The right to free speech

In 2012 a furore erupted across South Africa following the public exhibition of a painting by a ‘white’ South African artist, Brett Murray. Expressing a strand of public perception relating to the numerous scandals surrounding Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, it depicts the President in a Lenin-like fashion with his genitals exposed. As well as the painting being vandalised shortly after it was displayed, some even called for the artist to be stoned to death for the way he had insulted the President.  A fascinating debate followed raising the question of why something one might have thought as an acceptable form of political commentary within the context of a democracy could provoke such an impassioned response.

Due to the artist being ‘white’, and bearing in mind South Africa’s history of racism and oppression, many have interpreted the painting as racist. However, to interpret it in this way is insufficient as it does not account for the way in which the conflicting views crossed racial boundaries, as indeed many ‘whites’ also took exception to it. Pointing to different systems of meaning-making (worldviews) at play, I would argue the furore was the result of an unintended but volatile clash of values: freedom of speech versus the right to dignity and respect, fuelled by an unresolved Apartheid past. However, such a clash of values is not limited to South Africa. It can be seen in the lethal violence that ensued following the printing of cartoons by the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Like the painting of Zuma there are those that will see the cartoons as providing legitimate political commentary while others will interpret it as a form of Islamophobia.

These illustrations raise a number of deeper questions that need to be probed. For example, they raise the question of identity and how different groups interpret and make sense of the world around them. They also raise the question of social values and how groups prioritise certain values over others. They necessitate both asking what happens when competing values and ways of interpreting reality collide and thinking about the impact this might have on building peaceful societies. Moreover, they bring in the issue of the relationship between political correctness and the right to free speech.

These questions challenge Western liberal thought that is largely driven by an individualist worldview and that promotes values such as gender equality, personal autonomy and freedom of speech. While other societies may support such values they can be prioritised in different ways. In collective cultures it is the respect of elders and leaders and maintaining the honour and dignity of a group that is given priority. Consequently, to draw Zuma or the prophet Mohamed in such ways serves as a complete affront to the culture. However, what is important to understand is that our values speak to our sense of identity and feeling safe in the world. Subsequently, a perceived threat to these values, coupled with histories of inequality and oppression, can solicit a violent response and contribute to intergroup conflict as they act to destabilise ones sense of well-being in the world – as illustrated with the painting of Zuma and the drawings of the prophet Mohamed.

So how do we respond to this? Should the value of free speech trump the right to dignity and respect or even the right to religious freedom? If we defend our value for free speech (or other western values for that matter) are we not imposing what we perceive as the superiority of our worldview over the ‘other’? Is that not a form of colonialism – cultural colonialism in this case?  In Galatians 3:28 Paul promotes equality across culture, class, and gender. Bearing in mind that a Christian worldview is often conflated with a Western one, and that the world continues to be dominated by Western hegemonic thought, we are forced to reflect on our own culture. From a Christian perspective then, and in the interests of building peaceful society, perhaps we need to give the ‘other’ a little more room to exist and open up the space for transformative dialogue.

Cathy Bollaert.

Cathy Bollaert is peace-building consultant in Northern Ireland and board member of Contemporary Christianity. Among several teaching consultancies she has carried out, she is also an adjunct lecturer at Union Theological College where she teaches reconciliation studies. Her research focuses on the intersection between identity, culture and peace-building which draws on her previous experience of grassroots reconciliation initiatives located in South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and Northern Ireland.

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One Response to The right to free speech

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    “The right to free speech”: a response
    Thanks Cathy Bollaert for bringing to our attention a very thorny, and to my mind, an almost intractable issue that has been the root cause of a great deal of division, ferocious arguments and, at times, uncalled for not only verbal but also physical violence.
    Let us not forget that historically, this ‘absolute’ right to free speech is only three hundred years old-a legacy of the so-called Enlightenment. When it was first proposed by thinkers like Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Hume et all, there was a need for it as the prevailing political and religious authorities controlled what can be said and what cannot be said in public. This meant that those who held and exercised power and influence could not be criticised, let alone brought to account, for their misuse.
    But for at least last sixty years or so, this ‘value’ of free speech is nothing more than a license to express outrageous personal prejudices without any concern for whether they are true and whether they cause pain and suffering to others. Until the advent of ‘social media’, this privilege was enjoyed by artists and writers and those working in the media. But now it is ‘free for all’! All one needs is a computer or a laptop or an ipad.
    Whenever one points this out, one is accused of being enemies of free speeech. But this ignores the fact that freedom of speech does not mean that one does not have to abide by the standards of truth and common decency. Take the Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Was it necessary to depict the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist to voice criticism of him as a person or of his views, especially in the light of public knowledge that such a depiction would elicit violent reation on the part of some of his followers? The same concerns can be raised about depicting Jacob Zuma “in a Lenin-like fashion with his genitals exposed”. Most South Africans and a large number of friends of South Africa throughout the world are aware that Zuma has been a disgrace to the post of the President both in words and actions. For this he has been rightly criticised in print, in commentaries, and in public conversations. Given this, how does depicting him “in a Lenin-like fasion with his genitals exposed” enhance one’s understanding of his character defects? In my view such depiction is nothing more than gratuitously spiteful.
    The tragedy of contemporary culture is that on the hand it claims to espouse “absolute” right to free speech but on the other hand it does not blink to restrict speech on certain issue favoured by those in power. Today, for example, who would dare to voice criticism of homosexual-life style without being not only pilloried in publi left righat and centre but also incur the risk of being legally persecuted? The freedom speech one enjoys even in the Western culture is skin-ddep because any such freedom can be proscibed or taken way by an act of Parliament by those who are in athority, allbeit at the behest of the majority at any particular time.
    Cathy, you are right in pointing out that this state of affairs is the result of the exclusive emphasis on “an indiviualist worldview and that promotes values such as gender equality, personal autonomy and freedom of speech.” But the espousal of such values does not necessarily have to lead to ‘moral chaos’ provided one also at the same time espouses some ‘moral absolutes’. The Western culture no longer believes in any ‘moral absolutes’ other than of individual autonomy and freedom. Values such as “respect of elders and leaders and mainting the honour and dignity of the group’ are not only not believed in but are increasingly despied by a large number of contemporary religious and cultural leaders as well as by an increasing number of parents, teachers and political leaders. Sadly, however, the same kinds of changes are taking place in the traditional “collective cultures”, thanks to the rapid economic and technological changes, underpinned by the philosophy of self-interest, individaul autonomy and freedom (c/f changes that have taken place and are taking place in countries like China, India and Japan over the last three decades or so).
    Cathy refers to Paul in Galatians3:28 where he seems to promote “equality across culture, class, and gender.” But let us not forget that he bases his injunctions on an absulte of “love for and equality in Christ” which requires a mind-set which not only does not give gratutious offense to fellow-human beings (irrespective of their colour, class, gende and religious belief)but even, if and when the need arises, a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for them. I regret to point out, howevr, that such a mind-set is lacking in most cases of disputes and disagreements. The primary duty of a Christian, therefore, I believe with all my heart, mind and soul, is to promote such a mind set if we are “to open up the space for transformative dialogue”. And this is a two-way process.
    Puran Agrawal

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