Freedom of expression is an immensely important right. Its protection is a prerequisite for the flourishing of democracy as well as for the advancement of the personal autonomy and well-being of each individual. Sadly, many South Africans do not seem to understand that the right encourages robust, intelligent, informed and conceptually astute dialogue and debate. They wrongly think freedom of expression is infringed when you dare to challenge and expose the widely held prejudices or other superstitious beliefs of privileged insiders who consider their own biases to be universal truths.
I might be alone in this, but I find it a constant struggle to live a meaningful life; a life that does not get bogged down in the daily responsibilities of earning a living, of (more or less) getting along with and according respect to everyone I come into contact with, and of dealing with (and trying to do something about) the vast injustices in our country (given my relative privileged suburban life). How to live a life of action, thinking and revolt (in the words of a University of Pretoria colleague, Karin van Marle) remains a constant struggle.
How can you be free and how can you live a meaningful life if you remain a prisoner of manufactured “conventional wisdom” and “common sense” – whether on economic policy or on the way society and the knowledge that structure society is organised – and if you are programmed to repeat the same selected few “truths” produced to protect and advance the interests of the social and economically dominant in society? Your life becomes a comfortable but sad and wasteful cliché. But like a character in The Matrix, you remain unaware of how sad and meaningless and utterly wasteful your existence really is.
A prerequisite for the establishment of a free society (politically free and free from economic want), is the flourishing of critical, intelligent, informed, robust, radical, and conceptually provocative thought and debate – especially thought and debate that challenge the status quo and undermine or disturb the power of the socially and economically dominant, a class of people who often seem to want to enslave us all with their banalities and their platitudes, which they hold up as quintessential “common sense” truths. If nothing else, they will bore us into servitude with their self-serving, unoriginal, uncritical, uninformed and unimaginative arguments in defence of the status quo.
If only they knew that – unlike Neo from The Matrix – they are nothing more than metaphoric “brains in a vat”, they might cease to bore the rest of us with their celebration of mediocrity and thoughtlessness.
Some defenders of the status quo – those who are insiders in every conceivable way and have little reason to ask critical questions about the meaning of their lives and how society is structured – are often deeply threatened by radical notions of freedom of expression that celebrate critical thought and challenges to conventional wisdom.
They sing the praises of freedom of expression, but they understand freedom of expression as the exchange of clichéd and anodyne “ideas” and “arguments” that would not challenge their world view and their feudal-like divine right to lord it over the rest of society. But when their perceived “common sense” ideas are challenged as being based on deep-seated prejudices they cry foul and accuse others of censoring them.
They seldom make use of such an opportunity to reflect critically on their own world view and the possible unthinking prejudices they may harbour. The fact is that we all harbour prejudices. We would not be human if it was otherwise. Surely, we owe it to ourselves and our fellow human beings at least to try to understand, confront and deal with our prejudices. How else do you begin to live a meaningful life? How else do you struggle against and resist the numbing conformity that capitalist culture works hard to impose on all of us?
I often despair when people who are criticised for perpetuating prejudices do not engage at all in any form of robust debate to try and show how and why their critics are wrong. Although some thoughtful and robust debates sometimes follow on such a critical unmasking of power, more often than not defenders of the status quo resolutely refuse to begin the work of living a meaningful life by actually thinking and reflecting on (and reading up on) the relevant topic or the ideas employed by their critics. Instead they often trot out a few moth-eaten conventional wisdoms before accusing their opponents of censorship: as if you are censoring somebody else when you challenge their preconceived beliefs and ideas.
Oh, the banality of it all.
These rather bleak (and hopefully not too pretentious or precious) musings on freedom of expression were sparked by a column written by Justin McCarthy and published on Daily Maverick. McCarthy took offense at critics of the homophobic Flora margarine advert which was based on the assumption that homophobia was not only normal but also worthy of sympathy.
He bemoaned the fact that gays and lesbians and the so called “politically correct” (whoever this overused slogan may be referring to) criticised the advert, arguing that by uncritically and even sympathetically endorsing the homophobia of the fathers of gay and lesbian children, the Flora advert was sparking a welcome debate. But what was unacceptable, according to him, was a debate on whether to boycott the product which used a homophobic advert to promote its brand.
Such an argument, he claimed, was “a direct result of the unthinking, knee-jerk and nanny state mind-set of people all over the world who take umbrage at something they deem to be personally offensive”. “Mother grundies”, wrote McCarthy (he is not one to use an original phrase where a cliché would do) “want the world to conform to their narrow criteria… One’s personal experiences should never trump the common cause”.
You often hear a carbon copy of this argument when somebody challenges the deeply entrenched prejudices of the privileged and the economically, culturally and socially powerful. Recently, for example, I was accused of supporting censorship, and implicitly of promoting mind-control, book burning and the death of culture – all because I dared to ask critical questions about who has the power to decide what is funny and who decides when somebody is perpetuating prejudice.
The problem is that the argument is unadulterated hokum. It equates the work of activists who challenge prejudices and the ways of thought that marginalises some and promotes the interests of others (usually the dominant and powerful) with censorship. These prisoners of manufactured “conventional wisdom” and “common sense” love freedom of expression – until the freedom of expression is used to challenge their power and to disturb their comfortable but often meaningless lives.
For McCarthy a “nanny state” is apparently that horrid place where “conventional wisdom” is not taken for granted and where “common sense” ideas are subjected to scrutiny and criticism and where people use their right to freedom of expression (and their right to choose which products to buy) to challenge the widely accepted prejudices and ingrained habits of being that deaden the soul and turn people into sad billboards for an unexamined life.
According to this bizarre “argument”, if you challenge what you see as other people’s prejudices, if you construct thoughtful and critical arguments about why you think these are prejudices, and if you use your freedom to revolt against what you see as prejudices, you want the world to conform to your “own narrow criteria”. So what? What is freedom if not the right to challenge conventional wisdom and received truths (through words and deeds – also by choosing to boycott a product) and to try to persuade others of the benefits of living a different – more imaginative and more life-enhancing – life?
I would love to live in a world in which people regularly dismantle my ideas and arguments in informed, critical, thoughtful and clever ways and challenged my preconceived ideas. It would help me in a quest to live a meaningful life. Sadly, I am often disappointed because instead of this ideal of robust and rowdy (but intelligent) debate, I am confronted by wilted stock phrases, brandished about in the same way that irrational people in medieval times brandished about garlic to ward off evil spirits or vampires. This is not debate, people: it’s superstitious nonsense masquerading as absolute truth.
Yes, freedom of expression has value for its own sake. But it also has value because it is a tool to engage in thoughtful, critical, robust, intelligent, informed and conceptually astute arguments with the aim of changing the minds and the behaviour of others. For the McCarthy’s of the world, the right to freedom of expression and the right to organise and use your power to change the world is pivotal – as long as it is never actually used to try and challenge conventional wisdom and the dominant views (and power) of those whose interests are served by the status quo. If you actually want to use your freedom to challenge the views of others, you are suddenly branded as a “Mother Grundy” who is trying to whip others into a “politically correct” line.
What is the use of freedom if we cannot utilise it to change the world? And how free are we really when gatekeepers of “acceptable thought and action” constantly tell us that we are the enemies of freedom for trying to do so? DM
Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.