Beware the ‘moral panic’ that will put SA on a slippery slope

Beware the ‘moral panic’ that will put SA on a slippery slope

“The obligatory optimism of a socialist society”. That was the working description penned, years back, by Albanian prize winning author Ismail Kadare on life and literature under the tyrant’s heel of the ultra-authoritarian Enver Hoxha.

Just last week, here at home and at the start of our twenty first year of constitutional democracy, we received an insight into how the local power elite regard the role of journalist comment and freedom of expression.

Vusa Shabalala, political advisor to President Jacob Zuma, provided his own, and presumably the president’s, delineation between ‘patriotic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ commentary.

“There is no necessary contradiction between being patriotic and being sceptical and critical. Acknowledging the great achievements of your country, even while criticising its shortcomings is patriotic. Dwelling almost exclusively on the negative is unpatriotic,” he opined in Business Day.

At its worst, this divide between on side and offside criticism comes with a fat health warning on ‘obligatory optimism’. But a more benign interpretation would be to acknowledge this country’s crowning achievement in planting a democratic constitution on the stony soil of a racially conflicted and authoritarian past.

It then follows that those who defend the constitutional gains we have made are stamped as patriots, and those who undermine the foundations of our democracy are unpatriotic.

No doubt this was not what Shabalala had in mind. But that’s the problem with labelling people and stamping ideas as either worthy of consideration or consigning them to the intellectual sin bin.

Either way it sterilises free speech and the market place of ideas, the roots with which nourish a decent and durable democracy .
When apartheid held this country in its grip, Kelsey Stuart, the doyen of media lawyers described editing a newspaper here as “walking through a minefield blindfolded.” This was the era of press restrictions, dawn raids by the security police on dissenting newspaper offices and few rights protecting freedom of expression. Publishing views which dissented from the ruling ideology was possible, but extremely hazardous.

The definition of ‘patriotism’ back then was entirely different from today’s version, but those who cleaved to it were assured, if they parked away their consciences, of a quiet life.

Now our democracy is raucous and tense. It teems with dissent on how to reconcile the imperatives of free speech, a constitutional guarantee, with the rights to dignity and the proscriptions against hate speech. These guarantees and limits all appear in our admired constitution not to contradict each other, but to reconcile them as a basis for a better future which does not mimic our contested past.

The easy part appears to be the slap down, and worse, which befell the now infamous Penny Sparrow’s Facebook posting. Her views were patently racist, simply unworthy of constitutional protection. The tit for tat which followed it proved more difficult to pigeonhole.

So, for example, in the most strangulated manner, ANC-COPE and now ANC again Dr Philip Dexter tried to be aptly, if disingenuously dextrous, when he stamped Sparrow’s views as unmitigated racism. But then he defended the more extreme posting of Gauteng provincial employee Velaphi Kumalo – who believes that whites ‘deserve to be hacked and killed like Jews” in Nazi Europe as evincing nothing more than ‘mere prejudice.’

Both Chris Hart and Gareth Cliff were caught in this vortex. Neither said anything explicitly racist. But Hart was suspended by Standard Bank for his alleged ‘racist undertones’ and ‘inappropriate assumptions’.

Cliff was fired as an Idols judge apparently because of his defence of Sparrow’s right to free speech, which in the words of M Net’s legal counsel was ‘unforgivable’. Since she was advocating hate speech, the broadcaster was entitled to axe him due to ‘public perception’.

It’s easy to see the downhill road where all this leads. It’s also not unique to South Africa. Moral panic is both contagious and dangerous.
Ostracising birds of a racist feather like Sparrow is one thing. But when a leading financial institution and a powerful private broadcaster apply self-regulation, which verges on censorship, we arrive in different territory.

Actually, there’s a Hollywood movie appearing on your screen soon which appropriately and dramatically deals with the moral panic which gripped the film industry in the United States in the 1950’s, the era of the red scare McCarthyism.

“Trumbo” is the riveting story of a famed Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo. His talent as a screenwriter was only matched by his outspoken support for the Communist Party of the USA and organised labour. Congress, then much concerned by the possibility of an all-out war with the Soviet Union and egged on by the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy determined to root out ‘enemies within’, subpoenaed Hollywood figures to testify. Trumbo and others refused. He went to prison for his troubles and his conscience. But the real nub of the movie is what happened afterward. The deeply conservative Hollywood establishment placed Trumbo on a ‘blacklist’. He was unable to work for nearly a decade and moonlighted as a ghost writer under an assumed name.

Of course, there was no explicit law obliging Hollywood not to employ Trumbo. But moral panic and a desire to be onside establishment thinking prevailed.

It’s easy to ridicule this outrageous over reaction in a country with a far more expansive constitutional protection of free speech than that which is provided in our own constitution. But it happened then.

Some twenty years later, however, the Supreme Court allowed the American Nazi Party to march through a Jewish suburb of Chicago, Skokie, where one in six of its inhabitants were either survivors or relatives of victims from the Nazi holocaust. America had evolved.

Our own constitution, indeed, does not protect hate speech. But it does champion freedom of expression. It certainly does not oblige institutions to police dissenting views of either economists or broadcasters.

Just why we need to champion the right to express unpopular views does not lie only in the chilling effect of outlawing them. It is because ‘our greatest achievement’ –to borrow the words of Mr Shabalala- was to turn our back on suppressing them or converting their champions into ghosts.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times

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