[Note: This post touches on race, religion, politics and sex]
A lot of people have been asking what the limits of free speech are. Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos contended that “free speech fundamentalists are undermining the case for free speech” and “no rational person could possibly defend to the death the right of others to say whatever they wish – regardless of how true or false the statement is, or what the consequences of the speech may be.”
Likewise, activist-blogger Tracey Lomax is “over people defending the right to freedom of speech and never mentioning the competing right to dignity.”
There was an incident recently where a resort owner asked a black kid to leave a pool “out of respect” for other users. One still hears of black residents of predominantly white neighbourhoods being asked what they’re doing there. When they become more than makeshift humans that serve to fill gaps in the smooth running of privileged lives, black people are routinely treated as impostors and intruders. Free speech absolutism leaves no room to take these lived experiences into account so as to remain sensitive to national context.
Gareth Cliff played umpire in a discussion on free speech that scarcely paid lip service to combating racism. He later issued an apology. I think Cliff’s mistake was intellectualising free speech and racism in a vacuum. Some would say his status as a beneficiary of past racial injustice discredits him as an authority on free speech and racism (in the sense that men’s status as beneficiaries of systemic sexism undermines their contribution on issues of political and economic import involving women’s bodies and rights).
Under apartheid, white people were allowed to do anything with their freedom of speech except directly or indirectly defend black people’s right to dignity. In tandem with that, there was a heavy price paid by black history teachers who taught the truth instead of the syllabus. Free speech has never been free for the oppressed. That the central fight last week was over Sparrow’s right to say what she wanted, and not the beach bathers’ right to human dignity, shows that the general pattern hasn’t changed.
Many people I’ve debated with would describe themselves as “not easily offended.” But aren’t there things so innately offensive that not being offended is siding with wrong? If Adolf Hitler was here today, who would defend his “freedom of speech”? Even Robert Mugabe’s harshest critics have found gems of truth among his mountains of imbecility. Why aren’t there scads of white thought-leaders separating his bad actions from the truthful points he’s made or defending the necessity of his right to speak?
Is there an agenda that has more use for the freedom-of-speech motif when it’s white people who’re talking?
U.S Senator and Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has asked whether America’s foreign policy and its “making the world safe for democracy” isn’t just an extension of its fiscal policy. Are white people protecting their “fiscal policies” when they sanitise racist statements under the banner of free speech, or when they give those statements an interpretation other than the outraged mainstream’s? When they get black people to do it and to put their words “in context” for them, alarm bells go off in my head.
For if Gareth Cliff can make Sparrow’s comments more palatable, then why can he not do the same with P. W Botha’s Rubicon Speech? Suddenly, apartheid wasn’t that outrageously evil, inequality isn’t that urgent – and there can be a thousand delays between now and the fixing of wrongs from which white people were advantaged as a group in the past. How can I be certain that Cliff does not have the preservation of the status quo in mind when he wrestles with this issue?
Today, most cartoons depicting the Christian God have him as a white man with a flowing beard. He is often doing or saying something funny, or mundane. The message is likely to be non-political unless the cartoon is American. But where the Christian God is depicted as something other than a white man, some sort of political or intersectional statement is being made. The person making that statement risks being branded as “irrational,” “unreasonable” or “radical” for challenging what’s “normal.” It’s difficult to fit a “normal” message about God in the same visual as a “political” statement because the normal and political displace each one another. That’s why we’re not allowed talk about religion, politics and sex in polite company: polite, well-bred people have little to gain from upsetting the system now that it has accomplished for them what it was intended to accomplish.
That a Middle-Eastern Jew appears as a Caucasian is no accident: it’s politics by other means coyly unaware of its political nature and the consequences thereof. When the white Gareths of this world (Cliff or van Onselen, however intelligent or well-meaning) speak, they’re conveniently oblivious that the platform, audience, reception, messaging and reasoning they’re working with is tainted by the same blissful unawareness. This disingenuity is going to backfire on them.
White people who “don’t have a problem with race” wouldn’t, I propose, because they’ve never had a whole system having a problem admitting the humanity of their race. They nevertheless, largely, benefited from the structural racism and violence of those who did have a problem with race and acted on it. Despite apartheid policy wording, whiteness’s genius was in its not being defined as a race to those within the race. If you ask anyone what race God is, you’ll be told he doesn’t have a race. If you ask that person how God is often artistically depicted, you’ll be told he’s white.
So we see the omnipresence of the Christian God is interchangeable with and conceals the power of whiteness to influence things from the top-down of power and social structures; God is mobile and doesn’t struggle to access spaces whose custodians have a direct impact on his life. The incorporeality of the Christian God is comparable to the inviolability of the white body: God’s right to feel safe calls for tight-knit communities that keep black people out. His self-sufficiency means white people were never meant to wonder where their next meal was coming from. His invisibility reveals and justifies the unquestioned normalcy of whiteness. God does not experience the limitations that would accompany having a race. Because he’s white and doesn’t have a race. His sexlessness means he’s a “he” because of innocuous language conventions. He does not experience the limitations that accompany gender because he’s not female. It’s only females, you see, whose gender interferes with their ability to think. And Mandela became a little more dignified when he was given the Christian name “Nelson.” Masculinist Christianity was a scaffold in the erection of the phallocentric and Eurocentric world that’s basically shafted everyone, its own white children included.
The white men who’ve historically benefitted the most from structural racism and sexism insist they’re not racist or sexist. Yet here we are, fleeced by the negation of attributes (race, location and sex) and the washing of hands this makes possible. For the biggest miracle the Christian God performed was disappearing from public discourse. The rise of rationalistic white atheism could be a sign that its god construct had delivered those in whose image it was made to the promised land of privilege; it was no longer needed and its daily presence would serve to expose people’s complicity in its crimes. And once a construct has negated everything that it was meant to “other,” it cannibalises itself. It is negation, illusion and deceit at its core. Now scores of white people get to shrug off racism in the same breath they get to become atheists – after centuries of many of their families getting to enrich themselves in Christian milieus. Slick. The scaffolding is kicked off; the structure is complete. Just as we can pretend that scaffolding was never there and was never white and male, we can also pretend that our adjudicators in the defence of “free speech” aren’t white, male or defending a world that favours white males.
Personally, I trust white men more when they admit their privilege and priorities: then I know what I’m dealing with and we’re being open with what each of us wants in a given situation. It’s easy to cooperate with someone whose concerns are transparent to themselves and to you.
On the other hand, when they suddenly say their gender and race have nothing to do with the “truthfulness” of what they’re saying, we’re back to dealing with the non-racial actually being white and the non-sexed actually being male.
At this point, many white men would stop me to insist that they’re sacrificing plenty to help the fight for social justice and that I have no right to pick on them.
But the sanitisation of history and the unchecked intellectualising of current injustices isn’t helping their case or anyone else, for that matter.
This critique of one manifestation of religion is not intended as total dismissal of any and all ultimate concern truth-claims of this or any other religion. Nor is this critique of one instance of “free speech” intended as a blanket rejection of the right to free speech. Everything is contextual.
Siya Khumalo blogs about religion, politics and sex; he has also written a book (#TheUnveiledFacesProject coming soon).
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