Why we should reject the Bill of Responsibilities

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

If you’ve been wondering how schools will fill the space left vacant by the dropping of grammar from the curriculum, wonder no more. Instead of grammar, it seems they’ll now be teaching students how to be nice people. On Wednesday and Friday last week, the Department of Education, in association with LeadSA and the National Religious Leaders’ Forum (NRLF), launched “A Bill of Responsibilities for the Youth of South Africa” which aims to do just that.

To be clear, I have absolutely nothing against the idea that our youth should be encouraged to be cooperative members of society. I’d happily go further than that, and hope that they would be taught to embrace our Constitution, and to think critically about what it means to have rights and various freedoms in a democratic and secular state.

So it’s not the case, as implied by some hostile questions I’ve encountered over the past week, that a rejection of the Bill of Responsibilities means a rejection of the values of respect, equality, dignity and so forth. That accusation rests on a false dichotomy, whereby we only have two options: Either to embrace any fuzzy feel-good sentiment relating to our Constitution, or otherwise to be some sort of moral contrarian, dedicated to allowing young anarchists to do what they will within the bounds of the law.

The essential problem is this: Our Constitution is emphatic on the goal of “free[ing] the potential of each person”, as well as on individual rights to “freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion”. It is also committed to the value of human dignity, but in guaranteeing the right to free expression – with the exception of hate speech and incitement to harm – it’s clear there is no logically necessary connection between offensive speech and impairments to human dignity.

To the contrary, one could argue that human dignity and self-fulfilment requires robust and critical engagement with your own views and the views of others. This Bill encourages exactly the opposite sort of engagement, in two notable instances. And it is therefore demonstrably false that “the[se] responsibilities … flow from each of the rights enshrined in the Constitution”, as the Preamble to the Bill states.

The correlative responsibility claimed to flow from our right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion is to “respect the beliefs and opinions of others, and their right to express these, even when we may strongly disagree with these beliefs and opinions. That is what it means to be a free democracy”.

Notice the contradiction between an injunction to respect and the notion of freedom – while we are subject to some limitations on our freedom, these are expressed in the Constitution, and they do not include the requirement to respect the beliefs and opinions of others. How could I be expected to respect your belief, for example, that having a shower might diminish your chances of developing AIDS?

You have a right to express that belief, yes – and my respect for persons means that I should give you the opportunity to do so – but once you express a stupid opinion, I have absolutely no responsibility to respect that, no matter how much that might wound your sensibilities. To respect everybody’s beliefs and opinions would require that I become a relativist and give up on making any sense at all.

The second example of a value which goes far beyond our Constitution, and which is also freedom-limiting, is said to flow from our right to free expression. Here, we are told “to ensure others are not insulted or have their feelings hurt”.

Being exposed to our errors and (sometimes) changing our minds can involve hurt feelings. It can sometimes involve people being wilfully and unnecessarily offensive – but morality is not under the purview of government, and these sorts of issues should be discussed in the home (and in schools). But they should not be embedded in Department of Education documents, and they should certainly not be claimed to be compatible with our Constitution.

One clue as to why these fuzzy and illiberal clauses made it into the final document can be found in the character of those who drafted it. LeadSA are of course already known for allowing sentiment to trump sense, as in their campaign encouraging us to light candles for Mandela. But more worrisome than LeadSA’s relatively harmless mawkishness is of course the role of the NRLF, an interfaith body who benefit from the typical human error of thinking that morality and religion are inseparable.

When I challenged LeadSA’s Yusuf Abramjee on Twitter as to why no secular voices were involved in drafting the Bill, he responded to say that it “was drafted by the National Religious Forum…not Govt.” And yes, that’s obvious enough, and also reveals a complete lack of awareness that measures such as claiming that being inoffensive is Constitutionally-mandated is a way to privilege those views that can’t stand up to scrutiny, or simply those views that people in power don’t like to see questioned.

The Protection of Information Bill, the Media Appeals Tribunal, and the lawsuits by Presidents against satirists can all function to afford artificial and unwarranted privilege to certain views above others, and this sort of privilege is inimical to the basic commitment to freedom enshrined in our Constitution. We can’t be free without making free choices, and free choices require access to information as well as the robust debate which allows us to sort the good information from the bad.

Granville Whittle has said that “the teaching of values lends itself to everything that happens at school”, but it seems that some values are now being taught as trumping others, in ways not anticipated in, or flowing from, the Constitution. And it’s neither good pedagogy, nor good for a critical citizenry, to teach the untruth that our Constitution obliges us to avoid hurting the feeling of others.

It’s perhaps especially bad when the religious influence on alleged moral principles becomes explicit, as in the claim that “for a Muslim, [the] responsibilities outlined in the Bill constitute religious duty” (Ebrahim Bham, Executive Member of the NRLF). Or, when the Cape Town launch is opened by a teacher saying “I greet you all in the name of the Lord, our Saviour Jesus Christ”.

Not only because these statements make no sense in the context of the Bill itself, given that both of the religions represented here have been known to hurt people’s feelings by talking of damnation and other unpleasant concepts. Also, because in a secular state, presenting a civic bill of responsibilities to learners alongside explicitly religious messages or undertones can plausibly be construed as indoctrination.

Our Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, yet here, impressionable youth are being told that they must respect all opinions (and not simply respect people), and that they must ensure to never hurt anyone else’s feelings. They’re being taught to aspire to standards which are either impossible, or at least contrary to their exercise of personal liberty. And they’re being taught these lessons under the banner of various monolithic structures of thought, reminding them that without the support of celestial dictators, they stand little chance of being good people.

And again, we have documents that already address what needs to be said regarding the role of religion in education. The National Policy on Religion and Education (which, ironically, also “flows directly from … Constitutional values”) is quite clear on the fact that public schools “may not violate the religious freedom of pupils and teachers by imposing religious uniformity” – which leads one to wonder whether learners at Wednesday’s launch were given advance warning of the presence of Jesus Christ, and the opportunity to perhaps go and listen to someone from another faith, like Ray McCauley.

To repeat what I say above, I can’t dispute the value, or the virtue, of teaching our youth to respect the values embedded in our Constitution. Neither can I dispute that many of those values are under threat – but many of those threats emerge from attempts to define particular interpretations of how those values play out in a democratic society, where those interpretations privilege particular individuals, organisations or organs of state.

So while there might be a need to remind learners – or all of us – that our Constitutional values and our democracy require some work to protect, this Bill is not the way to do that, because it undermines the very foundation of doing that work effectively – namely our responsibility to be critical, and to never forget that threats to our freedom can come from unexpected places.

Perhaps another such bill should be written, which respects our Constitution without telling us that doing so entails living a certain sort of life beyond that which you choose. Which does so in a way compatible with teaching us that sometimes, it’s okay to be offensive – and more importantly, to be offended against by others. I don’t quite know who “we” are yet, but that’s the bill we’re going to write. Watch this space.

Recommended: Ivo Vegter and Khadija Patel‘s columns on this topic.

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.