The world’s Wokest university

February 7, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I would have guessed that the world’s Wokest university would be—given what I know about North American and British universities—The Evergreen State College. But I know almost nothing about the ideologies pervading schools in other countries, especially Africa, Asia, and South America.  From Grania I knew about the “decolonization” movement against science at The University of Cape Town in South Africa (henceforth UCT), a city I’ve always wanted to visit (Grania lived and went to school there). But lately I’ve heard little, for Americans are a parochial people and tend to ignore what happens in other places. This article from Quillette, however, makes the case that no university in the entire world is more “progressive”—and by “progressive,” author David Benatar. means “woke”—then The University of Cape Town.

You may have heard of Benatar before: he’s a South African philosopher—in fact, used to be the head of the Department of Philosophy at the very university he decries.[A commenter below has noted that Benatar probably resigned the chairmanship in 2021.] Benatar also wrote a controversial book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, which makes the case that producing more human beings creates greater harm, for the very fact of existing is a harm. He is thus an “antinatalist.”

Benatar is the son of Solomon Benatar, a global-health expert who founded the Bioethics Centre at the University of Cape Town. Not much is known about Benatar’s personal life as he deliberately guards his privacy. He has held antinatalist views since his childhood.

If he didn’t guard his privacy, he’d probably be killed (see the video he includes with his article.) In fact, there appears to be only one photo on the Internet, but as reader “NG” tells us in the comments below, it’s not Benatar.

We’ll leave biography aside, though, for here we have a rare case of a well known professor in a good university criticizing that university publicly. And what he says is horrifying. 

According to Benatar, the University is rife with bullying and unfounded accusations of racism, many of them by black students against black students. There is deplatforming, harassment, and even suicide caused by the climate of entitlement and the students’ aspirations to “decolonize” everything.  The behavior of some people is even criminal, but UCT overlooks it. The downfall began when UCT started capitulating to student demands and bad behavior around 2015.

Why is this happening? An obsession with race drives much of this, and Benatar describes why:

Post-apartheid South Africa remains obsessed with race. Technically, nobody is racially classified by the state any longer, but the implementation of extensive racial preference legislation presupposes continued acceptance of those categories. So, while people are not officially categorized by race, they are in practice, sometimes against their will. Racial preferences in South Africa have acquired two distinctive features that distinguish them from the forms of affirmative action common in, for example, North America.

First, racial preferences in South Africa are much stronger. Many of the racial preference policies and practices permissible in South Africa, such as quotas, would be illegal in the US or Canada. Some of the racial preferences practised in South African universities may even be illegal under South African law, but are sufficiently covert to avoid legal challenge.

Second, the beneficiaries of South African racial preferences constitute a large majority of the population and of students at the University of Cape Town. Blacks are not yet a majority of the academic staff, but it was always going to be difficult to get the demographics of the professoriate to reflect the demographics of the country after hundreds of years of anti-black racism. This has become an even more challenging task because the quality of primary and secondary schooling has declined since the advent of democracy.

Benatar has written a book about this, which he mentions when he starts listing some of the lunacy inflicting UCT:

In my book, The Fall of the University of Cape Town, I offer a detailed account of what has been happening at (and to) Africa’s leading university since the #FeesMustFall protests began in October 2015. On multiple occasions in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the university was shut down for weeks at a time by a relatively small group of activist students demanding “decolonized” higher education and an end to increases in student fees. In ostensible pursuit of these goals, protesters set fire to historic artworks, university vehicles, and the vice-chancellor’s office, and vandalized university buildings with human excrement.

More worrying still, they intimidated hundreds of people with threats of violence backed by instances of assault. An activist used a sjambok to whip a cellphone out of a fellow student’s hand, a vice-chancellor was punched, students and staff who defied the protesters were pushed and shoved, a security guard was beaten with a steel rod, and another had to be hospitalized after a rock was dropped onto his head. No one was ultimately held accountable, either by the university’s disciplinary system or in the country’s courts. (When charges were laid, they were later withdrawn.)

Furthermore, the behavior of activists indicates that racial abuse is now compatible with the pursuit of social justice, so long as the recipients of such abuse are either pale-skinned and/or insufficiently progressive in their politics. One student protester wore a t-shirt bearing the phrase “Kill All Whites”; a memorial to soldiers killed in both World Wars was daubed with the words “Fuck White People”; a senior academic who referred to a junior colleague as “just another fucking white woman” was appointed to a senior administrative position shortly thereafter. Darker-skinned students and faculty, meanwhile, who do not toe the party line, have been denounced as a “coconuts,” “sell-outs,” “colonial administrators,” and “porch negroes.”

On July 27th, 2018, Professor Bongani Mayosi, Dean of the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences, committed suicide after he was persecuted by activists disrupting the campus. Professor Mayosi’s sister did not hesitate to hold the #FeesMustFall protesters morally responsible for this tragedy. “He was hardly two weeks in his new position and the protests broke out,” she told the Sunday Times. “The vitriolic nature of the students and their do or die attitude vandalised his soul and unravelled him. Their personal insults and abuse cut him to the core, were offensive to his values and were the opposite of everything he was about.”

There’s a lot more, with bullying from both the top down and bottom up, and accusations of racism flying right and left.  What to do about it? All he can do is shake his head and mourn his school:

It may be that the University of Cape Town only seems more extreme because I am seeing it up close. My book offers a detailed account of what has happened here so that others can compare my experience with their own. Those comparisons will be illuminating. I am, however, convinced that concerns about a conservative and liberal moral panic at UCT are misplaced. Such accusations are used to dodge moral responsibility and to justify cruelty, violence, and vandalism in the name of self-righteous indignation.

Well, I’m not sure what the difference is between living in a moral panic and behaving badly because of that panic, but so be it. “Othering” breeds hatred and immorality.  However, Given Benatar’s views of his school and his anti-natalism, I’m surprised he’s still alive. One wonders why the students haven’t done him in, or why he hasn’t done himself in. The good news is that he’s still here, and so can tell us about what’s going on at UCT. Not that it’s especially cheerful.

Benatar’s article contains a video showing a security guard being violently attacked by UCT students, and it’s really scary to see this latent and then overt violence. But I’d prefer to show this well known video from 2016; showing students telling the science faculty that “science must fall”. It has to be scrapped and begun all over again with “folk wisdom”  Sound familiar?

But if you’re a dispirited science teacher in New Zealand, worried about whether you’ll be able to teach your science in the face of ideology, do cheer up a bit. You could, after all, be a science teacher at UCT! The students want to do away with science in toto! What chance do these kids have for a decent education when they come to college already claiming to know everything about everything?

h/t: David

34 thoughts on “The world’s Wokest university

  1. One correction: That photo isn’t of David Benatar, it’s of Ricardo Lopes, host of The Dissenter Youtube channel. He did an interview with Benatar (where the interviewee was not shown).

  2. I live on the eastern outskirts of Cape Town but did not realise how bad things were at UCT. However, the whole country is going south. Years ago I tried to help the lack of education by doing voluntary teaching in literacy, science, biology and maths. Nowadays education is sneered at. Qualified people are leaving the country at an alarming rate. Religion is rife – as in all dysfunctional countries. We had such potential but it has all been wasted!

  3. … Americans are a parochial people and tend to ignore what happens in other places.

    Or in the “not-USA,” as we Yanks tend to think of it. I hear it can be a nice place sometimes, parts of it anyway. 🙂

  4. I’d prefer to show this well known video from 2016; showing students telling the science faculty that “science must fall”.

    As with the NZ case and MM, one possible solution is to set them up with their own department, funding, etc. If they are serious about their discipline, this will be a win-win. If they object because it doesn’t actively tear down the science department next door, then you know that their rhetoric was just a front for demanding control and power.

    1. “If they object because it doesn’t actively tear down the science department . . . .”

      It would be interesting to see how much money it took to make them stop making such noises.

      Am reminded of the scenario where the monkey can slip its hand into the container, but when it makes a fist in grabbing the goodie, it can’t get its hand out.

  5. I would have guessed that the world’s Wokest university would be—given what I know about North American and British universities—The Evergreen State College.

    Three points:

    1) Legally-enshrined ill-treatment of blacks is way more recent in South Africa than in the US.

    2) Whereas economically-disadvantaged blacks are a minority in the US, they are a majority in South Africa.

    3) Economic differentials between blacks and whites are much bigger in South Africa.

    Result: all the problems that the above cause in the US, but a fortissimo.

  6. Those students in the video are very immature. I facilitate sessions a lot and I would never stand up, give a condescending lecture about the rules we agreed to then ask the person to apologize.

  7. He [Benatar] also wrote a controversial book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, which makes the case that producing more human beings creates greater harm, for the very fact of existing is a harm. He is thus an “antinatalist.” (I may have even met him at a seminar at Oakland University!)

    When I first got out of college in the ’70s and spent some time bumming around the country with no money to speak of in my pocket, I spent a few nights crashing with some buddies at the Motel6 in downtown Oakland.

    Damn near made an anti-natalist outta me, too.

    1. I can sympathize.

      I’ve read his book (and heard his discussion with Sam Harris on Sam’s podcast) and found it very interesting. I’m always skeptical of my own too-easy agreement with such positions because I’m dysthymic/chronically depressed and often brimming with suicidal ideation, but it’s an interesting position nonetheless. Many times, I think I veer toward full pro-mortalist. Or as I say, sometimes with tongue only partly in cheek, “Thanos was HALF right.”

    2. Am reminded of Hitchens’s remark that we human primates are a half-chromosome away from a chimpanzee. It’s a wonder we do as well as we do.

    3. I highlighted the same quote, wondering what the controversy is. It’s not even a new argument – I associate it with Silenus (as cited by Aristotle in Eudemus, 354 BCE), but it has been re-raised many times since. Perfectly respectable philosophy.

  8. Yikes. But is this all about wokery? Woke ideology is about decrying the real or imagined oppressors. “Punching up”. But swaths of this is about those in actual power just plain bullying and settling past scores.

    1. Settling past scores is a great deal of what “Woke ideology is about”, or at least talks about. Hence the incessant complaints about offences of the distant past, as exemplified by Mendel, Darwin, Huxley, Galton, Human Genetics, the normal distribution, Maths, the names given to birds, English literature, etc. etc. etc. But of course, as poster #5 knows, the underlying issue has to do with control and power.

  9. Not that it’s especially cheerful- I laughed hard when I got to this line. Because I have been accused of being especially cheerful and I love dark humor. I hate how we excuse the horrible behaviour with so many hundreds of years of racism so they don’t know any better. They know, I put forth, but this works for them, so why change. Because they don’t care. I also hate how they project their hate on to good people like the professor, who finally had something good. And I strongly relate.

  10. I had the opportunity of visiting Cape Town four years ago and loved it. Apart from Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula, the city itself has some lovely historical areas and the waterfront has been spruced up with nice restaurants and shops. The people, of whatever racial background, were all very friendly, and I got to meet people there from across Africa (it was my first visit to the continent). It was also nice to see/hear Afrikaans and Xhosa. As with my first visit to Brazil, I found the juxtaposition of first-world wealth and crushing poverty depressing, and I was advised not to go out alone after dark.

  11. Just adding this comment from a NZ blogger, Karl du Fresne http://karldufresne.blogspot.com/

    “Advocates of decolonisation want nothing less than the total repudiation of Western civilisation, along with democratic government and all the other benefits that flow from it. To be replaced by … what, exactly?”

    I’ll also add: In my opinion, the recent events at UCT illustrate the harsh intolerance of Critical Social Justice Theory and its activists/proponents, plus the intrinsic bigotry of this very divisive ideology.

  12. I’ll listen to the interview tomorrow, but since it is on Ricardo Lopez’s podcast The Dissenter it’ll probably be excellent.

  13. There are precedents for all this: the violence motivated by racial “justice”, even in reaction to very real grievances, has happening around the world for centuries, with genocidal consequences. While the world has seen many MLKs, Fredrick Douglases, and Nelson Mandelas, in the fullness time, they have been replaced by the likes of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the author of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence (no “all men are created equal” in this one):
    “And you, precious men, intrepid generals, who, without concern for your own pain, have revived liberty by shedding all your blood, know that you have done nothing if you do not give the nations a terrible, but just example of the vengeance that must be wrought by a people proud to have recovered its liberty and jealous to maintain it let us frighten all those who would dare try to take it from us again; let us begin with the French. Let them tremble when they approach our coast, if not from the memory of those cruelties they perpetrated here, then from the terrible resolution that we will have made to put to death anyone born French whose profane foot soils the land of liberty.”

    1. Well, “decolonization is not a metaphor”, say Tuck & Yang as recently as 2012, so what else did you expect?

      Their central point is that decolonization can’t proceed with any a priori “privilege” about the fate of the decolonized de-settled settlers. The ethnic cleansers imagine us asking, “Where would we go? We have no other citizenship but American, or South African, or New Zealand. We can’t just get in a boat and go back where our ancestors came from.” They reply, “That is your problem, not ours. We will decide what to do with you after we take power. It doesn’t have to be acceptable to you.”

    2. Some context here would be wise. By 1803, Toussaint was gone: imprisioned back in France and on the verge of death. Dessalines and his Black, ex-slave army (along with support from the mulatto troops of the South of Haiti), had just defeated a French expeditionary force sent by Napoleon with the undisguised intent to re-enslave the Blacks. Under the command of Rochambeau, the French force had behaved atrociously until Dessalines et al. at last drove them back to their ships and to France.

      Little wonder then that Dessalines was adamant: only Blacks would thenceforth be welcome to Haiti.

  14. But if you’re a dispirited science teacher in New Zealand, worried about whether you’ll be able to teach your science in the face of ideology, do cheer up a bit. You could, after all, be a science teacher at UCT! The students want to do away with science in toto!

    I’m not so sanguine, having just viewed the first of 3 episodes of https://www.maoritelevision.com/shows/beyond-matariki, a series which “explores the depth of knowledge that pertains to Māori astronomy”. It does cover the conventional astronomy of the Pleiades, and then goes beyond that into its Māori cultural significance in several important areas (such as the calendar, navigation, and sex). So far, so good.

    But it does take some IMO gratuitous swipes at Western cultural aspects, completely ignores obvious commonalities with other non-Western cultures, and most worryingly for me, seems to get some basic history-of-science facts wrong (e.g., regarding the whole point of the Gregorian calendar).

    So it is thoroughly plausible to me that a “Māori cultural supremacist” approach could end up getting embedded in at least some of the officially acceptable curricula, to the detriment of good science, history, and cultural anthropology.

  15. I wonder what Mandela would have made of this? Anyone familiar enough with work (books, other written material, recorded interviews etc.) might be able to make an informed an opinion if the info affords it.

    This new scientist piece is of relevance:

    Mandela’s unsung legacy of science in Africa
    Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95. He knew well the importance of science and technology institutes for Africa’s full liberation

    Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24712-mandelas-unsung-legacy-of-science-in-africa/#ixzz7KHIuf4Uy

  16. This antinatalism; I’ve heard of it, but would be interested in reading more.

    Is David’s book a good/comprehensive place to start? Any other recommendations?

    Many thanks!

  17. “But I’d prefer to show this well known video from 2016; showing students telling the science faculty that “science must fall”.”

    This video is scary. Even if you don’t see it in the video, it’s clear that it started with a guy who asked how you can decolonize science if “science is true”. The scariest thing is not the terrible answer of the girl with the pink shirt, is the reaction of the other woman, the one with glasses, the one who says: “You need to APOLOGIZE”.
    Apologize for what? For a question? are you not even allowed to ask a question?
    Even scarier: the guy says “sorry”. Not enough: “you need to accept our rules”. “Yes, I accept”.

    Those people are dangerous. They would be dangerous even if they weren’t violent, but they are. They are going to build a dictatorship. How can they be stopped?

  18. @ Lucia # 20
    My easy answer is, “with guns.” But those who would wield them having much to lose, Black and white, have long since left South Africa. It will not be a dictatorship, merely tyranny by majority.

    The more nuanced answer is that the video is 6 years old. Are things better or worse now? Did the fascist in the glasses prevail and is now a commissar? Or was she denounced and is now cleaning toilets in a train station?

    1. Thank you @Leslie for your answer. My concern is that situation does not concern only South Africa, but the entire world. I’m scared.

      I’m scared for myself and for my child. He is white, male and heterosexual. He is not even obese. There is not a single “oppressed minority” he belongs to. This makes him a person who more than others risks being hated and persecuted.

      1. Lucia, I suggest your son do what mine did. Learn how to do something better than the competition does, whether that’s brick-laying or financial statistical modeling, and go to work in the wealth-producing part of the private sector. Stay away from academe and the civil service, and the parasitic parts of the private sector like the law and health care, even if his talents call him in that direction. These sectors draw DEI commissars like flypaper. In the end, only shareholders care enough to keep affirmative action or diversity box-ticking from interfering with the creation of wealth. They will pay what it costs to retain people who produce and to get rid of people who can’t or won’t. Avoid creating a shit-storm from anything you say on Twitter that could reflect badly on your company — my son abandoned social media years ago. And always leave the office door open when you are talking to a woman.

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