Kuli Roberts, and the right to (offensive) free speech

As published in Daily Maverick

Amongst the usual bundle of perceptive, contentious and misguided comments, tweets and columns on the Kuli Roberts issue, a response from Ferial Haffajee merits attention: “racism’s best antidote is anti-racism, not reconciliation”. Reconciliation and forgiveness involve a tolerance, and a sensitivity, the time for which has passed. We know that there are many racists, sexists and other types of bigot out there – and knowing who they are, and letting them have their say, is the only way we are able to track our progress in changing their minds.

Hearing offensive speech is of course offensive, by definition. Knowing that someone with prejudiced views of whatever sort gets a platform to disseminate those views can perturb us. But two things are forgotten when we use our outrage regarding Annelie Botes, Steve Hofmeyr or Kuli Roberts to justify denying them the right to hold and express their views.

First, silencing them is not going to change their minds. Second, silencing them is not going to change anyone else’s mind either, and it also denies us the valuable opportunity to express anti-racist views in response to them, and thereby to demonstrate that our commitment to eliminating arbitrary discrimination is not mere dogma, but instead a considered and defensible position.

The right to free speech is of no value unless it includes the right to say offensive things. Furthermore, any given person can be offended by any potential utterance – which means that we lessen the force, and the value, of our commitment to free speech every time we tell someone to be silent. We are quickly becoming a nation of hypersensitive, politically-correct paternalists who rush to the Human Rights Commission at the slightest provocation – all the while forgetting that in doing so, we pay little respect to our right to be offensive.

There are sometimes good reasons to say, or to hear, things that we might find offensive. Doing so serves as a reminder that there are still – and will always be – things to be learned, prejudices to shake off, and so forth. To mollycoddle those who take offense by silencing the offensive views justifies this hypersensitivity, and encourages a sanctimonious belief in one’s own moral rectitude.

Of course we can be angry when a Manyi, a Sentletse or a Roberts expresses racist views. It is understandable that we might feel that an apology is in order. But feeling this way doesn’t demonstrate that an apology is in order, nor that it will change anything for the better – it’s simply an excuse for us to fool ourselves into believing that balance has been restored, and that the shameful racist now feels appropriately humbled.

Take Roberts’ apology, sent via Twitter on Monday morning: “I am truly sorry to all those upset by my last column. No harm was intended. Once again it was never my plan to upset and I pray forgiveness [sic]”. What does this even mean? As I asked her in reply, “[sorry] For what? Bad writing? Misguided satire? Racist views? Meaningless without detail”. I didn’t, and don’t, expect a response, because the corollary of blind rage at being offended is the empty apology – the mob is baying, and we know that they want to be appeased rather than to discuss anything of substance.

And there are things of substance one can discuss in this case, and similar cases. First, and most uncomfortably, one can discuss whether a stereotype has any grounding in fact. Notice that this is possible, and we do ourselves no favours to imagine that it’s not. What if we were, at some point in the future, to discover an incontrovertible set of data that showed that the category X is inferior to Y in some regard? Are we equipped to deal with that? I’d say no, because instead of focusing on the benefits that accrue from treating people equally (in relevant aspects) – whether or not they are – we dogmatically insist that they are in fact equal. This leaves us unprepared for a potential scenario in which that assumption becomes tenuous.

Second, there are stereotypes we all recognise whether or not they are grounded in fact. Who is allowed to point these out, or to poke fun at them? Anybody? Nobody, or only people who come from the relevant group? There seems to be a social convention which allows for us to make fun of “ourselves”, whatever that might mean in terms of the arbitrary classification we call “race”. But there’s no obstacle to a white person being racist about white people, or black racism from someone identified as black.

This is why I asked Roberts whether she was apologising for a failed attempt at satire, because contrary to the sentiments of another vacuous apology, this time from Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele, what Roberts wrote was not necessarily in contravention of South African Press Code, Avusa Media’s internal codes, or “Avusa’s commitment to building a non-racial and non-sexist society”. Because if you’re a skilled writer, you can satirise these stereotypes for the sake of highlighting their absurdities – but Roberts failed in this attempt to do so, partly because of the writing, and perhaps partly because the column was not offensive enough.

It was shocking in primarily consisting of a list of stereotypes, rather than being some sort of amplification or exploitation of them for some identifiable purpose. So it offended, without succeeding in provoking us to examine any stereotypes we ourselves might hold. Successful satire is difficult, and inescapably risky – but it serves a valuable function in society.

In this case, there are at least two obvious responses that would be far more effective in promoting anti-racism than apologies, and the cancellation of Roberts’ column (also announced in yesterday’s statement from the editor). First, one could strengthen the editorial process. It is inconceivable that any editor who deserves to be in that position could have read the column in question, and not recognised that it was going to cause an outcry.

Second, if you don’t think that Roberts was aiming at satire, but that she in fact holds racist views, you could still publish the column – but alongside a companion piece that expresses strong counterarguments. That way, the paper is on the side of right, and the journalist looks silly – as she should. At the same time, the paper is supporting free expression, without which it would never have come into existence, or rather, wouldn’t merit continued existence.

Even the most odious views should be aired, so that we can know who holds them, and – more importantly – so that we can respond to them. The former because journalists and columnists can shape opinion, and it’s useful to know what their ideological or other presumptions are, so that we have a framework by which to interpret their words. The latter, because we can’t know how bad a problem is if it’s underground, and we also can’t develop our own arguments against social ills such as these if we aren’t exposed to them.

The Sunday World, and Avusa media in general (all publications, in fact) have the right to print what they like, and to dismiss columnists who cause offence. This is not a case of censorship, as they have no obligation to print any particular person’s contributions. But not all rights should be exploited or enforced, when doing so is a mere impulse born of political correctness. Because defending that right can, in cases like these, compromise other rights which are (at least) equally important.

When “offensive” starts to mean the same thing as “intolerable”, we have completely lost sight of the value of free speech, and the benefits we place at risk by sacrificing that liberty to the demands of hypersensitivity. It’s one thing for the editor of Sunday World to say that a Roberts’ column is poorly written satire which caused needless offence, and that he will talk to her about staying within her bounds of satirical competence .

It’s another to say that Roberts’ columns are opinion, and that while Avusa doesn’t share her views, she’s perfectly entitled to express them – perhaps somewhere else, if she starts driving readership away. These are economic decisions, not moral ones. In the case of both Roberts, and the historical precedent of firing David Bullard, Avusa bottled the difficult choices by waving their hands in the direction of the Constitution, and apologising for causing offense based on racial discrimination.

It’s true that the Roberts and Bullard columns were no different in the offence they caused and what that offence was premised on. But the point is to get to stage where they aren’t written – not simply to sit on a moral pedestal and wag your finger at those who write them. Let them write, and let us respond – if we aren’t forced to do so, we could well forget what the point of such debates are, and end up in a world where there’s nothing to disagree with, and no need for thinking at all.

Note: A national conversation on this issue dominated many people’s Twitter timelines on Monday, including mine. Some of the comments there have no doubt informed what I say above. While I am not aware of any explicit debts in this regard, thanks to @IvoVegter, @RyanCoetzee, @Mvelase, @GusSilber, @GVanOnselen, @FerialHaffajee, @FionaSnyckers, @Jane_Anne62, @Leighwatermouse (and any others who I might have forgotten).

The Roberts column in question has been removed from the Sunday World website. Those interested in reading it can find it archived here.


Also published on Medium.