Free Speech

A word on Vicki Momberg

Vicki Momberg was today sentenced to serve three years in prison (with one year suspended), after being found guilty on four counts of crimen injuria relating to multiple racial slurs she uttered towards black police officers and others on November 3, 2016.

As far as I can determine, crimen injuria is a crime in South Africa, but not anywhere else. It describes serious impairments of the dignity of others, and racist speech can easily be seen as counting as such, at least under certain circumstances.

General Politics

Helen Zille and “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.

Readers will know that I’m not partial to shaming others, and that I try to avoid polarised viewpoints. I also try to apply the principle of charity – in other words, try to understand what someone was trying to say, rather than simply judging their statements based on surface-level meaning.

And while it’s fairly easy to imagine what Helen Zille thought we should take from her tweets yesterday, it’s very difficult to comprehend how someone with so much experience and knowledge of South African politics could be so naive – or ignorant – as to tweet what she did.

Morality Politics

Dealing with “unintentional racism”

Eusebius McKaiser invited me onto his radio show to talk about intentions and their role in assigning praise and blame, or more broadly, in determining the moral status of speech and action. You can listen to the podcast of the conversation, and/or read further if you’re interested in a fuller description of my views on the topic.

General Politics

What does Trump say about us?

On June 16 of 2015, a friend and I found ourselves in a New York hotel, feeling somewhat compromised after a late night and much revelry. Thanks to our throbbing heads, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s glass elevator arrival – in order to give the first of many bombastic and often fact-free speeches in support of his Presidential ambitions – invoked many sighs and “oh my god”‘s, but not much discussion.

When we did talk of it later, and in conversations that took place in subsequent months with him and others, it was oftentimes with a tone of incredulity, in that the chances of a Trump victory – or even nomination – seemed vanishingly small, and his attempt to seek the nomination therefore a simple manifestation of an ego the size of a planet (hello Marvin!).

We all know better now, of course. By which I don’t mean that the ego stuff is false – he certainly has it, and is flaunting it like only a narcissist can. But when I arrive back in NYC on June 16 this year, Trump will have been the confirmed Republican nominee for nearly two months already, with Hillary Clinton the only remaining potential “loser” for him to defeat (once Bernie Sanders gets out of the way, that is).

And one year on, the thing I want to briefly touch on is the narrative that Trump’s ascendancy has provoked in some quarters, whereby voters are being described as “irrational” or “stupid”. Some surely are either or both of these things, but there’s no reason to think – and no plausible mechanism whereby – voters suddenly become more irrational and/or stupid, en masse, in the period since the last election, or even over a generation or two.

Describing your opponents or “enemies” via abusive terms helps us to keep “our” tribe together, and helps “them” to do the same, but it involves no attempt to explain why people might make ostensibly irrational choices, nor to help us figure out how to minimise the chances of their doing so in the future.

One part of this Trump campaign (including the behaviour of his supporters at rallies) that needs explanation is not only how you can get away with talking nonsense so much of the time, but more crucially how it can be that you can get away with blatant racism and sexism while campaigning as a Presidential candidate.

And on that aspect of things, I’d encourage you to read this piece by Thomas B. Edsall, about which a friend remarked:

Edsall here gives what I think is a crucial part of the diagnosis of Trump’s success. Decades of shaming racists, nativists, sexists, and homophobes into concealment, instead of arguing with them, has been unwise but strongly institutionalized politics and now the bill has arrived.

It’s been said before, but “call-out culture” and mob shaming on the Internet might satisfy our tribal lusts, but if you’re looking to change thinking and behaviour, you might want to consider a different tactic.

Culture Politics

Meryl Streep gets sucked into Twitter’s echo chamber

You’ve no doubt heard of Meryl Streep’s response when asked what her views were on the all-white judging panel at the Berlin Film Festival. She was reported to have said “we’re all Africans, really”.

The quote was first reported by Associated Press on February 11, but then became the pretext of a number of think-pieces – most of them critical, including dismissals of her view with comments like “we thought you were better than this“.

Morality Politics

du Preez, McKaiser, racism and loaded questions

I’ve been thinking about racism a fair bit recently – not only because it’s a national preoccupation, but also because of things you likely know about already: the ongoing student and worker protests at my university (among others), and the Paris attacks over the weekend and responses to that (yes, I know “Islam is not a race“).

Another reason for the personal preoccupation is that I’m toying with the idea of writing a book on the subject, or rather a book on the concept of “whiteness” and how it influences discussions on race in South Africa. So it was with great interest that I attended Eusebius McKaiser’s Johannesburg launch of Run Racist Run last week, in which some of these issues are explored.


I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I have been following two discussions of it and its author – one, a bunch of abusive ad hominem towards McKaiser on Twitter, from people who also haven’t read the book, but think they can dismiss it on the grounds of what they think they know of the author.

Two, in a lengthy Facebook post and discussion, Max du Preez expressed dissatisfaction at being (unfairly, in his view) singled out for criticism in one of the book’s chapters.

You need to read the thread yourself for a full view, but my summary of it is that du Preez is unhappy that McKaiser reads a certain newspaper interview as containing evidence that du Preez adopts a rhetorical strategy of pointing to obvious, and odious, racism to deflect from his own, more subtle racism.

11220930_10153588730640546_4454034221720839491_nAnother discussion of the case can be found on Jason van Niekerk’s public post, which helpfully also contains a page from the book in question, reproduced alongside. My concern with how this discussion is framed on Jason’s post, as well as by McKaiser, is that it’s easy to see this as an example of a loaded or complex question. For example, “have you stopped beating your wife?”.

These questions entail any answer simply implicating you further, making it impossible for du Preez to respond in any way except to say, “you got me – I’m sorry for my subliminal racism”. In these situations, the questioner holds both absolute authority over the framing of the question, as well as the acceptability of any answer – and I don’t think that’s fair.

I don’t think du Preez would disagree in the least with how McKaiser frames the false dichotomy in the closing sentence of the image above. I also don’t think du Preez would disagree that he – and all white folk – might sometimes have a reflexive thought that is attributable to a racially discriminatory upbringing or culture.

But that isn’t what he was being asked about in the interview McKaiser focuses on. He wasn’t saying that “because I reject the racism of Bullard/Roodt/Hofmeyr, I myself am immune to criticism”. If you want to criticise him for saying that you need an example of him saying that, rather than an example of an interview where he could be read as saying that, if we choose to be uncharitable.

Here’s what van Niekerk thinks faulty about du Preez’ response, with my response below:

du Preez doesn’t mention or address the three specific claims made against him. Instead, he suggests that we can know whether he’s a racist or not by looking at his history of written work.

2 things about that.
1. That response is begging the question posed in the chapter title. du Preez is, in his response, invoking exactly the conception of racism McKaiser is calling inadequate: racism as a fixed feature of character you either embody or don’t, rather than a vicious disposition the privileged can fall into without noticing.
2. Even if he weren’t begging the question, this isn’t an issue of representative sample sizes: McKaiser has picked that article as an exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot. Other stuff du Preez has said or written that doesn’t do that wouldn’t be relevant to a discussion of that move.

It didn’t seem to me that du Preez was saying that his body of work immunises him from any accusations – rather, he’s saying that one article (which wasn’t even addressing the substantive charge being made against him by McKaiser and van Niekerk) is an unrepresentative data point.

It’s not question-begging, in other words, but (legitimately, in my view) rejecting the question as illegitimate. As I said above, I think du Preez would agree with “the conception of racism that McKaiser is calling inadequate” – he’s disagreeing that an interview of his manifests that kind of racism, because thinking it does so takes an interview given in one context (an Afrikaans newspaper, speaking mostly to a white community, where du Preez would be well aware of that and frame his responses accordingly), and interprets it as if it were offered in another context.

On the second point above, it seems to me that van Niekerk is doing the question-begging here. It’s only an “exemplary demonstration of a specific rhetorical pivot” if you assume McKaiser’s reading is correct, and I don’t think that’s obviously true at all.

More to the point, to use someone as an example of unconscious (or partly conscious) racism, when that person has neither the right of reply (pre-publication), nor the right to explain anything about how the context is relevant, seems unethical to me.

Again, if we put the simple question to du Preez, “do you think that condemning obvious and overt racists makes you, yourself immune from more disguised or subtle forms of racism, and that even you might sometimes slip into those?”, I’m pretty confident he’d say “yes”. Until you ask him that question, is it fair to read what he’s said – in another context, to a different audience, as proving a “no”?

(Disclaimer: all three of the people discussed above are (hopefully not “were”) friends of varying degrees of virtuality.)

Morality Politics

#Blackface, white noise

Blackface-Sheep-ScotlandSo you might have heard about two female students in Pretoria who recently painted their faces black, dressed up as domestic workers, and padded their behinds with pillows, just in case it wasn’t clear to anyone that they were trying to look like a certain stereotype of a black woman.

Thanks to the provocations of inane commentary on social media, a whole bunch of big names in atheism, humanism and the like now have too, and they’re consistently as bewildered as I am that people want to try and justify this idiocy.

They’re hearing about it because I’m at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford, and whenever someone asks me about South Africa, I’m currently telling them about this incident and what some responses to it tells us about how clueless some South Africans seem to be about race, and how simplistic views on free speech can end up (even if unintentionally) supporting racist attitudes.

The easy thing (for me) about the blackface case is this: I don’t think it should be illegal to be an idiot of this sort. I’m even reluctant to agree that “hate speech” is an easy enough category to recognise, and that – even if it can be recognised – that it should be illegal. This is because I’m broadly in support of J.S. Mill’s famous defence of free speech, and think that hearing hurtful things is often part of the price that individuals have to pay for society to flourish.

That’s no comfort to the person hearing the hurtful things, I know – and I also know that middle-class white males like me are seldom, if ever, the ones hearing the hurtful things. Which is why I want to remind those of you who think that “free speech” is sufficient to excuse, if not condone, the blackface incident of Isiah Berlin’s essay entitled “Two concepts of liberty”, with its reminder that negative liberties – in short, free speech as in your right to be free from my stopping you from speaking – should be contemplated alongside positive liberties.

Again, in summary, positive liberties amount to enabling conditions for being free at all – we can imagine having opportunities to speak: access to media, education, the requisite cultural capital and confidence, the absence of the fear of being mocked or derided for what one might have to say, or for how you’re dressed, or your skin colour, sex, sexual orientation and/or preferences, etc.

In other words, positive liberties amount to a bunch of the things that structural racism has compromised for the vast majority of the South African population (black South Africans), and enhanced for a small proportion of us, the white South Africans.

When someone suggests that white students wearing blackface does not impinge on anyone’s liberty, they aren’t taking the positive liberty aspect into account. They are instead relying on an understanding of rights that is technical, rather than one involving substantive rights.

Because even though we’d (well, at least I’d) like to live on a planet where we don’t have any uncontrolled or instinctive reactions to people based on arbitrary characteristics like race, we don’t live in that world yet – and black South Africans (not only South Africans – black humans) are victims of more discrimination than white ones are.

When you make a “joke” that references that discrimination, it’s likely to hurt. If you point out that “you should just get over it”, that’s likely to hurt too, because it’s callous, and because it ignores how difficult it is to just “get over” hurtful things. We all know this at least on some level, whether it’s the minor sort – perhaps being betrayed by a trusted friend – or something more significant like, say, generations of oppression alongside still living in a world that seems to ignore that oppression.

Freedom of speech isn’t the only thing that matters. It matters enough that I don’t want to ban your offensive speech – enough that I think it would be a very bad idea to do so. But it doesn’t matter enough that we can use it as a way to excuse that fact that some behaviour is inexcusable, even if it is legal.

Whether or not the women in question knew how offensive their actions were, this is no time to be making excuses for them.

Morality Religion Secularism

Does atheism entail anti-discrimination?

No_discrimination_signI recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.

If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.

Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.

Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.

Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.

So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

Freedom of speech doesn’t come with a guaranteed audience

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Phumlani-Mfeka-e1369903581366-250x250During one of Dara Ó Briain’s stand-up shows, he ridicules the way that panel discussions sometimes include lunatic views “for balance” (watch the clip below). His target in this skit is homeopathy and pseudoscience more broadly, but the general point he makes is that we aren’t obliged to offer a platform to any opposing view, no matter how entitled the holder of that view might be to believing what they do.

We can distinguish between your moral right to believing in something, rights to free expression of that belief, and then any obligations that others might have to listen to or even publish that belief. Crucially, defenders of free speech are not inconsistent in refusing to entertain any given view – they would need to actually attempt to stop you from expressing it.

What this means is that censorship, or violations of your freedom of expression, would typically only be something that a government could do. But when we speak of controversial things in the media – for example racism – there seems to be a view that not publishing racist rants constitutes censorship.

The City Press generated a debate on exactly this issue last week, when they chose to publish an anti-Indian screed by Phumlani Mfeka in which he reminds Indian citizens that they have never been comrades, and that they should “realise that Africans in this province [KZN] do not regard Indians as their brethren and thus the ticking time bomb of a deadly confrontation between the two communities is inevitable”.

Some of us were quick to denounce the publication of this piece as an instance of editorial failure, for reasons that I hope to make clear here. I also want to argue that refusing to publish a piece such as the one in question violates nobody’s rights to free expression, and is certainly no betrayal of your covenant with readers.

To start at the end: a newspaper can’t be obliged to publish everything. Someone on Twitter told me that “media must reflect all opinion to allow rebuttal”, but this is quite clearly nonsensical. If all opinions must be included, all publications would need to be infinite in length (and could never in fact go to print, since you’d have to spend an infinity looking for the nth variation of any given opinion).

Secondly, that view is nonsensical because editorial decisions to include or exclude content are are made all the time, for various reasons. One piece might be cut due to space considerations, another because it’s dated, and yet another because it’s too poorly written. And then, we can also choose to not publish something because it’s rubbish.

In whose view is it rubbish, I imagine some asking? The editor’s view is the answer – for that is his or her job. The editor has a certain vision for what the newspaper should carry, and for what sorts of ideals or ideas it is intended to highlight. Neither the City Press – nor, fortunately, most of our newspapers – carries horoscopes. Yet we would not humour an astrologer’s claims that his (I use the masculine because I’m reminded of Primedia’s CapeTalk567, who give stargazer Rod Suskin a full hour every week) right to free speech is being violated as a result.

So the City Press could have chosen to not publish the piece in question, without violating anyone’s rights. While it’s true that we sometimes want to hear what the racists are saying – both as a safeguard against soporific versions of the Rainbow Nation narrative, and in order to expose and rebut them, no particular newspaper is obliged to give space to particular types of bigotry.

Choosing to include content like this signals either inconsistency (why anti-Indian racism, and not homophobia, blasphemy, or articles advocating incest – they all raise “debate”, after all) or a willingness to enter the tabloid space, where you stop pretending to have editorial standards at all, and just pander to sensation.

The column has become a springboard for debate, in that we’ve already seen responses from the editor, Ferial Haffajee, and others. But while debate can be constructive and even sometimes necessary, let’s not make the mistake of assuming that it’s always any of these, nor that you can’t have this debate without publishing the likes of Mfeka.

While we know that racism exists and is even fairly prevalent, it nevertheless comes in different degrees of sophistication. This is true for all views, and we – as editors, publishers or simply conversationalists – indicate what our minimum standards of coherence and sense are through which of those views we decide to engage with.

If there are sophisticated racists out there, and we imagine ourselves to be a sophisticated discussant, we’ll talk to them rather than to Hendrik Verwoerd. Likewise, we might discuss same-sex marriage with someone other than the leader of Westboro Baptist Church, and evolution with someone who at least agrees that the earth is more than 6000 years old.

What we might prefer not to do is talk to, or publish, views that are so simple-minded that the only function they can serve is as a springboard for ridicule (if you’re feeling uncharitable) or sympathy (if you’re not). This has no bearing on anyone’s right to hold that view, or your right to publish it.

But those rights don’t come with the obligation to publish. And as a superb recent essay by Mark Rowlands puts it, the reader has the right “to be completely uninterested in views that you find stupid or abhorrent”.

It is of course up to those who manage content to decide what to publish. But just as readers can and will ignore some views, it’s a small step from ignoring views to ignoring platforms for those views. The racist, misogynistic or homophobic trolls have enough places to congregate already – let’s not give them the City Press too?

City Press Editor-in-Chief, Ferial Haffajee, has subsequently commented on the reasoning behind publishing Mfeka’s piece.

Academia and teaching Morality Politics

On that “most attractive race” thing in the UCT student newspaper

So, this peculiar thing appeared in the UCT student newspaper, Varsity, earlier in the week:

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 9.46.51 AM

A couple of people have asked whether I’d be writing about it. To one, I replied that it was “too silly”. Which it is. But even sillier than this is the news that the Young Communist League are apparently going to report Varsity to the Human Rights Commission (they are “shocked and disgusted“, you see).

For context, a couple of details: To repeat, this is a student newspaper, and it is not edited or subject to any pre-publication controls by any official agents of the University administration or staff. Second, it was published in the opinion pages, and third, it was an accompaniment to this article – in fact, it’s a graphical representation of the results of Qamran Tabo’s straw poll of 60 students.

Yes, 60 students. So, Varsity chose a stupid headline for the graphic, in that “UCT” haven’t voted on anything. Varsity no doubt chose the headline to attract attention, seeing as that is what headlines are for. But an attention-grabbing headline on such a sensitive topic should perhaps be chosen with more care.

As, of course, should be what you choose to publish in the first place, or how much you edit what’s been submitted. Presenting this as quasi-scientific was an error, as the editor concedes.  It’s not just the sample size, it’s also the peculiar way in which the sample was drawn. Tabo chose to survey 10 individuals from each of the following “racial groups”: “white, coloured (culturally), Indian, East Asian, biracial and African”. Now, Tabo doesn’t define how she knew who was who here, and whether they are all self-identified (as “culturally coloured” surely must be). Anyway – let’s leave it at that, agreeing that the pie-chart is a reflection of what these students reported, and nothing to do with UCT as a whole.

But even if it was about UCT as a whole, it’s still possible that – for whatever reason, but mostly for a reason Tabo cites (the preponderance of white people presented as attractive in popular media) – a larger group of people would report this same preference. And this would be a reflection of racism in popular culture, yes, where certain appearances are normalised as attractive, and others not. Furthermore, it’s a great shame that this is so prevalent, and so persuasive, that it’s probably the case that a large number of students (and others) have “fallen for it”, as it were.

It wouldn’t necessarily be racist to point this out, though. Saying “students report that they find race x more attractive than race y” (and please, throughout this blog post, assume the quotation marks around “race”) can simply be reporting a fact. The idea that humans might “rank” races on any characteristic is of course offensive, particularly in South Africa or anywhere (okay, everywhere then) where people have been oppressed as a result of their race. But the author knows this, and starts by reports the fact (for the 60 students) of these preferences, before going on to conclude:

Of course everyone has the right to choose who they want as a romantic partner, but it is interesting to observe how race, which is really just a collection of arbitrary physical features, acts as a barrier when it comes to who we choose to love.

Having been at UCT and in South Africa long enough, I have come to realise that we would have better luck creating a research wing at Med School dedicated to cloning white people to feed the demand than trying to understand the origins of some our supposed “preferences”. Hopefully one day, when the world’s entire population becomes creolised, characters will be the only deciding factor for who we want to date.

And that’s just right, surely? The author decries the fact that these students use an arbitrary characteristic, rather than someone’s character, to determine who they would like to date. There’s nothing racist about the conclusion, and it can’t be racist to report that people do have these (potentially racist) preferences. This really does seem a storm in a tea-cup, caused by little more than a poor headline and social media hysteria.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously argued with regard to the dos Santos and Tshidi cases, even real racist speech should perhaps not be reported to the HRC, and we certainly shouldn’t feed the pitchfork-wielding mobs of outraged folk on social media, because they’ll simply start feeling more entitled to bully us into silence the more they succeed in doing so. I confess I fell for it too, yesterday, when I described this as “embarrassing” for UCT on Twitter.

It is embarrassing, sure – but it’s also embarrassing that our knees jerk so quickly, and so violently, when anyone mentions the fact that people do still think in racial terms, regardless of the fact that we wish they wouldn’t. Outrage won’t make the problem go away, and neither will pretending that people don’t have attitudes we wish they didn’t.

[Edit]Related: I thought it was a mistake for UCT (the Vice-Chancellor, in fact) to apologise for the “blasphemous” Sax Appeal in 2009. They certainly shouldn’t apologise for this.[/edit]