Liberalism and its manifestations

If you ask 3 people what they understand “liberalism” to mean, you’ll likely get three different answers. Even after name-checking some canonical figure – Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Kymlicka, etc. – we’d still be left with confusion, thanks to now being able to argue about the how “classical” liberal tenets differ from “social democrat” ones.

So, I’m not going to try define liberalism in general at all, but rather offer a few remarks on what I understand it to be, or rather what I mean when I identify as a liberal. If you want to read a good summary of the theoretical debates alluded to above, I’d recommend the political philosophy page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I’m by and large a “classical” liberal, who takes a utilitarian approach to resolving any inconsistencies that may arise, such as when trying to reconcile individual freedoms with the responsibilities of the state to care for everyone’s interests equally.

To pick a trivial example of such an inconsistency, I’m happy to be taxed higher than some other people as a way to cross-subsidise those with more material wants (which maximises equality overall), even though some might think it “unfair” to one person to pay a higher proportion of tax from their salaries than others do.

But there are more tricky examples than this, of course – liberals typically value freedom of speech, which raises the question of whether it’s consistent with liberalism (or a contradiction) for a (allegedly) liberal party such as the Democratic Alliance to eject a member for sharing positive sentiments about apartheid monsters.

I’d say it is consistent (whether or not it was the correct decision), because individual freedom to speak might sometimes be trumped by some broader conception of liberty (in other words, it’s not necessarily the case that freedom of speech be treated as an absolute, without exceptions), and for the pragmatic reasons offered in the first example.

You can be a liberal without being a free speech fundamentalist, in other words (at least on my definition – yours might differ).

A second, less controversial way of resolving this apparent contradiction would be to argue that if you voluntarily agree to a certain code of conduct, as was the case in the example in question, you can be held accountable for violations of that code even if there’s a general commitment to free speech. (Not to mention, it’s not a free speech restriction in the strict sense anyway, in that the person in question can say what she likes, just not in specific and pre-specified contexts.)

Enough preliminaries, except to note that I’m certainly not a libertarian, contrary to the impression I’d apparently inadvertently created for one student who asked me about it on Twitter the other day. I certainly think that there are occasions where freedom overall is certainly maximised by compromising individual freedoms.

Ensuring freedom from undue or unjustified interference is certainly constitutive of my understanding of liberalism – the difficulty, of course, is knowing when the interference is justified or not.

Being judged as an individual is also an essential element of liberalism. This means that a person shouldn’t be assumed to have certain views or a certain character by virtue of what race, sex, gender, nation and so forth they happen to belong to – you get to define yourself (including the freedom to define yourself into one or more of the groups I’ve just listed.)

As Mill put it in On Liberty, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” – and while I’d quibble with the “only” in that quote, I do think this one of the most accurate descriptions of what lies at the heart of liberalism.

But because others can get in the way of us pursuing our own good, we’re justified in implementing certain constraints on behaviour. Equality, for example, sees legal expression and reinforcement in concepts like the rule of law, and equality before the law.

And, even though the scope for governments explicitly telling us what to do needs to be very carefully limited, and justified by secular and universal concerns, rather than partisan ones, I’ve got no problem with governments “nudging” us (an idea I defended at length in a previous post).

While many of the points above need further defence, my objective here is to provide a starting point, laying out what strikes me as fundamental to my understanding of liberalism: freedom, equality and self-determination. I’ll hopefully unpack this more in future posts.

But to conclude, I’d like to reiterate that you’d rarely find me defending any given principle as an absolute. Instead, it seems more useful to have strong commitments to clear guiding principles, only violable with very good justification.

President Zuma: dogging South Africans with stereotypes about culture

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

sad-dogCulture is restrictive and oppressive, and it is used to generate further oppression. Not simply because you’re told what to believe in the name of culture, but because what you are told to believe can be oppressive or restrictive. Perhaps, that you’re not the equal of a man. Perhaps, that as a man, you are necessarily responsible for the oppression of women.

Culture is also a reference point for where we’ve come from, and how we ended up here. It’s what binds us in times of strife, or when others tell us that we’re somehow inferior or unworthy of survival or happiness. Culture is what gives us beautiful art – music, paintings, books – and it is what renews our creativity through the wellspring of ideas it provides.

Culture is a handy card to play when trying to rally political support, especially if you can appeal to a version of culture that speaks of a struggle against oppression, and therefore a historical debt that is owed to that struggle. Without the comfort and strength provided by culture, we would never have survived. Or so the narrative might go, if you thought that culture comes with chains.

Culture can be all these things. But most importantly, it can be what you want it to be, including nothing of any significance at all. And you can mix and match not only elements of culture, but also the respect with which you regard various elements of various cultures. But when the idea of culture is used as a straightjacket, as a way to enforce loyalty or groupthink, it is only and always restrictive and oppressive.

When a President says that black South Africans should stop adopting the customs of other cultures, such as appearing to care more for their animals than they do for their fellow South Africans, he ends up transgressing various aspects of logic as well as of decency. Decency, because one unspoken implication of that speech last December was that white dog-owning folk had no humanity, and that black folk who loved their dog were somehow less black.

Logic, simply because of the obvious contradictions immediately pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, via photographs of Mandela, Vavi and others being friendly with various furry animals. Zuma’s speech clearly contained some foot-in-mouth, though, and it’s uncharitable to read reports of a speech like this literally. He was (at least, as far as I can tell) referring to the fact that it sometimes seems that people care more for (relative) frivolities than for their fellow human beings.

If this is accurate, it’s of course still deeply problematic to square the humanitarian Zuma with the one who appears in our headlines most days for some allegation of corruption, or the construction of multi-million Rand homesteads. Let’s leave that aside, as I have no trouble believing that he at least believes he cares, and was speaking sincerely.

What I want to highlight here is culture. Because what Zuma is saying in a speech like this is an insult to culture, or to the sort of culture I describe above as an affirming and sometimes inspirational one. Because Zuma could be accused of telling black South Africans to take direction from his repressive stereotypes, rather than the repressive stereotypes that the white man brought to Africa. He’s saying that black South Africans are free, but only up until the point where they butt up against the boundaries of culture that he is prescribing.

The point of freedom is to be free to choose. Zuma is correct that some people seem to care more for their pets than for humans, and I’d agree with him that it’s wrong to do so. Not because of culture, or at least not because of “black” culture or “white” culture – rather something like a “sentient” or “compassionate” culture. And perhaps, a culture that eschews opportunism, preferring to work towards the long-term benefit of all South Africans.

This means, at least in part, eliminating the race-baiting that has become such a reliable part of his rhetoric. I understand that many of us white South Africans appear (and often are) insensitive to culture and its manifestation, especially now that “our” culture blankets most of the world we get to hear about. But this doesn’t justify adding to the caricatures of what white and black people do and believe – and it certainly doesn’t justify telling people what they should believe.

Culture changes, and anyone who won’t allow it to is an oppressor. If you choose to hold on to some cultural elements and customs that are significant and not harmful to others, I shouldn’t judge you for that. When you use culture as a weapon to abuse common sense, and to guilt people into loyalty, I will judge you for that, as should we all.

And some of us will judge you even more harshly when you make it clear that you’re just making things up as you go along. Or is Mac Maharaj actually just trying to embarrass you, by protesting that you were simply trying to “decolonise the African mind” while you made noises about a national cleansing ceremony, to be hosted by none other than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – a representative of a faith that exists here largely thanks to colonialism?

Assuming that the vote of no confidence fails, Mr President – and assuming that you actually give more of a damn about your country than you’ve ever appeared to – why not spend 2013 and onwards focusing on speeches (and decisions, naturally) that help us to find common purpose, instead of on ones that deepen or even create divisions?

You have your second term, after all, and the threats you personally face during that term will come from people and institutions like the Public Prosecutor and Parliament. The threats to your party, on the other hand, seem to come mainly from people like you. To put it simply – if you don’t stop being such an embarrassment, South African voters may soon begin to consider having a cleansing ceremony of their own.

Freedom’s just another word for “not allowed to choose”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

Stronger evidence makes for stronger arguments. We all know this, and also know that it’s often difficult to discard our belief in some supposed facts that aren’t as well justified as we might think. Where this becomes an acute problem is with regard to moral claims, notably those that involve human equality and are aimed at eliminating discrimination.

Consider two examples. First, I’d imagine that most of us believe there is no scientific basis for discriminating on the grounds of race. Some of us might say that is too weak a claim, and that there is no scientific basis for even the idea of race. Second, it appears to be a widely-held notion that rape is about power, and not about sex.

For both of these examples, consensus serves a powerful rhetorical and political function. If we agree on the substance of these claims, we are able to construct arguments against racial discrimination and against victim-blaming (for instance, that  what a victim of rape was wearing or doing can be disregarded as irrelevant to the perpetrator’s crime). But what if we’re wrong?

It’s not good enough to simply assert that we cannot be wrong, or to hurl some academic paper or book in the direction of someone who dares to question an orthodox view. In the case of these two examples, dissenting voices exist, and you can often tell that they’d really prefer to not be dissenting. Treating propositions like these as axiomatic serves a useful function, whether or not they are true.

On both of these topics, there is ongoing research activity – lacking any obvious bad faith – which brings the consensus view into question. While we might prefer for both research projects to fail, we should also be prepared for their success. And if they do reveal that our common wisdom is faulty, my concern is that we’ll be ill-prepared to continue being able to mount robust defences against these forms of discrimination.

In other words, perhaps our most strident campaign against the wrongness of generalised discrimination should not be premised on facts (insofar as we know them), but rather on other aspects of the wrongness of discrimination. For race, we could say that even if racial differences exist, they are immaterial to the wrongness of generalising when it comes to individuals. For rape, we can say that regardless of the balance between the competing causes of sexual desire and asserting power, violation of consent is always the worst sin.

This is not to say that the evidence we have isn’t important, or worth emphasising. Instead, I’m arguing against exclusive reliance on it, carried by a form of evangelical zeal that assumes the facts to be fixed, and assumes those facts to be sufficient to carry the argument. Not only because our zeal could be misguided, but also because it can come with independent costs.

A recent example demonstrating this is provided by Cynthia Nixon, who you might know from all those Sex and the City episodes you didn’t watch. In Slate, she’s quoted as saying “I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice.”

It’s true that the scientific consensus is that homosexuality has a biological basis. But the other relevant fact is that the fight for social and legal equality for homosexuals has been premised on the “fact” that your sexual orientation is not a choice. It’s the latter detail that means Cynthia Nixon, in revealing her preference for women as sexual partners, can somehow be construed as an enemy of the gay-rights cause. And this is because a genuine scientific fact is not treated as merely that, but rather also, and arguably mostly, as an ideology or statement of evangelical faith.

In Brian Earp’s superb analysis of the Nixon issue, he points out that various factors influence sexual attraction, and that we can usefully separate the question of who or what you’re programmed to find attractive, in general, from who you happen to find attractive in reality. For many people, attraction operates on a continuum in any case, making labels such as ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ unhelpfully crude.

For Nixon to point out that in her case she’s decided to tend towards one end of that continuum says nothing about the extent to which others can make similar choices. If LGBT activists choose to make a dogma out of lacking choice they’ve picked a short-sighted strategy, and Nixon can hardly be blamed for not toeing the orthodox line.

There is a significant emotive context to this, not to mention a reality in which people are assaulted – whether physically or emotionally – as a result of a sexual orientation they have no control over. So it’s an important message that we send by saying that for most people, sexual orientation seems to involve little to no choice. But we also send a message when we say something like “you’re not allowed to call yourself gay, because we’ve decided that it can only mean one thing”.

The root of our concerns regarding discrimination in all of its forms could arguably be described as a conviction that people should be free to express themselves and pursue their good in whatever way they please, without society imposing any limiting generalisations on them. How sadly ironic it is, then, that a gay woman finds herself criticised by defenders of equality and freedom for daring to have an independent opinion.

The South African Charter on Religious Rights and Freedoms

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

While lacking the high-profile support and marketing opportunities that Primedia and others lent to the Bill of Responsibilities, there’s another document doing the rounds that is even more wrong-headed – if such a thing is at all possible. It’s called the “South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms”, and according to one of its drafters, Rassie Malherbe, is intended to “flesh out the right to freedom of religion in the Constitution”.

This fleshing-out is apparently required due to the fact that “constitutional rights are described in cryptic, vague and general terms” (pdf). Sections 9, 15, 31, 185 and 186 seem fairly clear to me, and when read in conjunction with sections 10 and 12 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, it’s quite difficult to understand how religious belief could be better protected.

Of course, I’m assuming that religious beliefs should be treated as merely one form of belief competing with others on the ostensibly level playing-field provided by an impartial state. As matters stand, I’m already a candidate for appearing before the Equality Court for communicating words “that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful” when speaking of religion.

Churches already enjoy preferential treatment from the taxman, while non-theistic organisations do not. The religious voice carries a disproportionate weight in debates around whether TopTV can screen pornography. On a more trivial note, for those who suffer from unpredictable thirsts for alcohol or who struggle to plan ahead, moral standards set by religion dictate the terms of liquor licences. One could go on, but the upshot of these facts is that many claims for religion requiring more protection are tenuous at best.

More worryingly, these sorts of charters have a history of allowing for discrimination against the non-religious, rather than simply proving equal protection for all. The UN resolutions on “Combating Defamation of Religions” that have made regular (and sometimes successful) appearances before various UN commissions and councils bear notable similarity to blasphemy laws such as those enforced in Ireland.

Under such laws it’s not only the case that you can (somehow) defame an idea or ideology rather than a person, but you can also go to jail for doing so. Presumably, the South African Charter would hope for such a future also. One of its clauses (6.4) states: “Every person has the right to religious dignity, which includes not to be victimised, ridiculed or slandered on the ground of their faith, religion, convictions or religious activities. No person may advocate hatred that is based on religion, and that constitutes incitement to violence or to cause physical harm.”

While the second sentence of the clause quoted above might be controversial for some, it’s nevertheless already entrenched in the Bill of Rights and Equality Act. So the Charter adds no protection by repeating it, assuming the Charter becomes law as intended by its drafters. But to demand protection from victimisation or ridicule is surely a step too far, especially when read in conjunction with something like 2.2: “Every person has the right to have their convictions reasonably accommodated”.

If reasonable accommodation comes to mean immunity from criticism – which it certainly could, with a broad notion like “victimisation” being very much an eye-of-the-beholder sort of thing – it would only be the religious that truly enjoy the rights to freedom of thought and expression afforded to us in the Bill of Rights. Those who want to express negative sentiment with regard to religion (and other categories like culture, which are also included) are of course not victimised as a result of having these protections withheld.

It goes further, as these things often tend to. On the grounds of religious belief, you can refuse to deliver “certain services, including medical or related (including pharmaceutical) services or procedures” (2.3b). And “no person may be subjected to any form of force or indoctrination that may destroy, change or compromise their religion, beliefs or worldview” (2.5) – but the same would of course not apply to that kid in the classroom who has doubts that women were magicked into existence from the rib of a man.

Furthermore, the state, including the judiciary, must “respect the authority of every religious institution over its own affairs” (9.3), and parents “may withdraw their children from school activities or programs inconsistent with their religious or philosophical convictions” (7.1). For a document that’s drafted partly in response to constitutional rights that are allegedly “cryptic, vague and general”, you’d hope for some more specificity in this charter. There is little to none of that, and I’ve only highlighted six of the thirteen clauses that are obviously problematic.

At the launch of this charter in October 2010, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke stopped short of endorsing it, saying that it might one day be a matter before the Constitutional Court. He nevertheless welcomed the initiative, and it seems likely that our new Chief Justice would be similarly inclined. As yet, though, there’s been little progress, and the charter has yet to be presented to even a parliamentary committee. But there are signs of life – a January article in Beeld spoke of it in positive terms, and callers to Radio Sonder Grense later that month seemed particularly enthused.

Perhaps most troubling, last week the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau issued an invitation for applications to write a paper on the right to religious freedom and belief in Commonwealth countries, in order to inform the proposed Commonwealth Charter. In this invitation, the South African charter is highlighted as an example of best practice. So even if it never reaches our parliament, there’s now a chance that other parts of the world will have the sensibilities of Malherbe and others imposed on them.

There’s no question that we need to tolerate diverse and dissenting views, and I’m sympathetic to the reality of many religious people feeling persecuted or victimised for their beliefs. Some instances of such victimisation are clearly unjust and immoral – but they are also usually already illegal and not meriting further legislation. This is part of the point of a broadly secular set of laws: that once we start creating special protections for one interest group, we have no principle by which to refuse doing so for all others.

Instead, ideas compete on their merits within a framework that attempts to give everyone an equal chance to air their views. Charters like this one hark back to a world in which a default privilege was afforded to the dominant view, and where that dominant view was a religious one. While that view is still dominant in this country as in many others, that dominance results at least in part from peoples choices and their freedom to make those choices. Let’s not entertain the nonsense that this freedom is threatened to such an extent that it can – or needs to – be protected through granting one view the sorts of protections all others lack.

TopTV plans to “release a flood of filth into our communities”

Or so says Errol Naidoo, in any case. I wasn’t planning to say anything about TopTV’s plans to launch 3 porn channels (provided by Playboy TV), because besides this involving TopTV rather than Multichoice, the salient details are identical to those in the DStv porn saga last year. But a few people have enquired as to my views, so here they are.

First, it remains true that we have no compelling evidence that pornography necessarily causes harm in itself. I can’t dispute that some people have had miserable lives, or been exploited and abused in the production of pornography. It’s true that it’s an industry which conduces to trafficking, and it’s plausible that it might lead some consumers to dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality, gender equality and so forth. These are unwelcome and regrettable correlates of porn.

But as one can’t seem to say often enough, correlation doesn’t equal causation. The fact that many people consume pornography from within healthy relationships, or as singletons who are not disposed towards seal-clubbing, satanic rituals or violence against women and children shows that it’s possible for porn to come without these complications. Which tells us that as much as some production and consumption of porn can come with problems, those problems can be addressed directly without needing to shut down an entire industry. If it ends up being true that these problems are inescapably part of porn production, then I’d agree that porn should be more strictly controlled, and perhaps even eliminated (if that were possible). But they’re not, or at least we have no good evidence that they are.

Which leaves us in a position of having to balance various interests. On the one hand, we have TopTV (or Multichoice), who want to make money. They do this by offering a service that consumers want, in this case porn. If they’re wrong, and consumers don’t want it, then the channels will most likely be pulled. But what they are planning to offer is legal, and they are entitled to do so. Of course they should (from their own self-interested point of view, as well as from the point of view of not causing needless offence) do so in a responsible way. Their plan is to offer these 3 channels as an opt-in service at an extra cost each month. So, parents need to choose whether to allow these channels in their homes or not.

This is stage 1 of the firewall that protects the innocent, fragile children. Unless a parent chooses to subscribe, Jenny and Johnny won’t be exposed to any part of the “flood of filth”. Then, in stage 2 of the firewall, each viewing of one of the porn channels requires the viewer to enter a PIN code. A parent could change this code every day, if they so choose. What this firewall adds up to is that, if Jenny or Johnny end up watching any porn on TopTV, it’s the fault of the parents, not of TopTV.

Naidoo might of course say that this shouldn’t be broadcast even to parents (or adults). For consistency’s sake (although I’m not sure if he’s familiar with that concept), he might also have to say that there can be no violence on TV. There should certainly be no booze on TV – and perhaps there should be no cars on TV, seeing as those can also be used irresponsibly. But none of this really matters to Naidoo and his ilk, seeing as personal choice needs to make way for his fascist world of obedience to the dictates of God. Well, not your god, perhaps, but the one that he insists you believe in. You know, the homophobic one.

He also says that these parental controls aren’t sufficient because:

Despite TopTV’s assurances of parental controls, it will not stop sexually depraved adults from sexually abusing women and children. The majority of the 55 000 rapes of women & sexual abuse of 25 000 children in SA every year, are perpetrated by TopTV’s target market – adult men!

He’s right. TopTV’s parental controls won’t stop sexual abuse, because we’ve got no reason to believe that a) TopTV’s porn will cause their target market to want to go out and rape women or children, and b) all these people already have access to porn, for god’s sake. In the course of his “research”, surely Errol has come across porn that would make whatever PlayboyTV provides look like scenes of Bambi running through a forest?

Naidoo closes his December 8 newsletter with this:

I appeal to you to urgently write to TopTV CEO, Vino Govender and inform him that you will stop paying your subscription fees, cancel your contract or support a targeted boycott of TopTV advertisers if he launches his proposed porn channels in South Africa.

Email Vino Govender at [email protected] and copy in Melinda Connor at [email protected]

Christian consumers stopped Multichoice from launching a 24 hour porn channel on DStv last year. You and I can do it again! Christian citizens must stand up and do what is right!

Before you take a well-deserved holiday with your family – please consider the families that will suffer because of TopTV’s greed. Please encourage your family & friends to write today!

PS: Please forward this email to your family & friends and NOT TopTV [my emphasis]. Please also join us on the official FPI Facebook page for more updates and info about TopTV’s evil agenda.

Perhaps he doesn’t want TopTV to have advance warning of the tsunami of self-righteousness heading their way. I don’t know. But there’s the CEO’s email address. Feel free to write to him to express your support for freedom of choice. Or to say that, even though you don’t like porn yourself, you commend him for his efforts to ensure that it reaches only it’s target market, rather than innocent bystanders. And if you want to mail the other public protector, Errol Naidoo, you can do so here: [email protected]