The short version of this response to some of her claims might read something like “sure, identity politics might compromise freedom in some of its extreme manifestations, but never as reliably as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination do”.
Given that Ivo was himself dealing with the same threat to home and safety, and assisting with the relief efforts, it’s understandable that he thought the “emoticons of praying hands, or even entire prayers” shared over WhatsApp were getting in the way of more essential communication, and many Christians will agree with him on this.
Even though Ivo Vegter might be slightly less than gruntled to be spoken of alongside Error Naidoo, the homophobic and very paranoid man of God, the title of this post (from Naidoo’s latest rant) happens to fit them both.
It fits Naidoo simply because it’s his line, verbatim, and follows his taking note of the “athiest groups [that] are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa”, in this case by trying to ensure that publicly-funded schools are secular.
It fits Vegter more loosely, mostly a) because it sounds like something Ayn Rand might have said; b) Vegter is an unapologetic libertarian; and c), because his most recent Daily Maverick column, on regulating complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), rejects State oversight of CAMs in favour of people deciding for themselves which risks they would like to take and which not when it comes to their healthcare.
The above summary (in its brevity, rather than due to misrepresentation) doesn’t do his argument justice, so please do read his column. The one note that is essential for accuracy, though, is that he is open to other regulatory bodies stepping in, perhaps a “private, voluntary and competitive” scheme.
As is typical for Vegter, his argument is consistent and well laid-out, so even if you disagree with him, you’ll find much to ponder when reading the column.
As I noted in a comment to that column, my concern is that his perspective is either insufficiently agent-neutral, in that it privileges those of us who are more able to make informed healthcare choices, or that it indicates a moral stance I don’t support – namely that those who make poor healthcare choices will eventually learn to make better choices, but via their mistakes (which might well involve suffering, and death).
A private, voluntary and competitive regulator doesn’t reassure my concerns on the agent-neutrality point, in that if it’s voluntary, you need to know about it and sign up to it, which immediately leaves some folk out of the safety net, and allows for producers to opt-out also.
It also opens the door for competing regulatory bodies – and yes, while the market might eventually result in one being trusted above all others, the interregnum before that happens exposes people to risk. And at the end of the day, nobody is going to do this for free, so it’s not obvious that it will make medicines more affordable than a State-subsidised regulatory process does.
Private regulators cropping up to ensure that your food is Halal or Kosher are not good analogies, to my mind – nobody dies if they accidentally eat some pork. There’s more at stake with medicine, so our standards need to be higher. For me that means a central regulatory body, where the interesting questions become whether it’s good at its job, and if not, how to make it better.
Except, of course, if you think that people don’t need that sort of nannying, and that we will learn who to trust (in terms of medical providers) through taking bad or ineffective medicine, and suffering the consequences of our mistakes. Some of us will avoid misfortune through hearing through word of mouth, radio, newspaper and the like of what to avoid, but others- especially rural poor, with educational disadvantages – would be particularly vulnerable to snake-oil salespeople who care only for profit, not others’ health.
In cases like these, some easily-identifiable and consistent stamp of authority, that a central regulator provides, seems a useful thing to have. Rejecting such a body seems to involve an idealism about the market, and about human capacity for avoiding tragic errors, that aren’t borne out in history. Hence Vegter’s argument, while logical, involves a moral commitment that I shy away from.
Briefly, on to Error Naidoo, who is most agitated about OGODs lawsuit against 6 schools that speak of having a “Christian character”, hold regular Christian prayers and so forth. As I’ve written in the past, this might contravene existing policy, and more to the point, paying lip-service to secularism in schools can still leave many children ostracised (and indoctrinated).
Naidoo is in “good” company here, as Afriforum have offered to help cover court costs for the schools that are the subject of this lawsuit. I feel for all my sensible Christian friends, who must be cringing at the thought of white racists rushing to defend the Christian values of the schools in question. Anyway, here’s Naidoo, unplugged, unedited, and perhaps a little unhinged.
The obvious objective of the athiest group, “Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie” is to eradicate all Christian activity at state run schools. Humanists want education all for themselves.
Although a small minority, athiest groups are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa. Man is then free to reign as god.
What you may not realise is that secular humanism is a religion! And what athiests are actually advocating is replacing Christianity with the godless and bankrupt ideology of secular humanism as the most dominant religion in SA. Incidentally, They already control politics, the media and academia.
A culture war is currently raging in SA society. Two conflicting worldviews are engaged in a life or death struggle for the hearts and minds of people. Victory is assured for the courageous and the committed.
On one side of the battlefield are advocates of the Biblical Christian Worldview with its message of service and submission to an all powerful God. On the other side are the secular humanists whose ultimate goal is to abolish all acknowledgement & recognition of God from the national psyche.
Significantly, apathy and disunity in the Christian Church has emboldened atheist groups, sexual rights activists and other anti-family radicals in South Africa. The Church’s silence amplifies their voice.
Somebody desperately needs to sound the alarm in the Christian Church in SA. The enemy is united, committed and well-resourced. And they have a cunning plan to control and dominate society.
Some of you might think that Ivo Vegter can’t be fixed, given that he’s a resolute critic of government intervention in our lives, suspicious of the doom-and-gloom narrative around climate change, and (cautiously) pro-fracking. To be honest, I disagree with him more than I used to, especially on the climate change issue.
However, it’s partly because of his columns in the Daily Maverick that I’ve discovered that I disagree with him, and why. This is part of the point of commenting in the public domain – that arguments can be put forward, debates can be had, and minds can be changed. As John Stuart Mill famously reminded us in On Liberty, we want to encourage free speech and robust debate partly because it shows us where we are wrong, and partly because it helps us know what criticisms need to be addressed and responded to, even when we are right (or think we are right).
It’s with this in mind that I alert you to the fact that Ivo, a friend as well as a fellow columnist (at one time – I subsequently retired) at the Daily Maverick, is unwell and in need of support. If you’ve enjoyed his writing, and/or if you think that the independent columnist role is worth supporting, consider helping him out (his banking details are at the previous link). He – and many like him – earn far too little (or sometimes, nothing) for what they do, but readers often benefit greatly. As per the nature of crowdsourced initiatives, your small donation can make a difference, if there are enough of you making them.
Stephen Grootes has a column titled “Analysis: A culture of entitlement that holds us back” in the Daily Maverick (disclosure: as many of you will recall, I used to write for them), and it’s causing some discontent on social media and in comments to the column. The discontent is due to the fact that Grootes is interpreted as “pathologising poverty”, and of perpetuating stereotypes regarding “lazy blacks”, waiting for handouts instead of getting on with things. Essentially, Grootes is being accused of expressing racist sentiments at worst, or of oversimplification at best.
The charge of racism isn’t explicit (at the time of writing this), but I’ve little doubt that it will come. Grootes has, at least, been accused of “enabling” racism in that he is thought to be providing a narrative that allows for dismissing poor people as simply lazy, rather than being victims of generations of oppression, that still compromise their prospects today.
My concern is this: both explanations could have merit, and both could be partially true, but only one of the two can be discussed openly without charges of racism or ill-intent being levelled at the author. In short, the concern Grootes was trying to address might be a forbidden topic – especially if broached by a white author.
But that simple analysis makes critical writing about race, poverty or politics in South Africa prohibitively difficult, in that most topics of conversation are going to be “about” black South Africans – that demographic is, after all, 79.2% of the population. Some (like Samantha Vice) would argue that white folk like myself (and Grootes) should accept our lack of credentials, an simply butt out of conversations like these entirely – but as I’ve argued before, that form of identity politics is unduly restrictive, infantilising both ourselves, and our conversations.
Instead, we need to address the arguments, rather than the utterer of those arguments. Of course black South Africans – easily identifiably as having been, and currently still (some will disagree with the “still”, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever that past privilege ripples into the future) relatively less able to secure loans, jobs, or access to universities – are going to have their potential artificially suppressed in ways that the (typical) white South African won’t. But it’s a separate issue as to whether there’s an additional problem – namely the “culture of entitlement” that Grootes speaks of.
Grootes is addressing the second issue, not the first. Yet, a racist reading of his column tends towards interpreting him as denying the first issue – in other words, playing into the hands of racists by implying that it’s simply because people are black that they are lazy, under performing, etc.
Of course poor people in this country will – by and large – happen to be black, simply because of the population demographics. But they – and others – might also risk falling prey to some grand narrative, including around entitlement. It’s happened before, with the “Rainbow Nation”, and can happen again – and a white man, no matter how privileged he might be – is allowed to talk about this as much as anyone else.
Over the weekend, I had a chat with a man from Nkandla (who will remain anonymous). As you no doubt know, that’s where Jacob Zuma is building his palaceprivate residence, and it’s also the place that his own spokesperson (Mac Maharaj) didn’t want to visit because he feared he’d be unable to defend it once he had (at least, if you trust the interview recorded in Richard Calland’s book, The Zuma Years).
We didn’t talk about the residence, but I suspect that this man from Nkandla would be opposed to the deception surrounding the expenses incurred there, as well as the quantum of the expenses. Another point of agreement between us was with regard to the irrelevance of the number of wives Zuma has, both in terms of his political credibility, as well as to negative judgements regarding what Zuma costs the people of South Africa.
The political credibility part is less controversial, and unless you insist on monogamy for whatever reason, I imagine you agree that this shouldn’t impact on our judgments regarding Zuma (assuming, of course, full volition on the part of the wives and so forth). As for the costs incurred on the public purse, my interlocutor and I agreed that if the law allowed for polygamy, and for public support of the President’s wives, then it’s the law that needs to change, rather than Zuma that needs to change.
One could argue that Zuma should set the example, and defer the marrying of anyone other than who he was already married to (when taking office) until after leaving the position. But this would mean a less than full acceptance of Zuma’s cultural values, and would to my mind run contrary to the cultural inclusivity our Constitution demands. It would be an assertion that norms other than Zuma’s were standard, and that he’s allowed to contravene those – and practice his own, (implied) aberrant or inferior culture, so long as it’s done in a way that’s convenient to the rest of us.
It may be that we don’t want to be as culturally inclusive as the Constitution demands. But that’s not the argument here – instead, this would be an instance of insisting on the primacy of a particular set of norms under the guise of financial concerns. Instead, we should say that financial concerns disallow one set of cultural norms from being as well supported as others (if we wanted to be honest about the matter). Or even more honestly, we could say that culture X is somehow inferior to Y.
But until we do either of those things, the point is that it’s not Zuma’s problem that his wives cost more to support than Mbeki’s did. He could act in a supererogatory fashion, and choose to save us all some money, but he’s under no obligation to, and we shouldn’t judge him more harshly if he doesn’t choose to save us that money. That, at least, is what the man from Nkandla and I agreed over the weekend.
We didn’t talk about Zuma’s frequent insertion of religious rhetoric into political discourse, and I suspect that on that point, we would probably have disagreed. As he’s done in the past, when asserting that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back, or claiming that “humanity has vanished” without fear of God, Zuma again inserted God into the National Elections in an address to the 33rd Presbyterian Synod in Giyani, Limpopo, on Sunday. Zuma is quoted as saying:
If you don’t respect those in leadership, if you don’t respect authority then you are bordering on a curse. Whether we like it or not, God has made a connection between the government and the church. That’s why he says you, as a church, should pray for it.
It’s easy to say that he’s appealing to a lowest common denominator here, in that an estimated 80% of South Africans are Christians. But this goes further than simply drawing on the support of like-minded people in claiming that he is “doing God’s work”, for example. This is divisive and judgemental (on spurious, metaphysical grounds, rather than principled ones), in that he’s threatening voters who might be tempted to vote for someone other than the ANC with being cursed.
Contrary to the entire point of the democratic process, whereby we freely choose our representatives based on their positions and performance in delivering what they promised us, here your mortal soul is in danger if you don’t vote ANC – regardless of positions or performance. Even if Zuma believes this to be true, threats that would be more suited to Medieval times are surely unbecoming of the President of a nation?
Furthermore, the opportunism of the rhetoric is perhaps even more clear in the next sentence, where he asserts that God has made a connection between “the government and the church”. By this, he has to mean that this government is looked upon with favour by a particular (his) god. He can’t mean God smiles on “governments” in general, because then God must also have approved of PW Botha’s government; and he can’t mean that God is only “connected” in some non-judgemental way to governments, because if so, what’s the point of highlighting an arbitrary connection, even as you say voters should pray for the government?
In today’s Business Day, Peter Bruce wonders “how much more can the ANC take“. While Bruce mostly addresses the political processes by which Zuma could be ousted as the ANC leader, this question can also be raised with respect to those who vote ANC. As he did in 2011, he’s blackmailing voters into supporting him through claiming that it’s only through him, and his party, that their souls will be safe.
It’s perhaps an index of the level of ‘debate’ on religion and its place in society that September 30 each year is commemorated (by some) as International Blasphemy Day. Even four years ago, when my own atheism was far more assertive than it is today, I argued that Blasphemy Day was for the most part a bad idea, mostly because even though it certainly gets the attention of theists,
I don’t care about getting the attention of theists, so much as changing their minds. And I can’t recall many times that I’ve changed someone’s mind through teasing them – usually I’ve just made them more intractable.
Of course, Blasphemy Day does commemorate something worth remembering, in that it’s the anniversary of the original publication of the infamous “Danish cartoons” – which, whether or not you think they should have been published, certainly shouldn’t have been met with the violent reaction they encountered, causing (to mention one example) more than a 100 deaths in Nigerian protests.
But when you mock someone’s god (which you have every right to do), there’s no way to target only those followers of that god that do bad things as a consequence of their faith. Your offense is delivered by shotgun, causing emotional harm to anyone who feels strongly about that faith, regardless of how that faith plays out in their day-to-day lives.
So it is justified to think about the costs versus the benefits of this sort of offence – you assert your freedoms, yes, and you might also remind people that there’s no obligation on the rest of us to take what you do, seriously. And, Muslims who are peace-loving, kind, trustworthy and so forth must be rather saddened, in that it would strike them as perhaps gratuitous, but certainly the (indirect) fault of Muslims who seem nothing like them, except for the fact that they both identify with the same (roughly) religious tradition.
Making the distinction between Muslims who regard their faith as a motivation to do evil, or for whom the faith is at least an inseparable passenger to the evil done for political reasons, is not made easy when moderate, sensible, peaceful etc. Muslims don’t join in with the condemnatory voices of something like last week’s Westgate Mall terrorism in Kenya. Likewise with less tragic sorts of religion-related harms, such as the homophobic rhetoric of the Christian Errol Naidoo. Christians should be first to condemn him, just as all who want to claim that “we’re not all like that” should always be first to condemn the exemplars of their faith who are a discredit to it.
It is with this in mind that I must commend to you Kalim Rajab’s piece in the Daily Maverick today, titled “A perversion of my faith“. Others can fight about the accuracy or not of his interpretation of various scriptures. I won’t, not only because I don’t know enough, but mostly because that misses the point entirely.
We know that religion is more and more something quite different from what it was in centuries (even decades) gone by. Yes, there are literalists out there, who insist on some reading of a religious text, and do harm to promote and defend that reading. But outside of certain (increasingly easy to identify) regions, for example Saudi Arabia, to say that both person X and person Y are Muslims, or Christians, is to say very little.
I’m of course aware of the arguments of Harris and others who speak of the moderates giving shelter, or credence, to the views of the extremists. Making a view “mainstream” does allow for a range of expressions of those views, and this mainstreaming is part of the motivation for a counter-movement like Blasphemy Day. But if the moderates speak out against the extremists – just like non-theists often do – Harris’s argument becomes more difficult to sustain.
It remains true that Rajab’s god doesn’t exist (at least, if by “exist” we mean really exist as a consciousness of some sort). One day, I’d hope that this would be self-evident to everyone. But in the meanwhile, even if it is true that Islam tends to cause more violence than other religions, and even if it’s true that this violence is in the service of a fiction, surely we can nevertheless be happy, and supportive, when someone from inside that tradition denounces the harms done in its name?
The point is not always whether god exists. Sometimes – perhaps most of the time – it’s also worth focusing on what you do with that belief, or lack of belief.
The morning has brought one of those Twitter Groundhog days, where everyone is making the same points about Heritage Day/Braai Day as they did last year – mostly complaining about how offensive it is that someone else is telling us that it should be about X, and how offensive it is that someone else has co-opted it to make it about Y. Because liberty on these particular terms is the only liberty that matters, or something.
Another Twitter war that’s raging today is around homophobia, and can be traced back to the advertisement below (subsequently pulled, and also the subject of an apology from the agency concerned).
The ad was part of a sequence. The (only?) two other ads in the sequence involved the idea of Malema becoming president; and a Kama Sutra reference – in all cases, the idea was presumably that you need to protect your heart from excessive strain or shock, and that Flora margarine could give you added protection.
I’ll link to the opinion pieces that are being fought over at the end of this post, because the squabble between their respective authors is not the point of this blog post.
I want to go back to the ad, and the question of whether it is homophobic at all.
A literal understanding of homophobia would involve fear, but more colloquially judgement, prejudice and so forth against gay persons or communities. This definition is difficult to sustain here, because the judgement being expressed is against the holder of the “fragile” heart depicted in the ad – that person is weak, unable to deal with reality, and so forth. They need external assistance from the margarine to strengthen their (naturally weak) defences against some information (or exertion, in the Kama Sutra case).
This analysis of how the ad is supposed to work is consistent with all three versions of it. You can criticise such a campaign on various grounds, one of which would (and I think, should) be the choice of examples meant to serve as the “bullet”. If you want to highlight the things that some folk are hypersensitive, prejudiced or bigoted about, then the campaign should make that element clear – otherwise it runs the risk of being perceived as being particularly insensitive to those examples it does choose to use (with the ones left out being given a free pass). In fact, if you don’t make this element clear enough, the stereotypes you leave out are defined as normal by their exclusion.
So, the campaign I would have run (easy in retrospect, I know) would have involved “uh, Dad, I’m an atheist”. Or “uh, Dad, my boyfriend/girlfriend is black/white/Christian/Muslim/French”, or whatever.
Alternatively, you leave out the one ad that deals with a social prejudice at all, and replace it with “it’s about your child”, or “uh, Dad, I took your car keys”. The point is that in only including gay folk as an example of the sort of child that a parent might have a prejudice towards, you certainly take the risk of disproportionately offending gay people in this campaign.
One logically defensible stance here is that the ad uses the example of a homophobic person (the father) to make its point, rather than being homophobic itself. Critics will argue – not entirely without merit – that this is too narrow a definition of homophobia, in that we should also count as homophobic language and images that treat (technical, in the first sense above) homophobia as “normal”, or expected.
This broader understanding of homophobia certainly accords with what I perceive and see reported as being the experience of many homosexual people. Rebecca Davis (of the Daily Maverick) pointed out in a comment to one of the pieces that gay teens disproportionately commit suicide, partly (presumably) for fear of being othered, marginalised, cast out by parents and so forth – and that these fears are immediately prompted by an ad such as this. If, like me, you listen to the fabulous Dan Savage podcast, Savage Love, you’ll not go a week without hearing some heartbreaking story of parental or societal prejudice of this sort.
I’m sympathetic to the view that the ad is homophobic in this broader way, but only because of the failure of execution highlighted above. If the ad had consistently focused on prejudice of other sorts too, the campaign could easily have been read as affirming ways of living and being that some considered (and sadly, still consider) to be marginal, immoral or taboo. The ad might even be trying to do that now, and failing – so I can understand why it’s caused the outrage it has.
Here’s something else that I’d hope we can consider, though, even while saying it’s a bad ad, that an apology is merited, or even that the ad should be pulled. And that is that we do our language, argument and political battles a long-term disservice by calling an insensitive, poorly-executed ad concept homophobic instead of calling it “offensive”, “insensitive” or somesuch, including whatever qualifiers necessary (mildly, extremely, and so forth).
Our reactions to offence need to be proportional, because language and the words we choose to use signal the degree to which things are regarded as wrong. If anything that offends on the grounds of sexual orientation is homophobic, and anything that offends on the grounds of race, racist, then we are leaving no room for mistakes, or for implicit cultural biases to be recognised as unfortunate (and needing remedy) while not being wilful (and thus, more wrong). There are degrees of moral failing, and our language needs to take those degrees into account.
Lowe and Partners (the agency who made the ad in question) are not homophobic in the sense that Jon Qwelane or President Zuma are. Using the same language to describe them all is not only lazy, but also counts against a long-term project of getting people to think about the nuances of their language and behaviour. I’d wager that shouting at someone for their homophobia will not encourage as much reflection as explaining to them why gay folk might find the ad offensive would.
The point is that there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.
It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.
The Daily Maverick columns, in order of appearance:
It’s time for a holiday. In a literal sense, because I am about to go off to a conference in Las Vegas (where some amount of holiday is difficult to avoid), but also in the more general sense of taking a break from what has become routine. One of those things is obsessing over the nuances of South Africa’s racial politics, and another is this column.
The optimism on display at the Agang launch earlier today was good to see. Many of you might share my fatigue at the constant succession of stories that don’t promote optimism – from the classification of the Nkandla report as top secret, to the ad hominem abuse of opposition parliamentarians. Last week, we even heard the absurdist – yet sadly apposite – story of how the very ambulance taking Mandela to hospital ran out of energy.
In the midst of all this, I had a Twitter argument with a black man over Dan Roodt – where I was criticising Roodt’s myopic nationalism and cherry-picking of evidence related to who was killing more of whom, and my interlocutor was defending Roodt’s right to hold those views. As long as the argument went on, I couldn’t persuade this man that while I agree that Roodt’s views can be held and freely expressed, we should certainly be on the same side in condemning them.
So, it’s a South Africa where a white liberal can now find himself disagreeing with someone (who has almost certainly borne a larger share of apartheid’s burdens) over whether a racist Afrikaner nationalist has a worthwhile point of view or not. These are strange days, indeed.
This isn’t to say that I share the pessimism that many seem to feel. I’d like to take a break from a certain form of engagement, a certain sort of discourse. Many of you might already avoid social media for exactly this reason – it’s too full of over-confident ad hoc opinions that tend towards the extremes. Depending on who you listen to, either we’re doomed or we’re in great shape, with little room for any position in-between.
The truth is most likely in-between, though, as it ever is. We’ll one day be rid of Zuma, and we’ll one day somehow get to a stage where we’re a democracy in more than only name – in other words, where the incumbent party feels the real possibility of losing power, and is thus fully motivated to do its job.
In the meanwhile, there’s plenty going on that’s far more local, far more manageable, and where it’s far easier for any and each of us to make an impact. If there’s no community project you can or want to get involved with, give to an organisation or charity that does things you support – Equal Education, DignitySA, a hospice, a hospital.
And, easiest of all, remember that each of us incentivises (and dis-incentivises) certain attitudes, behaviour and speech every day, simply though what we present to others as permissible or advisable. If you have kids, they will learn about how to treat others through you. If you have students, they learn how to think through you. Even in matters most prosaic – if you keep jumping the red light or rolling through the stop sign, don’t be surprised to see that behaviour becoming common.
In short, we can all contribute to upholding a social contract without indulging in the sanctimony of a LeadSA – and our despondency at the examples set by government sometimes allows us to forget that. We might think: with such a rot at the top, what difference does it make what I do? But for all the large-scale importance of what happens at the top, we affect each other’s lives frequently, and could sometimes do with a reminder that not everything can be blamed on the man in the high castle.
One of the things I’ve tried to do in most of the 158 columns I’ve written for the Daily Maverick is to deflate our certainty on various firm convictions. This is because oftentimes, it seems that we cede our responsibility to come to a reasoned conclusion and instead settle for something ready-made by emotion, political conviction or some other powerful force. In consequence, we’re less able to talk, debate and learn, and more often compelled to resort to the safety of stereotype.
In a young country, with a crippled education system, a corrupt administration, widespread economic inequality and still-seething racial tensions, the last thing we’d want to do is to stop thinking. So let’s not – and let’s keep encouraging each other to keep at it too. I’ll certainly be back to play my part – at this point it’s just not clear where or when that will be.
When insults are traded amongst groups of friends, we can get away with being more abusive than we would with strangers. If your name is Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde, your insults are perhaps easier to forgive because they’re funny, or because we must admire your wit, even as it makes us wince.
But if insults are a substitute for argument – if they are all we have to contribute – then we should rather consider the option of remaining silent, lest we make a fool of ourselves, while exposing all those who support our insults as fools themselves. We should consider the option of silence – or of diplomacy – even if the insult serves the short-term goal of a rhetorical victory.
There are many things that work towards achieving a desired goal, but at a cost. You could silence your child through administering a mild sedative, but don’t be surprised if you’re condemned for doing so. And even where some of our means toward a goal might not be illegal, the standard of the law is not the only relevant one. It’s society’s job to help regulate conduct more generally, and to generate the sort of society that we can enjoy living in.
This holds true for standards of conduct (for example, trying to avoid drowning out all other conversations in a restaurant with your excessively-loud banter) as well as the content of our speech. If we don’t demand sense, interpretive charity, and a certain amount of civility from each other, the absence of those things can increasingly become the norm.
To appropriate a passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, if society lets “any considerable number of its members” think that insult should succeed as well as argument, rendering them “incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences”.
So it is in Parliament, or perhaps in politics more broadly. When insults start coming in the form of excrement, as was recently the case in the Western Cape, we get a clear signal of one of two things: either that people are sufficiently disgusted by how they are being looked after that faeces are in fact most apposite to their anger, or that they don’t have the knowledge or arguments necessary to express that anger.
There are many permutations between those extremes, and the extremes are both crude. My point is merely to say that a form of protest that offends our sensibilities could (in a logically possible sense of “could”) nevertheless be appropriate, under the right circumstances. However, there are other circumstances in which it’s clear that offending our sensibilities is a simple substitute for having nothing useful to say, or not having the words to say anything useful.
Consider ANC MP John Jeffrey, who said of DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko last week: “While the honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable”. It’s not the possible sexism of this comment that’s the only notable thing. It’s also the fact that some people seem to think these insults the height of wit, judging from the television footage. Tell a fat joke and have MPs rolling in the aisles? I can’t imagine how they manage to keep breathing during a Leon Shuster movie, if that’s the level of humour that works on them.
I say “possible sexism” above because I don’t intend to make the case that it necessarily is sexism, although that does seem likely given the relative infrequency of comments regarding the girth of male MPs. Besides, the comment doesn’t need to be sexist to be ad hominem.
And yes, it’s true that members of the DA have levelled the same sort of abuse at ANC MPs. Helen Zille is reported to have commented to Zodwa Magwazao that there “is only one elephant in the room” (although this remark was, I think, ambiguous enough to be a problematic example for this column’s purposes) and Theuns Botha once likened the ANC’s Lynne Brown to a hippopotamus.
It’s also true that the same sort of thing happens in the UK Parliament, although my impression is that the calibre of the wit on display there typically exceeds that of the examples here. But even when it doesn’t, there remains a crucial difference between the House of Commons and the South African Parliament: a constituency-based system.
If an MP has nothing to offer but insult – or if their insults are insufficiently entertaining – voters can remove them from office at the next election. MPs are accountable to citizens, and not only to party leadership. Sometimes, accountability itself seems an impossible dream for us in South Africa, when the ANC Chief Whip’s response to Jeffrey’s remark is to excuse it as a pun, while simultaneously criticising Mazibuko’s fashion sense.
If I didn’t know better, I might call that victim-blaming. But it’s not – it’s simply a distraction and another ad hominem attack. And even though it’s true that Zille and Botha have been guilty of similar offences to Jeffrey’s, it remains possible to point this out in a way that nevertheless apologises – sincerely – for Jeffrey’s remark. A retort of “you too” (known to some as the logical fallacy tu quoque) is also evasion, and a juvenile one at that.
I’m not arguing that MPs shouldn’t be allowed to say the things they do, regardless of how juvenile their retorts might sometimes be. Robust debate must allow for offence, not only because we sometimes need reminding that our own standards of acceptable conduct aren’t sacrosanct, but also because without it, we’ll never get to know which MPs tend to believe and say offensive things.
Beyond the rules governing what is and is not appropriate language in Parliament, there’s also a market for what’s “unparliamentary” or not. Our market could be improved through a constituency system, but it nevertheless exists, and the Whips and other party leaders run it.
Ultimately, of course, the voters run it too. So if you want to appear to be a sexist windbag, you’re free to do so. And if your Chief Whip wants to inform us of your upcoming fauxpology while adding another insult, he should be free to do so – just as we’re free to punish your party at the ballot box if we so choose.
Having said that, I’d think it an over-reaction to punish a party for the conduct of individuals inside that party. I mention the possibility simply because the individuals in question sometimes don’t seem to care about substance rather than rhetoric, and could perhaps do with a reminder that we do care for substance.
The problem, in short, is that these rhetorical tricks and insults are the best that many of them have got – and I’d still like to believe that we deserve better.