The Press Ombusdman’s Huffington Post ruling – #ShelleyGarland and hate speech

The Press Ombudsman received complaints regarding the piece by “Shelley Garland” published by the Huffington Post (who also asked him for comment), and his ruling on the matter was released yesterday.

The ruling is terrible, in both its reasoning and in its consequences.

It is terrible in its consequences first because the HuffPo’s editor, Verashi Pillay, was made to feel obliged to resign, and the career of a promising editor has now been interrupted. Despite her missteps (here, and in the Maimane case), and their severity, this incident should not have led to her resignation.

Continue reading “The Press Ombusdman’s Huffington Post ruling – #ShelleyGarland and hate speech”

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”

Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town

The Academics Union at UCT recently organised a panel discussion on academic freedom at UCT, following the dis-invitation of Flemming Rose as the TB Davie Memoral speaker.

The text below was my opening statement at that panel discussion. There are obviously many other issues that could be addressed, and we were asked to limit our contributions to five minutes, so what follows is of necessity restricted in scope. Continue reading “Academic freedom at the University of Cape Town”

Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom. Continue reading “Religious freedom in the firing line”

Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update

My title is intentionally misleading, as there are aspects of both the cases mentioned therein that are not a free speech issue at all.

As I pointed out in my previous post on the Gareth Cliff saga, M-Net are, to my mind, perfectly entitled to promote a certain brand image, and this entitlement is compatible with saying that Cliff doesn’t fit that image, and that they are therefore not renewing his contract. Continue reading “Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update”

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”

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.


Homophobia and free speech at UCT, redux

-t2zWl54The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.

My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.

As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,

Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?

In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.

My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.

I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.

So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.

From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).

Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that

This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.

Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.

Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.

So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.

My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).

And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.

As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.

We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.

Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.

Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.

On Mcebo Dlamini’s free speech, and his “love” for Hitler

Mcebo Dlamini is the current SRC President at Wits University, and also the current focus of much Twitter outrage, and even some conversation. Both the outrage and the conversation are due to this, from Facebook:

Responding to a commenter who wrote [about Israel] “Hitler new [sic] they were up to no good”, Dlamini replied “I love Adolf HITLER”.

Mcebo-2-339x600In the same comment thread, he claimed that all whites have a “bit of Hitler” in them. From what I’ve seen, the Facebook thread offered no context or explanation for these comments, the first of which is obviously offensive, in that it follows from a comment endorsing Hitler’s attitude towards “modern Israel”, and by extension Jews. In that context, Dlamini seems to be endorsing the Holocaust (even though I don’t believe he was in fact doing so).

When asked to explain these comments, he said

What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler.

He also responded to the news that his Facebook comment had been reported with “am not removing it…..truth hurts…face it murderers”. So, he respects certain attributes of Hitler, and summarises this in saying that he “loves” Hitler, and furthermore calls out supporters of modern-day Israel for inconsistency in that they (on his version) are “murderers” themselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that these comments are anti-Semitic, as the South African Union of Jewish Students noted. I think they were so in two ways: first, because of all the villians in history, Hitler occupies a unique position. There are still hundreds of thousands of people alive that he harmed fairly directly, in arranging for the killing of relatives and friends.

The vast majority of these folk are united in being Jewish, and it is that same fact about their relatives and friends that led to their deaths. Other villians like Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Stalin are either not as fresh in the memory, or killed more randomly. My point is that there is no need to engage in any comparison regarding who was the most evil to recognise that Hitler’s evil is uniquely powerful in the visceral response it generates even today.

The second way in which they are anti-Semitic is that they draw an equivalence between modern-day Israel and the Holocaust. As much as I disapprove of much of Israel’s behaviour in Palestine and towards Palestinians, to describe it as being intended to result in Palestinian extermination seems an unfair comparison (even though quotes to that effect can be found, I don’t think them representative).

Having noted all the above, Dlamini should nevertheless be allowed to say these offensive and stupid things. He does not “love Hitler” for having killed millions of Jews, he simply loves controversy and headlines. Dlamini appreciates certain aspects of Hitler’s personality or certain skills (while perhaps being wrong or right about those same personality attributes and skills), and expressed this hyperbolically to get attention.

That’s fine. It’s is, in fact, good. Because now the Wits students know that they have a hothead anti-Semite as their SRC President, and they can remove him from office. They should remove him from office, as if they don’t, they are endorsing his views. But that’s as far as it should go – I don’t believe Dlamini did anything illegal, and I don’t believe that the university should pursue charges against him.

(I need to highlight one additional distinction with regard to charges, though: while I don’t think that the university should charge him in open court, it might well be possible that he contravened internal university rules. In fact, I think it’s almost certain that he did so, in that Wits would no doubt have rules about offensive speech and the like.

So even if Dlamini did not engage in hate speech as per the Bill of Rights, he should be charged with breaking an internal rule if he did so, or the rule should be changed. And this does not mean the internal rule is the right rule, or that I’m endorsing it. You either apply the rule, or you change it – but you don’t ignore it.)

That’s the first over-arching point I want to make: what he said was offensive and stupid, he should not be SRC President, but he should be allowed to say it. Then:

The second point I want to make is an extension of the Tweet above, and relates to sentiments of the sort expressed by T.O. Molefe in a Tweet calling out Max du Preez for inconsistent treatment of the RhodesMustFall situation and the one currently under discussion. The claim made was that du Preez is wrong in seeing Hitler as absolutely evil, while recognising both good and bad in Rhodes.

I think that’s a serious misreading of du Preez, in that I doubt he’d deny the fact of the matter if Hitler were, for example, often to be seen helping out at the old-age home. What I mean is that noting someone’s – anyone’s – positive virtues has no necessary bearing on one’s overall attitude towards them. Du Preez’ columns on Rhodes made their distaste for Rhodes clear upfront, before noting any virtues.

Even if you think it’s wrong to even note a single virtue of someone like Rhodes (or Hitler), there is nevertheless a clear difference between saying “that was an evil person, with one or two redeeming qualities” and saying “I love this person, even though he’s universally reviled for being a mass murderer of Jews”, and leaving it at that until being asked to clarify your sentiment.

Expressing your admiration or love for a person endorses them. Expressing the sentiment that they had certain virtues does not, or at least does so far more tentatively and ambiguously. The difference is clear, and we cannot make excuses for Dlamini as a result of how some responded to Rhodes, if the issue is restricted to this one alone, namely the “I love him” followed by a belated “but…” versus “he was a bad man, albeit with a few virtues”.

(As another aside, because I know how misreadings abound, I don’t think comparisons between Rhodes and Hitler are either useful or justified. My point is merely to make the case that there is no necessary equivalence between a sentiment about the one and a sentiment about the other. Both the words and the context of their utterance matters.)

Consider saying “I hate Hitler, but…” or saying “I love Hitler, although…” – both of those will be regarded as offensive by many, but hopefully you can see that they are less so than saying “I love Hitler” and then waiting for someone to ask what you mean. If you say “I love Hitler” without qualification, you’re saying something about your character, and loudly enough that the Wits students will probably hear it.

Lastly, I’d also encourage you to read this piece about Dlamini’s history, including his extended deception of peers where he claimed to be the love-child of Zwelakhe Sisulu and a Swazi princess, as well as a student in a secret nuclear physics degree at the University of Pretoria. He’s now admitted to lying about these things, but the story told there suggests to me that taking him too seriously would be a mistake, and also that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a sympathetic ear might be more useful than shouting at him.

He expressed himself badly, yes, but that’s not always the same thing as being a bad person. Distinctions can, and should, be made.

The Charlie Hebdo murders

Yesterday, twelve people died for blasphemy.

Be clear about at least one thing: regardless of your views on religion, or on the role that Islam (or monotheism more generally) might play in generating intolerance and violence, nothing justifies murdering people for expressing offensive views.

Be clear on a second thing also: the fact that one is able and allowed to express offensive views is a necessary element of any society that wishes to be considered free, and we should all stand in support of the right to express such views.

James Walmesley -
James Walmesley –

I’ve said before that satire and blasphemy can be “a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule.” It serves a valuable role, and a role we should cherish. Joe Randazzo, previously editor of The Onion, is right to say that:

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

Other issues are perhaps not as easy or unambiguous as we might prefer. For starters, the right to express a view doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea to do so. Take this Tweet from the President of American Atheists as an example:

He’s making a point, yes. I get that. He’s exercising his freedom to blaspheme, and he’s allowed to do so. But the blasphemy in that Tweet adopts a shotgun approach – it will offend all sorts of Muslims, from the ones who are inclined to kill people for blasphemy, all the way through to your next-door neighbour whose birthday party you might have attended a few days ago.

But as I’ve said many a time, these are strategic choices rather than issues of rights – he has the right, should have the right, and we should all defend the right to be as obnoxious as you like, even as we might not like what you say.

A final point, before handing over to a press statement I sent out yesterday in the name of the Free Society Institute. My first Tweet on the murders was to say this:

A predictable flurry of trolling resulted, with some even thinking that I was being an apologist for religious extremism. Apologies (not really) for complicating biases with these nuances, but my sentiment in no way denies that religion, and Islam, can play a causal role in generating violence such as this.

My point was that it’s a glib, and oftentimes lazy, inference to draw that it’s “religion” that causes these things. I would think it rare that religion per se makes you homicidal, but that instead, folk who are capable of such things will find religious inspiration for doing them.

If your religion allows you to be led to such barbarism, there’s barbarism in you to be exploited. That doesn’t mean that religion X (or ideology X) cannot be a causal factor in barbarism more often than religion or ideology Y.

To be clear: Islam should certainly bear some of the blame, in that if your religious texts or traditions are capable of inspiring people to do these barbaric things, they are in that respect toxic, and antithetical to liberty, flourishing and security.

The simple truth is that the gods could have been far clearer. Even if you’re religious, and want to assert that terrorists are misinterpreting the scriptures, you should be struck by the absurdity of your god not having chosen the simple path of saying: “hey there! While you’re having your arguments about what I want you to do and not do, remember that I don’t want you to kill, ever”.

Because she didn’t say that – or because she says things in a way that allows people to read her as saying the opposite, this is religion’s problem and religion’s fault, and people of faith can’t wash their hands of it.

And to a significant extent, they don’t. Which is why, as I said in the Tweet, the most important feature of yesterday’s killers is that they are killers, and not that they are Muslim.

The Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute