Blasphemy vs bigotry

Not for the first time has Zapiro prompted a debate about core democratic values. In this case the now (in)famous cartoon bemoaning the apparent lack of a sense of humour of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad has prompted a more earnest debate about freedom of speech than any other similar issue in recent times. The broader implications of the debate held over the past few weeks are less about the cartoon itself than about the relationship between freedom of speech and dignity.

The justifications for freedom of speech are many and complex, hence an analysis thereof falls outside the scope of this column. But for the purposes of debate, Ronald Dworkin captures an essence of the idea when he writes: “Morally responsible people insist on making up their own minds about what is good or bad in life or in politics or what is true or false in matters of justice or faith.

Government insults its citizens and denies their moral responsibility when it decrees that they cannot be trusted to hear opinions that might persuade them to dangerous or offensive convictions We retain our dignity, as individuals, only by insisting that no one — no official and no majority — has the right to withhold an opinion from us on the ground that we are not fit to hear and consider it.”

When our Constitution was drafted, the dark history of suppression of free speech during apartheid ensured that a clear and definitive commitment to debate, deliberation and opinion, including those sourced in the high intellectual climes of Die Son newspaper, or the “when we” attitudes of disgruntled whites, had to be protected. The only significant restriction concerned hate speech. Section 16(2) of the Constitution prohibits speech which constitutes hatred on grounds of race, ethnicity gender or religion and which constitutes incitement to cause harm.

In the Islamic Convention case former Chief Justice Langa, in his characteristically wise way, held that this clause was to be read through the lens of our repressive past and thus prohibited speech only if it revealed prejudice or stereotyped or demonised a targeted group which in turn caused the latter to be the subject of contempt or hatred. This narrow scope for a constitutionally justified exclusion of free speech grasps the critical role of freedom to speak. Hence, critical comment alone about a particular group or members thereof is insufficient to justify a constitutional restriction.

As a precious value, free speech must be cherished and defended. Communication by word is what distinguishes us as sentient human beings. The ability of any member of a community to express views about the nature of his or her society is what dignifies that person and allows the society to claim to be a democracy. Of course, more is needed to make a democracy, but no society can claim to be democratic where there is no freedom of speech.

By its nature, free expression does not extend exclusively to thoughtful, intellectual discourse of the courteous, empathic kind. Those who specialise in journalistic rubbish, advertisers, religious leaders or those who simply annoy, provoke or act as flatulent windbags on the radio or TV enjoy equal rights, even if the balance of society has no obligation to listen.

To return to Zapiro and his cartoon. Professor Mahmood Mamdani has suggested that both Zapiro and the Mail & Guardian got it wrong. He distinguishes between blasphemy and bigotry; the former is represented by critique of the prevailing tradition from within the fold, but bigotry is critique launched from an outsider.

What makes the latter problematic for Mamdani is that bigotry is, in essence, speech launched by an outsider who wishes to impose the values of the outsider upon (or for the politically correct, to colonise) the targeted community. Warming to his task, Mamdani suggests that the Zapiro cartoon be located within the broader context of Islamophobia; claiming that it stereotypes Muslims and reinforces the current pathology of hatred towards Muslims.

That Islamophobia is a terrible blight not only on Muslims but on any political project that places humanity at the centre and wishes “us” to take account of the “other”, is an insufficient justification for this academic humbug. Not all critique of a particular community is bigotry. If it is, the next time Zapiro presents a critical portrayal of Israel (and is there not a surfeit of material for that?), the same charming group that threatened Judge Richard Goldstone will argue that, as Israel is a Jewish state, it is Jews who are being stereotyped and that Jewish law forbids Jews from jeopardising Jewish community life, and worse, the non-Jewish editor is but a bigot who seeks to reduce Jews in the eyes of the broader community.

This example can be multiplied as many times as there are minority communities, religions or nations. Less dramatic but far more important is the ability of all South Africans to engage in deliberation, no matter their race or political pedigree. How else can we ever build a nation?

The crisp point is that freedom of speech cannot be dependent on the speaker’s relationship to the subject matter of the debate; if free speech is a core right, it must work for all of us, however removed we are from the targeted group or subject. Being an insider or outsider cannot determine the value of our opinions.

In summary, while the editor of this or any other newspaper can surely make a judgment call that civility must trump free speech, given the nature of his or her publication, and claim that this consideration justifies the exclusion, when we use dubious semantic justification or employ selective political amnesia to curb speech, however robust, we replace a veritable variety of speech with the speech of the One who has the power to dominate or threaten with force.

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