Why #ScienceMustFall critics are missing the point

 

Earlier this week, a video taken at a meeting between staff members of the UCT Science Faculty and student activists, known as Fallists, went viral. In the now infamous video, a student states that “science must fall” as she argues that science is a product of western modernity. She argues that science as we know it today must be done away with and “reimagined from an African perspective”.

The knee jerk response of most people to this video has been to laugh and dismiss the students as “stupid”. One can find multiple videos and memes on the internet mocking the students and using the video to attempt to discredit the Fallist movement and the idea of decolonization as a whole. Certainly, we can agree that a number of claims made by the student in the video are outlandish and inaccurate but the one thing that those who are laughing at the video are missing is that when you wade really think about it, there is a point to be made here.

Firstly, her statement that “science as whole is a product of western modernity” is both incorrect and indicative of why decolonizing education is so necessary. Her statement rests on the assumption that the scientific knowledge that we now have and that is taught in schools and university is a product of the west. It’s not entirely surprising that she would make this assumption; this is an assumption that people (even, ironically, many of the very people who are mocking her) often make. It could be argued that a large part of the reason this is the case is because at a school level many of us are taught often of the scientific achievements and discoveries of old white men in Europe and rarely of the scientific achievements made outside of Europe.

For example, in school, I was not taught that the origins for many scientific disciplines such as astronomy, maths, engineering, and medicine can be found in Africa. We weren’t told that some of the greatest contributions to maths and science such as the origins for surgery, algebra, optics, as well as the beginnings of the first flying machine were in the Middle East. There is a long list of scientific achievements that have been made by scientists and civilizations outside of Europe which my school’s curriculum never once mentioned, and I am certain that my school is not an anomaly. Not being taught of the scientific feats that occurred outside of Europe, especially the ones that happened in Africa, creates the impression that there were none. This I believe is a large part of the reason you will find many adults who will proudly and ignorantly state that Europeans were the ones who brought maths, science, medicine, and engineering to Africa when this could be further from the truth.

This then speaks to the necessity of decolonization in our schools and universities. It could be argued that the idea that science is a product of the west is an idea that is perpetuated by an education system that is still rooted in colonial thought. One of the aims of decolonization then should be to rethink our curriculums to meet these two goals: prioritizing Africa, particularly teaching African epistemologies and equipping students to provide solutions to African problems, and including the contributions of those who have historically been excluded. This would most certainly include the many scientific achievements made in pre-colonial African societies.

When talking about decolonization, one of the questions that is immediately asked is “well, how would you decolonize maths and science?” This is usually posed as a trick question to prove how infeasible decolonization is. Those who pose this question often make the mistake of thinking that decolonization means getting rid of all western knowledge and therefore “scratching out” all western scientific knowledge (as the student in the video stated). That’s not necessarily the case. Decolonizing science could mean teaching students about ancient African scientific advancements alongside teaching Newton’s laws. It could mean focusing on changing not the content of mathematics but the way that it is taught.

It should be noted that debates around decolonizing South African universities are not new. The now infamous “Mamdani Affair”, a scandal in which the western-centric nature of UCT and its unwillingness to Africanize its curriculum was challenged by Ugandan academic Professor Mahmood Mamdani, occured back in 1998, just 4 years after democracy. Even before then, efforts to decolonize universities were made in several other African countries shortly after they reached independence. This means that universities have bodies of work and experience from other African countries to see how decolonization at our universities could be achieved and, most importantly what a decolonized university looks like and the kinds of graduates it produces.

Rather than relentlessly mocking the students in the video, we should be asking why it is that firstly, those scientists employed in the UCT Science Faculty need a group of students to perform the creative intellectual labour that they should have been doing for the past 22 years and secondly, how can science be taught in a way that doesn’t reinforce the racist, and incorrect worldview that science is a product of the west?

Perhaps instead of jumping at the opportunity to mock and delegitimize student protesters, there needs to be a further engagement on what is being said as well as its implications.

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Skhumba and what satire isn’t

A whole lot of people have had a whole lot to say about the Wits students who staged a topless protest on Tuesday as part of the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests. Now, there’s nothing new about topless protests. Students at Rhodes University earlier on this year went topless in order to protest about rape culture, and while the causes may differ, the purposes had similarities including showcasing the vulnerability of the protesters in sharp contrast to the armed police who had been violent towards them.

In predictable fashion, misogynists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike took turns bashing the protesters. The criticism mostly ranged from hysterical “these girls have no respect for themselves” slut-shaming to body shaming the protesting women for having the audacity to be topless while not looking like airbrushed supermodels. One such detractor was themostly irrelevant comedian Skhumba who released a video in which he body-shamed the protesters by comparing their breasts to “wet sneakers without shoelaces”.

Twitter responded accordingly. Within hours, the social justice organisation Amandla.mobi launched a petition to have Skhumba removed from Kaya FM until he apologized for his offensive comments. Although he did give a (half hearted and defensive) apology, that didn’t stop many of his fans from complaining about how the evil feminists are incapable of taking a joke with even some of his fans bringing up the excuse that consistently manages to make my skin crawl out of pure irritation.

It’s just satire!

I struggle to think of a term that is more misused and misunderstood than the term “satire”. Over the years, I have witnessed the term satire being used as a lazy, politically correct way to allow comedians, both professional and self proclaimed, to say the most offensive thing they possibly can without taking any responsibility. Its extensive misuse has aided the rise of the Schrodinger’s Douchebag, the person who makes an offensive statement and then decides based on the reaction of those around them whether or not they were joking.

Comedian Skhumbo, who is in hot water after making offensive comments about protesting students’ breasts

Those who misuse the term satire in this manner show that they have absolutely no understanding of what satire is. When one simply looks up the term satire on Dictionary.com, it’s easy to see one. Satire is defined there as, “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing,or deriding vice, folly, etc.”. Well this is true on a shallow level, this definition misses the primary function of satire.

What satire is:

The purpose of satire is to effectively “punch up”. Satire is used as a tool to challenge powerful/privileged individuals and institutions, bring them to account, and to challenge the status quo. It often uses sarcasm, ridicule, and exaggeration to expose and denounce the worst aspects of powerful individuals and institutions as well as provide social commentary on topical issues.

One can see this happening in the most famous examples of satire we have. This includes one of the earliest examples of literary satire, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. In his pamphlet, he proposes that in order to convert the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” they should be fattened up and fed to Ireland’s wealthy landowners. In reality, Swift was making a scathing social commentary on the debilitating and dehumanising conditions of the Irish under the English and the wealthy Irish landowners of the time. Although Swift does criticise the common Irish citizens for not doing anything to rise up against their oppressors, the wealthy and powerful remain the primary targets of his critique.

Other more temporary famous examples of satire include the highly controversial Monty Python film The Life of Brian which ridicules the Christian church and organized religion, among other things. An example of satire that is not necessarily funny is Animal Farm by George Orwell, which uses animals to on one level criticize the Russian Revolution and communism yet on another criticizes the circulatory nature of revolutions. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of South African satire is “In detention” by Chris van Wyk which ridicules the Apartheid police force’s official explanation for the death of Steve Biko, who died in police custody.

Still from “The Life of Brian” by Monty Python

And what satire is not:

Although successful satire takes many forms, it is by definition concerned with holding the powerful to account. Comedians such as Skhumba are not doing this by joking about the perkiness of protesting students’ breasts. Neither are comedians who make jokes relying on tired, centuries old stereotypes related to race, gender, disability, sexuality, or any other marginalized group in order to tell jokes. I’m looking now at Fox News, who decided to air a blatantly racist segment on Asian people earlier this week and then defended themselves saying it was “all in good fun”. In fact, what they are doing is continuing to uphold long standing beliefs about marginalized people. Ironically, so-called satire in these examples is being used to do the exact opposite of its purpose: maintain the status quo rather than challenge it.

Satire is not an excuse to through out whatever bigoted statement one might have been thinking and then shout “ha, I was just kidding” when that statement is challenged. When done properly, it can be an incredible tool to challenge the powerful, the privileged, and the status quo. I truly believe that continuing to associate satire with the kind of lazy Family Guy type offensive humour displayed by comedians like Skhumbo undermines satires entire purpose and cheapens its value.