Only dead fish go with the flow
30 October 2014 17:00 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

It's the Singer, not the Song

  • Jacques Rousseau
A little-known Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition somehow encapsulates much of the current zeitgeist around the “Shoot the Boer” hearing. We cannot resist ranking some freedoms and rights above others. This isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but it does raise the question of personal motive relative to the greater good of society – it demands we dig deep in defence or condemnation of the singer or his song.

It’s easy to demonise those who disagree with us when discussing emotive topics such as hydraulic fracturing, or the ongoing Equality Court case involving AfriForum and Julius Malema. But while it is sometimes true that sincerity takes a back seat to ideology or fanaticism – or even kickbacks from corporate lobbyists – it’s far more often the case that demonising an opposing point of view serves merely to reinforce your own confidence that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.

A good rule of thumb for sceptics (and by sceptic, I simply mean those who want their opinions to be informed by available evidence) is to remember that hyperbole and emotive rhetoric are often driven by opportunism or insincerity. Opportunism, in that persuading others to accept your (perhaps sincere) point of view can sometimes be achieved more readily through frightening them or inspiring them. Insincerity, because shouting at someone can make them think you should be taken seriously, even when that’s false.

One way to dismiss the viewpoints of others is to call their motives into question. But someone who disagrees with you could be equally sincere, and equally well-meaning – it’s just that they might rank values differently. Or, they could rank values in the same way you do, but disagree on what the best strategy is for reinforcing those values.

I’m not going to get involved in the debate on hydraulic fracturing. This is partly because I don’t know enough about it, and partly because it seems impossible to do so without inviting abusive reactions. But notice two curious things about the response to Ivo Vegter’s column from last week: First, the message clearly conveyed by many of the comments is that it’s impermissible to challenge the received wisdom (some might say dogma) that the environment should be protected at all costs.

This is a very crude summary, in that the facts of the debate are (in part) exactly around how much damage would accrue through this method of extracting natural gas. But the tone and content of the debate quickly became a battle between the stereotypes of Big Capital on the one hand, and Bunny Huggers on the other. In such a polarised and polarising debate, engaging with facts on their merit – rather than focusing on alleged motives – quickly drops out of the equation.

And the second curious thing is that in discussions of motive, our characterisation of opponents as being on the opposite end of some spectrum can sometimes be false. While you might not believe that libertarianism and capitalism are our best tools to provide a better life for all, it’s nevertheless possible that they are. So to claim – with certainty – that a person like Ivo is anti-poor can be to mischaracterise motive, regardless of how much you think or assume that the detail of your argument should win the day.

A final point on this, for those who are certain that someone like Ivo can be neatly characterised as pro-industry and anti-poor: How does this point of view square with, for example, this robust defence of working-class taxi-drivers against the big money of Bombela and the Gautrain? Is he simply inconsistent? Or perhaps, is it the case that the same basic principles, consistently applied, sometimes lead to conclusions that happen to coincide with yours, and sometimes not?

Consistency and values, and how we rank them, are the issues here – not the specifics of a particular columnist with particular views. As with the “Shoot the Boer” hearing, there are myriad aspects of law and the interpretation and application thereof that could be addressed. But those specifics can again obscure a more general issue of equal or greater importance, which is that we should be wary of allowing our intuitions to trump our principled, (hopefully) reasoned commitments.

Words like rights, hate and harm are often deployed as weapons in battles such as the one currently before the Equality Court. But we can sometimes forget that our decision in terms of which strategy is most likely to win a particular war entails the (anticipated) cost of knowing that certain individual battles have to be lost, simply through applying our own principles consistently.

We can, for example, enforce a far higher degree of safety on our population. We could ban mountain climbing or smoking, because a life in which one doesn’t do any of these things will on average be a longer one. We choose to not do this, because we rank the value of our personal freedom more highly than we rank the value implied by the actuary’s calculator, telling us that we’re sacrificing however many years by exercising those freedoms.

A crude way of putting this is that we rank our freedom to engage in dangerous activities higher than we rank life – at least life as defined by longevity. A less crude summary would be to say that we rank a certain sort of life higher still, where that sort of life is considered worthwhile partly through years spent enjoying it, and partly through what we spend those years doing. And we commit ourselves to a principle whereby our freedom to choose comes at a cost, in that people will sometimes make harmful choices.

So when I was asked on Twitter whether a commitment to free speech should involve allowing Malema to sing “Shoot the Boer”, “despite the potential meaning and possible repercussions of that to certain sectors of SA society”, I didn’t hesitate to respond by saying yes – “if people kill, lock them up. Life is valuable, but I don't rank it above long-term health of society, which censorship impairs.”

This seemed to surprise my interlocutor, as well as an eavesdropper or two. But my point was that we already know that free speech comes at a cost, and that actions have consequences – and it’s from the position of having that knowledge that we have committed ourselves to free speech. Consistently applying our existing principles lead to the permissibility of singing that song today, and also lead to the impermissibility of chanting those words at Peter Mokaba’s funeral.

Hate speech is not about the words uttered in isolation, but also about the context in which words are uttered. In the case of the funeral, an explosive situation was likely to be inflamed by calls to kill boers, whereas we can only find very tenuous – if any – evidence that the singing of that song today is related to violence against farmers (or police, depending on how committed you are to historical accuracy). Even AfriForum isn’t making the claim that the song and farm violence are connected.

We don’t need to – and shouldn’t – ban the singing of a song like “Shoot the Boer”. The right to sing it is entailed by a principled choice and commitment to freedom. This is a freedom that is necessary for self-determination, and we rank that value high enough to accommodate – regretfully – occasional abuses of that freedom. And an abuse it is, no question. But it is an abuse that merits social, rather than legal, inhibition. Malema should have the right to sing it, but if he cared about South Africa’s welfare, he would choose never to do so. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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