To make my biases clear at the outset, I’ve been appalled at how Donald Trump has been fomenting racism, sexism, and political polarisation ever since he ran for office (he was doing so before, but in a less impactful way).
Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked and hero to the sort of conservative who imagines that words and phrases like “libtard” or “social justice warrior” win arguments, recently posted a Facebook status arguing that “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences” actually means “Best not say it, eh”.
The Press Ombudsman received complaints regarding the piece by “Shelley Garland” published by the Huffington Post (who also asked him for comment), and his ruling on the matter was released yesterday.
The ruling is terrible, in both its reasoning and in its consequences.
It is terrible in its consequences first because the HuffPo’s editor, Verashi Pillay, was made to feel obliged to resign, and the career of a promising editor has now been interrupted. Despite her missteps (here, and in the Maimane case), and their severity, this incident should not have led to her resignation.
The intentions motivating the draft South African Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill are – as far as I can tell – entirely noble, but perhaps not entirely sound.
If you don’t know about the Bill, you can read Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s justification for it on Daily Maverick, in which he says that:
It will provide additional tools to investigators and prosecutors to hold the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and provide a means to monitor efforts and trends in addressing hate crimes.
The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.
The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope.
Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.
A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom.
My title is intentionally misleading, as there are aspects of both the cases mentioned therein that are not a free speech issue at all.
As I pointed out in my previous post on the Gareth Cliff saga, M-Net are, to my mind, perfectly entitled to promote a certain brand image, and this entitlement is compatible with saying that Cliff doesn’t fit that image, and that they are therefore not renewing his contract.
Following a brief period of goodwill over Christmas and New Year celebrations – where the goodwill was likely just people being distracted rather than benevolence – South Africa’s court of social media has resumed operations.
It’s difficult to know when calling people out becomes persecution or “witch hunt”, and I’ve no doubt that some of you think that it’s permissible, or even obligatory, to condemn racist tweets or Facebook posts in the strongest terms.
Some of you might also think that any attempt to contextualise the offensive statements somehow excuses them. It’s true that providing context can be a means of evading blame, or excusing someone else from rightful blame.
During the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.
My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.
In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.
It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.
As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.
To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.
This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.
At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.
I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.
And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.
Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.
For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.
Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.
Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.
Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.
But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.
As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.
The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.
My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.
As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,
Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?
In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.
My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.
I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.
So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.
From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).
Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that
This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.
Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.
Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.
So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.
My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).
And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.
As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.
We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.
Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.
Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.