Hate speech, hurtful speech, Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow

Chris Hart and Penny Sparrow have been subjected to trial by Twitter, and both found sorely wanting. But are their cases analogous, and are they hate speech?


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.

But it can also be a way of preserving distinctions worth making, such as the distinction between the explicit racism of Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post and the far more debatable offense Chris Hart is accused of committing.

The first, and obvious, point is that Sparrow’s post stands alone. She calls black people “monkeys”, makes it explicit that she thinks black people can’t help but make a mess of (presumably, “her”) beaches, and confirms our worst impressions by saying “it’s just the facts” when called out for doing so.

By contrast, the tweet that causes Hart to feel the wrath of Twitter was one of a sequence of over 40 tweets. I didn’t even know this myself until sometime this morning, and even without that knowledge thought that the two instances were obviously different.

Different, first because we know something (a large amount, in fact) about Chris Hart’s attitudes already (that he’s never appeared to be an overt racist), and second because his tweet is compatible with being unsympathetic, rather than bigoted (as Sparrow is).

Hart said “More than 25 years after Apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities….”.

You can respond by saying it’s not a white man’s place to speak of the victims of apartheid in skeptical terms at all, and regular readers would know that I’d think that a poor response.

You could say that he’s trivialising the past and current oppression of apartheid by speaking of “entitlement”, and that he’s asking for unwarranted sympathy by casting himself (by implication) as a “victim”, which might also indicate a lack of sympathy for real victims.

All of this could be true, and if so, we have an an instance of “soft” or “subliminal” racism, which I wouldn’t condone. That sort of racism is nevertheless distinguishable from Penny Sparrow’s overt bigotry, and should surely be addressed in a different fashion.

This is especially the case if (even if Hart is guilty of subliminal racism) he might be making a point worth debating, which is that a culture of entitlement might exist even within a context of deep structural oppression.

Again, you might say it’s not his place to talk about that – but this wasn’t the typical response, or even a common response. He was called out for being a racist, has since been suspended from his job, and this is without any obvious attempt to consider his tweet within the context of the sequence of tweets.

As Jon Ronson recently reminded us, Twitter is not the place for trying to debate something. Chris Hart knows this now, if he didn’t before.

Another thing you’ll struggle to be able to debate on Twitter is the difference between hateful speech, hurtful speech and “hate speech”. The latter is a legal category, and even Sparrow’s Facebook remark wouldn’t count as hate speech as per the Constitution.

It would likely count as hate speech according to the Equality Act, in that the bar there is that the speech needs to be hurtful, rather than also an incitement to cause harm. But even if something doesn’t count as hate speech in a legal sense, of course it can still be hateful (and hurtful).

For speech to be hurtful is not in itself good reason to proscribe it, in that we can find anything hurtful, for both good and bad reasons. Whether hateful speech should be outlawed – rather than simply shouted down, or responded to with competing argument – is a separate matter.

And, it’s even possible to debate whether hate speech should be treated as a distinct matter for the law at all. I can see the merits of doing so in a country like ours, for pragmatic reasons, but would love to live in a world that doesn’t need such laws, either because we aren’t so cruel to each other, or because we’ve learned to laugh at the bigots.

But we are cruel, and it’s unreasonable to expect the victims of bigotry to laugh at their persecutors. Even so, not all persecutors are equally vicious, and we’re also able to make mistakes in who we identify as one, at all.

None of this makes any persecution okay, or excuses any of it. But if we care about ending it, it might be that different situations call for different strategies – and that the necessary distinctions are difficult to make if we resolve everything by shouting at each other in the town square of Twitter.

Here’s the podcast of an interview with John Maytham on CapeTalk & Radio702 on this topic.

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  • Kevin Charleston

    Thanks Jacques- I mostly agree. But I think Hart compounded his faux-pas with a fairly empty apology. Apologising for causing offence is only one slight step better than apologising for the fact that others have been offended. As a public commentator who has just, at length, expressed the crticism he had – he should have been able to express an understanding of exactly why he caused offence – and what he’d do about it in future. But that’s hard to do in a medium like Twitter – but he was stupid enough to attempt what he was trying to do in the first place, and as you indicate Twitter isn’t the appropriate medium for expressing sophisticated reasoning.

    I wonder if Hart caught some top-spin because of the truly hurtful nature of the Sparrow-s**t.

    Again this is substantially different from Sparrow who merely added more fuel to the fire with her not-pology.

    • Something I don’t go into – and won’t now, because Newlands is calling – is whether Hart had anything to apologise for. If he didn’t, then the demand for an apology needn’t be honoured at all, or at least not any more than he did. Calling it a fauxpology assumes guilt, in other words. I understand why people think he had something to apologise for, and am not expressing a view on that now, but don’t think the case obvious at all.

      • d phakathi

        When all is said and done here is one thing that matters “who knows it, feels it”. Hart had a lot to apologise for, just whiteness to begin with, whiteness in context of the mess they have made of us.

  • Vinayak Bhardwaj


    Great, clear thinking as usual.

    The question that seems to be surfacing now is whether it would be desirable to have a dedicated ‘anti-racism’ law whose provisions (although unstated as yet) would presumably encompass some forms of speech we’ve already heard?

    And in this regard, how helpful is it to refer to the experience of Europe where 14 countries have laws criminalising the denial of the Holocaust? While the specific differences probably matter – Holocaust denialism involves factual claims that are hurtful as opposed to an anti-racism bill whose object would be less precise.. presumably targeting hateful speech for being hateful, broadly construed – the intention appears the same. Namely, to give effect to a sense of outrage about a long-standing historical injustice (perhaps even trauma) and to ensure that the public sphere remains sensitive to that experience in perpetuity, perhaps as a way to avoiding its recurrence.

    Would be keen to hear your thoughts.

  • d phakathi

    To Jacques- When all is said and done here is one thing that matters “who knows it, feels it”. Hart had a lot to apologise for, just whiteness to begin with, whiteness in context of the mess they have made of us.

  • Charlotte Getty

    Is it too much to suggest that Chris Hart is simply not in the wrong for describing the economic and social situation in South Africa from his position as an economist? Surely there ARE more victims of economic injustice in the country now, thanks to governmental blunders and greed? The recent devaluation of the currency must have many thousands of victims, just for starters. And surely it is the fact that while there are many right thinking people here, there is also a growing subset of blatently entitled people…with Zuma and the hapless, overpaid SAA and SABC heads at the top of the list?

    Does Hart truly deserve to lose his job for being the messenger of bad tidings? Growing hatred towards minorities is seen in the ghastly xenophobic attacks of the last few years as well as the more radical actions of RMF. These are problems that have beset the country for some time. Why is Hart to be ruined for mentioning them in a tweet?

    As for Sparrow…what a fool. But one might politely ask why RMF was not similarly pilloried for posting pictures of Nazi swastikas online and on buildings at UCT or posting “one settler, one bullet” on Facebook, to name only two breathtakingly racist transgressions.

    I am perhaps only vehemently agreeing with you, Jacques…

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Here’s my personal perspective on twitter wrath (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much). My parents used to argue a lot – raised voices- most often about my mother’s failure to do the things my father thought a good wife should do, like cleaning, laundry, ironing, etc. I was very sensitive to the tension these ugly exchanges would generate, so I would do the things my father complained about in an effort to keep the peace. You’d think my efforts would have pleased my mother, as I had not only prevented my father from yelling at her, but also eased her load. I didn’t brag about what I had done, but my mother would notice I had done it, and instead of saying “thanks”, would find reasons to criticize my efforts. If the work itself was done well, then her criticism would be that I had “ulterior motives” for doing it. According to her, I wanted something which I wasn’t going to get. The only thing I ever wanted was to make the yelling stop. What I got for my effort was mom yelling at me rather than dad yelling at her. Despite her attitude towards me, It was easier to have her yelling at me than having my dad upset. When my dad got upset he would get out the spanking board and beat his five children on “general principles” because he knew all kids do bad things, even if he didn’t know what bad things we had done. Twitter wrath is my parents’ anger on steroids.

    It’s damned obvious that Penny Sparrow is a racist, and her racism should be called out for the ugliness that it is. But, IMO, it should be done with civility rather than vitriol. I don’t think it’s possible to chastise others for their bad behavior and have that criticism taken seriously unless the criticism is done in such a way that it maintains high ethical standards of conduct.

    Chris Hart is trying to have a nuanced discussion about the current SA economic crisis. Twitter isn’t the place for nuanced discussion. However, Twitter is the absolute best place for people like my parents who assume the worst about others when there isn’t clearcut evidence to support that assumption. That means, despite Chris Hart’s claim to want to address the current economic crisis by stimulating business investment which will provide jobs for the millions of SA citizens who are currently unemployed, tweeters should use the “Ma & Pa Bohmer Rule For Evaluating Others”. With the proper application of my parents’ rule, tweeters can be certain that what Chris Hart really wants is to keep all black people in abject poverty. Let’s publicly crucify him for our sin of rushing to negative judgment, shall we? Where’s my father’s spanking board when it’s needed? There’s a general principle that “all people are bad” which must be upheld. (All people are bad except the spanking board owners, of course. đŸ˜‰

  • Peter Waller

    Good piece. One observation that interested me… you would “love to live in a world that doesn’t need such laws… because we aren’t so cruel to each other.” Why do we all long for so much that could never be satisfied in our earthly lives? A world without laws, yet without trespasses!

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