The last time I wrote about David Bullard, I said rude things about what I thought of the column that got him fired – but rejected the basis of his dismissal (weak-kneed capitulation to political correctness) as a threat to our hard-won freedoms.
That was 10 years ago, in an article properly headlined: “The gagging order on the race debate”.
Last week’s announcement that Bullard would join my senior colleague, Institute of Race Relations (IRR) CEO Frans Cronje, on a platform at Stellenbosch University on Wednesday, March 13, to discuss the country’s future shows a reaction which amply reflects justified liberal anxiety about the narrowing space for free speech in South Africa in the decade since, in society generally, in the media, and especially on our increasingly intellectually hobbled university campuses.
The IRR makes no apology for being willing to stimulate a vigorous conversation where too many would prefer a tractable citizenry to stop short at inoffensive unanimity for fear of being shamed for having opinions and ideas of their own.
First, to come clean about the rude things I said back in 2008.
Of Bullard’s column, “Uncolonised Africa wouldn’t know what it was missing”, I wrote: “As an instance of the jauntily provocative smart-ass humour of a weekend columnist so obviously out to get a rise, his column scores a 3-out-of-10. There were some cheeky moments, and irreverence is much underrated, but its success as humour or polemic was undermined by an essentially puerile quality: it asked for adult attention on naughty-schoolboy grounds.”
However, this is neither here nor there, and is not the point. The point then, as in now, is that expunging Bullard’s thoughts, whether on the grounds of style or substance, silences not just a voice, but a conversation. This not only offers nil protection to truth or dignity, but assaults the only procedure capable of acknowledging either.
Today, confronting and overcoming South Africa’s mounting crises requires our society to find its courage and its voice. But that will not happen unless we defend the space for the widest range of opinions and an authentic conversation about our choices as a society. No excuse and no apology is needed to champion, and demonstrate, a commitment to doing so.
Those who only defend freedom of speech for opinions they agree with (and applaud when those whose opinions they don’t like are shamed and muzzled) merely reveal just how tepid and insecure their convictions really are. They think they are right, but not with a conviction sufficient to risk putting their thinking to the test.
The trouble is, the cost is not theirs alone.
This has been understood among intellectuals for a very long time. One of the most economical expressions of it appears in John Milton’s famous defence of free speech of 1644, the Areopagitica, in which he warned that a “fugitive and cloistered virtue” deserved no praise.
“What purifies us is trial,” he said, “and trial is by what is contrary.”
Trial, it’s fair to say, is not for intellectual weaklings. For them, banishment, censorship, public humiliation and the depleting silence that comes with a lack of courage is sufficient for them to think they have won. But they, too, will have lost.
No free society is unanimous. We could turn, here, to the 2000-year-old insight of the former African slave who observed: “So many men, so many opinions; to each his own way.” If Terence’s Rome is tantalisingly remote from our 2019 South African setting, we have only to consult Twitter or the latest live-feed from parliament to appreciate the endurance of his wisdom.
And all the history between imperial Rome and the digital age is an object lesson; societies that surrender control over what they think and say condemn themselves to the despair of tyranny, strife, and failure. It always begins with accommodation, the nodding unanimity that stifles dissent, the tacit approval of someone else determining what is permissible for us to think and say.
We know this from our own history, a history that illuminates the importance of a now nearly century-old wisdom that crisply summarises the IRR’s stance on free speech.
It is contained in the dissenting opinion in the 1929 US Supreme Court appearance of implacable Hungarian pacifist Rosika Schwimmer, who was denied citizenship for refusing to swear that she would take up arms to defend her adopted home.
In that opinion, ageing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Union soldier in the Civil War, thrice wounded and not given to mewling pacifism, declared that there was no principle “that more imperatively calls for attachment than … the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate”.
It was not the prevailing opinion in 1929, more than 130 years after the ratification of the First Amendment, and Schwimmer remained a stateless person to her dying day, but Holmes’ words have rung through the decades since as a testing benchmark.
A decade earlier, it was Holmes, too, who gave to the free speech debate another benchmark analogy when he argued that “free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”.
The impermissibility of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre calls for a rational judgement of what Americans call “clear and present danger”.
In one case after another, the silencing of voices fails the shouting-fire-in-a-theatre test, the most recent being the hounding of Karima Brown, another symptom of the atmosphere of intolerance for ideas some don’t like. It’s not the ideas that threaten us, but the inverse, the shutting down of conversations that preserve openness and independent-mindedness.
That is a risk to the freedom of all South Africans, and a risk the IRR will not hesitate to expose and counter.
Contrary to the response of mini-minds on social media, this neither wells from nor seeks to promote whiteness, supremacy, privilege, or whatever trivial portmanteau cliché comes to hand.
In the past year, we have argued in defence of the right to speak freely of, for instance, Julius Malema and Andile Mngxitama, even while utterly rejecting the content of their speech. To defend freedom means defending the expression of ideas you disagree with.
We adhere to this liberal standard not out of sentimental attachment, but because it is the founding principle of all freedoms. It concerns us that too many in the media, in academia and in civil society, distort this question, and cave in the face of the difficulties it always – and inevitably must – throw up. And so they nurture an atmosphere of intolerance that silences voices they do not like, denies them platforms, and encourages social media mobs to hound them.
The IRR does not endorse every opinion of every columnist or satirist, but, as we noted last week, we believe David Bullard has a contribution to make, not least in encouraging people to shake off the damaging limits of political correctness in order to reason with the tough realities which ultimately impinge with the greatest harm on South Africa’s black majority.
That Bullard might be unpopular in some quarters is not a good reason to deny him an opportunity to speak, nor, importantly, to deny his dissenters the opportunity to engage him in debate.
It takes courage to be willing to be offended and reply with reason. That is what freedom means. Outlawing what might offend us only enfeebles and disables reason itself. The implications should weigh heavily on us, because to wish for unanimity is to wish for tyranny; to actively seek the first is, by degrees, to achieve the second.
In everything we do – including sharing a platform with David Bullard in Stellenbosch on Wednesday – the IRR seeks to give South Africans the courage to resist that fate.
Morris is head of media at the South African Institute of Race Relations.