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General Morality Politics

Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis

There are of course plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s one instance of the sort of idiocy which has resulted from the Goodman Gallery’s display of the Brett Murray painting featuring Jacob Zuma’s penis (and the subsequent publication of the artwork by the City Press and others).

Ignoring the royal “we” of Qunta’s tweet below, as well as the (perhaps 140-character induced) spelling, there’s still enough here to ask why anyone would this an opinion worth expressing.


Legality isn’t the only thing that mediates art and speech. Legality is, though, the thing that ‘mediates’ (or rather, dictates) whether something is legally permissible or not. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste whether you approve of something or not. But the point of a roughly free country is that your subjective preferences need have no bearing on what I’m allowed to see. Zuma, his daughters, his wives or whomever can say “we don’t like that” (the artwork, that is, rather than the penis. They could think that of the penis too, but that’s again a matter of taste. For the wives, at least) – but they can’t say “that’s not allowed”.

So, we have norms and values to inform (or mediate) the debate outside of law – to make the case for thinking something praiseworthy or blameworthy and so forth. But all this within a framework of recognising that it’s allowed, even if we don’t like it. And we have norms and values to guide us in areas that aren’t covered by law, and also to influence law via democratic processes, where you can vote according to those norms and values, and in doing so, hope to eventually influence the law.

But you can’t expect your norms and values to simply be the law. Because they are yours, not ours, and they’re not obviously the ones “we”should adopt. Because no matter how royal the “we” in your mind might be, it doesn’t include me – I see a portrait of a man who can’t be taken seriously for well-documented reasons, where that impaired moral standing is being highlighted through a certain form of artistic insult, and where the insult has been earned.

Of course this is insensitive to “culture”. But in this matter, where “culture” demands respect for a buffoon, or asks us to endorse the subjugation of women, it’s the culture that’s the problem rather than those who are disrespectful of it.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

4 replies on “Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis”

If an African behaves in a way that invites poarody and satire, s/he should accept that it is a consequence of her/his own personal action, not RACISM!!! Please!Beat another drum.

Or, “if a person behaves in a way that invites parody and satire”. The whole point is that race/nation/culture is irrelevant, so limiting it to “African” makes it easy to invite interpretations of racism.

Well said Jacques! It sickens me how this whole issue has become on of race.. As opposed to what Brett intended (at least I think so).. satirizing the powerful political elite.