Op-ed: In South Africa A Battle Is Being Waged Against Free Speech
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Free speech is under attack once again, this time in South Africa.
Vicki Momberg a white south African called black police officers ‘plain and simple useless’ and then referred to them as Kaffir – the K word, it’s like their version of the N word, and is rooted in the Arabic word for ‘non-believer.’
“One kaffir is bad enough,” she said. “This happens all the time, all the time. The kaffirs here in Joburg are terrible. I’m so sick of it.” She is also heard calling black people “opinionated,” “arrogant” and “useless.” Later in the video, she says that if she sees a black person, “I will drive him over.”… “If I have a gun I will shoot everybody,” she adds.
As the New York Times reported she’s likely to face a hefty fine as a result, and South African lawmakers are now considering making hate speech punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Of course making a legitimate threat with a firearm warrants criminal charges, and shouldn’t be protected in any way whatsoever, but use of a word – in this case kaffir – should result in nothing beyond sincere disgust on behalf of those who it was meant for.
“The recent racist utterances and many other incidents of vicious crimes perpetrated under the influence of racial hate, despite our efforts over the past two decades to build our new nation on these values, has necessitated further measures,” Justice Minister Michael Masutha said at a news conference on Monday.
Simply put, the consequences of such a decision could have a chilling effect on free expression. One of the big problems with laws regarding hate speech is that hate speech is generally rather loosely defined.
“Under the proposed law, hate speech would be broadly defined as direct or electronic communication that “advocates hatred,” incites violence or causes contempt or ridicule.”
Penalties range from 3 to 10 years. Imagine if such a law existed in the U.S.? The entire country would be behind bars in a matter of months…maybe weeks if it’s an election year.
As the Times points out.
Critics say that too broadly defining hate speech will erode freedom of expression and do little to heal the country’s racial wounds. “You cannot legislate for good human behavior; you cannot legislate for social cohesion,” said Tusi Fokane, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, a private organization. “Given our past, a lot more will be required than banning and criminalizing expressions.”
And with good cause – first of all, racial and social tension can only be swept under a rug for so long. If you keep sweeping trash under the rug it will eventually spill out and before long the production team from Hoarders will be at your door with a bunch of cameras and a dumpster. Likewise, if people aren’t free to publicly express an opinion – no matter how disgusting it may be – they will express that opinion privately among likeminded individuals. Anger will reinforce anger until it eventually sparks action and with it the potential for some very troubling consequences. But a free and at times uncomfortable dialogue can eventually lead to understanding and reconciliation.
Of course free speech and free expression go beyond easing ethnic tensions.
If I’ve said it before I’ve said it a thousand times – policing speech and thought as criminal matters is a dangerously slippery slope. It gives those in power the right to punish the powerless over nothing more than differences in opinion. This creates myriad problems in a free society – actually it completely tarnishes the concept of a free society. As we have seen here in the states during the course of a hotly contested election a lot of unpleasant things are said. Were ‘hate speech’ made illegal Donald Trump could theoretically be jailed for using the term ‘Crooked Hillary’ likewise, I could be punished for using the term ‘Orange Donald’ on Twitter. A reasonable person probably wouldn’t consider either to be hate speech, but an opportunistic individual looking to jail either myself or Donald Trump, might do just that.
Furthermore, free speech allows the governed to publicly challenge those in power. This is one of the cornerstones of a free society. If the government is free to arbitrarily define a comment as ‘hate speech’ then it becomes exponentially more difficult to unseat leaders who have failed to serve their constituents effectively. Anti-hate speech laws could then be used as a backdoor route to political retribution, which is fine…if your last name happens to be Putin.
Look, nobody likes to hear negative or hateful things said to or about them, but hurt feelings are not a legitimate reason to jail or fine someone. When it comes to public policy or a heated social issue the best way to counter ‘hate speech’ is by winning the battle of ideas. Simply dismantle the hate speech in an eloquent, academic manner – ‘when they go low, you go high’ as the saying goes. If it’s an interpersonal conflict and someone makes a nasty comment, there’s an even simpler solution; stop listening, and walk away.
This contributor is a Marine veteran that has served in the Middle East. Due to the sensitive nature of his current job, he has requested to remain anonymous.