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Daily Maverick Morality Politics Religion

Little evidence of integrity at the Film and Publications Board

As submitted to the Daily Maverick

When the Minister of Higher Education calls for a painting to be “destroyed for good”, it’s difficult to not be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, the title describes the temperature at which paper auto-ignites, and the plot addresses the burning of books as a method for suppressing dissenting ideas.

Framed as a method of thought-control, the destruction or censorship of paintings and books should horrify all of us who hope to live in a free society. So instead of framing it in those terms, why not instead make a case based on “protecting the children”? After all, who but a moral monster would be opposed to protecting children?

This is not yet another column about Zuma’s Spear, but rather an attempt to highlight the creeping threat to liberty exemplified in Nzimande’s statement about The Spear, as well as the Film and Publication Board’s (FPB) decision to classify (images of) the painting as 16N. That the former hasn’t attracted significant outrage is a surprise, because even though Nzimande might well have been speaking as the leader of the Communist Party, he also happens to be the man who oversees the country’s higher education system.

As one of the thousands of academics whose professional lives are influenced by this man’s judgement, I have cause to be concerned about a statement like this. As do all of us, not simply through being invested in the country’s future, but because it’s a stark distillation of the level of cynical manipulation of voters that some in the ruling party are willing to deploy. It’s not simply inappropriate for a Minister of Education to call for the destruction of artworks – it’s a complete abrogation of his responsibilities.

But seeing as those he reports to happen to be sympathetic to that view, we should of course expect no censure, apology or retraction. Meanwhile, if the FPB could have their way, images of Murray’s painting would be scrubbed from the Internet lest some under-16 (or sensitive adult) happens to come across it. The danger is of course real, in the sense that a Google search for “South African art” might well highlight the offensive image in question.

The FPB will be engaging with Internet service providers and search engines to “enforce this decision going forward”, which could well mean the dusting off of the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, Malusi Gigaba’s plan to enforce the moral standards of a few right-wing Christian organisations on all of us. One of the organisations consulted in the drafting of that Bill was the Family Policy Institute (FPI), headed by Errol Naidoo.

You might remember Naidoo from his call to boycott Woolworths for their decision to take Christian magazines off their newsstands (the profitability of a private company obviously being subservient to Naidoo’s interpretation of God’s wishes). Or, perhaps you’d recall his involvement in blocking both Multichoice and TopTV from screening adult content.

But in case all of those campaigns happen to coincide with your preferences, we’re also talking about the person who called the Civil Unions Act a “grossly negligent act of Parliament”, and whose monthly newsletters rarely fail to mention the immoral and unnatural scourge of homosexuality, and the complicity of the “liberal media” in obscuring the imminent downfall of civilization that will be precipitated by consenting adults in their bedrooms.

The reason Naidoo and the FPI are relevant to the discussion around the FPB’s decision to classify The Spear is that the FPB statement laments the “suggestions made that have sought to question the integrity and independence of the FPB”. I’d hope that in this instance, integrity would include being guided by the spirit and letter of the Bill of Rights in matters such as freedom of sexual preference and orientation.

But this hope seems somewhat unfounded when you look at the FPB’s website. On their home page, you’ll find a sidebar element headed “Useful Links” – but you’ll only find one link there, and that link is to the Family Policy Institute. In case my objection is not entirely clear, I’m not making the claim that religion (or Christianity in particular) can have nothing useful to say in matters of morality or in decisions regarding what children should be exposed to.

The claim is instead that the FBP is endorsing an organisation, and a man, who is a proud homophobe, and who has repeatedly demonstrated that his views on sexuality in general seem to be plucked straight from the pages of Leviticus. To describe this link as “useful” seems somewhat at odds with integrity, at least as I understand it.

Perhaps there’s a more innocent explanation, namely that the FPB has no idea who or what they are endorsing. If this is the case, we have no less cause to question their competence in effectively performing the task of deciding what to classify and how to do so. Incompetence – at least from the perspective of those who wish to view artworks or movies – is hardly more reassuring than significant lapses in judgement.

So it’s not just that the FPB have made a ruling that’s likely to survive even internal appeal processes, never mind court challenges. The issue is also that the chilling of free speech or artistic expression can happen by degrees, and can be disguised by the motivation of “protecting the children”. Because, framed in those terms, who would dare complain? If you do complain – at least once protecting the children is understood in the terms of folk like Naidoo – you might as well confess to being a paedophile.

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Free Speech Morality Politics

Did the #Zumaspear bullies win?

Here’s Ferial Haffajee explaining why she took the decision to remove images of Zuma’s Spear from the City Press website. Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day, said (on Twitter) that he would never have published it in the first place (on grounds of taste). That I can understand, and even agree with – an editor makes choices as to the character of their publication, and it would be a legitimate choice to never display this painting. (Today, Bruce argued that Haffajee should remove the painting.)

Zuma’s Spear is not obviously in the public interest, it reveals nothing we don’t already know, and it certainly always seemed likely to offend – perhaps for little gain. And causing offence just for the sake of doing so is not (to my mind, at least) a laudable action.

But Haffajee published a photograph of the painting in the course of covering the Murray exhibition – it was one of many paintings reproduced in the City Press. I’d imagine that she knew it would cause offence, even though she indicates (in the first link, above) that she had no idea the rage would be this extreme. She should be free to do so, just as Murray should be free to paint disrespectful images of the President. Having said that, I’d previously argued that the freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do.

Once one has “done it”, though, you’ve chosen to take a stand. In this case, a stand for free speech, and a stand that entails asserting that differences in cultural sensitivities and norms are subject to a Constitutional override which allows for us to offend each other through artworks such as Murray’s. And here’s the problem regarding the decision to take the painting down: it’s impossible, now that that choice has been made, to separate the possibility of it being premised on cultural sensitivity (which can often be a good thing, even though it’s sometimes not), or whether it’s simply another instance of allowing the hypersensitive to win the argument, simply because they shout louder than everyone else, or threaten you with violence.

City Press staff have received death threats. Religious idiots have called for the artist to be stoned. So now, as much as Haffajee was perhaps mistaken in ever choosing to run that image, her self-described “olive branch” is (in part, and perhaps in large part) a reaction to intimidation, and fear of reprisal. Some have asked about the apparent inconsistency of the Goodman Gallery (under different ownership, note) refusing to display an earlier Murray work (pictured above), and Haffajee’s previous decision to not run content that Muslims would find offensive. But  note what’s happened – the inconsistency has been resolved.

In the case of offending the religious, a pre-emptive decision was made that the situation was too volatile, and the physical threats too real, to ever run the offensive material. Haffajee and the Goodman Gallery made the mistake of thinking that our democracy could handle some robust debate around cultural norms, freedom of speech, and whether it’s okay to show disrespect for the President. The reactions to this (by those offended) ended up being entirely consistent, and have forced a consistency in response by those who caused the offence. I guess they’ve all learnt their lesson now – Haffajee and the Gallery now know of yet another topic that isn’t open to debate, and others have learned that it remains true that you can win arguments by threatening violence.

I realise that Haffajee had a difficult choice, both in running the painting and in retracting it. And I can understand why she chose to remove it from the website. An extract from her explanation reads as follows:

I hope we are not crafting a society where we consign artists to still life’s and the deep symbolism of repressed artists like China’s Ai Weiwei in China. A society where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.

This could be interpreted in various ways – let’s hope that in noting how we’ve begun to set these mores, she realises the role this explanation will play in doing so. I’m sure she does, and that she (and all of us) will continue to probe the boundaries of free expression in light of cultural (including religious) sensitivities – rather than allow the latter to gradually swallow the former. Removing the painting was motivated in large part by threats, and to some extent by wanting to make a contribution to nation-building. Those who issued the threats – including Zuma, Mthembu et al, should think carefully about the nation they’re helping to build through bullying others into silence.

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Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

Zuma’s Spear and egalitarian anti-racism

As submitted to Daily Maverick

On Sunday, Zama Ndlovu (@jozigoddess) tweeted “I do hope someone will write something about how whiteness should look at that piece of ‘art’. To be fair and stuff.” I’d hope that nobody does, just as nobody should write about how “blackness” should look at Brett Murray’s “The Spear”. Because both approaches would be prescriptive in dictating that it’s race which should determine one’s attitude to dignity, and which sorts of harms should be taken seriously by our courts.

It’s too late, of course – many pieces were published over the weekend by writers of various races, with some of the writers explicitly foregrounding their blackness or the putative blackness of their analysis. More important, perhaps, is that they foregrounded the whiteness of the artist – and the whiteness of thinking that it’s permissible to depict Jacob Zuma with his penis hanging out of his trousers.

This is the crux of the controversy. Not only freedom of artistic expression competing with a Constitutional right to dignity, but the clash of cultural norms that Murray’s painting has highlighted. As with Yiull Damaso’s painting of Mandela’s autopsy, those who think it inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis talk about disrespect, and appeal to the communitarian perspective that holds that we are responsible for upholding each others’ dignity. Those who think the painting permissible tend towards the more liberal perspective, arguing that we don’t have the right to not be offended.

These responses are not reliably correlated with race – black columnists have been among those arguing that Zuma has presented himself as a philanderer, and therefore that he shouldn’t be surprised if we end up perceiving and depicting him as one. But I haven’t seen a white columnist arguing that The Spear is insensitive enough to merit an urgent interdict for its removal from the Goodman Gallery and the City Press.

The absence of this sort of critique from white writers feeds into the narrative of racism, whereby Murray’s painting becomes emblematic of a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect. That sort of reaction, though, is sometimes self-serving and inconsistent. I can’t dispute that it’s sometimes a justified reaction – there are surely instances of artists and writers who have the view that whiteness has some sort of monopoly on sophistication, with blackness representing some form of primitivism.

But the demand for us to respect cultural preference in these matters is self-serving in the sense that it forestalls any possible debate or reflection on the merits of the artwork. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire. The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, parents, or people in general merit protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order.

Then, the reaction is inconsistent because it frequently expresses a prejudice of its own. Instead of defending the dignity of anyone, from an egalitarian anti-racist or anti-sexist perspective, we mostly hear silence when a Jackson Mthembu or Marius Fransman says abusive things about Helen Zille or Lindiwe Mazibuko. Or, for that matter, when Mazibuko is called a “housenigger”, or Zille is threatened with rape on Twitter – both of which occurred last week (but not for the first time) in social media chatter during the march on Cosatu House.

Is this because they can deal with it, where Zuma cannot? Or because they’ve earned it, where he has not? An answer to either question will expose deep prejudice on the part of those who think these things – so, better not to think about it. Or is it simply the case that because Zille and Mazibuko aren’t of a communitarian mindset themselves, this cultural norm of defending each other against insult doesn’t apply in their favour?

If the latter is the unconscious motivation for this inconsistency in what results in outrage and what doesn’t, we can ask a follow-up question: exactly which categories of human does identity politics grant special protection to, and on what grounds is this discrimination justified? I’m not talking about recognising that certain groups of people might have certain sorts of sensitivities – that they do, and sometimes for very good reason – but rather about whether we’re comfortable with certain sensitivities receiving preferential treatment in law or public opinion.

I don’t know how whiteness should look at Murray’s painting. But I do know that I could imagine a person being offended by a similar portrayal of their father. And I do know that a black person might not object in the slightest to Zuma being disrespected by this painting, because of the belief that Zuma has done little to merit that level of respect. Among this range of responses, though, it’s unclear whether we’re acting out of principle, out of prejudice, or out of reaction to prejudice – whether perceived or actual.

Zuma can by all means test, in court, whether Murray’s aesthetics and cultural norms should bow to his. For Zuma to win, though, would require demonstrating that his dignity has actually been impaired, and not just that his feelings were hurt. And I don’t know about you, but I already had the impression that Zuma was a rather sexual creature. Not because of some identity politics claptrap, but simply because he has “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, as The Economist succinctly put it.

As for the painting itself, of course it’s disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s the point of the painting. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory. In this case, where the ANC has joined Zuma’s case as second applicant, it seems that theory will soon (and, again) be tested – leaving us with one more reason to respect them both less.

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Free Speech Politics

Zuma’s Spear and the distractions of “culture”

An op-ed first published in the print edition of the Cape Argus, 22 May 2012

It’s always a mistake to think any particular source a reliable barometer of South African opinion. Each of them represents a self-selected audience, and evolve in ways that tend towards privileging certain voices, and certain points of view. Which is all just as well, because the conversations that have taken place on social media, and especially Twitter, over the past few days are cause for deep despair regarding cross-cultural communication in South Africa.

The conversation that’s dominated social media, radio, and the opinion pages of our newspapers is of course Brett Murray’s painting “The Spear”, which features a stylised image of President Jacob Zuma. More crucially, Zuma’s penis features rather prominently, in that Murray has chosen to depict a quite honourable member.

The Economist carried a column on The Spear which contained mention of Zuma’s “four wives, two exes and 22 children by ten different women”, and these simple facts could easily account for why an artist might think it appropriate to depict the President’s penis, regardless of the artistic merit in doing so. His public persona is already sexualised, in that he’s provided us with evidence of a sexual appetite.

Some might think that and artwork pointing this out is juvenile or in bad taste. But even if so, these would be reasons to not want the painting on your own wall, rather than thinking the painting should not be allowed to hang on anyone wall. The latter, more conservative reaction is premised on arguments about cultural norms, and the inappropriateness of depicting Jacob Zuma in this fashion.

The responses I received when posting that sentence from The Economist on Twitter made this cultural divide rather stark: from being accused of “negrophobia” for not also mentioning that King David had many wives, to being accused of inconsistency in not being a “pristine virgin” myself, it rapidly became clear that even though we know that Zuma is no stranger to sex, we aren’t allowed to talk about it.

At least, someone from my putative “culture” isn’t allowed to talk about it. For culture, we should of course read “race” here, because Tselane Tambo and Mondli Makhanya do seem to have permission to talk about it. And we can derive a simple, but very important lesson from this – no individual should be assumed to speak from or represent any particular “culture”, and that we are free to determine our individual point of view without being hamstrung by the cultural identity that others assign to us.

There is no “we” that has “a culture”, except to the extent that we choose to self-identify as members of it. The notion of “we” is itself something flexible, pragmatic and entirely contingent on circumstance. It is an accident of geography and politics, and massively open to abuse – especially when an audience pre-selects for a speaker which culture they happen to represent.

Arguments about the merits of individual cases get lost in the noise of identity politics, and the fact that identity politics is itself usually mere noise also gets lost. If it is true that it’s culturally inappropriate to depict Zuma’s penis (as I believe it is), why is that where the line gets drawn in terms of the sorts of cultural norms we respect?

Because the same culture contains elements that we (most of us, I hope) no longer want to respect, like homophobia and a patriarchy that is sometimes difficult to distinguish from misogyny. To put it simply, if we should respect Zuma’s wishes here, why should we not respect Patekile Holomisa’s views when he claims that gays and lesbians are enemies of their culture, and why should we not be silent when the Traditional Courts Bill tries to legislate a retrograde and sexist set of legal structures?

We’re not silent in these cases because we recognise that a monolithic interpretation of “culture” doesn’t address the reality of a contested political and moral landscape, and because we’ve decided to mutually address South Africa’s challenges through discussion and negotiation, framed by the liberties secured in 1994. Our Bill of Rights respects culture, yes, but it frees us to think outside of it also.

The relevant manner in which it frees us is through guarantees of free speech and free thought, including via artistic expression. Any one of us might not like Murray’s painting, and might think him grossly insensitive for painting it. We have that option, just as he has the option to ignore whatever offense might be caused in creating and exhibiting the artwork.

If one of these sets of options is to win out over others, it can’t do so through asserting cultural privilege. Cultural norms can be an explanation for why one feels offended, but they can’t serve as an argument for why others should feel constrained by the offense that you feel. The only sorts of freedoms (in terms of speech) worth taking seriously have to allow for harms to be caused, because it is often the harmful truths that the powerful don’t want us to hear.

Cultural norms can also be an explanation for why certain responses to The Spear are wrong for a different reason, in that they revel in Zuma’s discomfort. It’s undeniable that some of the responses to Murray’s painting have viewed the painting through a colonial gaze, where black men are savages, ruled by their passions rather than by intellect.

However, the fact that these racist reactions exist cannot mean that any argument in favour of the rights of the Goodman Gallery to hang the painting are racist. It’s not necessarily Zuma’s “blackness” or “Zulu-ness” that motivates the mockery – it’s also quite plausibly (for some) the fact that they perceive him as a philanderer, who happens to be our President (and further, happens to be black and Zulu). To some extent, Zuma has created this perception with his multiple wives and children, and it should come as no surprise that his critics will exploit this perception, no matter how insensitive doing so might be.