The DA’s illiberal response to Lulu Xingwana

by The Editor

InsidePoliticsFEATURE: The DA yesterday called on the Human Rights Commission to investigate Lulu Xingwana for comments it deemed “offensive”. That, however, is an intolerant and illiberal response. To try and formally shut down an opinion you no more than disagree with is anathema to free speech, a touchstone liberal principle. Anyone can speak out against a view they deem to be wrong or damaging in some way, but when you try formally to prohibit or ban a disagreeable opinion, you have crossed a line liberals should protect not abuse.

The DA’s illiberal response to Lulu Xingwana

By: Gareth van Onselen

28 February 2013

Yesterday, in a statement by party spokesperson Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Alliance followed the Freedom Front Plus in calling on the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to investigate the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, for comments she made to the Australian news channel ABC. The Minister stated, in relation to the Oscar Pistorius shooting:

“Young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything and therefore they can take that life because they own it. We also have cultural differences as well in our own communities where we have women who are forced into marriage and we are dealing with all those issues.”

[You can find the Minister’s full interview here.]

Under the headline ‘HRC must investigate Lulu Xingwana’s comments on Afrikaans-speaking men’, the relevant section from the DA statement reads:

“This is an offensive and divisive remark. The HRC must investigate it; and the Minister should apologise and formally withdraw her comment. It is utterly unacceptable for Minister Xingwana to suggest that any South African culture is conducive to murder. The minister was engaging in a gross generalisation which is offensive and ill-informed. A government Minister, representing all South Africans on a foreign news station, should not be making offensive remarks about the people she purports to represent. Secondly, the Minister was commenting on a very sensitive matter currently before the courts. It would have been prudent for Minister Xingwana to refrain from commenting on an ongoing investigation. No ethnic or racial group can be singled out in the fight on violence against women and children. It is a societal problem that we must all face together.”

That position is a profoundly illiberal one, and cause for some serious concern.

As a political party, just as with every individual citizen, the DA is perfectly entitled to an opinion on the nature, effect and possible consequences of the Minister’s remarks. It might well find her comments “offensive” or disagree fundamentally with them and, in turn, speak out against what she has said. That is both good and necessary in a robust democracy, where debate is protected and the veracity of any idea determined through argument, evidence and the rational application of constitutional principles and values.

The principle that establishes the parameters for such debate is freedom of expression – perhaps the quintessential liberal right; certainly the cornerstone on which the justifications for many other individual freedoms are built. The often-quoted yet rarely-practiced sentiment “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” speaks to this idea. (Aside: often-quoted and, just as often, mistakenly attributed to Voltaire.)

The boundary for this space is also well-established in liberal thought: in general terms, one may say whatever they want, so long as it causes no harm to others. And here one must distinguish harm from hurt. From a liberal perspective, you cannot ban or prohibit speech that causes emotional distress in others. That is not enough to curtail the right freely to express one’s opinion. A remark must provoke or risk provoking immediate physical violence to justify the use of force (the law or some sanction) in preventing it or taking action against it. The common formulation for this type of extreme verbal provocation is hate speech.

In South Africa we have some laws, in particular the Equality Act, which do damage to this liberal principle by shrinking down that boundary and reducing the space in which people can freely express their opinions. The Act does this by outlawing certain kinds of speech as hurtful – as opposed to harmful – and the DA, to its credit, has a well-documented and critical public position on the matter.

Helen Zille has best summarised it as follows:

“Our key problem is this: The Equality Act waters down the Constitution’s definition of “hate speech” to mere “hurtfulness”. This diluted definition, we believe, erodes the right to freedom of expression. Hurtful speech is not the same as hate speech. The real test for our commitment to free speech is whether we support people’s rights to say things that offend us. If we believe they have gone too far, we can sue for defamation.”

She continues:

“We may feel repelled by hurtful speech. But it must nevertheless be protected by the freedom of speech clauses in the Constitution. Otherwise political correctness soon determines what is “hurtful”. And then we are on the slippery slope to the point where a ruling party determines what we may or may not say.”

That is an excellent summation of the principle at stake and the DA’s opposition to the Equality Act’s encroachment on it. Perhaps more importantly, as increasingly the ‘hurt’ or ‘offended’ are turning to this law to revenge their personal, emotional trauma, Zille’s position represents a clear and cogent liberal response; something not easily done in a highly sensitive, politically correct atmosphere such as ours.

Against that background, it is worth returning to the DA’s statement on Xingwana.

Whatever one’s position on Xingwana’s remarks, under no circumstances do they constitute hate speech. True, they might be offensive – the DA certainly seems to find them to be so – they might be hurtful, insensitive, politically incorrect, even wrong, but they engender no imminent threat of violence. They constitute nothing more than the Minister’s opinion. And so they are protected by the principle governing free speech. The DA, as liberal party, should be the first to recognise that fact.

The party’s suggestion that a legal body take formal action against Xingwana represents an intolerant attitude and a certain disdain for the very principle it should be the champion of. No rights have been violated. If the HRC has any sense, it will dismiss the DA’s appeal with contempt. Calling for any opinion one merely disagrees with to be formally shut down is the very definition of illiberal behaviour and an embarrassing step onto the slippery slope Zille identified.

As I have argued before, the position of national spokesperson is a powerful and influential one – externally, the voice of the party – and so one must take seriously the things advocated by its incumbent as representative of the party, its policy, philosophy and programme of action. That is the burden the national spokesperson bears. And so I do not believe this statement worth glossing over. Both its standing and subject matter are important.

It is no surprise the DA’s position is shared by the Freedom From Plus, a nationalistic organisation that panders to ethnic and cultural sensitivities, often at the expense of best constitutional practice. Little wonder it is so at home in the ANC’s national cabinet. Under the ANC’s watch ‘offense’ has become a by-word for intolerance. It is the subjective weapon the politically correct wield and by which the party clamps down on free speech and expression in its own inimitable and authoritarian style.

History has repeatedly shown once you start legislating against offense soon criticism of any sort is outlawed too, and that is a sure path first to demagoguery, then autocracy; for those with power are the ones who determine such rules. That is not to suggest this is inevitable, merely an inherent danger if such an attitude is not arrested.

If offense is likewise the yardstick the DA intends to use to police free speech it has much to worry about. I wonder, seeing as it was so quick to demand from Xingwana a retraction and given its position on this principle elsewhere, whether we shall see it also retract its position on this matter? Perhaps not.

Here is an actual quote from Voltaire, less-often cited but equally apposite:

“Nothing is so common as to imitate one’s enemies, and to use their weapons.”

What an enticing temptress is political-correctness, and how easily one slips their principled moorings when chasing its elusive song. The DA, however, should be more firmly grounded.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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