Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa

The intentions motivating the draft South African Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill are – as far as I can tell – entirely noble, but perhaps not entirely sound.

If you don’t know about the Bill, you can read Justice Minister Michael Masutha’s justification for it on Daily Maverick, in which he says that:

It will provide additional tools to investigators and prosecutors to hold the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and provide a means to monitor efforts and trends in addressing hate crimes.

Continue reading “Hate speech and legal overreach in South Africa”

Free speech versus fake news

Let’s assume that we – as a species – are not as smart as some of us think we are. I think that this is true (even if sometimes overstated), and that realising that it’s true allows us to accept that sometimes, we don’t know what’s best for us.

Recognising that we are irrational choosers doesn’t tell us how to solve the problem. My post, linked above, makes the case that we should accept that “nudges” or “benign paternalism” are acceptable. But you could object that even if we don’t know what’s best for us, we’re still better at knowing our own wants and desires than anyone else could be. Continue reading “Free speech versus fake news”

Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in

Our commitment to free speech is tested by speech that offends us, not by speech we agree with. This does not necessarily entail allowing all speech: it’s possible to take the pragmatic view that while we’d ideally want all speech to be permissible, it might be the case that in some contexts, the risks of violence (or other negative consequences) are too great.

I’m not going to repeat the standard arguments in favour of freedom of speech here (previous defences of the principle can be found in this column on Kuli Roberts, this one on Gareth Cliff, or this one on more general issues to do with “thoughtcrime” and hate speech).

On this pragmatic reasoning, one might ask how we most efficiently nudge ourselves into a world where all speech is allowed, even as those who utter hateful speech pay some other price (for example, widespread opprobrium) for doing so?

Continue reading “Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in”

Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.

While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC. Continue reading “Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture”

UCT, art, and the negotiation of transformation

It’s sometimes difficult to know when you’re making the right decision, or whether you’re rather not making a decision at all, so much as being pressured into doing what someone else thinks you should.

Or, perhaps, the right decision can be made in the wrong way – too hurriedly, and without enough deliberation. At UCT, we’ve been treading these fine lines for a year now, where even if you think – as I do – that many of our decisions are correct and long-overdue (for example, the renaming of buildings), you might simultaneously fear that the idea of a university as a place of open debate is at risk.

Of course, calls for debate can privilege the established point of view, and often do so. They can serve to slow things down, or to trivialise the concerns of those who demand urgent action.

It’s in cases like this where we need to be careful of embracing an entirely false dichotomy, though, whereby either you’re on the side of virtue and join the revolution, or you’re an obstacle to it, in appealing for more debate and reflection.

You might be on the side of virtue, yet also see value in being as sure as you can be that you’re making the right decision. Which brings me to UCT’s artwork, and the ongoing discussions around what should be done about it.

To quote myself, from this article in GroundUp:

There are a number of artworks in UCT’s collection that could legitimately be regarded as problematic. Even so, any piece of art is potentially offensive to someone, and the very point of art is to provoke reflection and sometimes, discomfort.

It is therefore crucial that any deliberations around the potential removal of art – while being sensitive to those who feel insulted by any given artwork – are also sensitive to the rights and creative intent of the artist concerned.

Where art is removed for the sake of prudence, in fear of it being destroyed or defaced, that removal must be provisional, and on the understanding that a full objective reassessment of the artwork concerned and what it signifies will follow.

Furthermore, artworks need to be understood in the context of their curation. It is both possible, and often desirable, for an artwork that might be offensive in isolation to serve as a valuable spur to debate, when placed in an appropriate context.

That curation is not a task for which everybody is equally qualified. I’m not qualified at all, having zero expertise in art or art history. So, if I were offended by a particular piece of art, I have an epistemic duty to listen to the views of experts, and to give them an opportunity to explain to me that my offense is misplaced.

My opinion, and my subjective feelings of offense, are less relevant data points, and can even be entirely irrelevant to the decision, because only the most benign or even meaningless pieces of art could ever offend nobody at all.

There’s a danger here of overcompensating, and conflating art that is productively offensive with art that is gratuitously so, in the sense that it uncritically reflects racial or other stereotypes. This is why the deliberations need to be conducted carefully, and by experts.

A recent UCT communique includes the following (my emphasis):

It is important to understand that we are not censoring any artworks. Much of the negative public comment fails to recognise that current removals are provisional. It is our belief that the artworks will all ultimately be on display once curatorial policies have been developed. The University remains committed to enabling scholars and the public to engage with the most difficult and challenging works, including those presently under discussion, and many others that may arrive in the future. What is currently at issue is not whether this should be done, but how.

I’m don’t share that belief. As you can read in the statement, a broad consultative process is going to take place, and “cultural, religious or political” sensibilities taken into account.

Any of you who have been part of these sorts of processes – especially in volatile times like those we’re experiencing now – know that the maximally safe or risk-averse strategy is typically followed, which means that subjective offense becomes a trump card, rather than simply a data point in the deliberations.

I hope I’m wrong. But assuming I’m not, some of you might nevertheless think that’s as it should be, and that those subjective feelings should be a trump card. We’ll have to wait and see, though, how this is going to work: is one offended party sufficient reason to consider an artwork problematic, or five? Will the distaste that one of my correspondents has for abstract art count as a “cultural” objection?

If you find these questions silly, I’d like to hear on what principled grounds you think these decisions can be made. There are no objective criteria for offense, and we’re operating in an environment where dialogue is in short-supply, and threats plentiful.

I’m not as animated by these developments as, say, Breyten Breytenbach is (here and here). And I think that Nazi/ISIS comparisons are false and unhelpful, because they trivialise the concerns of protesters and can also be uncharitable towards the institutional response which, while made under pressure, is well-intentioned.

But anyone who thinks, or argues, that these decisions will be made by those qualified to do so, in an environment that allows for them to do so on grounds of the best evidence and careful reasoning, is sorely mistaken.

Do people understand freedom of speech? (On Mnet ‘firing’ Gareth Cliff.)

Here’s what I’ve learned from the past few days of social media debate regarding Gareth Cliff: it’s true that people don’t really share the same understanding of free speech at all.

Furthermore, even though I think my (and as far as I can tell, his) conception of it is the correct one, it’s partly the assumption of that correctness – rather than an argument for it – that leads to all the trouble on Twitter. Continue reading “Do people understand freedom of speech? (On Mnet ‘firing’ Gareth Cliff.)”

Hate speech, hurtful speech, Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow

Following a brief period of goodwill over Christmas and New Year celebrations – where the goodwill was likely just people being distracted rather than benevolence – South Africa’s court of social media has resumed operations.

It’s difficult to know when calling people out becomes persecution or “witch hunt”, and I’ve no doubt that some of you think that it’s permissible, or even obligatory, to condemn racist tweets or Facebook posts in the strongest terms.

Some of you might also think that any attempt to contextualise the offensive statements somehow excuses them. It’s true that providing context can be a means of evading blame, or excusing someone else from rightful blame. Continue reading “Hate speech, hurtful speech, Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow”

The Lord also needs good PR

Church of England logoAn amusing Sunday outrage (not an outrage to equal Cecil the Lion or anything – just a little one) today stems from the three leading cinema chains in the UK refusing to flight an advertisement that features the Lord’s Prayer, on the grounds that it might cause offence.

You can read about the ad (and watch it) on the guardian’s website, but it’s not the ad itself that I want to talk about. My concern here is the Church’s motivation for trying to place the ad, and their reaction to the decision not to flight it. The reaction includes:

The church warned that the move could have a ‘chilling effect on free speech’ and said it was at a loss to understand the logic behind the decision.

The logic behind the decision is quite simple. Sections 2.1.3 and 2.2.2 of Digital Cinema Media’s advertising policy (pdf) read as follows:

To be approved, an Advertisement must:
2.1.3 not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising;

2.2 For the purposes of clause 2.1.3 above, Political or Religious Advertising means:
2.2.2 advertising which wholly or partly advertises any religion, faith or equivalent systems of belief (including any absence of belief)

In other words, the advertisement was always going to be rejected, until the relevant policy is amended. The Church of England might not have known this, but once it was communicated to them, they would clearly have no grounds for complaint regarding the decision (which, per 2.2.2, would also apply to atheist advertising).

They could think the policy wrong, or might find instances of it being applied inconsistently. But that isn’t what they are arguing. They are arguing that “the Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries” – with the implication being that it can’t possibly be considered offensive.

I wouldn’t find it offensive to find myself watching an ad promoting prayer. Hell, sometimes it might end up being the best part of that day’s cinema experience. But it’s precisely to avoid having to cater for subjective notions of offence that Digital Cinema Media have made a blanket decision to avoid religious (and political) advertising.

But here’s the thing: the Church of England might also have been fully aware of the policy, and be leveraging this outrage for promotional purposes. After all, the guardian reports that “the advert is to promote a new Church of England website, JustPray.uk, encouraging people to pray”.

And what better way of getting great publicity for your website than to have it become a poster-child for a “chilling effect on free speech”?

Choosing to be silent | Being barred from speaking

we-realizeDuring the question-and-answer session following a talk on identity politics at the UCT Philosophy Society earlier this month, a student asked me if I agreed that outsiders to a particular cause should remain silent, in order to let those who are proximate to the issue express themselves.

My answer was, in short, that it’s not that simple. The suggestion – or sometimes, demand – that “outsiders” remain silent is not only sometimes incoherent in terms of how it defines insiders and outsiders, but also incoherent in how it can apply a very peculiar standard to what’s worth listening to and what is not.

In any area of knowledge, we accept that some people know more than others, but it’s rare that we disallow those without expertise to contribute or ask questions. In fact, doing so is part of the way in which they learn, and perhaps become experts themselves.

It would be irrational to say to a philosophy student, for example, that you can’t discuss logic until you’ve learned symbolic notation. Yet, this sort of contraint is sometimes applied in discussions on things like race and gender, where questions from persons who are not-X are declared out of order, because of their not-X’ness.

As I repeatedly emphasised, this is a separate issue from another important issue, namely that the not-X person should often choose to remain silent, because they know that they have dominated a conversation for too long, have set the terms of debate, and have themselves ruled the concerns of the X’s as out of order for as long as the X’s can remember.

To put this crisply: I can imagine that there are times where, for the sake of trying to eliminate historical biases, not-X’s should often shut up, perhaps even for a long time. Or, they should be very selective in terms of how they contribute to conversations.

This is a separate issue from their independent epistemic authority, though, and the device of shutting up is a strategy for getting to a situation where words and arguments can one day matter, rather than who is speaking mattering most of all.

At my university, I’ve heard of a few instances where people have not been allowed to speak because they are not X. That’s usually wrong, even if it’s sometimes right that they choose not to speak. The distinction is important, and is largely forgotten in these emotive debates.

I choose not to speak (publicly) on many of the things that go on at UCT, especially during the current political debates.

And I would be very reluctant to speak on what’s happening at other universities such Rhodes, Stellenbosch, or Wits, exactly because I see how misinformed outsider comment on UCT is – a criticism extending even to some of the more thoughtful commentators in South Africa.

Choosing not to speak can also extend to being careful of what you say, of course – it’s far too often the case that a joke or idle observation gets taken up by people whose politics you don’t support, because they assume you’re on their side.

For example, when I tweeted about this story of Khoisan activists being arrested for smashing a bench, it was to highlight the fact that the bench should in all likelihood never have been built and that, more to the point, the aggrieved parties were probably never consulted on how best to honour the person the bench was meant to honour.

Just like the Rhodes statue at UCT, we now realise it should never have been there in the first place – and any condemnation of action/activism against it has to acknowledge that as the instigating harm, regardless of what follows.

Predictably, the tweet resulted in people whining about destruction of public property, lack of respect for the rule of law and so forth.

Of course it’s in general wrong to destroy public (or private) property, and of course it’s in general right to respect the law.

But sometimes, the failure to do so isn’t the most important part of the story, and you demonstrate your lack of sympathy and understanding for what is the most important part of the story by focusing on that.

As I say, you should be allowed to do so. But it’s an entirely separate issue whether you should or should not choose to do so, and more of us should pay attention to the second issue, more of the time.