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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Right to Free Speech

A version of this post was originally written for Contemporary Christianity. 

In 2012 a furore erupted across South Africa following the public exhibition of a painting by a ‘white’ South African artist, Brett Murray. Expressing a strand of public perception relating to the numerous scandals surrounding Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, it depicts the President in a Lenin-like fashion with his genitals exposed. As well as the painting being vandalised shortly after it was displayed, some even called for the artist to be stoned to death for the way he had insulted the President.  A fascinating debate followed raising the question of why something one might have thought as an acceptable form of political commentary within the context of a democracy could provoke such an impassioned response.
Due to the artist being ‘white’, and bearing in mind South Africa’s history of racism and oppression, many have interpreted the painting as racist. However, to interpret it in this way is insufficient as it does not account for the way in which the conflicting views crossed racial boundaries, as indeed many ‘whites’ also took exception to it. Pointing to different systems of meaning-making (worldviews) at play, I would argue the furore was the result of an unintended but volatile clash of values: freedom of speech versus the right to dignity and respect, fuelled by an unresolved Apartheid past. However, such a clash of values is not limited to South Africa. It can be seen in the lethal violence that ensued following the printing of cartoons by the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Like the painting of Zuma there are those that will see the cartoons as providing legitimate political commentary while others will interpret it as a form of Islamophobia.
These illustrations bring into the question the relationship between political correctness and the right to free speech. However, they also raise a number of deeper questions that need to be probed. For example, they raise the question of identity and how different groups interpret and make sense of the world around them. They also raise the question of social values and how groups prioritise certain values over others. They necessitate both asking what happens when competing values and ways of interpreting reality collide and thinking about the impact this might have on building peaceful societies.
These questions challenge Western liberal thought that is largely driven by an individualist worldview and that promotes values such as gender equality, personal autonomy and freedom of speech. While other societies may support such values they can be prioritised in different ways. In collective cultures it is the respect of elders and leaders and maintaining the honour and dignity of a group that is given priority. Consequently, to draw Zuma or the prophet Mohamed in such ways serves as a complete affront to the culture. However, what is important to understand is that our values speak to our sense of identity and feeling safe in the world. Subsequently, a perceived threat to these values, coupled with histories of inequality and oppression, can solicit a violent response and contribute to intergroup conflict as they act to destabilise ones sense of well-being in the world – as illustrated with the painting of Zuma and the drawings of the prophet Mohamed.
So how do we respond to this? Should the value of free speech trump the right to dignity and respect or even the right to religious freedom? To what extent should it be curbed by political correctness? If we defend our value for free speech (or other western values for that matter) are we not imposing what we perceive as the superiority of our worldview over the ‘other’? Is that not a form of colonialism – cultural colonialism in this case? Moreover, it raises the extent to which we assume the ‘other’ thinks like us. In the interests of building peaceful society, perhaps we need to give the ‘other’ a little more room to exist, acknowledge and accept that perhaps there is more than one truth so that we can open up the space for dialogue that promotes acceptance and transformation.

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