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The dark side of free speech

TAKING A STAND: A protest outside the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg against "The Spear" painting which depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed recently. Photo: ALON SKUY
TAKING A STAND: A protest outside the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg against "The Spear" painting which depicted President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed recently. Photo: ALON SKUY

DEMOCRACY is a function of conditions, aspirations, history and cultural experiences of any society. It is grounded in reality.

Now and then, societies tweak certain aspects of their foundational principles to respond to the challenges of the day.

In constitutional democracies, this takes the form of constitutional amendments. These would include removing stipulations, or introducing new ones, at times adding further statements for refinement to address societal concerns.

Put bluntly, democracy is about people and their sovereignty.

But society is made up of social actors, individuals who initiate change - these include politicians, professionals, artists and ordinary citizens.

Depending on their orientation, each has the capacity to push social boundaries to test the limits of constitutional provisions.

Artists, writers, satirists and cartoonists have been adept in pushing and expanding the boundaries regarding what is socially, morally, and culturally acceptable.

As can be expected, their engagement often creates some form of social discomfort. Theirs is to "disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed".

For its part, society gives them leeway in how far they can go in providing social critique.

There is, however, a difference between being robustly critical and being downright rude, hateful and disrespectful.

The challenge is even greater in the context of a culturally diverse community. It calls for sensitivity and not arrogance.

Given what passes as public commentary these days, it seems that we have reached a stage where we should be asking fundamental questions. Should freedom of expression allow us to violate the dignity of others? Who draws the line between freedom of expression and gratuitous insults?

Not surprisingly, when challenged, various artists and cartoonists, particularly and largely white, have responded by stating that their perceived offence is not limited to other racial groups. In other words, they are "equal opportunity offenders".

As such, they are entitled to offend anyone who they consider to be a suitable target. Some are quick to produce their Struggle credentials as if this, by itself, immunises them from the virus of racism.

They may even produce the usual useful blacks who are always eager to agree with them. This might be so, but it does not detract from the fact that a significant majority experience their artwork as racially offensive cartoons.

Under the guise of freedom of expression, they hurl racially tinged insults with gay abandon. The higher the public office an individual holds, the more gratuitous and virulent the insults.

And protests by black people are irrelevant.

Indeed, protests assume that one is dealing with rational individuals. But we are dealing with swollen-headed individuals who have become "drunk by the power of their pen". Their supremacist ideas blind them to the hurt and insult they inflict on others.

It would seem that their arrogance is almost akin to a death wish. Perhaps Shakespeare is correct in observing that "those that the gods want to destroy, they first make mad".

In their book, Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Mel Sikes echo the sentiments of many scholars in their observation that "being white in the world" enables whites to see race issues and concerns with some form of detachment.

This detachment allows them to view black responses to insults and mistreatment as an over-reaction. But such insults reflect a litany of events, large and small, that are a daily experience of their brethren.

We can be arrogant about this and dismiss the sense of grievance. Alternatively, we can be humble and accept that we do not hold a monopoly of wisdom in human affairs.

Insults are not an invitation for rational engagement. They are a form of violence. We should therefore not act surprised when they are met with physical violence.

In his lecture on Bigotry and Freedom of Speech, Professor Mahmood Mamdani reminded us of how anti-Semitic cartoons created afertile ground for the Holocaust.

The publisher of the German magazine was subsequently tried at Nuremberg and executed.

Mamdani reminds us also that "the International Tribunal in Arusha has pinned criminal responsibility for the genocide not just on those who executed it but also on those who imagined it, including intellectuals, artists and journalists.

"The Rwandan trials are the latest to bring out the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalise free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice".

It would seem to me that it is possible to provide a sharp political and social critique without being rude and insulting.

Insults, from whatever source, dehumanise and lead to the vulgarisation of public space.

We can reverse the trend by learning to differ civilly and intelligently but still provide sharp critique.

To conclude, it is important to appreciate that protest, by its nature reflects a state of powerlessness.

Those with power act and the powerless are resigned to protest. And history teaches us supremacist ideas are never defeated through protest or dialogue.

The Jewish and Muslim communities understand this very well. You do not mess with them. The sooner black people understand that power concedes to nothing but power, the better.

  • Professor Seepe is a political commentator

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