This article was written in response to Mark Oppenheimer’s “Free Speech: A Vanishing Right”.

Written by: Johann Harmse

While writing my article on the Is Free Higher Education Possible in South Africa Panel Discussion at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, I too wanted to write about what I saw as a failure of the protection of free speech. As an individual and an educated white male, this focus was right up my alley.

I found intensely disappointing the fact that the debate could not survive a poor joke. I was not personally affected by the psychological weight of Mark Oppenheimer’s remark, and could have dismissed this weight by describing it as simply ‘tongue-in-cheek.’ I wouldn’t even have had to qualify the comment as a joke, because in matters of free speech content ought to be irrelevant.

Rhodes University campus.

This focus could have been reinforced by describing the ‘vicious’ attacks by on free speech itself, emphasising the apparently unwarranted antagonism that Oppenheimer generated and, rather than attempting to qualify or even understand this antagonism, exhibiting it as a failure of the participants to remain as impartial as Oppenheimer.

Job well done, with very little effort or real interrogation required.

But by consulting a few alternative perspectives, I realised that employing this event to lament the failure of the debate participants to uphold the importance of free speech would be, on my part, lazy if not entirely irresponsible.

The supremacy and totality of free speech is a wonderfully simple and compelling position for self-described rationalists. This, however, is my problem with the kind of article I originally wanted to write:

The value of protected free speech to express controversial ideas is easily, but inaccurately, conflated with the value of being able to make an ignorant, unethical or malignant statement and be protected from having to qualify, defend or be held responsible for the effects of such a statement.

Self-described rationalists are quick to criticise this same conflation by anti-vaccination proponents or those who call for teaching creationism in American schools. These ideas, they assert, have real negative consequences, and the superficial application of ‘freedom of expression’ is used to obscure responsibility for these effects. These same rationalists often fail, however, to be as intellectually stringent when arguing for the freedom of speech to voice their own concerns without responsibility for their effect on others.

This issue of responsibility is, of course, fundamentally different from the right to protected free speech. Oppenheimer should have had his right to free speech protected in this debate and the fact that it was not was an outright failure on the part of the Think!Fest organisers. Judge Davis was absolutely right when he said:

“This is reflective of precisely the difficulty that we are encountering in South Africa at this moment in time. Let’s be honest about this. There is a great deal of pain, legitimately because of three hundred years of racist rule. There is a sense in which white people, to be quite frank about it, use terms they bandy around, which only exacerbate hurt. On the other hand, part of the point about speech is that people do say things which to a large degree we don’t like, and if we are going to actually say that you can speak and you can’t speak, where do we get to? You can’t have a Think!Fest. My own view about it is that I thought that what Mr Oppenheimer had to say was most unfortunate, to be perfectly blunt, and only makes it worse. But on the other hand he’s got to have some right to say something. I don’t know what he wants to say and nobody’s going to give him a right to say it.”

There is, however, significance beyond Judge Davis’ point and this particular failure of the protection of free speech.

Society will not crumble if people are made to feel responsible for the very real consequences of their actions on those affected by them. As in the case with those promoting creationism over vaccinations in schools, freedom of expression should not be conflated with freedom from criticism, nor should it be viewed in the absence of a broader social responsibility.

Rather than write an article in which the right to free speech eclipses the context and events of a situation, I would suggest there is greater value to be found in using whatever insight and mobility one has to understand and clarify such situations. Rather than injecting concrete into old ideas, we ought to fertilise contemporary ones.

We are all capable of producing ivory tower, view-and-describe anthropology writing from the comfort and confidence of our personal perspectives. If, as individuals, we have put time and effort into identifying our misconceptions and developing a critical mode of thinking, we should be careful not to reconstruct our perceptions within the limiting and obscuring influence of reductionism and antagonistic identity politics.

Divorcing a conflation between freedom of expression and freedom from responsibility might well contribute to a healthier and more robust discursive space. Not respecting a citizen’s constitutional right to free speech, however, will always work to the opposite effect.

Author: Johan Harmse is a honours student in journalism at Rhodes University. He covered the Think!Fest event at the National Arts Festival that Mark Oppenheimer described in his article and met him after the event.

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