Virgin Active(ly) embracing incoherence

Virgin Active, the international chain of sports clubs, is in danger of having me boycott them by no longer swiping my card three times a month before walking out (in order to preserve my nearly-free membership).

This is thanks to my outrage bemusement (although outrage is far more fashionable) at their incoherent response to a recent controversy at their Old Eds branch in Johannesburg, where a certain Mr Desai was told that he was not permitted to wear a T-shirt supporting the South African chapter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

A number of Tweets poked fun at Virgin Active for their stance on this, but what I want to focus on is their press statement, which tells us that they want their clubs to be both neutral spaces and also ones that “accommod[ate] the rights and freedoms of all members”.

One of our freedoms in South Africa is freedom of expression, with the exception of speech that constitutes “propaganda for war; incitement of imminent violence; or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

Regardless of how strongly you as reader might feel about who the biggest baddie is between Israel and Palestine, Mr Desai identifying himself as a supporter of the BDS movement does not entail meeting any of the listed grounds for restricting his speech.

The Virgin Active media statement is screen-grabbed below, in case it gets taken down for some reason. But here are the bits I’d like to draw to your attention:

We are not in the business of restricting speech or policing personal behaviour unless it contravenes the club rules, the law or carries some kind of threat to the safety of staff and members. In all instances we seek a negotiated solution to any perceived conflict.

Lovely. So, as far as sentence one goes, why did you restrict Desai’s speech in this case? If you thought that there was an imminent threat to the “safety of staff and members”, that would surely only have come from people who decided to respond to Desai’s T-shirt with violence – and if they had done so, it would be the perpetrators of violence who should be ejected, seeing as that would presumably violate club rules.

The T-shirt worn by Mr Desai generated strong complaints from fellow members at the Old Eds club and he was politely requested by management not to wear it in future. He aggressively declined this request and said he would force entry if he was refused.

Sure, the complaints are understandable, and perhaps to be expected. And your response should be, “sorry, but he has a right to wear that T-shirt. You have the option of not looking in his direction, if you think that will help, but we have no grounds on which to refuse him permission to exercise.”

And, seeing as barring him from entry would surely be illegal, seeing as there are no club rules involving not wearing political T-shirts, I can understand Desai’s response regarding being barred entry in the future (although he’d of course likely be in trouble himself when “forcing entry”).

When he appeared at the club, clearly intent on making a political statement and generating confrontation, management were genuinely concerned about the potential consequences and called on the police to intervene.

Yes, a political statement that you in part initiated, by telling him that he had no freedom of speech in your club. And again, if confrontation was generated, it wouldn’t necessarily be him that was to blame – a price of admission to adult society is dealing with things that upset you without resorting to violence, and if someone attacked Desai, it’s the attacker who is at fault.

This is a situation we have never encountered before and we have learned valuable lessons. We need to make it clear that no legal item of clothing is banned from Virgin Active clubs but we would hope that members would understand the need for both tolerance and respect in this space.

Sure, it would be lovely if everyone played by your preferred (yet not legally proscribed) rules. But what if they don’t? In saying that no legal item of clothing is banned, you’re saying that Desai may wear the T-shirt. You might hope he doesn’t, but what if he doesn’t care about that hope?

We do not believe our clubs should be forums for contentious political activity. Mr Desai has not been banned and is welcome to return to train as a member as long as he respects the conditions of membership.

And the conditions of membership don’t involve not being able to wear a BDS T-shirt, right? So, what is it you’re saying? That he can wear it? In which case, why isn’t this press statement instead saying something like “we understand that Mr Desai’s T-shirt upset some of you. Sorry about that, but you’ll have to cope”.

We have sought an urgent personal meeting with Mr Desai to discuss our position. Any member who made provable threats on our premises of physical violence against Mr Desai, or any member on any occasion, will have their membership reviewed and possibly terminated.

Well, I hope that your position will emerge with a bit more clarity in that meeting than it does here. And I’m glad to hear you won’t let Mr Desai get beaten up in the meanwhile.

Postscript: Virgin Active have now conceded that they were in error to bar entry to Mr Desai.

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By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.