The Jacob Zuma painting and the idea of respect

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Much has already been made of the Jacob Zuma painting and the idea of respect. The argument goes like this: Jacob Zuma is the President, he should be respected. Therefore, the painting should be removed. That ‘argument’ is often used in South Africa. Routinely we fundamentally misunderstand what respect is. We think it is something that can be demanded, not earned. But the moment you accept that line of thinking, you are on a sure path to some or other anti-democratic state of affairs.

The Jacob Zuma painting and the idea of respect

By: Gareth van Onselen

18 May 2012

I wanted to say a few words about the idea of respect with particular reference to the Brett Murray painting of Jacob Zuma.

A reader posted the following comment under a picture of the painting, which I posted yesterday:

“Zuma is a President. Respect him pliz.”

He is not alone in this regard. The Presidency too has evoked the idea. @StephenGrootes today tweeted the following from a Presidency press briefing:

“#ZumaPic Presidency: Intense hatred of ruling party should not translate into distorting SA’s value system of emphasising respect. SG”

In truth, and after having listened to a few radio shows today, I was waiting for a comment like that. I have written about the idea of respect before and believe it remains one of many ideas fundamentally misunderstood by many South Africans.

Respect must be earned to be given. It cannot be demanded or enforced. In order to be earned, one must act and behave in a manner deserving of respect. And yet, even then, respect need not necessarily be forthcoming. It is entirely at the discretion of the person concerned.

Many in South Africa think otherwise. The belief is that respect should exist from first principles. That regardless of how one behaves or the quality of the decisions they make, respect should be given to them anyway (and, when it is not forthcoming – particularly when it comes to public office – the immediate response to suggest this is in some way unpatriotic). This is, of course, nonsense. Everybody in a liberal democracy has a right to think what they like and, barring their opinions and attitudes not causing harm (harm, not hurt) to others, to express that opinion too.

If the situation were otherwise – if everyone was required not to express any opinion that might cause offence to someone else, within days, every attitude would be outlawed. Because you can be sure, every single possible position stands contrary to the position of someone, somewhere else in the world. Totalitarian states try to enforce respect by regulating opinion. It is one of the ultimate infringements on basic democratic rights and to advocate that idea is to advocate an assault on the very freedoms so many people have fought and died for throughout history.

Here is a thought: how many people out there dislike Brett Murray’s painting yet still respect the President? You can be sure there are many. Certainly the ANC seems to be of that persuasion. Likewise, how many like Murray’s painting and still respect the President? Again, no doubt many. The painting itself bears no general relationship to one’s respect for the President.

Even if it did, even if there were a selection of people whose opinion of President Zuma was so fragile this particular depiction swayed them one way or the other, there is nothing wrong with that. And the fact that it might swing them one way or the other tells you everything. Everyday everyone is presented with an endless stream of opinions and information, both favourable and unfavourable about the President and which may or may not influence the degree to which they respect him. That is how an opinion is formed. No one is seeking to censor that information in the way they are this painting. If they really were concerned about how something disparaging might influence the President’s public standing – as both the ANC and the Presidency have suggested they are – by the same logic, every damning opinion of the man would have to be censored. And, given that so much of what he has done warrants criticism, pretty much every newspaper opinion page would have to be cleansed of negative thought.

In his brilliant book Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury describes a world without books – where they are sought out, banned and burnt. The reason, he reveals deep into its pages, is offence. At first it started small – a minority would express outrage at a seemingly offensive opinion and, as a result, that opinion would be suppressed. And so the first pages were torn out of books. But, as soon as it became acceptable to suppress any opinion that caused offence, it quickly became apparent that for every opinion there was a minority outraged at it. And so soon every page had to be torn from every book and in no time at all there were no books at all – the very idea of one revolutionary.

The moment respect becomes a proxy for negating offence you are on a sure path to some sort of dictatorship. Equally, the moment you start demanding respect, it has likewise lost its intended effect, because what you are really talking about it deference – you are demanding obsequiousness, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with respect. Indeed, it is the ambit of bullies and authoritarianism.

If it is respect you are after, you need to earn it. It is an unrewarding business. Ask any politician. Good behaviour does not always engender respect. But that is the only way to obtain it.

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