Indulge in some literary banting
15 December 2017 00:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Freedom of hate speech? No, thanks.

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    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.

One of the favourite mantras of some free speech fundamentalists is that “the cure for bad speech is more speech”. But sometimes it is counter-productive, even wicked, to continue debating an issue when such a debate serves to promote and legitimise beliefs and practices that lead to the assault, rape and murder of marginalised and vulnerable people. Sometimes the only cure for bad speech is to isolate and delegitimise those who engage in such speech or who give it a platform.

When I was invited by the African Arts Institute to take part in a panel discussion on “Same-sex love in Africa”, I reluctantly agreed. I find it somewhat tedious and politically problematic to be asked to talk about the African continent and its people as if it is a monolithic space inhabited by people who are identical in every way.

The manner in which “Africa” (as a colonial construct) is deployed in the Western imagination to erase the beauty, vibrancy, individuality, agency and multiplicity of vastly different people living in different parts of our continent is galling and arrogant.

(This habit of thinking and speaking of “Africa” as a vast, blank space inhabited by smiling people patiently waiting under acacia trees for Madonna or Brangelina to adopt their children while lions roar prettily in the distance is perfectly captured by the mocking title of the magnificent website called “Africa is a Country”.)

I nevertheless agreed to take part in the discussion at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town because I believe it is important to engage critically with how we think about same-sex love and how we deal with hateful but deeply entrenched beliefs and dogmas about the sexuality of the previously colonised and the marginalised and oppressed.

The colonial conquest of the African continent facilitated the spread of Christianity and Islam throughout the continent.

If you are thus the kind of person who like to show your disproval of certain beliefs or practices you do not know or fear by claiming that they are “un-African” you might well need to start by conceding that Christianity and Islam are “un-African”.

The colonisers (animated by racist fears) invoked beliefs and dogmas borrowed from these religions to stigmatise sexuality and desire that did not conform to problematic, idealised, Western norms as dangerous and degenerate, in order to justify the policing of sex and desire through the enforcement of Western style criminal law and through the enforcement of religious dogma.

Reactions to Brett Murray’s The Spear painting reminded us again of this shameful history and the problematic ways in which colonial conquest stigmatised sexuality and desire (and pathologised black bodies more generally) in many parts of our continent.

In the original email I received from the African Arts Institute I was told the discussion was aimed at gaining “a deeper understanding of perspectives on same-sex love in relation to culture, tradition, identity politics and human rights”.

I assumed the discussion would occur in a relatively safe space in which my basic humanity, my right to exist and flourish as a human being and my right not to be killed would not be treated as subjects open to legitimate discussion and debate.

On Monday afternoon I received a call from one of the organisers and for the first time was alerted to the fact that I would share the podium not only with an artist and with a fellow academic but also with an Imam. The organiser told me that they foresaw sharp conflict as the Imam would argue that same-sex love was un-African and against Islam.

Although irritated by what I perceived to be a dishonest ambush, I nevertheless agreed to continue with my participation out of politeness and out of respect for those who would go to the trouble of attending the event. I assumed that Mike van Graan, who chaired the panel, would not allow the event to degenerate and would create and defend a safe space in which rational and respectful discussion would remain possible.

This did not happen.

The Imam spoke about diseased fishes (what this had to do with the topic never became clear), quoted disapproving passages from the Koran and (as is often the case with men of the cloth) generally displayed a morbid obsession with the mechanics of sex.

A questioner stated as fact that Islam required homosexuals to be stoned to death and asked whether this was indeed what was required of Muslims in South Africa. The Imam said that this was indeed the majority view but that most South African Muslims would follow the minority view that holds that homosexuals should be re-educated to get us to turn away from our “perverted” practices.

At no point did the Imam explicitly condemn (as outrageous and criminal) the idea that men and women who engage in same-sex sexual practices should be stoned to death. Instead, he suggested that there were two legitimate schools of thought (one in favour of murdering homosexuals, the other not) but, when pressed he did concede reluctantly that he belonged to the more “moderate” school of thought and do not personally endorse murder.

(As an aside, it is strange that there is not more outrage in society and from the state about religious teachings that endorse the murder of fellow human beings. Why do those who espouse criminality in the name of religious doctrine so often get a free pass? Is it because we have not entirely rejected the notion prevalent in European nations during the pre-Enlightenment theocratic era that religious rules trump the ordinary laws of the land?)

When a fellow panellist as well as other attendees objected to this line of discussion, they were told that they were being intolerant of the views of others who happened to disagree with them.

The Imam and one of his supporters even claimed to feel victimised because members of the audience expressed their distaste of his bigotry and his spectacular lack of basic decency and humanity. (This is not surprising as bullies often claim to be victims when they are called out on their intimidation and persecution of others.)

After the event I felt tarnished and degraded for being forced to defend my right to exist in South Africa without fearing that I will be murdered in the name of God.

It is unthinkable that in 2015 a body like the African Arts Institute would host a panel discussion which raised the question of whether men and women of different races who engage in sex should be stoned to death or whether they should rather be re-educated.

It is also unthinkable that the African Arts Institute would invite Dan Roodt to take part in a panel discussion on whether black people are inherently intellectually and morally inferior to white people.

Whether such speech constitutes hate speech or not (and as I have argued many times before, I am not convinced that hurtful speech is best countered by using hate speech legislation), it is not the kind of speech that belongs in a respected (supposedly progressive) public space.

This is so because the speech has no value. It does not enlighten. It does not help us to think critically about how better to live in the world. It does not educate or allow us to understand how to deal with oppression and bigotry.

It merely reinforces and perpetuates the most narrow-minded, and hateful types of fear-mongering and persecution. It provides a platform for speech that directly threatens the well-being and survival of a vulnerable section of South African society.

By hosting such an event, an organisation such as the African Arts Institute further legitimises widely held hateful views that create the environment in which many people believe it is justified to assault, rape and murder those of us who choose to love members of the same-sex.

It has potentially deadly consequences.

To say that these views should not be given a platform by the African Arts Institute is not to be intolerant of free speech. It is to be intolerant of hate, bigotry and dehumanising language used by those who claim to speak on behalf of a cruel and vengeful God. Not, in any case, on behalf of any God that my knowledge of religion allows me to recognise.

There is nothing wrong with being intolerant of hatred and bigotry, which may well have real and fatal consequences for some of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who happen to love differently from the colonial-cum-religiously imposed norm.

It is an entirely different question whether the law should prohibit such speech and allow for the prosecution and imprisonment of those who engage in such hateful bigotry. To support the legal prohibition of certain types of speech would, to some extent, be intolerant of free speech.

Except for the most extreme forms of hate speech, I am not in favour of such regulation because I am not sure it would achieve much and I fear regulation could be abused to limit speech which may well turn out to be of value.

Who is allowed to speak on a specific platform speaks volumes about the ideology and political commitments of those who control the platform. When those who make such decisions believe it is entirely appropriate to host a discussion on whether gay men and lesbians are fully human and whether they should be murdered or “merely” re-educated, it says just as much about their own lack of humanity and their moral failure as human beings and political actors than about those they invited onto the platform to spread their hatred.

It is for that reason that I will not, under present conditions, accept an invitation again to appear at an event organised by the African Arts Institute. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    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.

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