Sunday, 28 February 2016 13:32

Freedom of Speech: What to think and say about racism

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By Mark Eccles

As I began to write this article, I was looking at a photograph in a newspaper (Mail &Guardian, 29 January 2016) of Gareth Cliff and his advocate Dali Mpofu, walking downtown, looking victorious and triumphant, having obtained a court order declaring that MNet must reinstate Cliff as a judge on the popular TV Show South African Idols.  I was so aware that many South Africans were doing or had done the same and did so with strong feelings of either outrage, vindication, frustration or confusion.

 

The case must also have plagued MNet, which had felt compelled to terminate its agreement or discussions with Cliff on the basis of the public reaction to a Tweet Cliff had posted on social media concerning “freedom of expression”.  It strikes me that very few people will oppose freedom of expression in principle, but when looked at in certain contexts people begin to have doubts and waiver, as MNet appears to have done.

It is an irony that the response to Cliff’s Tweet in many ways illustrates the acute accuracy of his Tweet:  “People don't understand freedom of expression”.  This is not a vindication of Cliff’s behaviour, for he himself has since confessed that he had acted in ignorance and does not know if he now properly understands freedom of speech and is not sure that anyone else does either for that matter.  Does that leave us afraid to say anything that may offend or be misunderstood?  Or do we need to rethink communication, in terms of the attendant duties and responsibilities?

South Africa has very many socio-economic problems that are wrapped up in the pain of a historical context that is burdened with racism.  However, the discourse on race is literally threatening to inflame our nation, not to create understanding and empathy. Racism, claims, counterclaims and denials are not very enlightening.  They may, in fact, be obscuring our vision.

The convoluted nature of racism charges are demonstrated in the argument presented by Advocate Dali Mpofu on behalf of Gareth Cliff himself.  Mpofu made the point that had he, Advocate Mpofu , or Cliff’s attorney Msengana, tweeted “People don't understand freedom of expression”, the matter wouldn't have made it into court.  They would not have been branded, racists. Advocate Mpofu’s conclusion was "This was one of the worst forms of discrimination. Gareth Cliff was discriminated against because he is white.”  Interesting lawyerly argument, but I am not altogether sure that either Mpofu or Msengana would have shot off the Tweet that Cliff did.  Why? Because they would have seen the context differently.

I think one of the issues that must be confronted is the poor quality of our communication in respect of critical issues.  By communication, I mean, in the holistic sense: not just what the one party wishes to say and how she says it but also what the other party understands was being said when she hears it.  Are we too quick to fire back a salvo against what we thought was said, when we should first ask for clarity?  Are we too quick to fire off an opinion without thinking about how it will be received? Communicators have the obligation to discern the context and receivers have the obligation to ask questions to determine intent before imputing motive. 

I am afraid that the level of discourse is not assisted by our growing dependence on social media platforms.  They tend to do our communications a disservice, allowing as they do, such disembodied and truncated opinions to be launched into an ever widening public square of unidentifiable recipients.  It is a recipe for disaster for discussion that is nuanced or context ladened.

Cliff’s comment wasn’t racist, per say, in fact, it is somewhat ambiguous.  The statement “People do not understand freedom of expression”, could well have been a criticism of Penny Sparrow’s abuse of freedom of speech and hate speech masquerading as freedom of expression. Alternatively, it could have been a defence of Penny Sparrow’s right to make nonsensical but hateful racist comments. Nobody appears to have taken the trouble to understand him.

Clearly, Cliff should have been “called out” on his statement, made to take responsibility for explaining it, prior to conclusions being drawn.  Gareth Cliff feels he was mobbed for defending freedom of expression. But for many, Cliff’s raising of freedom of expression in the face of blatant racism was tantamount to supporting the racist statements themselves.    Clearly, one cannot use “freedom of expression” to mask racism, or other forms of hate speech, thereby allowing it to flourish and cause harm. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a huge misstatement of reality.

In a subsequent, interview, Cliff hit the nail on the head when he confessed that he had no idea of the hurt that was triggered by the racist statements of Penny Sparrow.  As Cliff admitted his ignorance in shooting off a “freedom of expression” Tweet, he simultaneously confessed “It's never right to seem like you don't care about the huge weight of history and the fact that it carries, for some people, unbelievable pain. It's wrong, you can never be glib about those things." He went on to say that white South Africans needed to take responsibility and ownership of apartheid history, acknowledge what they or their ancestors did, and be cognisant of that. "You can't wipe out history. So that part is something I have learnt", he said.  Now that is the beginning of a real conversation.  A communication that can be received and understood.  But it took a court case and some soul searching to draw that confession out of him.

Speaking thoughtfully is emotionally intelligent, but so is listening carefully.  In South Africa we need to take a reflective pause before speaking or reacting.  Unfortunately, social media has the ability to pour fuel on smouldering concerns, engulfing everyone in the resulting blaze.  All communications, but particularly those on social media, should come with an attendant warning: Handle Responsibly!

FOOTNOTE:

After completion of this article, ugly racial incidences have begun to break out on several university campuses which mar the beginning of the 2016 academic year.  Ostensibly the disputes are about language policies, a vexed and volatile issue in the South African historical context, but the Chair of the SRC at one university said that this was just a proxy for a deeper frustration at the lack of transformation in the South African society in general and Universities in particular. These are real issues and require real conversations.

The question we must ask ourselves is, at what level will the discourse take place? 

Pondering what hope there is for healing and restoration, I am reminded of the account of  Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of Western German elected after World War II, who was tasked with trying to pull together a country and a people in the midst of all the ruin, devastation and chaos caused by Nazi Germans.  In a conversation with a young Christian Evangelist, Billy Graham, he abruptly changed the topic and asked:  “Mr.Graham, do you really believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?” Billy Graham slightly taken aback at the question responded, “Sir, if I did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I would have no gospel left to preach.” Graham then reports that the Chancellor walked to the window at the end of his office, looked out over the city of Bonn at the post-war ruins, and said, “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I know of no other hope for mankind.”   AMEN.

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