It’s an easy ask to prompt readers to cover the short mental distance from “alt-right” and “neoconservative” to white supremacist or racist, as Ferial Haffajee wittingly or unwittingly does in casting Helen Zille and the Institute of Race Relations, both unmistakably liberal, as defenders of “minority interests and privileges”. But the irony of this core idea in her response to Zille on the central question of free speech in democracy is evidently lost on Haffajee.
While nothing so vividly advertises her unwillingness – though not, we trust, inability – to engage with the idea of freedom, how it’s sustained and why it’s cardinal, it also illustrates precisely the danger against which, in her view, court injunctions and censorship, whether state or corporate, are a necessary and perhaps the only defence. They are not, of course; free speech is the best defence.
The greater irony is that the danger is not intemperate, discomforting or hurtful speech. The real danger is the unchallenged acceptance, or wilful reinforcement, of the idea that people are what they are assumed to be by an apparent, but often false, association with one or another collective identity, and that they can be legitimately attacked on those grounds.
This is the stock in the trade of the Economic Freedom Fighters, no less than of the African National Congress and its legion of activist devotees, and is every bit as true of diehard white supremacists.
It was the basis of the diabolical “disinformation” at the heart of the Rwanda horror, and is doubtless true of the targeting of female journalists in what Haffajee described last week as “a trend now called cyber-misogyny”.
It is also true of attacks on white people, black people, gays, farmers, Jews, Afrikaners, Muslims…and every other category given meaning by an identitarian politics actively promoted by “progressive” thinking. It enables its adherents to employ the tactic of avoiding an argument simply by demeaning their opponents for their supposed association with a stigmatised identity.
It was precisely this thinking that got Huffington Post into its disastrous tangle with Shelley Garland (who succeeded in exposing its poor judgement). This was an episode in which Huffington Post, had its instincts been sound, might have advanced a defence for publishing Garland on the grounds of free speech for even the most unpalatable ideas. Instead, it had to endure the shame and anguish of having inadvertently published a view it agreed with but couldn’t justify because it had been duped into airing a satire expressly intended to lay bare its identitarian bias.
In all of these instances, the risk is not free speech, but a timid commitment to it.
At the heart of the quandary is an uncertainty among many, particularly journalists and media organisations, about what they are for, and what they are prepared to defend. Too many baulk at the idea of defending the speech of those they disagree with, for they mistake the concept itself, thinking that the freedom to speak can only legitimately be claimed by those who advance “approved” ideas.
It is precisely this type of thinking that the late Raymond Louw, a long-time defender of free speech (approvingly cited by Haffajee), spoke against when he urged, in her phrasing, that “you must squeal and squeal loudly at every infraction of freedom because that’s how you protect it”.
Indeed, this is the clearest argument for free speech. Squealing is neither censoring nor hastening to a courtroom, but speaking up, contesting, making the case, defending the principle itself – by using it, and using it to say just what you think. That has to mean defending everyone else who uses it, too – or else it’s a sham, and a sham that not only defines but guarantees an unfree society.
In the piece Haffajee takes exception to, Helen Zille herself provides a crisp explanation of the corollary when she writes: “Few other freedoms can survive if people are prevented from writing and saying what they believe, even when their utterances are obnoxious or wrong.”
In this, Helen Zille expresses the integral principle – a conviction which the IRR shares – that places liberalism squarely in the service of the rights and interests of all people, and directly challenges the very notion of “minority interests and privileges”.
By contrast, it is unnerving to see Haffajee beat a retreat in her conviction that “I don’t think the simple free expression argument (that all information is somehow equal and that the best argument wins) [advanced by Zille] cuts the mustard in the 21st century”.
Even if the word “information” is misplaced – it ought to be “opinion”, for facts can be held to an objective standard – the only possible alternative is censorship, and an infraction of freedom itself. That means the worst argument wins.
Legitimate free speech ends with the threat of imminent violence, “imminence” being the critical qualifier. Everything else is an authentic conversation about what people actually think, what we make of it, and how we answer it. This is what defines a free society, which is always a work in progress, for it is a process of “being free”. It is difficult, even dangerous. It takes courage.
In this, the 21st century is no different from the 17th, for instance, when John Milton advised in his 1644 defence of free speech: “What purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.”
Slur this liberal article of faith as “alt-right” or “neoconservative” if you must, but don’t be deceived that freedom is a walk in the park, or an injunction handed down from the Bench. DM
Michael Morris is head of media at the IRR