Checked speech is the fundamental tool of unchecked power - Businesslive

15 May 2022 - Among the most wrong-headed observations of recent times is the jarring misstatement in a tweet by the Johannesburg bureau chief of The New York Times, John Eligon, that “Elon Musk grew up in a South Africa that saw the dangers of unchecked speech”.

Michael Morris
Among the most wrong-headed observations of recent times is the jarring misstatement in a tweet by the Johannesburg bureau chief of The New York Times, John Eligon, that “Elon Musk grew up in a South Africa that saw the dangers of unchecked speech”.  

The tweet was about an article on potential Twitter owner Musk, co-written by Eligon and Lynsey Chutel, and was self-evidently meant to cast doubt on Musk’s free-speech credentials. I cannot vouch for the Tesla tsar’s intellectual instincts, but I can say with unqualified certainty that Musk — like the rest of us born before 1994 — grew up in a country fundamentally defined by the dangers of checked speech.

It’s barely explicable that someone whose whole existence depends on the absence of any form of restraint on facts or ideas should even remotely imply that “unchecked speech” is anything less than a virtue.

Yet, while I suspect The New York Times might be tempted to consider vetting staffers’ tweets to reduce its exposure to ridicule, I understand what Eligon thought he was — rather clumsily — trying to get at: just how deep is the reach of unchecked power in infiltrating the inner life of people and manipulating how they think. Checked speech is, of course, the fundamental instrument of unchecked power.

Eligon’s full tweet doesn’t really get this across with any intelligent effect: “Elon Musk grew up in a South Africa that saw the dangers of unchecked speech: apartheid govt propaganda fuelled violence against black people. Musk didn’t experience that. He grew up in a bubble of white privilege” — but his contribution is a useful opportunity to remind ourselves of the kind of country South Africans turned their backs on in 1994.

Responding to Eligon on Twitter, American blogger Matthew Yglesias said the reporter’s tweet “does not seem to be an accurate characterisation of life in South Africa at that time”. Here, Yglesias mentioned — in addition to censorship of books and films — what is for me the crucial element of “checked speech” under apartheid: the banning of organisations and individuals.

The effect of this was devastating and far-reaching; anyone who was banned or represented a banned organisation was forbidden from being quoted or heard, and thus the whole of society was deprived over decades of having even the most elementary conversation about its actual condition, and its fate.

Consider this: two full years after PW Botha’s disastrous “Rubicon” speech, and weeks later the first exploratory meeting between SA business figures and the ANC in Lusaka, world attention focused on the 1987 talks in Dakar, Senegal between an influential group of white Afrikaners headed by former leader of the opposition Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and a 16-strong ANC delegation led by Thabo Mbeki.

If there was any doubt about the significance of this gathering, it was dispelled by the reported statement by Slabbert in a news report of July 13 1987 that “the conference had demonstrated that the two delegations could work together in the struggle for a nonracial democracy”. The headline was every bit as meaningful: “Slabbert: talks were a great meeting of minds”.

But how astonishing — though at the time it was ordinary, unexceptional and by and large inoffensive — that an opinion piece published on the same day asserted baldly: “The leader of the ANC delegation, Mr Thabo Mbeki, also spoke but he may not be quoted in South Africa because he is banned.”

The New York Times will surely recognise in this bland reportage how sorely missed “unchecked speech” really was.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-05-15-michael-morris-checked-speech-is-the-fundamental-tool-of-unchecked-power/

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