Flemming Rose’s speech deserves a wider audience in light of the growing tendency to close down uncomfortable discussions in democracies worldwide.
Helen Zille writes in her personal capacity
Within the first minute of Flemming Rose’s speech at the River Club in Cape Town, I was sorry I had not brought my shorthand notebook. The friend sitting next to me obligingly tore a blank January-page out of her pocket diary, so that I could make brief notes. I consoled myself, convinced the speech would be well-covered in the next day’s newspapers.
It wasn’t. Although there were two good articles in the weekend press, Rose’s speech deserves a wider audience in light of the growing tendency to close down uncomfortable discussions in democracies worldwide. In South Africa, this trend has its epicentre at some or our leading universities!
At last Thursday’s lecture, Rose clearly relished the fact that he had just spoken in a class at the University of Cape Town, just eight months after UCT’s vice chancellor Max Price had withdrawn an invitation to deliver the annual Academic Freedom lecture on the campus.
Describing Price’s decision as an “intellectual disgrace”, Rose said: “Last year, according to Price, if I had been allowed to speak at UCT…. it might have provoked conflict, created security risks, and retarded rather than advanced academic freedom.”
This was, said Rose, like the American Major who explained why a Vietnamese village had to be destroyed to save it.
So who is Flemming Rose, anyway?
He was the Culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, who soared to international fame/notoriety in September 2005, by publishing 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. His invitation to South Africa was from the liberal think-tank, the South African Institute of Race Relations, to deliver the Hoernle memorial lecture of 2017, following UCT’s 2016 snub.
This column combines what Rose said with some of my own observations.
Rose told his audience of around 150 people that the purpose of publishing the cartoons was to test the claim, by an author of a children’s book about Islam, that he had great difficulty finding an illustrator. Only one artist would accept the commission on condition of anonymity, the author claimed. He concluded that illustrators feared the consequences of Muslim anger at any depiction of the prophet.
This analysis made headline news in Denmark, which values freedom of speech, a right some fear may be under threat from the continent’s growing multiculturalism.
Jyllands-Posten was sceptical. The editorial team wondered whether this claim might actually be a publicity stunt by the author. They decided to test this thesis by inviting Danish cartoonists to submit drawings of Muhammad for publication. The newspaper received 12 submissions, ranging from a simple sketch of a bearded man with a cane, walking peacefully next to a donkey, to a sinister satirical portrait of a man with a bomb wrapped in his turban. All 12 cartoons were published on the same page.
At first there was no reaction. Jyllands-Posten thought they had proved their point: the risk of self-censorship arising out of escalating multiculturalism was not as great as some people feared. Democratic societies that valued free speech could continue to exercise this, and other rights.
Then all hell broke loose, not in Denmark, but in demonstrations of rolling outrage in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria and the Palestinian territories – culminating in the burning of embassies and the declaration of fatwas (death decrees).
“Never before had there been such a reaction to drawings that people hadn’t even seen,” commented Rose.
Rose’s observation – that the cartoons were actually being cynically used as weapons in locally based political struggles between competing strands of Islam – was fascinating. One of the first to take offence was Hosni Mubarak, former Egyptian President, who thought he could prove himself more devout than the Muslim Brotherhood by railing against the cartoons. In the Palestinian territories, Fatah, the more moderate Islamic party, allegedly seized on the issue as a means of outflanking the more radical Hamas. They were, said Rose, cynically using the cartoons to drive other agendas.
He stood firm, and has since been an international campaigner for free speech, warning about the danger of sacrificing this foundational democratic value on the altar of multiculturalism or political correctness.
As worldwide migration escalates, he implied, it is essential to remind ourselves that free speech is not a nice-to-have. It lies at the root of human freedom and progress. It can never be a tradeable right, such as in: “I’ll limit my right to free speech in order to defend your right to freedom of religion.”
Free speech is based on the premise that no one has the right not to be offended. And being offended does not mean being right. No human being has a monopoly on insight, truth or wisdom. We often disagree with each other, and these differences can be resolved in one of two ways: either we talk things through or fight things out. Closing down debate displaces the former for the latter. Then violence often becomes almost inevitable.
A great deal (probably most) of human knowledge started as a challenge to the conventional wisdom of a particular time, because much of what we believed to be true was based on myth, superstition, or lack of empirical knowledge. The same may still be true of much that we assume is “true” today.
To put things into perspective, it is useful to think back on the 17th century polymath, Galileo Galilei, who was charged with heresy, faced an inquisition and was sentenced to life-long house arrest for his scientific conclusion that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, but revolved around the sun. This apparently contradicted Biblical teachings, according to his inquisitors, and warranted life-long excommunication. Galileo’s fate did not exactly create a climate conducive to broader scientific enquiry.
So how does one respect and protect freedom of religion and freedom of speech simultaneously in a multicultural society?
In February 2006, Rose provided an answer in an essay for the Washington Post entitled “Why I Published Those Cartoons”.
“When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.”
On the issue of the offensive cartoons – particularly Kurt Westergaard’s “bomb in the turban”, he noted that the cartoonist had previously drawn outrageous cartoons of Jesus and the Star of David, which had not led to “embassy burnings or death threats”.
Far from seeking to offend Muslims, he said, the newspaper believed that all groups warranted equal treatment in Denmark. The cartoons conveyed the message: “We expect of you exactly the same as we expect from every member of society; no more, no less.”
Which brought him back to the first question: How do we manage the world’s growing diversity of culture, ethnicity, religion and opinion and save freedom of expression, which remains foundational to human progress?
There were two ways of approaching it, he suggested.
One response says: If you respect my taboos, I will respect yours. This leads to a tyranny of silence. Inevitably, the least tolerant dictates the terms of engagement by closing down any discussion that can be deemed “offensive”.
Another response accepts that in an open society there are many difference perspectives and beliefs that should be expressed, without restriction. Where we seek to limit free speech we must always first honestly answer the question: What are the minimal restrictions required to enable us to live together in peace?
Therefore, concludes Rose, restrictions are only justified where there is overt incitement to imminent violence. Fraud and criminal defamation are also legally defined exceptions to the right to free speech, but religion is fair game – including secular “religions” such as capitalism and communism, and their proponents.
Of course, a person who chooses to join a voluntary association must accept there are parameters to the right of free speech, within the organisation’s policies and principles, clearly defined and mutually agreed.
But, in general, the more freedom there is, and the more acceptance of divergent (even offensive) opinions, the smoother and quicker the path of progress.
This means that people living in democracies are likely to feel insulted quite often, and will regularly take offence at things they read or that other people say. But we need to resolve these differences through open debate, not silencing, lying or ostracising.
It is an irony that in many established democracies, differences of opinion and interpretation often result in the “offenders” being required to attend “sensitivity training” to avoid future repetitions. What was really needed, said Rose, in order to protect robust debate in a democracy, was “insensitivity training” so that people could get used to hearing things they found offensive, without attempting to close the debate down.
A vibrant democracy requires people who are both tough and empathetic, a winning combination that eschews both sentimentality and self-pity. DM
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