Did the #Zumaspear bullies win?

Osama bin Cohen

Here’s Ferial Haffajee explaining why she took the decision to remove images of Zuma’s Spear from the City Press website. Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day, said (on Twitter) that he would never have published it in the first place (on grounds of taste). That I can understand, and even agree with – an editor makes choices as to the character of their publication, and it would be a legitimate choice to never display this painting. (Today, Bruce argued that Haffajee should remove the painting.)

Zuma’s Spear is not obviously in the public interest, it reveals nothing we don’t already know, and it certainly always seemed likely to offend – perhaps for little gain. And causing offence just for the sake of doing so is not (to my mind, at least) a laudable action.

But Haffajee published a photograph of the painting in the course of covering the Murray exhibition – it was one of many paintings reproduced in the City Press. I’d imagine that she knew it would cause offence, even though she indicates (in the first link, above) that she had no idea the rage would be this extreme. She should be free to do so, just as Murray should be free to paint disrespectful images of the President. Having said that, I’d previously argued that the freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do.

Once one has “done it”, though, you’ve chosen to take a stand. In this case, a stand for free speech, and a stand that entails asserting that differences in cultural sensitivities and norms are subject to a Constitutional override which allows for us to offend each other through artworks such as Murray’s. And here’s the problem regarding the decision to take the painting down: it’s impossible, now that that choice has been made, to separate the possibility of it being premised on cultural sensitivity (which can often be a good thing, even though it’s sometimes not), or whether it’s simply another instance of allowing the hypersensitive to win the argument, simply because they shout louder than everyone else, or threaten you with violence.

City Press staff have received death threats. Religious idiots have called for the artist to be stoned. So now, as much as Haffajee was perhaps mistaken in ever choosing to run that image, her self-described “olive branch” is (in part, and perhaps in large part) a reaction to intimidation, and fear of reprisal. Some have asked about the apparent inconsistency of the Goodman Gallery (under different ownership, note) refusing to display an earlier Murray work (pictured above), and Haffajee’s previous decision to not run content that Muslims would find offensive. But  note what’s happened – the inconsistency has been resolved.

In the case of offending the religious, a pre-emptive decision was made that the situation was too volatile, and the physical threats too real, to ever run the offensive material. Haffajee and the Goodman Gallery made the mistake of thinking that our democracy could handle some robust debate around cultural norms, freedom of speech, and whether it’s okay to show disrespect for the President. The reactions to this (by those offended) ended up being entirely consistent, and have forced a consistency in response by those who caused the offence. I guess they’ve all learnt their lesson now – Haffajee and the Gallery now know of yet another topic that isn’t open to debate, and others have learned that it remains true that you can win arguments by threatening violence.

I realise that Haffajee had a difficult choice, both in running the painting and in retracting it. And I can understand why she chose to remove it from the website. An extract from her explanation reads as follows:

I hope we are not crafting a society where we consign artists to still life’s and the deep symbolism of repressed artists like China’s Ai Weiwei in China. A society where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.

This could be interpreted in various ways – let’s hope that in noting how we’ve begun to set these mores, she realises the role this explanation will play in doing so. I’m sure she does, and that she (and all of us) will continue to probe the boundaries of free expression in light of cultural (including religious) sensitivities – rather than allow the latter to gradually swallow the former. Removing the painting was motivated in large part by threats, and to some extent by wanting to make a contribution to nation-building. Those who issued the threats – including Zuma, Mthembu et al, should think carefully about the nation they’re helping to build through bullying others into silence.