The Mail&Guardian recently published an op-ed telling readers that the paper would no longer italicise words in South African languages other than English (for the benefit of foreign readers, we have 11 official languages here).
You can read the piece on the M&G website, but you’ll need to create a (free) account to do so. While I understand, and have great sympathy for, their motives, the reasoning is muddled, and the conclusion incoherent.
Fridays are the day when – if I happen to walk into a store that sells newspapers – I’ll often cast a wistful gaze at the stack of Mail & Guardian papers delivered that morning, noting that my primary impulse would sooner be to straighten the stack rather than to buy a copy.
This isn’t because if you wait until Monday, the content becomes free to read online. It’s because I’ve lost my confidence in the odds of reading something worthwhile, that was so strong in the late 80’s (for its predecessor, the Weekly Mail), and continued for much of the time since then.
The original text of this column, first published in Daily Maverick.
We all find something offensive. Many of us might prefer to live in a world which caters to our sensibilities, and limits how much offence we have to tolerate. I would like for everybody to be able to spell, for example, and also for most uses of quotation marks in advertising to be outlawed. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to offer me any legal assistance towards achieving these outcomes.
Jonathan Shapiro (a.k.a. Zapiro) is an equal opportunity offender – that is, if you like to think of what he does as offensive at all. There’s no doubt that some people have been, and are, offended by some of his cartoons, but that is a separate matter from whether they are in fact offensive, objectively speaking.
His role as a social critic and commentator leads him to sometimes poke at open wounds, yes, but almost always in a way that reveals the underlying prejudices that cause significantly more harm than any harms caused by the cartoons themselves.
The cartoons challenge their audience to reflect on whether their feelings of outrage are justified, and also whether others – like Zapiro – may be justified in feeling that there is something worth critiquing, challenging, and even sometimes mocking, in opinions and beliefs that we sometimes take far too seriously.
Targets of his satire are drawn from a pool which has historically admitted just about anyone, and anything. If he has an axe to grind, that axe is most likely composed of inflated egos, undeserved reputations, malfeasance against the equal treatment and dignity of all – no matter how rich or poor, influential or invisible.
We should remember that critics of this sort, who offer a courageous perspective on current events, and try to point out details that we might be missing, serve an enormous public good. It’s very easy for all of us to end up with our heads buried in the sand, or stuck up our own (or another’s) backsides to the extent that we forget that our outrage may be ill-construed or illegitimate.
Today, Zapiro’s cartoon for the Mail & Guardian was the subject of a last-minute attempt to stifle press freedom. The Twitter feed of the unfolding events makes for interesting reading, in that Molana Bam’s primary argument appears to be the standard one where representations of Muhammad are concerned – namely, threats of violence.
Not directly, but nevertheless, the cartoon is a “threat to harmony”, and “stirs emotion”. A much larger threat to harmony, perhaps, is the struggle involved in reconciling Bronze Age beliefs with the modern world, and the curious tolerance that it requires those of us who try to govern our lives according to knowables. Tolerance, that is, of beliefs that are shared by fanatics who try to kill cartoonists and authors who represent aspects of that belief.
If you are a believer who is not inclined to fanatical – and criminal – action, you certainly should feel aggrieved when cartoons like this are published. But the cause of your aggrievement should be your less civilised brothers and sisters, who make such comment necessary – not those who make the comments.
The points made by Zapiro, as well as by past examples of this same issue, are a reminder to you to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule.
You do this most effectively from the inside, by persuading people who take faith as a way to justify paedophilia, homophobia, oppression, murder, censorship and all sorts of other social ills that they have lost their way, and that surely a god worth taking seriously would not want you to do those things.