Eusebius McKaiser: The moral limits on free speech
Advocates of complete freedom fail to take adequate account of the consequences involved, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
Nothing exposes inconsistency in moral reasoning quicker than someone selectively applying arguments about the limitations on free speech.
While it has been awesome to see general support for calls by the LGBTI community to have homophobic American preacher Steven Anderson barred from entering our country, some people are still shouting “freedom of speech!” in his defence.
Let’s address that retort.
Obviously, if you don’t value consistency in moral reasoning, then this whole column entry won’t move you one bit.
When Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, depicted National Director of Public Prosecutions advocate Shaun Abrahams as a monkey, many of us were up in virtual arms. Zapiro was skewered for drawing, lazily and culpably, on historic memes that deem black people to be entertaining monkeys capable of manipulation by a conniving person (even if that manipulator is also black, a point that doesn’t let Zapiro off the hook).
Whenever an artist depicts President Jacob Zuma in the nude, many rush to protest against such works of art, some even defacing them, demanding that limits on speech rights be accepted.
I don’t find these protests compelling, but the point here is that the protesters obviously don't think that someone shouting “freedom of speech!” ends a public debate about speech rights.
Yet, when it comes to patriarchy and homophobia, many people who otherwise demand limits on free speech are quick to defend the rights of a speaker to peddle hate speech. This is an obvious inconsistency in moral reasoning.
Imagine, for example, if Pastor Anderson had preached a series of sermons about how much better off the world would be if more black people were dead than 49 of them killed by a racist killer. How keen would we be to have someone like that entering our country? He preached favourably, you may recall, about the killing of 49 patrons at a gay club in Orlando in the US.
I have some respect for the consistency of some liberal and mostly libertarian thinkers on free speech. Many of these defenders of a pastor’s entitlement to preach hatred would also protect Zapiro’s right to depict black people as he wishes to and an artist’s right to depict the president in the nude.
The problem with this group is a failure to take adequate account of the consequences of certain speech acts. Life for members of the LGBTI community, especially poor black lesbian women and transgender people, becomes harder whenever bigotry is whipped up in sermons by preachers who preach hatred and even violence against the LGBTI community.
That is why even our liberal constitution recognises legal limits on speech acts.
The group of defenders of Pastor Anderson that fascinates me the most are the hypocrites. These are individuals who take the fight for racial justice very seriously (as we all should) but who are unmoved by the plight of women, sexual minorities and other oppressed groupings.
It is disappointing, and a revelation of our capacity for evil as human beings, that victims and survivors of oppression can lack the empathetic capacity to show solidarity with the struggles of other groups.
How can you get so angry with racism that you’re willing to burn down structures that represent racial injustice and oppression, and yet want to play pseudo-intellectual games with the human rights of women, sexual minorities and poor people?
The struggle for a more just world must be synoptic. The connections between peoples oppressed on the basis of a range of identity traits must be present in the activism of social justice warriors. Picking and choosing justice struggles isn’t justified on account of limited time or resources.
A failure to take seriously the unjust positionality in society of people differently oppressed to yourself is a moral failure that needs to be corrected by simply trying harder and being better at conceptualising intersectional justice.
And this is why, also, it is important never to debate speech rights without regard for social reality. It is easy to say: “Let Pastor Anderson in and simply debate his views when he is here! That’s the liberal thing to do, and you are liberal, aren’t you, Eusebius? Be a liberal then!”
I’d have agreed more easily a few years back. Not so now. The change in heart is simple: I have the middle-class privilege of being able to debate his homophobic rants and indulge in mental warfare.
My life is safe, and I am poorly acquainted with homophobic violence. The most vulnerable members of the LGBTI community don't have my luck. It's a matter of life and death for many of them. Their safety, and right to live in an environment free of hate crimes, is more urgent to protect than setting up debates between a homophobic preacher and his liberal interlocutor. Don’t let Pastor Anderson into our country!
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.
* The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.