The news of Adam Habib – former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and current director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London – being savaged by a woke mob for using the n-word in an online discussion with students has seen a bout of schadenfreude among some South Africans.

It brings to mind the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, who lamented his silence when the Nazi purges began, for when the Nazis decided he was their next target there was nobody left to speak up for him.

Now, of course the mob attacking Habib are not the Nazis (although their disdain for free speech, thought, and inquiry is not dissimilar), but the glee many have expressed at seeing Habib attacked by his ostensible ideological fellow travellers should be tempered.

Habib was one of the braver university heads during earlier #FeesMustFall protests and did not shy away from protecting his university, and its staff and students, from the worst excesses of that movement, and, despite the criticism of many, he stood up against fascism, violence, and intimidation. Habib has also constantly stood against race nationalism, whether from the right or the left. He has engaged with people who think differently, such as Afriforum’s Ernst Roets, with whom he had an online debate last year. Many of those putatively on Habib’s side of the ideological fence would not deign to engage with Roets because of what they regard as his unpalatable views. Habib has shown that he believes that discussion with those you disagree with is an important component of a healthy and democratic society.

Even (or maybe especially) those who disagree with Habib should stand up against the disgraceful treatment he is receiving from SOAS (and its unionised staff, who voted almost to a man to support a vote of no confidence in him). He has had to step aside from his position pending the outcome of an inquiry, and it looks as if he might soon find himself looking for another job.

Mistake to be gleeful

It is a mistake to be gleeful at what is happening to Habib. All those on the side of free speech and free thought should support him. Perhaps he erred by using the racial slur (he possibly made matters worse by claiming it is commonly used in South Africa) and by not ‘reading the room’, but this is no reason to throw him to the wolves of critical race theory, or bring his academic career to an end.

Equally, supporters of free speech must stand against the notion that certain words, symbols, or images, are inherently offensive, no matter the context. This is patently untrue and while it is important to not cause needless offence, it is inevitable that in free and open societies, with a wide variety of views and political orientations, people will be offended from time to time. The price of living in a free society is that one will occasionally be offended.

The Daily Friend may not always agree with Professor Habib but we stand with him and his right to freely explain himself, and urge our readers to do the same. If not, when the mob comes for you, there may be nobody left to speak in your defence.

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