Homophobia and free speech at UCT, redux

-t2zWl54The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.

My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.

As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,

Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?

In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.

My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.

I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.

So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.

From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).

Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that

This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.

Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.

Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.

So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.

My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).

And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.

As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.

We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.

Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.

Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.

Bigotry, free speech and student politics at UCT

Zizipho Pae, current UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) Vice President, posted this Facebook status following the US Supreme Court decision to strike down same-sex marriage bans:

We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us.

pae4-592x400I wasn’t planning on saying anything about this, but the most recent rant from Error Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute is mad enough to prompt a quick response, because he – like many others – are confusing the freedom to hold odious views with a (non-existent) obligation on others to not call them out on those views, and freedom from any consequences expressing those views might incur.

Ms. Pae is free to be a homophobe. She implies that she’s not a homophobe in the video embedded below, but the facts are clear: she labels gay people sinners, and suggests that we are “normalising” sin – in other words, that they are a threat to all of our moral welfares. She has a seriously negative disposition towards gay people, in that she doesn’t want them to have the same rights as straight people.

Dress that up in whatever religious sophistry you like, but any non-religious person would regard that as plainly homophobic. Also, any person, regardless of religious persuasion, should realise that Ms. Pae is instead endorsing an (unconstitutional) ban on gay marriage. So, wrong on the morals, wrong on the law.

She can have and express these views, regardless of the fact that we might prefer that she didn’t feel inclined to such prejudice. Her prejudices are also more common than I’d like, which is exactly why we don’t put basic rights to a referendum.

But holding those views does not protect her from criticism, whether or not she thinks she’s doing a bigoted god’s bidding. The university, and the SRC, have chosen to adopt a certain set of values, and homophobia is in contrast to those values.

She was relieved of her duties as Acting President by the SRC, as they are entitled to do. She has not been suspended or disciplined by the university administration, contrary to Mr. Naidoo’s claims.

Her rights to freedom of speech are not being violated – she chose a more demanding standard than “speech without consequences” when she ran for the SRC (before that, in fact, as simply registering as a student here involves committing to promoting certain values). So, free to speak, but then we don’t want you representing us.

So, there is no “anti-Christian discrimination” here, but rather a defending of what the country, and the university, have chosen as their moral foundation, namely non-discrimination on various grounds. She chose to be part of that community, so needs to follow its rules.

Where Naidoo and Pae do have a point is only with regard to the issue of her office being vandalised, and any threats being uttered against her. Those cases need to be investigated and the offenders sanctioned.

In the meanwhile, it would be absurd to think that the SRC should tolerate homophobia in its senior structures, and perfectly reasonable for them to suspend her, pending fuller discussion and investigation.

You don’t get to insult a large proportion of the students you’re meant to represent without consequence, whether you believe in a god or not.