The redemptive nature of offence
- Jacques Rousseau
- 26 May 2010 06:42 (South Africa)
We all find something offensive. Many of us might prefer a world which caters to our sensibilities and limits how much we have to tolerate. I would like for everybody to be able to spell. And also for most quotation marks in advertising to be outlawed. Unfortunately, nobody seems willing to make these happen.
It is also true that I’d prefer churches didn’t get tax breaks and religious figures don’t get treated as moral authorities. I’d certainly want Andrew Wakefield, Oprah Winfrey, Matthias Rath and a bunch of other people to spend a lot of time in Orwell’s Room 101, and then hopefully emerge “corrected”. But I also understand this would not be in my best interests, because there is always a possibility – no matter how slight – that I might learn something from even such unexpected sources as them, rather than only from avenues I already regard as useful.
This is part of the point of JS Mill’s celebrated defence of free speech. With the exception of speech which causes “necessary harms”, allowing ourselves to be exposed to being offended is a robust antidote to complacency, intellectual arrogance, bad science and dogma. The reason we care to have this antidote available – or perhaps why we should care – is that mistaken beliefs can lead us to actions which undermine our welfare or the welfare of others.
I assume this is part of the point of occasions like “Blasphemy Day” (30 September) and “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (20 May). These days are not simply celebrations of free speech but also have a political and epistemological point to make. One summary of this point might be that not everybody takes your beliefs seriously, and nor are they obliged to, no matter what those beliefs are.
This is especially important when those beliefs are used to justify paedophilia, homophobia, oppression, murder, censorship and all sorts of social ills. Perhaps more so when the beliefs in question are derived from interpretations of words uttered by characters much of the world considers mythological. This is equally so for many believers. The utterances of other people’s gods don’t carry the weight those of their own gods do.
Jonathan Shapiro’s cartoon in the Mail & Guardian caused significant offence to some in the Muslim community, partly due to the religious injunction that Muhammad not be depicted. Of course, Zapiro is not a Muslim, and thus has no obligation to adhere to this injunction. Furthermore, the injunction itself is not found in the Koran, but rather in the interpretive molasses of the hadiths, which means we have human religious authorities to thank for this interpretation, rather than some booming voice from the heavens.
Despite the fact that Zapiro was free to draw the cartoon, many commentators claim Zapiro should have self-censored; should have chosen not to do so. These arguments involve ideas like “respect” and “tolerance”, while also sometimes making claims about potential negative consequences to relations between South African communities – and threats to World Cup tourism.
Mostly, though, it is not arguments we encounter, but simple assertions that “Zapiro offends deliberately, then hides behind the Constitution”, or that the cartoon was “offence simply for the sake of offending”. The latter presumes gratuitous poking of fun, and the former misses the point of why we have the Constitution – or, at least, the free speech provisions in the Bill of Rights.
Another class of objections is summarised by this indignant Facebook bleat: “When they attack black people, you call it racism. When they attack Jewish people, you call it anti-Semitism. When they attack women, you call it sexism. When they attack homosexuality, you call it Intolerance. When they attack your country, you call it treason. But when they attack Prophet Muhammad, you want to call it freedom of speech!”
Addressing these in reverse order, it should immediately be clear that comparisons between cartoons such as Zapiro’s and racism, sexism et al involve false analogies. There is nothing to criticise or ridicule about black people qua their being black, homosexuals for being homosexual, and so forth. The target of cartoons such as Zapiro’s is not Muslims for being Muslim, but rather about a range of correlates to that belief system.
I don’t have access to Jonathan Shapiro’s intentions here, but correlates span a range of possibilities, starting with simple comments on the irrationality of taking Bronze-age mythology seriously in the 21st century, and perhaps ending with moral commentary on the problems with a faith that can be interpreted as endorsing (or simply allowing for) marital rape, or the stoning of rape victims, as if it is somehow their fault that they are born into a system of patriarchal dictatorship.
These details are well known to anyone who has bothered to investigate them. However, critics will assert that the evil men I describe above are the ones who have misinterpreted their scriptures or their faith’s purpose. That may be so. The fact remains that the system allows for these interpretations, and such a system cannot claim the right to be left outside the reach of critical assessment. It cannot claim that “respect for other cultures and faiths” demands that we refrain from criticism, or even ridicule, as these actions merit both criticism and ridicule – perhaps in even louder voices than we currently allow ourselves.
If you are a member of one of these faiths who is equally horrified by these abuses, but who still finds the cartoon in question offensive, then you should perhaps consider whether it might not be directed at those who pervert something you consider decent and good. Your offence at the cartoon can be understood, but the target of your anger should be your less-civilised brothers and sisters, who make such comment necessary – not those who make the comments.
The points made by Zapiro, as well as by past examples of this same issue, are a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get their house in order so that there is no need to mock or ridicule. You do this most effectively from the inside, by persuading people who take faith as a way to justify harm that they are the ones who have lost their way, and that surely a god worth taking seriously would not want you to harm others – and would probably also want you to expose and criticise those who do.
This is not, then, “offence simply for the sake of offending”. If it was, then I’d have to agree with many of the critics who make the point that it is uncivil or impolite to gratuitously offend people. I would agree mostly because gratuitous offence seems like bad political strategy in cases where you hope to change minds. We don’t often change someone’s mind through teasing them. We usually simply make them more intractable.
Having said that, we certainly have the right to poke fun or tease whoever we like, and I think the offended parties are daft for getting upset about it. But there may be cases where, as Jeremy Nell pointed out, “We must fight to the death for the right to draw Muhammad, but then refrain from doing so”. What we should not do is to presume that all such depictions are gratuitous, and thereby prejudge any instance of these depictions as having no political or moral point to make. In the case of this particular cartoon, the point is clear: It’s not about Muhammad, but rather a criticism of some Muslims who do bad things, ostensibly in service of Muhammad.
Finally, there is the disguised ad hominem charge that Zapiro deliberately offends, then “hides behind the Constitution”. It is ad hominem because it attacks his character through accusing him of cowardice. It is also somewhat incoherent in assuming that he doesn’t have a point to make, while at the same time accusing him of not being willing to take responsibility for something he has (or hasn’t) said. But it also expresses a very peculiar understanding of why the Constitution exists.
Firstly, note that we could also make this claim when someone demands a fair trial instead of appearing before a kangaroo court: “Look, we think you committed the murder, and now you want a lawyer?” The opportunity to “hide” behind the Constitution is something for which we’re all generally quite grateful.
Secondly, the claim involves the presumption that causing offence is always wrong, and there is no reason to believe this is true. Causing offence may sometimes be bad strategy, but in many cases – and this is certainly one such case – the offense is part of a deliberate strategy to try to effect social change.
Thirdly, and most importantly, this objection forgets a central purpose of the Constitution – perhaps its key purpose. South Africa used to be a place where freedoms of various sorts were not tolerated, and where people were told what to think and what to do. We have unshackled ourselves from that paternalism, and one of the mechanisms by which we did so was through protesting against things that we considered absurd or unjust. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that this process is complete, or that we don’t still have things to learn about ourselves and about each other.
We do so by speaking freely. This is because any stifling of free expression might involve silencing a voice that could reach another person, and cause them to discard a prejudice, or simply to learn something useful. Social critics such as Jonathan Shapiro serve an enormous public good, but can only do so because the Constitution allows them that freedom. It simultaneously allows us the freedom to feel discomfort, and to learn from that discomfort. This discomfort is a good thing, in that it reminds us that our beliefs may be wrong.
In short, the Constitution guarantees us the right to be offended – and for that, we should remain eternally grateful.
- Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech
- Homophobia and the politics of outrage
- Please look after the place while I’m gone.
- Parliament – where dead sheep savage one another
- ‘Catholic’ and ‘Muslim’ South Africa
- Free speech doesn’t guarantee an audience
- So atheists are people too?
- A culture of dying
- Deciding when to die
- Minds are what brains do
- So what are universities for?
- Mantashe wants to help you 'Know your DA'
- Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
- UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine
- The sound and fury of sanctimony
- Burn the witch!
- Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data
- Pornography is coming to eat your children
- Do you know what’s good for you?
- #We Say Enough
- Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim blaming
- Can Frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?
- You can leave your hat on
- If performance-enhancing drugs are bad, let's ban high-fibre cereal too.
- Blood deferrals: Too important to take personally
- The world according to Zuma - and the trouble with 'culture'
- A free market in false choices
- I, for one, welcome our robot overlords
- Debate is the key
- Been there? Got the T-shirt? Think carefully before you wear it...
- You are what you tweet
- Body language: Freedom confronts respect in Body Worlds human forms
- Choose wisely: Mourdock, rape and targeted outrage
- Birds of a feather...philosophise together?
- So who owns oppression, really?
- Help, not demonisation, will stem child abuse
- More about trolls
- Please do not feed the trolls
- Affirmative action: Equity does not come with voting rights alone
- SAA's cadet programme: The sky isn't falling
- South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?
- SA & religion: Eyes wide shut
- Freedom of speech & freedom of abuse
- Is free speech fried in Chick-fil-A debate?
- Colorado killings: there's no comfort in the absurd
- Let's try to avoid drive-by charity on Mandela Day
- First do no harm
- The cutting edge of religion
- Public holidays: positive discrimination?
- The new discrimination – against men
- Censorship: The chilling effect
- Health Warning: You may not smoke, but you can eat yourself to death
- 'I see a red door and I want it painted black'
- Freedom of speech; oh, perish the thought
- Homophobia trending among traditional leaders
- How to meat friends and influence people
- How to meat friends and influence people
- Still hunting, still gathering
- Dogmatix isn't only a canine in the Asterix comic books
- Exactly Whose Humanity is Vanishing?
- Tim Noakes on carbohydrates - fad or fact?
- Mind over matter – and knowing the difference
- Don't PIN your freedoms to Icasa's apron strings
- Killing the messenger never silences the message
- The unbearable rightness of maybe being wrong
- The worrisome worth of foregone conclusions
- The tyranny of labels
- Staring into the abyss of ‘special privileges’
- Twitter censorship, the Streisand Effect and three fingers pointing back
- Free speech is good - but not in my back yard
- Abortion - the great conceptual conundrum
- Killing live animals to talk to dead people is bull
- Stalking votes with over-the-counter vetoes
- Always look on the One side of life
- Get Tested: Get off the entitlement horses and give it a chance
- The Lotters, Harry Potter and SA's judicial system
- The haunting of Helen Zille
- The Great T-Shirt Debate that went horribly wrong
- M&M & the media – playing the ball or the men?
- Twitter - fast food for ever-fattening egos
- How Occupy Wall Street became Pick a Protest
- Steve Jobs was just a man
- What are you?
- Who did ET really call? Woo-woo fest at Wits might have the answer
- How to strut like a slut and itch like a bitch
- The world according to reader feedback
- To judge or not to judge; that is the Mogoeng
- 'A Boy Named Sue' and a victim named 'slut'
- How to bake the perfect humble pie
- How to win friends and influence the irrational
- See what I mean? Or maybe you don't...
- Separating sense from nonsense
- Racial nationalism - the silliest disease of them all
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can rip my soul
- Just catch the next feminist wave
- That's right - tertiary education is a privilege, not a right
- The conundrum of university - level remedial education - where do we start?
- The immense value of the egghead
- If ridicule be the right remedy, mock on
- Racism, put on your ballot-proof vest
- It was the lizard on the grassy knoll
- Of unenclosed toilets and enclosed ballot booths
- Our responsibility to build a better 'Bill'
- It's the Singer, not the Song
- Trapped in an abusive relationship? Dial 0800-VOTE
- Hate speech and hateful words - there is a difference
- Why the Bill of Responsibilities doesn't make the grade
- Natural selection and principled prejudice
- The Orwellian horror of a world without grammar
- Beware the Jabberwock
- Ya don’t learn nuffink by shutting others up
- U2, Brute!
- Unfollowing the defriended is like delisting the unlikeable
- There's something fishy about Kenny and his critics
- Astrology - the gullible's travails are written in the stars
- Dr Woo and the Silicon Snake-oil Bangle Sellers
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of dignity
- Who wants to be African anyway?
- The Beatles warned you, Mr President
- Annelie Botes, racism, moralistic awards 'n all
- The silence of the racists
- The proof of the pudding
- Freedom is a fragile thing
- The conditionality of morality
- Of guillotines, smoking, kissing children and scientific proof
- Why moral absolutism hasn't done so well
- The moral arrogance of relativism
- The dilemma of being special in a world of special people
- Of burning closets and closed minds
- Is Internet making us stoopid commenters?
- To be, or not to be serious
- Stepping into greyer shades of grey
- Books and beliefs and other burning issues
- Talking of Hawking and thinking of God
- ‘You may be wrong for all I know, but you may be right’
- The unbearable triteness of best-selling BS
- The struggle for true freedom is with us more than ever
- It’s silly to take a penknife to a gunfight
- Tell me lies, tell me sweet little morally questionable falsehoods
- I think therefore I am … at least I think so
- First, do no harm
- All rights are equal – or should be
- Beauty and the beastly behaviour
- Afrighana versus United States of North America – a continental dilemma
- Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – the multiple tasks of multi-tasking
- Blow the vuvuzela and blow the cultural argument
- Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to the World Cup!
- Thought police, never a good thing
- The redemptive nature of offence
- Potholes or profits – the modern dilemma of corporate social responsibility
- Too many cows, too few tuna and too big an appetite
- Press freedom’s value is in our capacity to take part
- Of uncertainty and the opinions it spawns
- Just another brick in the wall
- Playing the authenticity card
- The dangers of tolerance
- ‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads
- Julius is The Man
- Beware the orthorexics as you chomp down on your boerie-roll
- Freedom of (Multi)choice
- Let's talk about our moral code