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?
What I mean is that we can only become able to deal with hateful speech by being exposed to it, and by developing counterarguments against it (or, in the simplest case, knowing who holds hateful attitudes and therefore who to avoid).
This points to an approach that is reluctant to violate freedom of speech, yet still recognises that one might sometimes have to. For example, I firmly believe that for the moment (and for some time to come), hate speech regulations are contingently necessary even though we would ideally not have them, because of how our centuries of structural inequality have made it far easier to cause harm to some than to others.
While nudging ourselves into that ideal world, though, the targets of hateful speech can sometimes pay a serious price, including state-sanctioned execution. The Ugandan case is an outlier, yes, but what is shamefully common even in South Africa are “corrective” rapes, or simply beating people up for being gay.
If it’s the case that bigoted speech like Pastor Anderson’s could contribute to discrimination or violence against members the LGBTQI community, it’s only a free-speech fundamentalist who would fail to see that these matters are not straightforward, as much as they might appear to be so for folks like me, who never have to bear the brunt of prejudice.
However, if we can reasonably believe that allowing this particular homophobe to enter South Africa would not increase hate crimes, and would not create new homophobes, it’s certainly legitimate to ask that people consider whether our commitment to free speech should trump our disgust at what people use it for in cases like these, and also whether we’re not making a mistake in setting the bar for what counts as “hate speech” too low.
Hate speech is not the same thing as hurtful speech, and if we legally proscribe all speech that is potentially hurtful, we’ll soon find ourselves with no commitment to free speech left at all. In the case of Anderson, it’s possible to ask (as Mercury editor Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya does) whether he is guilty of hate speech at all, even while agreeing that his speech is certainly hateful.
But would this hateful (and hurtful) speech result in more hate, or more hate crimes? Or – as I think more likely – would it not simply have been a case of Anderson “preaching to the converted”, in other words folks who are already committed to their homophobia?
Taking a stand against homophobia by barring him from entry certainly appears to be a strong moral signal, but it has also come at a cost. We have lost the opportunity to identify and criticise him and those who attend his church, perhaps through organising pickets and rallies that could have followed him around the country.
Driving the bigots underground might also not help us to defeat them in the long run, as Brandeis reminded us in 1913 with his observation “that sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”.
Eusebius McKaiser argues in a recent column that there are plausible moral limits to free speech. As he says “my life is safe, and I am poorly acquainted with homophobic violence. The most vulnerable members of the LGBTI community don’t have my luck. It’s a matter of life and death for many of them”.
As much as I agree with that (the general point about limitations, as well as the disproportionate burden imposed by free speech), it’s not clear to me that barring Anderson does more than signal a commitment to certain values, rather than actually contributing to the increased safety of the LGBTQI community.
And, in barring Anderson from entering the country, we need to recognise the potential costs also. The first among these is in how we might continually lower the bar for what we’re prepared to hear, and how our general commitment to free speech as a value gets eroded over time.
The second issue, and one that hasn’t attracted enough attention, is that this was very low-hanging fruit for Minister Gigaba and the South African Government, and is arguably a triumph of populism, rather than being the principled decision the Minister presents it as.
There is nothing obviously principled in our decisions here. You’d recall that we’ve twice barred the Dalai Lama from entry into the country, and welcomed Omar al-Bashir. If (gods forbid) Donald Trump becomes US President in November, Minister Gigaba would certainly not bar him from entry.
It’s easy to celebrate this as a “win” for social justice. But doing so might also mask our own inconsistencies, in that there are people already in the country that say similar things, and don’t get much attention. Pastors Angus Buchan and Errol Naidoo are allowed to speak, despite their unapologetic homophobia.
As discussed above, Anderson might simply have been another voice saying these bigoted things that the victims of bigotry hear all too often. It’s not clear that he would represent a “tipping point” for increased violence or discrimination.
You might think the fact that he might be makes letting him in a risk not worth taking, and I’d have to be sympathetic to that.
Nonetheless, it’s important to think about what sort of a hypothetical should motivate us to compromise on our commitment to free speech – and, to think about whether we’ll be able to recognise the point where that commitment becomes nothing but comforting rhetoric.
Also published on Medium.