Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Who said we can say what we like in the new South Africa?

If you think about it, we do not all have ‘freedom of speech’ in the careless way we like to say we do.

The numerous international conventions that recognize this great individual freedom today, the ‘national’ Declarations and Bills of Rights over the centuries that established it and the modern constitutions that enshrine it, all recognize there are limits to our right to say anything we choose. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 stated that ‘every citizen shall be responsible for abuses [of freedom of expression] as shall be defined by law.’ The right, in other words, came with responsibility: there are always going to be others to consider.

How much greater is the need to make citizens ‘responsible for abuses’ in the enormously more complex, multi-ethnic and democratic world of today. You are not free to incite genocide under international law. In the new South Africa, you may not legally indulge in hate speech against gender, race, ethnicity or religion. The famous First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing free speech is not taken to include, among other things, obscenity and criminal speech (threats and menaces, for example). The most open societies in the world restrict pornography and circumscribe what may be said or published to protect children, people's reputations and privacy.

If there are many areas where the law forbids ‘free speech’, there are very many more where custom dictates we restrain ourselves. We all know we are expected to speak kindly and considerately to our partners and children, relatives and friends, hard though that sometimes is to manage. We try, though we fail even more often here, to address business colleagues and associates civilly. Even internet posts manage from time to time to make a point without personal abuse. The examples seem trivial. But social life would be intolerable if we did not voluntarily hold our tongues in all kinds of ways every day.

Where on earth, then, did the idea come from that we are free to say anything we like?

One source is certainly Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ (though his famous ‘quote’ comes from a biography and  sums up Voltaire's overall attitude rather than reports his actual words).

This piece of eighteenth century Gallic gallantry is impossible for us to accept now - and would no doubt be impossible for Voltaire also were he here to see what it would oblige him to die for: nasty and mindless racist talk from both sides over apartheid; support for and denial of the Holocaust; broadcasts in Rwanda not so very long ago that urged people to ‘kill the vermin, kill the cockroaches’. Would the most celebrated advocate of human reason from the European Age of Reason really have gone along with any of it?

When Noam Chomsky goes even further by claiming, ‘If you believe in freedom of speech, that means you're in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise,’ it does not follow that we must approve glossy brochures promoting paedophilia. It is only the unqualified claim to the right that gives rise to such grotesque ideas.

It seems much more likely that what we are insisting on when we insist on our right of ‘free speech’ is our right to speak out freely on the two subjects of religion and politics.

Now that is an altogether proper demand in a democracy. And it makes the question we should be asking ourselves a quite different one: can we really be living in a democracy, when we are so far from agreed on the answer?