valid logical arguments against the said facilitator’s uncritical preaching; and
- especially, when rational thought is denounced in favour of “the intuitive role of emotions and lived experiences”;
then you know as a new member of a house committee and as a thought leader, that the duty to intellectually resist and defend academic integrity and the Constitution of the Republic has arrived.
Whether you are a Matie or not, the time to defend freedom-based values against an arrogant new strain of authoritarianism has never been more crucial. I call upon every critical thinker to step up with your pens and keyboards and pure reason, so that we can light up this intellectual darkness together.