On Kasrils, and spoiling your ballot

It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them.

And, grumbling is what we do – all the more since the Internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in the grumbling. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – what the point of electoral systems in democracies is.

On the surface, of course the point is to show us what the will of the people is, and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament, or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties, who choose the people – which is but another thing you could grumble about it you wish.)

But the dissatisfaction leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all, or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils has been reported as recommending spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate that you believe our current ANC government has let us down (though, more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he’s recommending a vote for a minority party first, and only spoiling your ballot if none of those parties are palatable to you).

To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it begins with fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you to either endorse the way that they are doing things, or instead, to simply withhold your support from them.

The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit, deployed in the manner that might best achieve the outcome you hope to achieve. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is far too noisy – in brief, there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent, or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.

A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying an opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further, and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.

The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can only be clarified by the individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like myself, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the Democratic Alliance, or DA) that their steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)

On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC – but then again, a vote for someone like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent from their dogmatic slumbers, to paraphrase Hume.

And then, next election, you get to make the same choices again. The key thing to remember is that they are choices, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country that you care about, then you should vote in the manner that you think best supports a prosperous future for the country – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.

FameLab and the sexification of science

famelab-square-31I have no objection to trying to make science cool, so long as that doesn’t come at the cost of making it simple. By which I mean, for every Cosmos – rightly praised for its engaging treatment of cosmology, evolution and more (the first episode needed nachos to cope with all the cheese, but the second episode – on evolution – was superb) – there are a dozen painfully obscure, but no less important, attempts to convey the results of research in one field or another.

Or, attempts to convey the fact that research didn’t achieve any results, but that it was nevertheless worthwhile, even though it cost truckloads of money. My point is that much of science involves a slow, long slog, and is conducted by people outside of the limelight, often not even seeking the limelight because they are geeks/obsessives of some sort rather than wannabe celebrities.

This is why the advertorial insert on FameLab in Friday’s Mail&Guardian newspaper became the subject of a little rant between a friend and I over the weekend. The FameLab website carries the following quote from Dr Alice Roberts – “You are making something entertaining but not dumbing it down and I think that is absolutely what FameLab is about.” But take a look at the presentation from one of the finalists from last year:

In summary, the argument is that obsessive dieting can lead to women messing up their metabolisms, and can also impact on the health of their children. A British Medical Journal that Google found for me says:

Mother’s diet in pregnancy has little effect on the baby’s size at birth, but nevertheless programmes the baby. The fetus adapts to undernutrition by changing its metabolism, altering its production of hormones and the sensitivity of tissues to them, redistributing its blood flow, and slowing its growth rate.

Fine – if the challenge is to take some area of science and quickly summarise its findings in a compelling fashion, then FameLab could be described as a success (in general, rather than with reference to the talk above). But the science is of course being dumbed down, in that very few scientific hypotheses or theories can be explained without dumbing them down in 3 minutes (the length of a FameLab presentation) – and many can hardly be explained at all to non-specialists.

And that’s fine. It’s as it should be – because the difficulty inherent in some fields is exactly what motivates us to work so hard to find the answers to questions posed in those fields. If it was easy, anyone would be able to do it – and perpetuating the misconception that science is frequently about “fame”, and can be explained in a 3 minute performance, detracts from the reality of most science and scientists.

Here’s what the insert reported about Raven Motsewabangwe, South African’s winner of the 2014 round who will now go to the international finals in the UK:

Raven Motsewabangwe (North West University) compared viral infections to an attack by aliens and conveyed information to the audience about medical responses through vaccines and antivirals.

The clip isn’t available online, but the analogy is not new, and the rest sounds like science journalism of indeterminable quality. Quite the contrast to what the advertorial insert tells us about FameLab’s purpose:

Forget what you think you know about scientists. Do yourself a favour and meet the new generation. They’re fired up and they’re out to change the world.

[Insert deity of choice] help us, if that’s all there is to the new generation of scientists. We’ve got a difficult enough time of it as it is in the universities, simply asking students to read a few pages of text before coming to class, or expecting a modicum of attention for 45 minutes. It’s the Pop Idols approach to science that allows Nature News, Diet Doctor, Dr. Oz and all the other hyperbolic peddlers of oversimplification to capture audiences and sell books. Should we be encouraging that?

What we need at present are more reminders about the dangers of thinking science is about a persuasive presentation or a three minute summary. We need reminders that there are experts, and that the work they do is difficult, and important. We need reminders that the truth is often not demotic, and thinking that it is can contribute to things like near-record numbers of measles cases in the USA in 2013, as conspiracies and quackery take the place of scientific authority.

In the closing piece of the same insert, titled “Pop Idols for scientists”, we’re told a little more about our winner:

It was a 25 year-old microbiologist from Mafikeng in the North West Province – Raven Motsewabangwe – who emerged the judges’ favourite. His casual pop-star looks, engaging smile and the ease with which he explained the concept of viral infections using little more than two coloured balloons also won the hearts of many of the female audience; and when his name was announced as the winner, they rushed onto the stage to pose with their hero – South Africa’s Pop Idol of science.

In short, science is about looking sharp, and using short sentences (and props). Get it right, and the babes (if that’s what you’re after) will flock to you. Sounds about right, right?

[Geek alert] On metadata, MP3’s and Bliss

In a departure from my usual themes here on Synapses, I’d like to tell those of you who are obsessed concerned about their music library organisation about a program I recently discovered, called Bliss. (A spot of disclosure is in order right from the start: the developer of Bliss, Dan Gravell, was kind enough to give me a free license for testing purposes).

What Bliss claims to do is to organise your music library, album art and metadata, downloading the missing bits where necessary. Those of you who have your music in the cloud will know how annoying it is to have two albums by the same artist listed, with half the tracks in each,  because of some minor difference in the metadata. My library isn’t necessarily huge (12 000 or so songs), but contained enough of those sorts of issues to merit some attention.

Yes, there are other tools out there that do this (or a similar) job, and I’ve tried many of them. What makes Bliss different is that it runs as a background process, and once you’ve defined the rules you’d like to apply to your music, it will scan and correct any new music you add to the specified folder, as well as populate the relevant fields for existing music.

The rules themselves can be defined with a great deal of specificity, perfect for anoraks like myself. Do you want to enforce a minimum of two digits for track numbers, so track 1 becomes 01? What dimension and file-size album art is the minimum you’ll accept – and what should be regarded as too large? Bliss will automatically convert where necessary, and give you options if more than one image fits the album.

If tracks are not tagged at all, it generates an acoustic fingerprint, which is then used to find and offer suggestions for tracks and albums that that match the fingerprint. The walkthrough on tagging on the Bliss website gives you a good overview of how powerful the basic functionality is, but if you wanted to really get stuck in, or clean up tags that other software has inserted (iTunes is often a culprit here), there’s no end to the level of detail available.

Bliss tagging options

So, how well did it work? After running overnight, around 300 albums had successfully been edited to meet the standards I stipulated, without any human intervention whatsoever. This variously included downloading missing artwork, renaming files and directories, and find (or correcting) metadata. And, of all those albums now listed as “compliant”, I’ve only spotted one mistake, where a collectors edition of an album had ended being re-tagged as the standard studio album.

Another 100 or so were highlighted as needing attention, but as you can see in the screenshot below, the attention required often added up to little more than clicking a button to accept a recommendation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 08.12.02

How much human intervention is required will largely depend on the parameters you define, so think carefully about how important something like “genre” is to you, before letting Bliss get started. Many of my albums were identified as non-compliant, simply because I had thought it a good idea to specify that all albums needed to be tagged as one of X defined genres. But because the existing library had so many more, idiosyncratic genres, this resulted in many prompts for attention. Re-running Bliss with the instruction to not care about genres decreased the human input required significantly.

A negative so far is that if you’ve got a significant library, the program takes quite a few minutes to launch (this will obviously vary not only based on library size, but system capabilities). So, it’s more suited to running in the background on a media server, where you don’t need to reboot and launch the program very often.

Then, I have still ended up with quite a few – probably around 50 – albums where I had to resort to using MP3Tag – a very good piece of free software – to fill in blanks that Bliss hadn’t (and, to correct the mistake mentioned above, where the album had been incorrectly tagged). But all in all, I suspect that Bliss has saved me many hours of effort in manually checking and correcting tags, and especially downloading artwork (seeing as my tags were already in fairly good shape).

If you want to check it out, Bliss is available for all major operating systems (Linux, OS X, Windows), and it allows 100 ‘fixes’ before asking you to pay anything. I’d suggest making a copy of a couple of albums, pointing Bliss at that directory, and seeing what it does in that controlled environment. If your experience is like mine, you’ll want to fine-tune your instructions to the program before letting it loose on your full library.

Then, if you like what you see – and I suspect you will, assuming you don’t already have a system in place – you can either purchase 1000 fixes for 10GBP, or unlimited fixes (including support for future versions of Bliss) for 30GBP.

Social justice and ethical nuance

There is a hierarchy of ‘badness’ in the world – there’s no question in my mind that various ethical lapses can be categorised as trivial or profound, even if there might be many cases that don’t admit to easy categorisation. Shoplifting is far less wrong than murder, and shoplifting to feed your starving family less wrong than shoplifting the latest Rihanna CD.

But when discussing some of the hot-button issues of the day – often, these days, social justice or related issues like racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, it sometimes seems that there’s less room for nuance than there should be. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “I’m not a racist, but…” many times, and that phrase is often a sign that the person speaking is in fact a racist. This doesn’t mean that our endorsements of an overall message can’t ever come with a ‘but’, though.

Emily Yoffe has had to do a lot of explaining of this point in recent days, on the same topic (risk-mitigation versus victim-blaming with regard to rape) where I’ve experienced similar outrage for making the suggestion that any method for decreasing the incidence of rape should be a possible subject for discussion, no matter how unfair it is that some groups (women, mostly) bear a disproportionate burden in this regard. We need to fix that unfairness, yes, but while we do so, we can (and should) simultaneously acknowledge how it might play out in terms of practical solutions for reducing rape.

In the past week, I’ve also been told (in response to this piece, identifying the plagiarism in a blog post on white privilege) that it matters not whether there is plagiarism in the piece in question, because that issue detracts from the main issue, which is white privilege. And, a few racist South Africans have found glee in the columnist in question being caught out, then somehow thought me an ally despite all the public evidence to the contrary.

And such is the intellectually vacuous nature of the blogosphere and social media that people take both of those positions seriously, despite the fact that they are both obviously flawed. This is what treating a particular cause – no matter how just – as gospel does to debate: it dumbs it down to headlines and hyperbole, where the long-term goal of getting everyone to think about what they believe, and why, is done a tremendous disservice.

Yoffe shouldn’t have had to explain her position (even though she did so very well, in the end), and the explanation might not help in any event, because the sorts of misreadings we’re talking about are incredibly motivated, and typically unfalsifiable (conversations about them are a textbook example of goalpost-shifting, ad hominem argumentation and the like).

There is a danger in groupthink (in that it is an obstacle to thinking), and one can agree on a position in a way that doesn’t involve groupthink. Especially when the stakes are highest, and the potential harms the greatest, we should remind ourselves of this. And, allow ourselves to be reminded of it.

Fetish, Mercury Live, 15 February 2013

Just a brief note to say “wow”. And to say that if you’re a fan of Fetish, or more generally a fan of smart rock music and talented performers of it, you should get yourself to one of the gigs on their current South African tour. Tonight it’s Stellenbosch, and then (from the 20th, successive nights in) Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.

My advancing years led to a departure at the first encore, but I left wishing I was 20 years younger – which would have pretty much been when I first went to a Fetish gig, perhaps even in the same venue (but no, that’s too convenient – those early gigs were in skanky Observatory dives). Some highlights:

1. The tracks they played off the new album, Little Heart, were made to be played live. The album – even though I claimed it should win SA music awards – doesn’t do justice to their raw power.
2. Ross Campbell (drums) was fantastic last night. Connected to point 1, the drive and energy of these tracks requires a steady hand on percussion, as well as a heavy one where necessary, and Ross gave us both in spades.
3. You have to hear their cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. It was wonderful.

So yes, go if you can. And buy some albums on Bandcamp.


Regardless of all else, Christmas is still a holiday

And for that, we can give a little bit of thanks. Thanks, to the conventions of calendars, and ostensibly secular states who continue to pay their respects to religious traditions. I don’t mind – as I’ve said before, this atheist thinks it entirely justified that our public holidays are mostly on religious holy days. But mostly, I can’t mind times like this, because the holiday offers a most welcome break not only from work, but also from the never-ending human stupidity that is reported in the news.

The stupidity goes on, of course – it’s just that less of it is reported. Here’s a lovely example, from IOL (today), explaining how the police in Swaziland are making victim-blaming in cases of rape their official policy. Yep, it’s true – police spokesperson Wendy Hleta

said the use of the 19th century law would be applied to anyone wearing revealing and indecent clothes. Women wearing revealing clothes were responsible for assaults or rapes committed against them.

“We do not encourage that women should be harmed, but at the same time people should note acceptable conduct of behaviour,” she said. The act of the rapist is made easy because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women. I have read from the social networks that men and even other women have a tendency of ‘undressing people with their eyes’. That becomes easier when the clothes are hugging or are more revealing.”

2012 had good bits too, of course. Plenty of good company, good food and wine, and an exciting and productive year of work, both at the university and on the Daily Maverick (which you should of course be reading, if you aren’t already doing so). And on the secular activism/atheist etc. front, the unremitting infighting, misunderstanding and so forth shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that it seems we are making progress. The 2011 UK census results, released earlier this month, contain some quite interesting data. You can read the key stats here, but the piece of information that leapt out for me was this:

Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent).

Also, remember that even among those who self-identify as Christian, being a Christian no longer seems to mean much of significance – at least in terms of where you get moral guidance, which metaphysics you subscribe to, and so forth. The Richard Dawkins Foundation data, released earlier this year, revealed that (for Christians in England):

  • 15% of them have never read the Bible
  • 32% believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus
  • 24% say that the Bible is inferior to other sources of moral guidance
  • 54% look to their own “inner moral sense” for guidance on morality, and only
  • 10% seek moral guidance from “religious teachings and beliefs”
  • 50% do not consider themselves to be religious

So that’s good. Here at home, I’d be lying if I reported that there seems to be any decrease in irrational beliefs. The churches seem to be going along strongly, and we’ve got a possible 7 more years of the buffoonish Jacob Zuma – a strong ally of theirs – as President. Besides religious belief, the continued dearth of good science journalism (with the occasional and honourable exception of the Mail & Guardian) isn’t helping to limit the growth of quackery, of late most prominently visible in the form of the formerly respectable scientist, Tim Noakes.

Yep, I’m also tired of all the medical journals banging on about the Bible. And Louis Agassiz himself still seems to be waiting for people to agree with his purported “great scientific truths” of a) the falsity of the theory of evolution, and b) scientific racism. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little more wary of citing someone like that as an authority on how hypotheses gain acceptance. I guess that’s mostly because I eat too many carbs, though. I should be careful, in case I end up developing homicidal urges:

Anyway – merry Christmas to you all, whatever Christmas might mean to you. See you next year. And if you don’t know Tim Minchin, take a listen to his Christmas song, below.

Drama free? I guess we’ll see.

In one of the early posts here, John Loftus pledged that Skeptic Ink would be a “drama free network“, and I certainly hope that this proves to be the case. Or at least, that certain sorts of drama can be avoided, because having no drama at all seems the wrong ambition (if you’re not offending or challenging anyone at all, then you’re probably not worth reading). Of late – as you all know – we’ve had drama of a different, sustained, and harmful sort. I’m not getting into that (again), except to say that one can regret what various people (on all sides of the antagonism) have thought it necessary to say and do without being guilty of asserting a false equivalence.

Others can chronicle the history if they choose to. Those of us who aren’t interested in that project should at least ensure that we don’t (intentionally) add to the catalogue of harms, and I’d suggest that the Skeptic Ink mission statement is on relatively safe ground – even if only as a minimal commitment. But just as in any other networks, some breadth and interpretive wiggle-room is useful in allowing for different voices to emerge – and just as in other networks, those who contribute here can’t be assumed to agree with each other unless we say we do.

Arguments should ideally always be judged on their merits, rather than through the lens of history or personality. However, the merits of an argument (or the bona fides of an interlocutor) are sometimes difficult to see when people are yelling at each other, or making no effort to see beyond any stereotypes or prejudicial judgements they might have entered the conversation with. And history is relevant to whether one can be judged as sincere. For my part, I’ll be trying to be consistently fair to the evidence no matter who that involves disagreeing with, and I’d hope that readers would do the same. Please read my comment policy (and of course, feel free to make suggestions in terms of edits) to get a sense of what I believe that to entail.

Towards a Free Society was named thus for two reasons, but where one is really just a marker on the road to the primary reason. The Free Society Institute (FSI) is a non-profit organisation that I founded, and am currently chairperson of, which promotes secularism, social equality and scientific interests in South Africa. So, calling this site something related seemed a obvious thing to do from the viewpoint of consolidating the expressions of “the brand”. But of course, both the organisation and the site are so named for a more substantive reason.

South Africa is a deeply religious (mostly Christian) country, and also a deeply conservative one in terms of things like social justice. Yes, I realise that foreigners might have believed the hype of a liberated and transformed society, but sadly, things like “corrective rapes” for lesbians occur here, and our Chief Justice is a man who believes you can pray the gay away.

So, the FSI has been an advocate for free speech, free thought, gender and racial equality and so forth. We’re also emphatically secular, and almost all of us are atheists. For me, atheism is a simple by-product of critical thought – the inescapable conclusion which follows from the available evidence. This annoys some folk, I realise, but I don’t think atheism all that interesting in itself. More interesting are the thoughts, confusions, biases, cultural forces etc. that lead to religious belief, and the negative consequences that can follow from those factors.

It is these causes of belief – and the ways in which they manifest in society – that will be the primary focus of Towards a Free Society. Because identifying and eliminating these causes is surely part of the strategy for freeing us from dogma, superstition, and also – perhaps especially – prejudice.

The disappeared ANCWL post on Zapiro

Earlier today, the ANC Women’s League released a rant about the latest Zapiro cartoon, which I won’t reproduce here for fear of being shot. But the rant has now disappeared from their website, although you can read Jackson Mthembu’s (typically reflective) opinion if you like. I happened to have a browser page open to the rant, so it’s posted below. I took the liberty of making a couple of corrections to it.

ANCWL condemns latest Zapiro excuse for satire

6 July 2012

The ANCWL condemns in the strongest possible terms the disgusting and completely distasteful depiction of the President in the latest Zapiro cartoon. David Jonathan Shapiro has taken his attempts at satire too far. He clearly does not understand the reasons for the public outcry over “The Spear” and why it was hurtful to so many people. The cartoon is an insult to those who suffered under the indignity of Aapartheid and a slap in the face to real efforts for advancing the social cohesion of our fragile society. Shapiro is showing his disregard for the healing process which is currently underway in South Africa after the divisive era before democracy.

The furore created by “The Spear” is a clear indication that we still have a long way to go. The Zapiro cartoons rely on their shock value to make an impact, but by calling the President of this great nation a “dick” is unacceptable and the WL would like to know who the we he is referring to in the cartoon actually is, as the majority of the population who voted for the PresidentANC clearly did not think this of Zuma. This cartoon is a clear attempt to fuel divisions in our society and should be condemned by all proud South Africans, regardless of race or political affiliation.

The right to freedom of expression is a right enshrined in the Cconstitution, a constitution pioneered by the Multi-party Negotiating Process and Constitutional AssemblyANC, however this right is not absolute and one must always remember a founding principale of our constitution is the right to human dignity, which was denied to so many during apartheid. The cartoon like the painting before it, is a violation of the President`s right to dignity and an insult to the people of South Africa. It serves no public interest whatsoever and was clearly just an attempt to insult and defame the President further.

Zapiro has gone from being a sometimes controversial, yet relevant satirist to a sensationalist arbiter of attentionseeking properagandaer released purely for its shock appeal, and serves absolutely no purpose in society. DavidJonathan Shapiro has declared a hatred for South Africans with this insult to the President, of not only the ANC but the entire country. This disturbing cartoon was released the day the President will be addressing a massive delegation of women from across all sectors of society who are deeply disgusted by this terrible portrayal of our country’ies President.

Issued By:
Troy Martens (on behalf of the ANCWL)
ANC Women`s League National Spokeswoman

Contact: 078 120 9880
e-mail: troymartens@gmail.com

Troy Martens
ANC Women`s League National Spokesperson
078 120 9880
011 376 1055

P.S. A (somewhat) corrected version of the statement has now been released. ANCWL CONDEMNS LASTEST ZAPIRO EXCUSE FOR SATIRE

Idiotic opinions on Zuma’s penis

There are of course plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s one instance of the sort of idiocy which has resulted from the Goodman Gallery’s display of the Brett Murray painting featuring Jacob Zuma’s penis (and the subsequent publication of the artwork by the City Press and others).

Ignoring the royal “we” of Qunta’s tweet below, as well as the (perhaps 140-character induced) spelling, there’s still enough here to ask why anyone would this an opinion worth expressing.

Legality isn’t the only thing that mediates art and speech. Legality is, though, the thing that ‘mediates’ (or rather, dictates) whether something is legally permissible or not. Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste whether you approve of something or not. But the point of a roughly free country is that your subjective preferences need have no bearing on what I’m allowed to see. Zuma, his daughters, his wives or whomever can say “we don’t like that” (the artwork, that is, rather than the penis. They could think that of the penis too, but that’s again a matter of taste. For the wives, at least) – but they can’t say “that’s not allowed”.

So, we have norms and values to inform (or mediate) the debate outside of law – to make the case for thinking something praiseworthy or blameworthy and so forth. But all this within a framework of recognising that it’s allowed, even if we don’t like it. And we have norms and values to guide us in areas that aren’t covered by law, and also to influence law via democratic processes, where you can vote according to those norms and values, and in doing so, hope to eventually influence the law.

But you can’t expect your norms and values to simply be the law. Because they are yours, not ours, and they’re not obviously the ones “we”should adopt. Because no matter how royal the “we” in your mind might be, it doesn’t include me – I see a portrait of a man who can’t be taken seriously for well-documented reasons, where that impaired moral standing is being highlighted through a certain form of artistic insult, and where the insult has been earned.

Of course this is insensitive to “culture”. But in this matter, where “culture” demands respect for a buffoon, or asks us to endorse the subjugation of women, it’s the culture that’s the problem rather than those who are disrespectful of it.

While you’re at it, take Holomisa to the HRC

Take a look at the responses offered by Patekile Holomisa to Chris Barron’s questions in this weekend’s Sunday Times. I addressed his views in a Daily Maverick column reposted here, wherein I drew attention to the fact that his retrograde attitude towards equality seemed no less – if not more – offensive than dos Santos and Tshidi, whose racist tweets have recently caused such upheaval in the Twittersphere. (As a sidenote, the report on their “reconciliation lunch” with Mmusi Maimane is a wonderful example of how low journalistic standards can sink – “Dos Santos, who had plastered her face with make-up and pink blush” & “Thamane, 22, it has emerged, is not even a model” being two choice examples).

Holomisa has poked his head out of his cave for long enough to confirm that our suspicions are not at all unfounded, and that freedom is quite alright, so long as it’s according to cultural norms. And who defines cultural norms? Well, “traditional communities and traditional leaders”, apparently – except, that’s not quite true, because if you’re a gay person then your sexual preferences are “not part of our culture”. So, that leaves us with traditional leaders as the arbiters of cultural norms. And guess what – they’re all male, and will continue to be so, especially if the Traditional Courts Bill passes, and even if it doesn’t, because that’s the current status quo.

Gays and lesbians do what they do “despite of their culture”, according to Holomisa. But yet, this magnanimous man says they should be protected – “they can’t be assaulted, or raped or killed. According to the culture.” No, Holomisa, that’s not the only reason – it’s also according to law, which (currently) recognises sexual orientation as illegitimate grounds for discrimination. And one of the reasons for having this in law is that despite what you think the “cultural” rules are, people are discriminating against gays and lesbians. And exactly those people who you think define cultural norms are themselves frequently homophobic.

So it’s a cop-out to say that it’s “not because of the culture that they’re being assaulted and raped and killed. The culture doesn’t say they must be assaulted and killed and raped.” Because when “the culture” says “let’s remove the protections for gays and lesbians from the Bill of Rights” – as you are doing, Mr. Holomisa – then it is because of “the culture” that people are being assaulted and raped and killed. Because you know it’s happening, and you know it’s sometimes because of homophobia. And one way to change “the culture” is to put people in jail, often and always, when they assault, rape or kill (for whatever reason, but including as a result of homophobia).

Another way to change “the culture” is of course to tell people to stop doing these things. But that strategy isn’t working out too well, is it?