Woolworths offends the Christians

Those of you on Facebook can enjoy a few minutes of entertainment at the expense of some frothing at the mouth fundumbentalists, who are incensed at Woolworths’ decision to pull some Christian magazines from their shelves. The very Christian homophobe Errol Naidoo was quick out of the starting blocks, sending out a newsletter headlined “Christianity Not Welcomed At Woolies!” while the story was breaking on News24 and TimesLive.

Naidoo is apparently suffering from some memory loss to accompany his dementia. He says: “This is an injustice! Historically, when Christians complain about smut or blasphemy in magazines in retail outlets, they are lectured about freedom of expression and freedom of speech”. Well, perhaps some of us lecture you lot on those pillars of democracy (along with occasional reminders to you to refrain from prejudice and asshole-ness), but it doesn’t often stop you getting your way.

Remember the time when Christians complained about Sax Appeal being blasphemous, and Pick ‘n Pay responded by pulling it from shelves? Or perhaps the time when Christian outrage got DSTV to cancel their plans for a porn channel? What about the fact that a Deputy Minister of Home Affairs is currently taking you seriously in your efforts to control the internet, or a Deputy Chief Justice appearing at a launch event for a charter which hopes to eliminate criticism of religion?

No, good Christian folk (and all the others), there’s no way to justify a claim that you’re some sort of oppressed minority. From the examples cited above, to the obviously (and obviously proselytizing) Amy Brooke on Etv, you get plenty of preferential treatment. And taking that away – in efforts to have our country be the secular nation it’s supposed to be, according to our Constitution – is not discrimination. I’m afraid that you’re competing in an open marketplace, and have to contend with all the other woo-merchants for your hold on the hearts and minds of our gullible population. In a society where 87% self-identify as Christian, I’d say you’re doing fairly well.

As people were quick to remind me at the time of the Pick ‘n Pay/Sax Appeal issue, the economic motivations for decisions such as these need to be separated from the ideological ones. I thought that Pick ‘n Pay (and UCT) offered a weasely and accommodationist response to the outrage, and that they needn’t have done so – they could simply have said that some customers find the magazine offensive, and stocking it would hurt business. That would have been fine, as it wouldn’t have endorsed the outrage, and would have protected the brand while allowing us to find our blasphemous material elsewhere.

In this case,the magazines Lig, Leef, Joy and Juig are freely available elsewhere, including the delightfully-named CUM Books. Woolworths have made a small PR-blunder by offering two different reasons for their decision to stop stocking these magazines, but both reasons are entirely acceptable. On one account, “Woolworths has had a policy in place for many years of not stocking political & religious magazines in their stores”. If this is true, it would not mean, as some commenters on Facebook claim it does, that they would have to stop stocking Time, Newsweek and the daily papers. These might have an editorial slant, but they are not explicit mouthpieces of particular ideologies. Newspapers and magazines which are would certainly also have to be pulled under such a policy, but fortunately, the apparent collapse of New Age might save us from that particular problem.

The second suggested reason for the decision is that the titles in question don’t sell many copies, and that it is thus a waste of shelf-space for Woolworths, who could instead be stocking more profitable titles. We can’t really argue with that, unless Christians would like to subsidise a stand for their favourite godly titles? If they can make a sound business proposition to Woolworths, I’m sure they’ll find some receptive ears over there.

For all the time I’ve shopped in this country, I’ve never encountered a copy of Skeptical Enquirer, or any title that overtly espouses an anti-religious agenda. It was, and is, an imbalance for general-interest stores to stock magazines that are representative of only one religious option, and Woolworths have done a fine thing by choosing not to stock these titles, regardless of their motives for doing so. As one person pointed out on Facebook, it’s also a consistent move, given that Woolworths have an existing “policy of removing things that are past their sell by dates”.

Naidoo goes on to say:

It now appears that Christians are the only group in South Africa not protected by these freedoms.

I have been addressing anti-Christian bigotry for more than a decade. Christianity always seem to get singled out for abuse because Christians typically shrug their shoulders and move on with life.

However, if we continue in this attitude, we will soon have nothing to defend. Christian media is the most effective means of promoting Christian truth in a society dominated by the liberal media.

Woolworth’s unilateral decision to kick Christian magazines out of their stores for no good reason is another troubling example of anti-Christian bigotry in South Africa – and it must be stopped!

As should be clear to anyone who stops to think about it (this unfortunately excludes the bulk of those offended), it instead now appears that Christians will no longer enjoy preferential treatment, at least in the magazine aisles of Woolworths. This is as it should be. And while it may be true that Christian media is the most effective way of promoting “Christian truth” (what’s wrong with, you know, the truth?), it’s unclear why one version of truth should get special privileges, especially when you can get your fairy dust elsewhere.

Unfortunately, what we could see happen next is for the outraged Christians to follow through on their threats to boycott Woolworths, and take their business to Pick ‘n Pay (yes, a staunch Christian family owns that one), with this in turn causing Woolworths to back down. Let’s hope not, seeing as Woolworths have offered two perfectly sensible reasons to stop stocking the magazines, and Christians should simply get used to be treated the same way as normal people.

In the meanwhile, hopefully we can enjoy shorter queues at Woolworths. And if you’re gay, you might no longer get those funny stares from the likes of Naidoo.

P.S. Here’s the Naidoo newsletter (pdf) if you want to read it. Here at Synapses, we’re happy to stock offensive titles such as this.

Update: It took Woolworths just a few hours to buckle under the pressure exerted by the hypersensitive. The magazines are going back on the shelves.

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.