The controversy surrounding the portrait of Jacob Zuma is probably akin to the controversy that classical physicists had to resolve regarding the nature of light. Light could be shown to exhibit the particle nature of matter. But different experiments also proved that light behaved like a wave. The controversy was resolved by propounding the duality of light in which light is both a particle and a wave.

It would seem that the court had to resolve whether the offending portrait was a matter of freedom of expression or whether it was a violation of one’s dignity.

Using the light analogy, could we be dealing with two sides of the same coin?

Human affairs are, however, complex. But the analogy calls for an appreciation of different perspectives. Protagonists on both sides of the controversy seem to rely on the same Bill of Rights.

It would seem to me that our history would demand a particular sensitivity in the exercise of these rights. Of particular relevance are the questions: when does the exercise of one’s freedom of expression begin to violate another’s human dignity? Under what condition is the violation of human dignity acceptable?

While the court would have to resolve these questions, the raging debate in the public arena has been revealing and disappointing.

Understandably issues of race have come to the fore. First, the debate has sought to limit the unflattering portrayal of President Zuma as a personal matter. Second, the debate is framed as depicting intolerance and ignorance by those protesting. Third, the protesters are presented as Zuma supporters. Fourth, we are told that involvement in the Struggle against apartheid necessarily immunises one from racism. An argument is that the artist is an equal opportunity offender as he has offended members of his own racial group.

Considering the extent of the outrage, involving organisations such as the Black Lawyers Association, it is evident that this is not a Zuma matter.

As a matter of fact some of those who are offended have little regard for President Zuma and the ANC. For them, this portrait represents the latest in the centuries-old denigration of black people. Most important, it is not that they do not appreciate the importance of freedom of speech in a democracy. Their argument is it should not come at the expense of someone’s dignity.

As they put it, he who feels it knows it. Pain, denigration and hurt cannot be outsourced to those who do not know it.

Interestingly, one can turn this around and argue that the insensitivity comes from those who exhibit white supremacy and expect that everyone must march according to some Western cultural drum.

It reflects a peculiar form of cultural superiority.

It would seem that cultural diversity is acceptable as long as it is consistent with the dominant culture.

To this lot, nothing of value can be expected from African people. The only Africans they respect, and parade routinely, are those who are trained to parrot their masters.

These supremacists hold the same views as those expressed by General Jan Smuts in 1906: “When I consider the political future of the Natives in South Africa I must say that I look into shadows and darkness, and I feel inclined to shift the intolerable burden of solving that sphinx of a problem to the ampler shoulders and stronger brains of the future.”

The supremacists believe themselves to be the stronger brains of the future and that, had it not been for them, SA would have disintegrated.

To dismiss a whole group of people as ignorant is a mark of arrogance. Yes, it is possible that many of them, through no fault of their own, may not be able to brandish a string of degrees, but that does not make them stupid.

As I listened to the English radio stations, the words of African-American writer and journalist Walter Mosley kept coming to me: “As far back as we can go there was a white face that we looked to for the sources of pain – the white man enslaved, the white man freed, the white man opened the school door, the white man tested me and found me lacking. The dynamic is the same.”

The insults and continued degradation are part of this dynamic.

It would seem to me that no number of appeals for understanding for the hurt of those who feel insulted would work. We need to understand insults as a form of violence.

Insults invite other insults, not intellectual engagement.

And you can trade insults only up to a point.

Sadly, it would seem we are wired to respond to the language of violence. The disregard of the pain and concern of others was best articulated by Chief Albert Luthuli in his response to Nelson Mandela: “Who will deny that 30 years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly, at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of moderation?

The past 30 years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our rights and progress, until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all.”

Following this, the ANC adopted the armed struggle.

This history does not augur well for those pursuing the path of moderation.

It took violent protests by the Muslim community before others could understand that disrespect for their religion is hurtful.

Should we resign ourselves to what the African-American educator observed when speaking to her compatriots?

“When you’re talking to white people they still want it to be their way. You can try to talk to them and give examples, but they’re so headstrong, they think they know what’s best for everybody… they won’t listen. White folks are going to do what they want to do anyway.”

I don’t think we are there yet.

One hopes we can emerge from this controversy with the willingness to appreciate the pain of others. It is a call for cultural sensitivity, not the type of arrogance that has come from the airwaves. This democracy belongs to all of us.

Fortunately, our courts have found that “dignity is not only a value fundamental to our constitution, it is a justiciable and enforceable right that must be respected and protected”.

n Seepe is political commentator