The FOCUS column by Jan Fleischhauer: The story of a speaking ban: At the university, those who think differently are being punished again
Some people stubbornly claim that the cancel culture does not exist. What happened then at the University of Erlangen, where one of the most well-known ancient historians in Germany was just uninvited?
The one with one
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Ancient history is a silent science. The objects she deals with are long dead. Dead peoples, dead stones, dead languages. Nothing to cause excitement or even outrage. If you think so.
How can one deceive oneself. Two weeks ago, the ancient historian Egon Flaig was invited to the University of Erlangen to open a symposium on the subject of “freedom” with an evening lecture.
Flaig is one of the few representatives of his field who are also known outside of the professional world. Until his retirement he held the chair for ancient history in Rostock, and he is still regularly represented in major newspapers with articles.
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Flaig: The slave trade also had white victims
Just a few months ago, he published a widely acclaimed text with which he interfered in the post-colonialism debate. Flaig pointed out in the article that the slave trade had not only white but also black perpetrators – and white victims as well.
A million Europeans led the Arabs into slavery, a number that shows that the desire for historic redress is not as easy to fulfill as some think.
What better place to debate historical perspectives than a college? Challenging ingrained ways of thinking, dealing with facts, even if they are unpleasant, taking the discourse out into the open – that is the university’s noble task.
For this, the academic world is provided with a lot of money by the state. In return, professors enjoy material security that is second to none.
University withdraws invitation
A week before the planned appearance in Erlangen, Flaig received a letter from the professor who had invited him, the archaeologist Andreas Grüner. With the greatest regret he felt compelled to withdraw the invitation, wrote Grüner.
What happened? Flaig asked himself the same thing and asked for a call back. On the phone: a contrite colleague who protested how sorry he was for everything. People were really looking forward to the lecture, but then the dean of the university asked if they really wanted to offer someone like Flaig a platform?
Another letter from the dean’s office said that the opinion within the faculty was clear. The reasons? in the dark.
Professor fears “reprisals”
When Flaig pointed out that as a professor, Grüner was free to decide who to invite and who not, he again apologized. He must think of the young people.
If he persisted in his invitation, this would possibly draw circles and expose the scientific staff to reprisals. He would be terribly, terribly sorry, but he had no other choice.
The columnist Harald Martenstein recently pointed out that the cancel culture is like the city of Bielefeld, which pranksters also claim does not exist.
Parallel to the practice of cancel culture, a veritable branch of science has established itself, which regards cancel culture as a pipe dream. If the term had not already been assigned elsewhere, one would speak of cancel culture deniers.
Is the Cancel Culture just imagination?
The best-known representative of the new profession is the literary scholar Adrian Daub. Daub has presented an entire book that explains the cancel culture as a misunderstanding. Today, people who had been excluded up to now also wanted to have a say: women, black people, trans people. This led to a feeling of disturbance among the established discourse leaders, which they confused with cancel culture.
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Is it all imagination? I lean more towards Martenstein on this point. As he would say, not only too many people from Bielefeld are walking around out there for that, there are also people who have been canceled.
Academia is currently the hottest front in the fight for freedom of expression. The Flaig case is so interesting because it shifts the boundary from the open discussion to the clandestine and covert.
To this day it is unclear where the initiative to unload came from. Was it the AStA that complained? Or a colleague who felt that someone who recalled that the slave trade also had black beneficiaries did not fit in Erlangen?
Or was it ultimately a lonely decision by the dean who feared bad press? All of this is unclear. There is not even a reason why Flaig is undesirable in Erlangen.
The case was made public by the former SPD Minister of Education for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Mathias Brodkorb. “Academic suicide?” was the headline of his article in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.
Today that is a death sentence
But the university did not want to say to Brodkorb why it had uninvited its guest again. The Dean relies on confidentiality. This is not only cowardly – the person concerned is deprived of any opportunity to defend themselves against the damage to their reputation. How are you supposed to defend yourself against an accusation you don’t know about?
Don’t get it wrong: an unloading like the one in Erlangen has consequences. Other faculties will think twice before extending an invitation. It doesn’t take much to imagine the conversation. “Oh, does it have to be the XY? It’s so controversial. Let’s take someone else.”
Long gone are the days when being controversial was still a reason to ask someone out. Today that is a death sentence.
That’s the common thing: if you’re not invited in the first place, you don’t need to be uninvited afterwards. Then you are canceled without being able to prove that you were cancelled. That is also the intention.
It goes without saying that everything is done in the name of freedom of expression. The suspension of liberty to guarantee liberty is the real twist.
Thilo Sarrazin and the “German Society” in London
Years ago I received a call from my friend Henryk M. Broder asking if I could be in London the next day. The “German Society” at the London School of Economics had invited Broder, Hellmuth Karasek, head of culture for many years at “Spiegel”, and Thilo Sarrazin, the Bundesbanker who has just emerged as a best-selling author, to a panel discussion.
Actually, the ZDF correspondent at the time should have moderated the discussion, but she suddenly got cold feet.
So the next day I was on the plane. In the afternoon I found myself with the good-humoured Broder and his two fellow campaigners. But then a representative from the university approached us.
“Free speech activists” harm free discourse
The London School of Economics’ Free Speech Group had registered a protest. Sarrazin and Broder are “provocateurs” whose “unscientificness” harms free discourse. Following the argument that the exercise of free speech could have adverse consequences, the administration had forbidden the use of the lecture hall.
The discussion did take place after all, in the ballroom of the nearby “Waldorf Hilton”. The chairman of the German Society Marc Fielmann, son of the well-known eyewear dealer, had the necessary contacts. So in the end it was a hotel chain that ensured the exercise of freedom of expression against the free speech activists.
The German professor has never been a great fighter for freedom. One should be careful with historical comparisons, but it might be worth mentioning here:
When German professors were asked to take an oath on Adolf Hitler in 1934, there were only two university teachers who refused. One was the theologian Karl Barth, although he was Swiss. The other was Kurt von Fritz, professor of ancient Greek at the University of Rostock.
Sometimes it’s worth imagining how people would have behaved in a different time in a different system. Those who study in Erlangen now have a reasonable guess as to what their professors, led by Dean Rainer Trinczek, are concerned about.
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About the author
The readers love him or hate him, Jan Fleischhauer is indifferent to the least. You only have to look at the comments on his columns to get an idea of how much people are moved by what he writes. He was at SPIEGEL for 30 years, and at the beginning of August 2019 he switched to FOCUS as a columnist.
Fleischhauer himself sees his task as giving voice to a world view that he believes is underrepresented in the German media. So when in doubt, against the herd instinct, commonplaces and thought templates. His texts are always amusing – perhaps it is this fact that provokes his opponents the most.