I grew up with Voltaire as my guru, a man who knew what freedom meant.
I grew up with Voltaire as my guru, a man who knew what freedom meant.

Over the past year, I’ve come to feel privileged. Not as a white male, as I reject those collectivist tags as the vitriol that it is, but as a result of the fact that I grew up in a family that regarded freedom of speech as more important than feelings. In my family, there have never truly been any prohibited topics. Of course, we were rational. We had friends that we would not offend, but it wasn’t due to fear or adherence to a nebulous status quo, it was out of respect for those friends, and our relationships with them.

As I grew up, I took freedom of speech as a self-evident principle that countless had died for and that was worth dying for to protect. In a secular household, it was probably the closest thing we had to religion. As I grew and was introduced to Libertarianism, I rationalised freedom of speech. I re-examined it and came to the same conclusions. It was worth dying for. Freedom, freedom of speech, in particular, is not only a benefit of society, it is integral. It allows progress, relationships, honesty – simple human integrity. Without the freedom to speak one’s mind, it is as if one does not even have a mind. Respect, love, hate, admiration – nothing can happen if one’s speech is restricted.

There’s a reason we regard dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 as terrifying. It’s not just the end of privacy, but also the end of the freedom to speak. Without our words, we are nothing but slaves.

When I look at the world today, I see principles that should be held up as the pinnacle of our rights, trampled and spat upon by those who hold their agendas and ‘feelings’ as more important than the right to not be a slave. The news and social media calls for legislated oppression in order to put a stop to what they have fallaciously defined as ‘oppression’ – that being the right to speak freely.

Free speech is not only a moral virtue. It has practical applications. Everything from generating a trusting society to the necessary honesty to inform someone that their claims are just plain wrong. The reason regimes put a stop to this freedom is that they cannot risk being told that they are wrong. Dictators would rather stick to their safe spaces where they can act as gods, unwilling to consider the possibility that they are incorrect in their actions.

Campuses today are filled with little dictators – tiny Hitlers and Stalins afraid that their cherished and fragile world views will be crushed by facts and reason. As I was told in an argument, and have seen many times before, facts and logic are tools by the white man to oppress. So, they seek to shut down anyone who dares use their freedom to spread the truth.

Chris Hart, an economist at Standard Bank, was suspended after making this allegedly 'racist' tweet.
Chris Hart, an economist at Standard Bank, was suspended after making this allegedly ‘racist’ tweet.

Chris Hart, an economist, has recently been suspended by Standard Bank for an allegedly racist tweet. While I respect the right of a business to determine its own suspension policy, it is obvious that Standard Bank is merely caving to a political narrative that condemns anyone who disagrees with them. Hart’s tweet was by no means racist, but due to its proximity to the truth, had to be silenced.

This is what policing speech accomplishes: the ruining of lives due to perceived hurt feelings and the risk of truth. Accusations of racism are used to shut down speech, regardless of any actual relation to racism or even race.

Ironically, hate speech – the only exception to free speech as it carries a very real threat of violence and coercion – does not seem punishable in South Africa, as student activists and politicians repeatedly sing songs with the lyrics ‘kill the boer’ and social media users can get away with calling for genocide as long as their target is white.

A meme showing Khumalo's blatant hate speech and calls for violence.
A meme showing Khumalo’s blatant hate speech and calls for violence.

While the utterings of Penny Sparrow were racist and distasteful, the public outcry was beyond over the top when you take into account the calls for violence that many other commentators share every day. When someone like Penny says something racist, we aren’t meant to respond by calling for legislation to ‘ban racism’, we are meant to discredit them on the forum itself or just ignore them like the fools they are.

But it seems that the three major parties of South Africa, the ANC, DA and EFF, are all set on legislating a ban on racism. This may sound well and good to some, but the repercussions are immense. Legislating speech in any way creates a very real slippery slope. When it can already be seen that non-racist statements like Chris Hart’s can be misconstrued so severely, then it is obvious to see what will happen if a ban is legislated. The state will have even more power to silence their naysayers and we’ll be ever closer down the road to serfdom.

Speech can hurt people’s feelings. It can reveal the truth, spread lies, and change the fabric of society. With so much power, however, restricting it must still be seen as unacceptable. We are sovereigns of our own lives, and a sovereign without a tongue is a puppet, a slave.

This is why we cannot criminalise speech. We can criminalise, and should criminalise, threats such as the songs calling for genocide – but when it comes to speech for which the only crime is being distasteful to some and offensive to others, then the only people who should act are the ones acting as if they are offended. They must take on the words that they have given power and respond like adults, not whine like children.

As proponents of free speech, we must not capitulate to fascists. We must speak our minds. Offend someone every day. Force people to think and examine their lives. We must keep speaking and keep practicing our most inalienable of rights – because if we don’t, then we are little better than slaves to an immature narrative that refuses to grow up and fend for itself.

Nicholas Woode-Smith is co-founder of the Rational Standard and its Technical and Marketing Director. He is a student at the University of Cape Town, with majors in Politics, Philosophy and Economic History. He is the youngest council member of the Institute of Race Relations in history and the Regional Director of Southern Africa for African Students For Liberty. He also writes science fiction – prominently, the Warpmancer and Cape Zero series.