Constitutional Hill

Freedom of expression – and the quest for a meaningful life

Freedom of expression is an immensely important right. Its protection is a prerequisite for the flourishing of democracy as well as for the advancement of the personal autonomy and well-being of each individual. Sadly, many South Africans do not seem to understand that the right encourages robust, intelligent, informed and conceptually astute dialogue and debate. They wrongly think freedom of expression is infringed when you dare to challenge and expose the widely held prejudices or other superstitious beliefs of privileged insiders who consider their own biases to be universal truths.

I might be alone in this, but I find it a constant struggle to live a meaningful life; a life that does not get bogged down in the daily responsibilities of earning a living, of (more or less) getting along with and according respect to everyone I come into contact with, and of dealing with (and trying to do something about) the vast injustices in our country (given my relative privileged suburban life). How to live a life of action, thinking and revolt (in the words of a University of Pretoria colleague, Karin van Marle) remains a constant struggle.

How can you be free and how can you live a meaningful life if you remain a prisoner of manufactured “conventional wisdom” and “common sense” – whether on economic policy or on the way society and the knowledge that structure society is organised – and if you are programmed to repeat the same selected few “truths” produced to protect and advance the interests of the social and economically dominant in society? Your life becomes a comfortable but sad and wasteful cliché. But like a character in The Matrix, you remain unaware of how sad and meaningless and utterly wasteful your existence really is.

A prerequisite for the establishment of a free society (politically free and free from economic want), is the flourishing of critical, intelligent, informed, robust, radical, and conceptually provocative thought and debate – especially thought and debate that challenge the status quo and undermine or disturb the power of the socially and economically dominant, a class of people who often seem to want to enslave us all with their banalities and their platitudes, which they hold up as quintessential “common sense” truths. If nothing else, they will bore us into servitude with their self-serving, unoriginal, uncritical, uninformed and unimaginative arguments in defence of the status quo.

If only they knew that – unlike Neo from The Matrix – they are nothing more than metaphoric “brains in a vat”, they might cease to bore the rest of us with their celebration of mediocrity and thoughtlessness.

Some defenders of the status quo – those who are insiders in every conceivable way and have little reason to ask critical questions about the meaning of their lives and how society is structured – are often deeply threatened by radical notions of freedom of expression that celebrate critical thought and challenge conventional wisdom.

They sing the praises of freedom of expression, but they understand freedom of expression as the exchange of clichéd and anodyne “ideas” and “arguments” that would not challenge their world view and their feudal-like divine right to lord it over the rest of society. But when their perceived “common sense” ideas are challenged as being based on deep-seated prejudices they cry foul and accuse others of censoring them.

They seldom make use of such an opportunity to reflect critically on their own world view and the possible unthinking prejudices they may harbour. The fact is that we all harbour prejudices. We would not be human if it was otherwise. Surely, we owe it to ourselves and our fellow human beings at least to try to understand, confront and deal with our prejudices. How else do you begin to live a meaningful life? How else do you struggle against and resist the numbing conformity that capitalist culture works hard to impose on all of us?

I often despair when people who are criticised for perpetuating prejudices do not engage at all in any form of robust debate to try and show how and why their critics are wrong. Although some thoughtful and robust debates sometimes follow on such a critical unmasking of power, more often than not defenders of the status quo resolutely refuse to begin the work of living a meaningful life by actually thinking and reflecting on (and reading up on) the relevant topic or the ideas employed by their critics. Instead they often trot out a few moth-eaten conventional wisdoms before accusing their opponents of censorship: as if you are censoring somebody else when you challenge their preconceived beliefs and ideas.

Oh, the banality of it all.

These rather bleak (and hopefully not too pretentious or precious) musings on freedom of expression were sparked by a column written by Justin McCarthy and published on Daily Maverick. McCarthy took offense at critics of the homophobic Flora margarine advert which was based on the assumption that homophobia was not only normal but also worthy of sympathy.

He bemoaned the fact that gays and lesbians and the so called “politically correct” (whoever this overused slogan may be referring to) criticised the advert, arguing that by uncritically and even sympathetically endorsing the homophobia of the fathers of gay and lesbian children, the Flora advert was sparking a welcome debate. But what was unacceptable, according to him, was a debate on whether to boycott the product which used a homophobic advert to promote its brand.

Such an argument, he claimed, was “a direct result of the unthinking, knee-jerk and nanny state mind-set of people all over the world who take umbrage at something they deem to be personally offensive”. “Mother grundies”, wrote McCarthy (he is not one to use an original phrase where a cliché would do) “want the world to conform to their narrow criteria… One’s personal experiences should never trump the common cause”.

You often hear a carbon copy of this argument when somebody challenges the deeply entrenched prejudices of the privileged and the economically, culturally and socially powerful. Recently, for example, I was accused of supporting censorship, and implicitly of promoting mind-control, book burning and the death of culture – all because I dared to ask critical questions about who has the power to decide what is funny and who decides when somebody is perpetuating prejudice.

The problem is that the argument is unadulterated hokum. It equates the work of activists who challenge prejudices and the ways of thought that marginalises some and promotes the interests of others (usually the dominant and powerful) with censorship. These prisoners of manufactured “conventional wisdom” and “common sense” love freedom of expression – until the freedom of expression is used to challenge their power and to disturb their comfortable but often meaningless lives.

For McCarthy a “nanny state” is apparently that horrid place where “conventional wisdom” is not taken for granted and where “common sense” ideas are subjected to scrutiny and criticism and where people use their right to freedom of expression (and their right to choose which products to buy) to challenge the widely accepted prejudices and ingrained habits of being that deaden the soul and turn people into sad billboards for an unexamined life.

According to this bizarre “argument”, if you challenge what you see as other people’s prejudices, if you construct thoughtful and critical arguments about why you think these are prejudices, and if you use your freedom to revolt against what you see as prejudices, you want the world to conform to your “own narrow criteria”. So what? What is freedom if not the right to challenge conventional wisdom and received truths (through words and deeds – also by choosing to boycott a product) and to try to persuade others of the benefits of living a different – more imaginative and more life-enhancing – life?

I would love to live in a world in which people regularly dismantled my ideas and arguments in informed, critical, thoughtful and clever ways and challenged my preconceived ideas. It would help me in a quest to live a meaningful life. Sadly, I am often disappointed because instead of this ideal of robust and rowdy (but intelligent) debate, I am often confronted by wilted stock phrases, brandished about in the same way that irrational people in medieval times brandished about garlic to ward off evil spirits or vampires. This is not debate, people: it’s superstitious nonsense masquerading as absolute truth.

Yes, freedom of expression has value for its own sake. But it also has value because it is a tool to engage in thoughtful, critical, robust, intelligent, informed and conceptually astute arguments with the aim of changing the minds and the behaviour of others. For the McCarthy’s of the world, the right to freedom of expression and the right to organise and use your power to change the world is pivotal – as long as it is never actually used to try and challenge conventional wisdom and the dominant views (and power) of those whose interests are served by the status quo. If you actually want to use your freedom to challenge the views of others, you are suddenly branded as a “Mother Grundy” who is trying to whip others into a “politically correct” line.

What is the use of freedom if we cannot utilise it to change the world? And how free are we really when gatekeepers of “acceptable thought and action” constantly tell us that we are the enemies of freedom for trying to do so?

  • Ozone Blue

    “How can you be free and how can you live a meaningful life if you remain a prisoner of manufactured “conventional wisdom” and “common sense” – whether on economic policy or on the way society and the knowledge that structure society is organised – and if you are programmed to repeat the same selected few “truths” produced to protect and advance the interests of the social and economically dominant in society?”

    Your neoliberal, pro-capitalist “multicultural tolerance” and world view based on IDENTITY POLITICS (instead of class politics) is in fact part of the “conventional wisdom” manufactured by the social and economically dominant society. That is why you and your fellow White liberals never open your mouths to discuss the implication of the socalled “War on Terror”. Just as you pretend that the Cold War never happened.

    Come – I’m up for debate. Stop hiding behind cheap excuses such as you do not debate with people not using their “real names”. That is just another form of the playing the man and not the ball. On of the fundamental freedoms on the internet is the freedoms to express your thoughts and to *remain anonymous*. You want to debate the implications of this freedom too?

  • Ozone Blue

    And just another warning for those ignorant souls who post on Facebook using their “real names”:

    “A senior South African Revenue Services (SARS) auditor had his chances of becoming the next auditor-general (AG) foiled by
    “inappropriate” postings on his Facebook profile, reports the Sunday
    Times. The newspaper reports Avhashoni Ramikosi was reprimanded in
    Parliament when MPs expressed discomfort about Facebook postings they deemed inappropriate for someone vying for the prestigious job.”

  • Boertjie

    And so it seems that every last one of us are prisoners of our own worldviews, whether you realize it or not.

  • 1Zoo1


    To me what McCarthy was having a go at was the closing down of space because somebody gets offended.

    I think McCarthy is actually correct. Let Flora have their advert. If you don’t like it then don’t like it. But it is not for you to dictate who can say what.

    And that is what McCarthy is going after, the shutting down of expressions which offend.

    McCarthy is right, and you actually know it.

  • Brett Nortje

    What is freedom if not the right to harbour prejudices?

  • Pierre de Vos

    What you and McCarthy are saying is that no one should have a right to criticise that which they do not like because it would “close down” space for debate. Illogical. How can a plea to silence constitute a plea for freedom of expression? Bizarre argument.

  • 1Zoo1

    Firstly, thanks for getting stuck into the debate!

    My point is simple – respect others’ rights to express. McCarthy appeared to rail against the so-called pc-speak which does close down space for expression, even whilst purporting to support it.

    It is pretty ironic but if you step back and see the deleterous effect it has had in places that used to have freedom (like the UK for example).

    In the UK its toe the pc-line or you’re out. In fact, the UK has criminalized quite a lot of speech (guys have done time for tweets) – even Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park is no longer the sacred ground it once was.

    And this is the core of the argument, and I actually think it applies to both sides: respect peoples’ right to express themselves.

    Its a fine line between robustly disagreeing and going that one step further and telling people they cannot say what they want to say.

    Freedom of expression, if it is robust, is raw, exciting, and ugly all at the same time. However, we then get those who begin to say that we must exercise our rights “responsibly” and that means not offending “them” – a”them” who morph depending on the view-point they defend.

    For example, I had a fun argument with a strident Muslim cleric about censoring blasphemy against Islam, and making it a criminal offense – telling him it was not his right to determine who can say what. My point was simply that only adherents to his religion could blaspheme in the context of his religion, and that would be an internal thing. Otherwise it would require the entire population to adhere to Muslim prescripts, regardless of their own beliefs. That I told him, was deeply offensive – he went silent when I told him he would have to then learn and observe all other religions like Hindu, Christian, Jew, Buddism, Zen, etc.

    Those who took offense at Flora, must be free to be offended and state their offense. But to force Flora to toe their line of thinking is incorrect.

  • Ozone Blue

    “What you and McCarthy are saying is that no one should have a right to criticise that which they do not like”

    Straw man. I read the article and nowhere did Mccarthy say anything of the sort. After all this ad was shelved just like the Cape Town Fish Market ad (for depicting a black dictator) to appease your own own unchallenged pc sensibilities – closing down freedom of expression. And much as you want to deny this, your imported White liberal politically correct sensitivities is in fact the global “culturally and socially dominant paradigm” – go read Zizek, not only in the USA but also in most of Western Europe. This specific paradigm has also been entrenched in much of ANC politics and government thinking. You are therefore, despite what paranoid illusions you may have about your own imagined heroism not really challenging any instutitionalised power structure at all – rather you have become an apologist for it. That is exactly why I post under pseudonym, so please don’t play the victim here.

    I would also like to know what you as an academic think of what happened to Louise Mabille just the other day. How much “freedom of expression” did she enjoy?

  • Ozone Blue

    So we are still waiting for the “robust debate” that you so yearn for. What is your opinion on the post below for example. How does your endless parroting of middle class USA/European liberal white values (your so-called “radical notions of freedom of expression that celebrate critical thought and challenge conventional wisdom”) explain the fact that Lonmin’s Cyril Ramaphosa is now deputy president of the ANC after Marikana massacre? Or that the “civilised” world sits by while Guantanamo Bay is happening and that under the leadership of your AAed *black* president. Or that your fascist hero Julius Malema praises the virtues of socialism whilst he is cheating on his own taxes. Or that your white hating African hero Robert Mugabe would choose to behead homosexuals. Or that China and India are developing into the world’s next super powers as they continue to exploit slave labour of all races and “racial identities”? Or are they also white now?

    How does your stale and boring pseudo-revolutionary Critical Race Theory imported from Harvard explain any of the above realities when compared to a robust class-orientated Marxist critique of global capitalism?

  • Ozone Blue

    I see that PdV wants very much to “debate” but obviously not with his audience or with “pale English-speaking, European, Hetero- male” like Justin McCarthy. And check out the comments below.