Opinionista Justin McCarthy 2 August 2016

Free speech and the binary polemic: A public health hazard retarding discourse

The digital age has whittled South Africa’s public discourse into boring binaries that promote populism over meaningful debate. Are we wasting our hard-won free speech?

Last week we witnessed the second #CEOSleepout, triggering yet another tempest of controversy as armchair activists, slacktivists and protesters hurled terabytes of abuse down the fibre optic tunnels that feed SA’s chattering classes. Almost daily a tornado is unleashed on the streets of social media, sending sub-editors Twitter-trawling for the pithiest sound bite, hoping to grab a scandal-fatigued public’s attention once more. Such egotistic combat has become more public health hazard than public discourse.

At the heart of it is our nation’s evident preoccupation with the binary polemic, as otherwise reasonably tempered citizens plumb new lows of impaired reason and adopt concomitant dysfunctional behaviours. Being a critic is easy, substantiating criticism less so, but finding common ground over which to engage in reasoned debate appears to be beyond the boundaries of open discourse. To really inflame matters, once the sides are set and have locked horns, identity politics storm the battlefield like ill-disciplined insurgents, committing atrocities and taking prisoners. The whole contest becomes a toxic quagmire laced with land mines, mustard gas and bilious slime. It’s ugly and it’s ruinous and a wanton waste of energy that could just as readily be directed to any number of deserving causes.

As a free speech absolutist I believe squarely in being free to say whatever I want. That doesn’t mean it’s always wise to do so, but we should all feel free to speak our minds, especially if it’s speaking truth to authority or to a mollified public. Yet we don’t. To me offense is in the mind of the offended. People who take offense are always insecure about some aspect of the subject that offends them. I am what I half-jokingly call an equal opportunity offender – I will criticise in equal measure anything and anyone deserving of it, irrespective of their class, status, wealth, political, sexual or religious affiliation. I expect the same in return, because the goose and the gander and all that. I acknowledge the statutory limitations to free speech enshrined in our Constitution, and although I disagree with them, I recognise the purpose they attempt to serve in our schismatic country with its oppressive history. That doesn’t make them good laws though, as their application has the much greater but infinitely less desirable effect of enforcing insidious social regulation. The law of unintended consequences does us a great public disservice.

Restricting speech, even hate speech, doesn’t actually address bigotry, it only serves to suppress it. Instead it rebrands politically unpopular ideas as illegitimate without making the effort to challenge their intellectual robustness. So when someone says, “one settler, one bullet” or “kill the whites”, I find it neither repulsive nor offensive because I choose not to be dragged to that level of pernicious malady. You can call me any name under the sun, mock my ancestors and trash my beliefs, but you won’t cause me harm. The notion that religious scriptures should be immune from criticism is preposterous. Like capitalism, communism, political manifestos or for that matter unscientific quackery, they too should be subjected to rigorous challenges including ridicule. Sometimes ridicule is the most powerful means of challenging authority, which is why satire should be absolutely and unequivocally sacrosanct. Attacking the messenger such as a cartoonist who’s overstepped the boundaries of an invisible line of “decency” betrays miserable levels of maturity and extravagant levels of insecurity and intolerance.

By now some readers will be judging, thinking that’s all fine and well belonging as I do to the dominant apex white privileged group. Immediately some will judge me not on the merit of my argument but on my group identity. This is bullshit and I reject it contemptuously, although for the record it offends me not one iota. It’s bullshit because I refuse to be victimised, privileged or not. We all carry privilege to some extent, save for those at the very bottom of the pyramid and the terminally ill. Perhaps what we should spend more energy on is acknowledging our privilege by supporting those with less than us, not abusing the spaces between our degrees of privilege.

That’s exactly what the #CEOSleepout is about. Does it really matter if wealthy businessmen spend one night a year in relative discomfort, pretending to be homeless, if they contribute R31m to those dramatically less fortunate? Does it honestly matter if this is a gimmicky media stunt when tens of thousands of unprivileged, let alone underprivileged, benefit directly and sustainably? It shouldn’t. If the gimmickry offends you then support something else. We’re hardly short of desperate causes in this country, there’s bound to be one that doesn’t offend your sensitivities or frazzle your finely tuned umbrage. And if you can’t find one start one. The energy spent doing that will contribute a lot more to someone’s life than feigned outrage on Facebook.

So what does the outcry over the #CEOSleepout have to do with free speech? Well, quite a lot, actually. The objections of an uncharitable crowd have every right to be heard, but the criticism should be self-subjected to clearly articulated reason. The critique that the initiative encourages charity instead of social change is a common one supported by some influential people that is as disingenuous as it is fallacious because it falls squarely into the binary trap. The charge that the event glamourises poverty is just nonsensical. Are we to believe that thousands of homeless people will suddenly feel socially elevated or that it will encourage societal dropout rates? Not a very realistic concern, is it?

So while exercising one’s right to freedom of expression through criticism, one should consider whether it’s a meaningful contribution to the debate or whether it feeds the binary polemic which in turn assumes a life of its own, in turn sowing destruction where the antithesis is desperately needed.

As Mark Manson writes in this excellent essay, freedom isn’t only a hard won battle against external forces, it’s also earned through internal sacrifices. Freedom can only exist when you’re willing to tolerate views that oppose your own, including those that upset or offend you.

To repeat myself, being a critic is easy. Substantiating it more difficult. Common ground will be great deal easier to find if more people avoid the binary polemic that only serves to force people to settle for either or. That’s like being an American voter faced with the choice between Clinton and Trump. Out of a population of 320 million, quite how the presidential race has boiled down to two such thoroughly abominable candidates speaks volumes for the intellectual deficit brought about by this polemic.

We owe it to ourselves to create and protect enough space in which to conduct robust public discourse. It’s not government’s job, it’s the citizenry’s. We each have a duty to speak freely and frankly, without unthinkingly defaulting to the binary narrative of mediaeval politics. If we don’t, we risk sacrificing freedom on the mutable altar of populism and we will have only ourselves to blame. DM

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