Insult laws are the next real threat after the Protection of State Information Bill. So City Press editor Ferial Haffajee told the audience at Friday’s "The Gathering" conference hosted by the Daily Maverick. Tweeted by Sipho Hlongwane, it was a comment that sent nervous ripples through those present in the auditorium and the rest of us watching on Twitter.
Haffajee was referring to the KwaZulu-Natal South African Communist Party's call for a law to prevent critics from harming the dignity of President Jacob Zuma. It's a development guaranteed to stir unease, though perhaps we can take comfort from the fact that insult laws are, to use that glib claim beloved of doctors of spin, "world class". France has them, as do Spain, Turkey and most of Latin America, as well as the usual suspects like Iran and Zimbabwe. In Thailand, a land where happiness is a national cultural precept, a Facebook status mocking the royal family could get you 15 years in jail.
Minister of Higher Education and SACP leader Blade Nzimande has denied calling for a law as was initially reported, but said he wants debate on the issue. "We can’t accept insults," he told Eusebius McKaiser in a late-night interview last week. "We have been insulted for too long as black people in this country."
Insults matter, clearly. They have many uses: as weapons and defences against weapons; as safety valves and sources of entertainment (the insult is the comedian’s stock in trade). Often, too, as sources of comfort. How do we respond to others – at work, in the shopping mall, on the roads – who give us grief ? We call them bitches, arseholes and worse, though usually behind their backs. To insult someone to their face is to invite the possibility of words turning to fists and bullets. A few years ago, several men were shot dead at a pub in Durban for mocking the penis size of another group of men; in South Africa, insults can be deadly.
Importantly, insults are also markers of collective identity. This is why I started collecting South African insults back in 2004: I wanted to understand what makes us who we are, and insults are one prism through which to view the national self (if such a thing exists). Who and what we choose to insult, and why, is as revealing of our nature as what we choose to celebrate, perhaps more so. Forget the springbok and the braai – what can be more South African than "Jou ma se …" or calling someone a doos?
Insults also function as markers of who is visible in society and who is not. Sometimes the worst insult you can dish out is to ignore someone. You aren’t visible – you don’t matter – until someone feels threatened enough to insult you. This is why, paradoxically, the first step to integration of a minority into a wider community is ethnic humour and mockery. Look at how significantly Indians have become in mainstream American culture. There's an Indian stereotype in every second comedy; some might regard this as insulting.
When whites get mocked at Blacks Only shows, it is a reminder that they matter. It is when nobody mocks you anymore that you worry. This is another irony of the insult: that it can also be evidence of the power you confer on another even as you seek to undermine it through mockery.
Snakes, dogs and cockroaches
Political insults have dominated public debate this year. But that’s a statement that means nothing because political insults have dominated South Africa every year since at least 1948, and before that too, all the way back to 1653 when Jan van Riebeeck begged the VOC to remove him from the “dull, stupid, lazy, stinking people” at the Cape and send him to Japan instead.
The year 2008, when Mbeki was recalled and the Congress of the People was formed, was a vintage year for insults, featuring dogs, donkeys, cockroaches, snakes, dead snakes and snakeskins. Back then, Malema spat contempt at Mbeki; now he does the same for Zuma, the man he was prepared to die for four years ago. Hypocrisy, as Pieter-Dirk Uys has reminded us since the early 80s, is the Vaseline of political intercourse (speaking of which, isn’t it funny that that those who call for insults to be banned are frequently the same people who love to dish them out? Nzimande calls for debate on insult laws while in the same week dismissing the Democratic Alliance as a party of "white madams and baases").
All insults are not equal, of course. The drunken guffaw at the tavern or around the braai is very different from the bitter smile of the satirist wielding his or her pen. Infused with intelligence, the insult is essential to good comedy; without it, the insult is merely the cuff over the side of the head by the dim-witted bully.
Also, and this is very important, there is the notion of power, because insults can reinforce existing unequal power relations – the case with most sexist or racist jokes – or they can offer ordinary citizens the small compensation of the ability to mock those who wield power over them. Our rulers might have money, they might be able to make laws, but they cannot stop us from laughing at them.
A beautifully public example of this was the mockery directed at Donald Trump on Twitter in the wake of his tantrum over Obama’s win. Here was a master of the universe fuming at his inability to buy the power he feels entitled to because he was thwarted by the votes of the very people he despises. Turning power on its head, however briefly, is but a tweet away.
This question of power is central to the debate around insult laws in South Africa. Do The Spear and the work of Zapiro amount to reinforcing old racist power dynamics, the stereotyping of black men by white men, or are they about the critique of unassailable political and state power? Nzimande says the former; a “certain section of the white community” argues the latter.
"Racists often don’t realise that their actions are racist," Nzimande told McKaiser, and he makes a good point. I happen to believe that "compound" does have racist connotations, and to use it for Nkandla was guaranteed to cause trouble. But there is a danger in this privileging of effect over intent as the basis for taking action on an issue, because anybody can be offended by anything. It strikes me that to be offended has become a state of being that somehow confers special rights and protections upon an individual or a group.
This is dangerous, because there is a growing class of people in this country who are perpetually offended. The Professionally Offended, one might call them (though this is risky, since it might be read as an allusion to the insult that came back to bite DA leader Helen Zille – the Professional Black). These are the people who peer at the ads and news stories and the packaging of Woolworths's hot cross buns hoping for a nugget of controversy, a means by which to be offended. Now, increasingly, they are also scanning Facebook and Twitter in search of the righteous anger they get off on. Three weeks ago I was called a "stupid bitch" and an anti-white racist for a tweet, in which I mocked my own white liberal guilt. I took this as evidence that I’m doing something right.
Before we advocates of freedom of expression congratulate ourselves on how clever we are, it’s worth remembering that the offended are not only the blue rinse brigade either. The exclusion of certain notorious columnists from the fold is a reminder that certain kinds of offensiveness cannot be countenanced in the mainstream media. Why is offensiveness of the kind invoked by Brett Murray and Zapiro considered appropriate, but not offensiveness of the kind provoked by David Bullard, Kuli Roberts or Eric Miyeni? I suspect it has something to do with the point I made earlier about power, but I do believe this is a debate worth having.
The final paradox
That said, important – and entertaining – though insults are, I don’t think they’re particularly useful in public debate. Usually they just kick up a lot of rhetorical dust without illuminating anything, so an important discussion about the dire state of education in the Eastern Cape became an argument over the word “refugee”; an entirely valid question in Parliament turns into the astonishing spectacle of a minister dismissing another MP as "flea-ridden".
As this recent example reminds us, insults in political debate are often a sign of immaturity. We resort to insult as a blunt instrument when we lack the deadlier blade of considered argument. At the same time, the ability to accommodate insult within the exchange of ideas is confirmation that we are the opposite: comfortable with ourselves, open to criticism without taking it personally, able to examine something from the point of view of another. In a word, mature.
So, paradoxically, insults are both a threat to democracy and the surest evidence we have that it exists. This is why insult laws are the worst possible insult to all of us.
And that is my submission to Nzimande's debate.
Sarah Britten is a writer, communication strategist and part-time collector of insults.