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Censorship: The chilling effect

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.

The Film and Publication Board’s claim of impartiality is exposed as meaningless through the board’s association with the right-wing Christian conservatism of Errol Naidoo’s Family Policy Institute. By JACQUES ROUSSEAU.

When the minister of higher education calls for a painting to be “destroyed for good”, it’s difficult not to be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, the title describes the temperature at which paper auto-ignites and the plot addresses the burning of books as a way to suppress dissenting ideas.

Framed as a method of thought-control, the destruction or censorship of paintings and books should horrify all of us who hope to live in a free society. So instead of putting it in those terms, why not instead make a case based on “protecting the children”? After all, who but a moral monster would be opposed to protecting children?

This is not yet another column about the painting about President Jacob Zuma, but rather an attempt to highlight the creeping threat to liberty exemplified in Blade Nzimande’s statement about The Spear, as well as the Film and Publication Board’s decision to classify the painting and images of it as 16N. Even though Nzimande might have been speaking as the leader of the Communist Party, he also happens to be the man who oversees the country’s higher education system.

As one of the thousands of academics whose professional lives are influenced by this man’s judgement, I have cause to be concerned about his statement. As should all of us, not simply through being invested in the country’s future, but because it’s a stark distillation of the level of cynical voter manipulation that some in the ruling party are willing to deploy. It’s not simply inappropriate for a minister of education to call for the destruction of artworks – it’s a complete abrogation of his responsibilities.

But since those he reports to happen to be sympathetic to that view, we should expect no censure, apology or retraction. Meanwhile, if the FPB could have its way, images of Brett Murray’s painting would be scrubbed from the internet lest some under-16 (or sensitive adult) happens to come across it. The danger is of course real, in the sense that a Google search for “South African art” might well highlight the offensive image (to some) in question.

The FPB will be engaging with internet service providers and search engines to “enforce this decision going forward”, which could well mean the dusting off of the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, Malusi Gigaba’s plan to enforce the moral standards of a few right-wing Christian organisations on all of us. One of the groups consulted in the drafting of that bill was the Family Policy Institute, headed by Errol Naidoo.

You might remember Naidoo from his call to boycott Woolworths for their decision to take Christian magazines off their newsstands, the profitability of a private company obviously being subservient to Naidoo’s interpretation of God’s wishes. Or, perhaps you’d recall his involvement in blocking both Multichoice and TopTV from screening adult content.

But in case all of those campaigns happen to coincide with your preferences, we’re also talking about the person who called the Civil Unions Act a “grossly negligent act of Parliament”, and whose monthly newsletters rarely fail to mention the immoral and unnatural scourge of homosexuality, and the complicity of the “liberal media” in obscuring the imminent downfall of civilization that will be precipitated by consenting adults in their bedrooms.

The reason Naidoo and his institute are relevant to the discussion around the board’s decision to classify The Spear is that the Film and Publications Board statement laments “suggestions made that have sought to question the integrity and independence of the FPB”. I’d hope that, in this instance, integrity would include being guided by the spirit and letter of the Bill of Rights in matters such as freedom of sexual preference and orientation.

But this hope seems somewhat unfounded when you look at the FPB’s website. On their home page, you’ll find a sidebar element headed “Useful Links”. But you’ll only find one link there, and that link is to the Family Policy Institute. In case my objection is not entirely clear, I’m not making the claim that religion – or Christianity in particular – can have nothing useful to say in matters of morality or in decisions regarding what children should be exposed to.

The claim is instead that the FBP is endorsing an organisation, and a man, who is a proud homophobe, and who has repeatedly demonstrated that his views on sexuality in general seem to be plucked straight from the pages of Leviticus. To describe this link as “useful” seems somewhat at odds with integrity, at least as I understand it.

Perhaps there’s a more innocent explanation, namely that the FPB has no idea who or what they are endorsing. If this is the case, we have no less cause to question their competence in effectively performing the task of deciding what to classify and how to do so. Incompetence – at least from the perspective of those who wish to view artworks or movies – is hardly more reassuring than significant lapses in judgement.

So it’s not just that the board has made a ruling that’s likely to survive even internal appeal processes, never mind court challenges. The issue is also that the chilling of free speech or artistic expression can happen by degrees, and can be disguised by the motivation of “protecting the children”. Because, framed in those terms, who would dare complain? If you do complain – at least once protecting the children is understood in the terms of people like Naidoo – you might well be accused of being a paedophile. DM

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Otsile Nkadimeng - photo by Thom Pierce

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