Opinionista Justin McCarthy 10 September 2013

Of freedom of speech, boycotts, shooting oneself in the foot and hypocrisy

Freedom of speech, in the SA context at any rate, is commonly misunderstood, frequently misrepresented and regularly abused. I am no expert and am just as vulnerable to getting it wrong as the next lay person. And that is exactly what I did just the other day by the inclusion of a word that diminished my argument. In the interests of clarity, and afforded the opportunity to correct myself, I withdraw that word, offer an apology and seek to set the record straight.

The article in question is titled “What an advert for a tub of margarine can teach us about the dangers of narrow self-interest” and was published in Daily Maverick on Monday. The offending word is “boycott”, used in the following sentence: “No person or brand or entity should ever be subjected to calls for a ban on their advertising or a boycott of their products on such a basis”. My use was inappropriate and I withdraw it. It should not be there and I’m entirely responsible for the oversight. The reason it shouldn’t be there is because I don’t actually believe there’s anything wrong with calling for a boycott of a product whatsoever. It was a careless mistake that blew a hole in my argument and diminished it considerably. It’s commonly called shooting oneself in the foot. At this point it is important to note that I stand by every single other word and expression in the article, for all the reasons set out therein.

I admit to not even having noticed the inclusion of “boycott” until a reader elected to engage me on the matter of “bad speech”, which in turn led to a discussion thread on censorship and boycotts. Duly alerted, I searched the text and discovered my blunder. Understandably, my use of the term didn’t escape the attention of others, notably Pierre de Vos, who was sufficiently irked by my article to respond with one of his own.

I’m a fan of constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos. He is highly knowledgeable, articulate and usually has a particularly insightful angle on issues, particularly legal ones. So I was not at all surprised to read his piece. However, the nature of his response did leave me wondering just how much of the professional in the professor actually translated into Pierre the person, because his criticism was selective, scathing and personal, and pegged at a level considerably lower than I have come to expect of his esteemed mind.

My primary issue with De Vos is that he deliberately selected only one of two key words in that fateful sentence and constructed his entire argument around that one word. It appears that he deliberately avoided the second word, “ban”, which was the intended thrust of my argument. To be clear, I do not, under any circumstances, believe that boycotting is inappropriate. Anyone who is offended for whatever reason, no matter how petty or irrelevant, is perfectly entitled to choose not to buy a product. We all do so all the time, sometimes subconsciously. Equally so, I will support anybody’s right to call for a boycott on any basis, material or not. If the Flora advert offended you, if you think it distasteful or if you actually think it’s simply a bad advertisement, I unequivocally support your right to boycott the product and to call others to join you.

What I do not support is the call for the advert to be either banned or withdrawn, as this is an expression of a clear and unambiguous intent to impose on the rights to free commercial speech of the manufacturer of the product. This is what I mean by narrow interests trumping the collective cause. This is what I mean when I refer to mother grundies and nanny state supporters. De Vos fails to make any reference whatsoever to the centrality of this point in my argument, and focuses singularly on the other word. Of course, he was not to know that the inclusion of “boycott” was unintended, thus rendering that part of his argument perfectly valid. What isn’t valid is how he deliberately selected a portion of my argument to suit his own. For a man versed in law, a discipline that entails an examination of the partial, complete, literal and contextual meaning of words and sentence, I find it difficult to believe that his intentions were anything short of manipulative. And even more so because of the obvious distaste for my views the good professor injects into the tone of his verse.

He refers to my views, inter alia, as “boring us into servitude with self-serving, unoriginal, uncritical, uninformed and unimaginative arguments”, my ilk as “nothing more than brains in a vat” and my argument as “unadulterated hokum”, a “celebration of mediocrity and thoughtlessness” and “superstitious nonsense masquerading as absolute truth”. Not content to leave it there, he ventures into the literary domain with a sideswipe at my unimaginative use of such banal clichés as “mother grundies” (it was only one cliché, but hey, let’s not allow facts to get in the way of an emotion-laden story). Still not satisfied, he posits how I might possibly “live a meaningful life if [I] remain a prisoner of manufactured ‘conventional wisdom’ and ‘common sense’”. That I used neither of these latter expressions anywhere in my article matters not to him, as it appears to suit his needs to liberally apply them on my behalf.

Was this to come from a troll or a content aggregator masquerading as a journalist I wouldn’t think twice about responding. But such malicious criticism from a high priest of intellect cannot go unchallenged. I maintain that to call for the banning or withdrawal of an advertisement that is not in contravention of any law or advertising code (untested as it may be) amounts to a breach of the fundamental right to free speech. Further, that such behaviour leads to risk avoidance, which manifests as political correctness, puritanical ideals that are more harmful than helpful to society and the very banality that De Vos desperately seeks to avoid.

I made an error in failing to spot a word that significantly diminished my argument, for which I apologise and withdraw the word. I wonder if De Vos would be so magnanimous as to admit that he (i) deliberately misrepresented my argument through selective criticism, (ii) permitted his normally unruffled composure to be sullied by an emotively petulant argument and (iii) acknowledges the hypocrisy of his assertion that the right to freedom of expression involves robust, intelligent, informed and conceptually astute dialogue and debate (with which, for the record, I agree), while resorting to the antithesis thereof in the very same article? I’ll leave it to you to judge. DM



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