On behalf of the Executive Committee, Scientific Committee, Executive Secretariat and all of the staff of the CODESRIA Secretariat, the editorial team wishes to extend its best wishes for a wonderful 2015 to all of the Council’s members and friends of good will. Kindly find Executive Secretary’s message here. 2015 has special significance for CODESRIA partly because CODESRIA will partner with the Human Sciences Research Council to host the World Social Science Forum in Durban, South Africa from September 13 to 16 2015. Please see http://www.wssf2015.org for how to send in abstracts before the March 1, 2015 deadline.
More importantly, the Council will hold its 14th General Assembly in Dakar, Senegal in June of this year. The importance of the General Assembly is magnified this year because CODESRIA is in the midst of an internal review process whose results should form part of the issues to be debated and decided on at the June 2015 General Assembly. The review process is an effort by the Council, through a process of internal reflection, to draw on its long existence to face up to the new and evolving environment in which it finds itself today.
Over its 42-year existence the Council has being part of many important processes, which puts it in good stead to look on many current issues with a broad and long perspective that many organizations lack. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some of the Council’s members have offered very rich and engaging reactions to the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy.
Charlie Hebdo interests CODESRIA and its members because it forces wider society to confront some of the core issues that the Council has confronted and taken leadership on over the years. One of these is the issue of academic freedom which, in some respects, could be seen as being part of the larger issue of the freedom of expression. The frequent crackdown on scholars on account of their views forced CODESRIA to become a strong advocate of academic freedom and to put in place programs and mechanism to rescue and protect persecuted scholars. This struggle to protect freedom has, however gone along with an acute dedication to the norms of tolerance, equality and non-discrimination. In supporting work that confronted Western falsifications and distortion of African histories the Council underlined the importance of understanding freedom as a value that goes hand in hand with the imperative to not denigrate others on account of their race, gender, religion, nationality, ethnic origins, linguistic orientation, etc.
The dilemmas over where to draw the line between freedom of speech and respect for the rights of others and greater utilitarian causes that has come up very strongly in recent debates is also one that the Council has and continues to face. It was not unusual for some scholars to engage in self-censorship or occasionally abet the victimization of colleagues that they saw as going against the greater good, often dressed in the garb of ‘the national interest.’ But as is apparent in the writings and reactions of some today, African scholars have often dissented with the monopolization and exploitation of the ability to define what the ‘greater good’ is by a few who constitute and portray themselves as uniquely suited to define what is best for society, no matter how it is defined.
The exploitation of the ‘greater good’ and the need to prevent ‘offense to others’ mirrors another dynamic that is evident in the current processes in which Charlie Hebdo is immersed. The ability to monopolize and manipulate what is considered as an offense to others and the greater good amounts to a mirroring ability to selectively ‘protect’ the freedom of speech of people as one sees fit. Unsurprisingly, there has been the grinding of teeth among many as a clampdown on speech labelled offensive and dangerous has gone along with exaggerated declarations of a commitment to protect the free speech of those seen as engaging in legitimate, even if improper, modes of expression. The question that arises here then is whether what is being protected is the freedom of expression or the freedom of expression that is deemed as proper by the powerful. Does this second approach amount to the protection of freedom in any sense of the term?
The intolerance that the slayings to counter ‘offensive speech’ as well as the selective ‘protection of freedom’ entail is only one of the shared threads in what appear to be opposing dynamics. Contrary to the stark dichotomies that have been invoked, which pit organic atavistic barbarism against modern civilization, it may be better to understand both strands in the confrontation as the parts of ongoing geopolitical, economic and social struggles in which battle lines and alliances are fluid and less stark than often imagined. Further, aggressive universalist assertions that demand respect for ‘The word’ understood in a divine sense often uncannily echo secular counterparts that make bold assertions about the demands of ‘universal civilization’ whose definition is paradoxically understood as the preserve of a privileged cohort masquerading in the guise of an ‘international community.’
To further debate on all of these important issues, the 11 issue of the CODESRIA Newsletter brings you commentaries on the Charlie Hebdo saga from CODESRIA members as well as other commentators.
Happy New Year!