A knife of morality at the throat of free speech


A knife of morality at the throat of free speech

We dare not allow debate on everything from Gaza to decolonisation to be held captive by moral codes, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


FREEDOM of speech is a guaranteed right in most liberal-democratic systems. Yet the struggle to maintain that right is constantly being challenged. Undefined moral codes are constantly fabricated through political activism and place immense pressure on people either to remain silent or to conform to opinions under threat. The struggle for ideas is repackaged as the struggle between moralities.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around the August 2022 ruling by the equality court that Dubul' ibhunu (kill the farmer) is not hate speech. The court's decision would have made more sense if someone with more credibility than the EFF had been involved in the case. That some right-wing political identities with whom I don't want to associate happen to agree with me puts tremendous pressure on my opinion. And the issue is further complicated by the fact that South Africa's murder rate is comparable to the casualties in a civil war. However, this is the problem with freedom of speech, legal precedent and contradictory choices: context is important.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

David Teeger's story is familiar by now. He is Jewish and a rising star of the South African cricket scene. On the eve of the under-19 men's cricket world cup being hosted in South Africa, his captaincy was taken away from him. Cricket South Africa (CSA) claimed talk of social unrest was the motivation for this decision.

Teeger's romanticisation of the Israeli Defence Forces' “young soldiers" in a war where thousands of Palestinians have died in the most brutal manner also struck me as insensitive and even offensive. However, whatever may or may not offend me is of less importance than Teeger's right to hold and raise offensive ideas. In fact, I find it equally offensive that exercising his freedom of speech could have led to violence. The Palestinian cause is not advanced by the bigoted behaviour of activists who threaten violence.

However, I also buy Prof Pierre de Vos's argument that sports people's freedom of speech may indeed be limited by the code of conduct of the representative organisation to which they belong. My argument is not necessarily against his removal as captain but the political context of extortion that came with it. CSA did not deprive Teeger of his captaincy for disregarding its limitations on freedom of speech.

I felt a similar discomfort during the 2021 T20 World Cup when Quinton de Kock refused to kneel at the behest of CSA for the sake of Black Lives Matter. As impressed as I was with Rassie van der Dussen kneeling with a clenched fist, I also believe in De Kock's right not to conform. CSA has no right to force me or anyone else to maintain a political opinion. I cannot see how De Kock's lack of participation in a symbolic gesture could have harmed the sport or CSA's image. CSA's coercion and the activism for a binary understanding of Palestine's complexity are nothing more than forms of neo-fascism.

In a recent conversation with two colleagues from the Muslim faith the conversation became exponentially more heated when I made the point that from a political and also a military perspective, the case for the genocide label in Gaza is not obvious. I'm uncertain when it comes to international law because the interpretation of South Africa's case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is too complex for me to express an opinion on; I would rather await the verdict. However, most legal experts I know are extremely unsure whether South Africa's claim that Israel is guilty of genocidal intent meets the burden of proof in international law.

What was disturbing about the conversation with my colleagues was that my (immoral?) opinion was immediately condemned as being advocacy for a genocide against Palestinians. By this thinking, the issue presents one of only two outcomes: there are those who realise this is a genocide, and the rest, who thereby justify a genocide of Palestinians. Anyone who doubts that what Israel is doing in Gaza meets the legal technical definition of a genocide therefore condones Israel's war in Gaza, with all its cruel consequences for innocent people, and should be silenced.

The aggression, condemnation and spitefulness of the pro-Palestinian movement strike me as offensive. There is very little room for nuanced questions in a conversation with activists who equate morality to ideology or religion. When I argued that if South Africa is right and Israel should withdraw from Gaza, at least one party would remain advocating for genocide and could regroup, things got heated.

Using guilt as a moralising strategy doesn't work. Doing so states the case of the Palestinians but does not discount the realities of Hamas. It is not enough to argue that Israel's repressive history towards the Palestinians justifies Hamas's actions. This doesn't represent a denial of Israel's part in the war, but one human rights violation does not justify another.

That genocide of the Israelis appears as a codified objective in Hamas's manifesto is not unimportant. With that in mind, and until the ICJ renders a verdict, I can only suspect Israel of genocide but I know Hamas has the intent to commit genocide. If this opinion offends you, then state your alternative facts without stigmatising mine.

Like reality, facts are sometimes immoral; this is one of the reasons freedom of speech is so important. As far as I'm concerned, your morals have the same value as your belief that your wife is beautiful or your husband a dear man. Who cares? If your faith determines your moral values, then your moral values are limited to your faith. Hamas's God is not my God.

Like many other South Africans, I was extremely impressed with South Africa's legal team, but as one colleague noted, South Africa is more often than not brilliant at political court cases. Justice is done in an inevitable political context, and that was the point Israel made on day two. Something tells me that if the political context of the war is deemed of interest by the judges, Israel can expect a favourable verdict, also because Hamas is an outspoken advocate of genocide against the Israelis.

A binary worldview on troubling issues is also forced onto many other master narratives. I am permanently at odds with my colleagues over the decolonisation of academia. This is another debate that gives the impression that freedom of speech leaves room for only one opinion, and opposition to it is politically immoral. White male superiority is a reality and the so-called colonial or Western thought has an overwhelming scholastic presence in most faculties' curricula, but unfortunately this same identity group is also responsible for most of the recent scientific research.

Some of the best theorists on the politics of West Africa work from Europe, especially at French research institutions. A lack of funding and the limitations of scholastic infrastructure for scientific research outside of Western academic institutions make the conversation about the decolonisation of academia a matter of theoretical wishful thinking. There is simply too little scientific research being done at academic institutions in Africa.

Nor have I really seen a properly formulated blueprint for decolonising curricula. Criticism of the existing academic paradigm is not a substantial alternative to it. There is consensus on the lack of diversity of lived experiences and theoretical assumptions, but Africa will urgently need to produce more scientists with competing ideas for decolonisation of academic curricula to become a reality.

Try to imagine how tendentious the atmosphere sometimes becomes when anyone insists on an alternative that does not feed off criticism of the current regime in a one-dimensional way. As a compromise, most of my colleagues try to sterilise their study guides by including as many “non-Western" theorists as possible, but despite generous funding and all the administrative support imaginable, the harvest is particularly sparse even at South African universities.

And all hell breaks loose if you criticise decolonisation as political transformation. A diversity of opinions is vital but criticism of existing curricula as being neo-liberalism or neo-colonialism does not promote diversity by itself. The stigmatisation of existing knowledge as an ideological longing for white privilege is nothing more than an attempt to silence rival voices.

I found the public conversation about transgender people's rights and identity of more than just passing interest. The stigmatisation of transgender people is a blemish on our shared humanity and undermines the need to try to understand complexity. For example, the attempts by British would-be polemicist Piers Morgan to denounce the phenomenon of preferred personal pronouns on his show Piers Morgan Uncensored were more of a vanity project than a sincere quest to understand and explain.

I don't really care which personal pronoun you prefer. It is your right to choose your own identity (gender) and to have your loved ones respect it, but I don't have to argue with science. A new set of facts might bring me to new insights but a political fad will not. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins confirms the dominant science when it comes to genders: there are only two.

But it's transgender activists' condemnation of others that irks me. It does not make me a homophobe if I think that “preferred personal pronouns" are an artificial manifestation of a complex issue that doesn't do justice to the valid aspirations and interests of the transgender community.

My right to free speech cannot be held captive by your being offended or by your moralising of ideas. The same is true of the debate over the decolonisation of academic curricula at tertiary institutions, and even more so in the case of the conflict in Gaza.

♦ VWB ♦

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