Fleshing out free speech

Towards the end of last year, a man walked into a police station in Estcourt and said‚ “I’m tired of eating human flesh.”

Arrests and international headlines followed, including allegations that hundreds of folk were engaged in light social cannibalism. The whole furore died down in a week or so, although the trial is still ongoing. South Africans tended to be awkward and pretty silent, considering, as we invariably are when a taboo topic takes centre stage.

Columnist Tom Easton, in a satirical masterpiece, wrote at the time: “But I also wonder if the muted reaction of the commentary machine reflects a fear of treading on toes in a morally relativistic world. Of course cannibalism is abhorrent (we tell ourselves) but‚ wait‚ is it? What’s the current consensus on Twitter? What if those people had a religious or cultural motive? Is it discriminatory to object to religious cannibalism? I mean‚ Christians pretend to do it every Sunday‚ so is the problem the idea or just the execution? Isn’t this just some sort of extreme Banting?”

I thought his article was hilarious. Others were deeply offended, both from religious and cultural perspectives.

And therein lies the rub. What to do when someone says or writes something some people consider offensive? Or, heaven forbid, thinks something offensive?

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille also offended some people last year when she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure etc.”

In a report released on Monday, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said that Zille’s conduct was tantamount to improper conduct in terms of the Constitution, as well as violating the Executive Ethics Code. Zille, she pronounced, did not show concern and respect for those who were victims of apartheid and colonialism, and the tweet had impacted negatively on certain people’s dignity.

It occurred to me that we seem to be spending far more time discussing how to restrict free speech at the moment, than how to defend and extend it.

In his book Trigger Warning, journalist Mick Hume argues that the fear of being offensive is killing free speech across the world. He argues that free speech is under siege from three main enemies in the modern age: official censors in government and the courts, unofficial censors (whom he describes as “the witch-hunting Twitter mobs and online petitioners pursuing and trying to silence everybody whose views are not to their taste”), and self-censorship.

One expects censorship from government and politicians. They have to keep in power somehow and shutting up opponents is a superb way of keeping people from thinking. But when ordinary members of society turn into Speech Police, then we have a problem, and when folk begin to be too frightened to say anything in case they get in trouble, then we have a crisis.

Hume argues that universities, for example, should be citadels of open-minded inquiry and freedom of speech, but campuses have become major new fronts in the war on free speech: “What beggars belief is that it is now students and academics themselves who are joining campus authorities in trying to impose new limits on free speech and free thinking…far from being ivory-towered bastions of freedom, our Universities have come to see themselves more as a womb-like fortress to protect young people from dangerous words and ideas”.

It’s a dangerous trend, these overly protective pinions. We can’t have this person talking to us – they don’t conform to the accepted trend of thought about this issue. We can’t have that comedian performing – they’re far too offensive. This creeping crusade for conformism in thought and speech is permeating the world, and increasingly across the globe people are fined and/or imprisoned for speaking a word someone else finds offensive. Things have reached a point in this country where a single word that may never have been intended to offend in the first place, becomes a national issue of political controversy, wasting time and money that could be far better used elsewhere.

And all is condoned by the spineless self-censorship of intellectual invertebrates.

Free speech is one of the pillars of any democracy. As Hume points out, the terrible truth about free speech is not a question of endorsing whatever objectionable or stupid things might be said or written. Nor is it a question of being a doormat and suffering somebody else’s nonsense in silence. Free speech means we all get access to free speech: we must defend it for all, or not at all.

Instead we constantly emphasise the limits to free speech, the exceptions. We forget that “offence” is a subjective standard, and instead censor or ban people not for threatening public order or inciting people to violence, but instead for hurting someone’s feelings or making them feel uncomfortable. We are punishing for words, not deeds.

Humans have the right to choose what they listen to or read, and that is the flipside of freedom of speech. Zille never forced anyone to read her tweet – they chose to do so.

May we always be free enough to think what we like, and say what we think.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in June 2018.

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