Our free speech problem – Politicsweb, 25 July 2016

Sara Gon says that here, as in the West, incivility kills off rational debate and discussion.

By Sara Gon

When Incivility Rules, Free Speech Dies

“Incivility is not a Vice of the Soul, but the effect of several Vices; of Vanity, Ignorance of Duty, Laziness, Stupidity, Distraction, Contempt of others, and Jealousy.” - Jean de La Bruyère, 17th century French essayist and moralist.

Mark Oppenheimer’s experienced (Free Speech: A Vanishing Right Politicsweb, 18 July 2016) verbal attacks by self-appointed opinion-makers who belittled and insult him in the name of political rectitude.

At “Think!Fest”, a series of lectures and panel discussions held at the Grahamstown Arts Festival, Oppenheimer attended a panel discussion on the merits of a total state subsidisation of tertiary education.

The panel was chaired by Judge Dennis Davis with panellists Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela, and Lindsay Maarsdorp, an activist from Black First Land First.

During the Q&A session Oppenheimer indicated he wanted to ask a question. He was asked to give his name before asking his question. When he said ‘Oppenheimer’ he was jeered. In response he made what he thought was the tongue-in-cheek remark that “I was from the Oppenheimer family who had oppressed most of the people in the room.”

At this all hell broke loose. Maarsdorp shouted repeatedly that Oppenheimer did not have a right to speak.

Anthea Garman, an associate professor of journalism and the convener of Think!Fest, said:

“Our opinions are not equal here, they are embedded in our histories, in our exclusions and in our races’ positions… When white people speak, they take advantage of the fact that the Constitution allows them an extraordinarily huge amount of privilege to continue to obscure… You are going to have to own the fact that you tried to sidestep your name and what your name means in this space… The resort to the Constitution, in which everybody has equal voice does not obtain in this moment, in this context, at this time. These voices have different weight, different histories and there is a great deal of fraught contestation about it.”

Maarsdorp proclaimed: “The status quo is anti-black, at a constitutional level, in terms of the land and in terms of this person sitting here… His whole existence, it plays out black oppression.”

Oppenheimer could certainly not be accused of “side stepping” his own name. Nor could his detractors be accused of having a sense of humour. But the event occurred at a university, an environment not much associated with self-derision or humour.

However, neither Maasdorp nor Garman had any idea as to what Oppenheimer’s opinion was nor what question he was going to ask.

Garman and Maasdorp appropriated the right to determine whether Opperman could speak or not. If anyone had similarly appropriated Maasdorp’s or Garman’s rights, there would have been howls of outrage about racism and misogyny.

Appropriation is a distinct feature of protest and argument in South Africa. Although its origins don’t lie in South Africa. They lie in the political correctness on campuses in North America and Britain. Political opinion is now in the supreme domain of a self-chosen few and is expressed uncivilly.

The Economist (The colliding of the American mind June 4, 2016) discussed as ominous the claims made by protesters for the supremacy of their subjective judgments. Examples are that black people know best when they are being racially demeaned; or that women can best distinguish between a compliment and harassment.

The Economist opined that while this may be true, a powerful riposte is that to function, society relies on impartial adjudication of wrongs, especially in an era of multiculturalism, with its attendant frictions. Prejudice may indeed abound, but for officials to intervene a claim must not merely be alleged; it must be proven. A situation cannot just be what someone thinks it is; facts must support it. Fairness demands evidence.

“The idea that any group’s experience is inaccessible to others is not just pessimistic but anti-intellectual: history, anthropology, literature and many other fields of inquiry are premised on the faith that different sorts of people can, in fact, understand each other.”

Claire Fox in Generation Snowflake: how we train our kids to be censorious cry-babies (The Spectator 4 June 2016) writes that young people who cry offence are not feigning hurt — generational fragility is a real phenomenon. They are genuinely distressed by ideas that run contrary to their worldview. Even making a general case for free speech can lead to gasps of disbelief.

But the most sobering observation Fox makes is that this generation’s hypersensitivity is often combined with an almost belligerent sense of entitlement. A self-esteem culture encourages adults to tiptoe around children’s sensitivities and accede to their opinions, lest their wellbeing be damaged.

The appropriation of opinion encourages a culture of “superior victimhood”. The sense of injustice becomes supreme through a failure to appreciate the oppression of others. The “superior victims” cannot engender empathy for any other group.

In South Africa this is exacerbated by a lack of historical knowledge and context. Knowledge of South African history is at best selective and lacks nuance, and at worst is poor. Terrible as it was Apartheid was not the world’s only, nor necessarily its worst, systematic gross human rights abuse. There are people in this country who have been affected by such other horrors.

Ironically given the evolution of social media, free speech has become the enemy. Instead of choosing not to attend talks and express views in opposition, angry students have chosen the totalitarian option of deciding to whom others should or should not listen.

Those who are constantly derided withdraw from the debate. Human nature isn’t presupposed to allowing oneself to be abused repeatedly. If opposing views withdraw then debate cannot happen.

As The Economist says activists are entitled to protest, but when they decry counter-arguments as tantamount to violence, they stray into censorship.

The Economist describes such behaviour as “the lamentable fruit of modernity’s least appetising traits: mollycoddling parenting, a sub-Freudian narcissism, a hypochondriacal sense of entitlement and a social-media ecosystem that reinforces insularity and cultivates an expectation of instant response.”

In our own student protests and much of our public debate, there is cruel harassment of people deemed “oppressors” or “racists” solely on the basis of their skin colour.

Ultimately reliance on incivility to persuade an opponent means that the aggressors lose before they start. Rational people will be wary of the merits of an argument pursued uncivilly.

The February 2016 RMF protests over the accommodation crisis at the University of Cape Town have been shown to be baseless. RMF’s appalling behaviour included throwing sewerage into buildings, an act of visceral baseness made infamous by (the now disgraced and interdicted) Chumani Maxwele at the start of the original RMF protests in March 2015.

Tactics at our universities have included assaults, threats, barging into meetings, jumping on tables, abuse and humiliation of staff, hostage-taking, and 100s of millions of rands worth of destruction including arson. This isn’t debate; it’s crime.

Most of us hold the freedom of speech to be sacrosanct: we accept the inalienable right of others to express opposing and often odious views.

However, there are those who do not accord the rest of us the same right. Examples abound: Maxwele, Garman and Maasdorp; RMF “Oxford activist” and slayer of waitresses, Ntokozo Qwabe and much of the social media, both white and black.

Even UCT management has accepted “disruption at public events and lectures…, in the interests of promoting a constructive engagement with all groups. We will continue to do this provided the engagement is lawful, peaceful and respectful.” (How UCT is stepping up transformation, Max Price, Politicsweb 11 March 2016). This is very disturbing - disruption is never acceptable.

One does wonder how the parents and grandparents of these nastily opinionated students feel about their young, inexperienced and privileged off-spring showing such disdain, disrespect and hatred for others.

Perhaps the root of the incivility is the untrammelled freedom offered by social media, particularly the ability to criticise anonymously. For centuries, if a member of the public in a democracy writes a letter to a newspaper, he or she has to identify themselves with their name and address. Further, editors reserve the right to edit the letter or not to print it at all. This discourse is democratic, but it is still subject to rules. It forces writers to structure their thoughts and wording.

Social media has no rules. A person can use a pseudonym and express unbridled, inarticulate hatred. If the discourse becomes too uncivil, the editors lose discretion and control. So sites tend to shut down their comments sections completely. Debate ceases.

The Economist quaintly calls such protest “impolite”. We refer to incivility. Perhaps the best adjective is the one used by Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Free State.

Jansen describes such behaviour as “vulgar”. In a chapter entitled “Vulgarity tip of amoral iceberg” at page 223 in his 2011 book “We Need to Talk (Bookstorm), Jansen discusses how our leaders bow to the demands of the vulgar.
Jansen was writing three years before the RMF protests but he could have been talking about the student protests of 2015/16. He uses the example of a child who throws a tantrum for not getting ice cream before dinner. Logically, good parents discipline the child and do not give in. He says the same should apply to university management of student protests. Giving in to student demands led to the bankrupting of universities in the 1990s and a culture of violent protests became common-place, vulgar.


Jansen defines vulgarity as “conspicuously and tastelessly indecent”. He says when this becomes normal in a society, the immediate consequence is that human relationships suffer and human beings begin to turn on each other. Then the rules of common decency no longer apply. Maxwele’s original act of faeces throwing is this writ large. Justice would have demanded that he clean it up. He didn’t. His act of indecency had to remedied by university employees.

A functioning society depends upon a compact between each citizen that they will accord each other the respect to live their lives, hold their opinions and vote as they so choose.

If you are intolerant and refuse to understand others, they will eventually ignore and disregard you. The RMF movement has suffered this fate but that is only after management asserted the university’s rights not to tolerate criminal behaviour.

Legendary American sports photographer John G Zimmerman said “Incivility is the extreme of pride; it is built on the contempt of mankind.”

Hillel, born in 110 BCE, was one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He founded a dynasty of sages who led the Jews living in Israel until about the fifth century AD.

Hillel formulated the one rule that encapsulated all of Judaism, which is the expression of the ethic of reciprocity: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Hillel said that this was the entire essence of the bible. Everything else, he said, is commentary.

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.

Read the article on Politicsweb here.

© 2018 South African Institute of Race Relations
CMS Website by Juizi

Copyright | Accuracy Guarantee | Sponsors & Donors