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.

No, voyeurism is not a “human right”

Much of what I end up writing here has to do with the nuances of some or other situation. Whether I get things right or wrong is your call to make, but hopefully many of you read what I post because you at least agree that the simple or instinctive reaction is often wrong, or incomplete at best. And in another example of how hype and hyperbole can people to switch off their brains, this morning I heard a caller to Redi Tlhabi’s show trying to make the case that his human rights were being violated, as he was unable to watch or listen to all of the Oscar Pistorius trial.

I don’t know the details (I’m not following the trial, except through the occasional summary recap or meta-commentary like 6000’s archives of the “insight” our journalists are occasionally displaying on Twitter), but some things can be seen and some not, some can be live and some delayed, and so forth. Cricket bats sound like gunshots, and if you’re a white model, you get to have your “dignity” preserved in death in a way that Anene Booysen never could.

The caller thought it grossly unfair – a rights violation – that he couldn’t follow the soap-opera, even though the outcome of it makes no difference to his life. Furthermore, the fact that two courtrooms had been set up for journalists to be able to observe proceedings was also grossly iniquitous – why them and not me, Lord? As I’ve argued in a different context, if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should shouldn’t be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.

A culture of dying

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

623156_314164Kabelo Mokgweetse ran away from his initiation school in Pampierstad in November last year, to look for food. He was tracked down and thrashed with a sjambok, before having his feet burnt as further punishment. Then, he was left for dead at the side of the road, where a passing motorist happened to spot him.

Initially only his toes were amputated, but the nerve damage eventually required further surgery, where his right foot was removed in its entirety, along with most of the left. The question that’s difficult to ask – never mind answer – is whether he might prefer to instead be one of the 23 youth who recently died as a result of initiation ceremonies in Mpumalanga.

Mokgweetse and thousands of boys like him are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, undergoing ritual circumcision and being instructed about their social responsibilities. And in most years, children die in the course of “becoming men”. It’s so typical, in fact, that a government news agency can use a headline like “Traditional leaders welcome no initiation deaths”.

That headline was for a story about Limpopo in particular, and dealt with the 2010 season, where attendance at initiation schools was reportedly down by 75% thanks to the World Cup. Limpopo does seem to be a province that has taken the health of initiates particularly seriously, with deaths in the low single-figures for the past few years.

The key question that arises for outsiders like myself is this: do the children who go to initiation schools, the parents who send them there, and the Ramophato (initiation school owner) think that this is a fair price for preserving these cultural practices? And if one death is a fair price, how many would be too costly?

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools is surely that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a reinforcement of community and communal values. But if those goods can be acquired at a lower price – and they undoubtedly can be – then the dozens of deaths we’ve seen so far this year are surely not only too many, but also reason for widespread outrage as well as legal action against those responsible.

Because this is a matter of culture, though, people prefer to tread lightly, tempering their criticisms with politically correct noises about tolerance and respect. But isn’t this in itself condescending, perhaps even racist? Could we instead wonder whether, if the average adolescent in Mpumalanga knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d rather be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural instruction of this sort?

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse for all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it stands a chance of being respectable. And even then, it should never be a stand-alone justification for doing or believing something.

Culture can explain why we do things, even if they appear to be irrational to outsiders. Justification is a different matter, though – if not, how could we complain if a Eugene Terre’Blanche, for example, cites culture as a reason to keep black slaves? Culture cannot serve alone as a reason for doing something.

Equally, culture should not serve as a reason to avoid intervening when needless deaths can be avoided. Last week, a caller to Radio702 recounted his experience of an initiation school (where a close friend of his happened to have died). The caller, Sam, explained that deaths were common thanks to initiates being deprived of water until the last week of proceedings, and also poorly fed – meaning that they had few physical reserves to cope with the gruelling nature of the rituals.

Furthermore, they would also be less able to fight off infection, more common as a result of the lack of qualifications of many who perform the circumcisions. All of these factors can be managed, and to some extent have been managed in Limpopo. This is clearly not the case in Mpumalanga.

Interviewed on eNCA, the MEC for Health in Mpumalanga said that, as a woman, she couldn’t get involved. Her precise words were: “This is a tradition. This is a tradition. So in other tradition whether there are deaths or what but a woman can’t come closer to that”. A competing tradition here involves avoiding needless death, and doing your job. Someone who chooses the tradition of turning a blind eye to death deserves to lose her job, at the very least, and seems at least partly responsible for any future deaths.

Appeals to culture, tradition and the like have causality entirely back-to-front: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable norm or not. And a cultural practice in which there is no age of consent, poor or no medical oversight, and wilful ignorance on the part of government officials is problematic, to say the least.

“Only God knows who’s going to die, when” was Msebenzi Masombuka’s (a representative of King Mabhoko) comment following the deaths in Mpumalanga. Even if one does believe that, we’d still present ourselves as candidates for earlier or later deaths, through our actions or inactions.

Or sometimes, it’s others we present as candidates for an earlier death. And we sacrifice them on the altar of “culture”. In May 2013, culture killed at least 23 boys – yet we should respect it, just … because.

Freedom of (Multi)choice

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

A number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fabric have recently weighed in on DStv’s news that it is considering introducing a pay-per-view pornography channel. As previously reported by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick, Taryn Hodgson of the Christian Action Network claims that the channel will fuel the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation”, and that those who believe otherwise have “imbibed the lies of the porn industry”. Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute cites sympathetic studies (including one from a right-wing Christian organisation, and another from a high-ranking Freemason’s address during the 1989 ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ conference) which purport to demonstrate a connection between pornography and sexual violence. The trade union Solidarity claims that “children’s rights will be violated” by this channel, based on their own research indicating that “77% of molesters of boys and 87% of molesters of girls used pornography”.

Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem

The Christian Action Network’s (CAN) “international coordinator”, Taryn Hodgson, seems to be on some sort of PR offensive. Last month, she was accusing the Cape Times and Argus of denying the “hidden holocaust” of abortion, and more recently, she took time out from being upset at things to offer an apology for the lies told by CAN around an aborted debate between Peter Hammond, myself and Tauriq Moosa.