Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is sup­posed to pro­tect me, but I re­ject its cen­sor­ship

To ques­tion the ac­cepted nar­ra­tive in SA is to risk be­ing la­belled a traitor

Sunday Times - - Opinion - By TEMBA A NOLUTSHUNGU Nolutshungu is di­rec­tor of the Free Mar­ket Foun­da­tion

● Free­dom of ex­pres­sion and in­di­vid­ual lib­erty are pre­req­ui­sites for a free, open and equal so­ci­ety as promised in the con­sti­tu­tion, yet this free­dom is al­ways in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion in any so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially in South Africa. It re­quires eter­nal vig­i­lance.

South Africa re­quires peo­ple who are will­ing and able to de­fend the idea that no mat­ter how un­pop­u­lar or even deeply of­fen­sive one’s ex­pres­sion might be — short of call­ing for vi­o­lence — it must be al­lowed. Those who would see these val­ues un­done in the name of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness must be en­gaged on a con­sis­tent and non­ra­cial ba­sis.

Anti-free­dom mea­sures such as the Pre­ven­tion and Com­bat­ing of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill — which will soon be tabled in par­lia­ment — em­body this sad phe­nom­e­non of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. In vi­o­la­tion of the pro­posed pol­icy as it stands, there is a real dan­ger that one could be sent to prison for up to three years for ex­press­ing such in­ex­press­ible ideas.

Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is a phe­nom­e­non that was pop­u­larised in the US in the 1980s as a move­ment to change the use of lan­guage; to get peo­ple to “mind what they say”. It was di­rected mainly at lan­guage that re­ferred to women, black peo­ple, gay and dis­abled peo­ple — groups which (it is per­sua­sively ar­gued) were dis­em­pow­ered by a dom­i­nant white, male and phys­i­cally able ma­jor­ity. The op­pres­sion these groups en­dured, it was said, was per­pet­u­ated in the very lan­guage used to de­scribe them.

No one who cher­ishes in­di­vid­ual lib­erty would have a prob­lem with what the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect tried to achieve. They would wel­come a greater plu­ral­ism in our ap­proach to lan­guage, and agree that the lan­guage we use should not be de­ter­mined only by the most pow­er­ful in so­ci­ety.

The line, how­ever, is crossed when the meth­ods used to achieve this plu­ral­ism of lan­guage be­come co­er­cive. In the US, what be­gan as a cri­tique of lan­guage — an at­tempt to con­test the use of lan­guage in pub­lic dis­course — was trans­formed into an at­tempt to im­pose cer­tain forms of speech and writ­ing on oth­ers.

As po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness moved from the mar­gins to the main­stream of Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual life, cer­tain views be­came in­ex­press­ible. It was im­plied that those who ex­pressed these views were racists, sex­ists, or re­ac­tionar­ies, and that these opin­ions flowed from a hid­den in­ner per­ver­sity, a de­sire to de­fend un­equal power re­la­tions — or worse, ac­tive con­tempt for the op­pressed — even when these views on their own mer­its did not amount to racism, sex­ism, or re­sis­tance to change.

In South Africa, we find our­selves in ideal ter­ri­tory for the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect to do bat­tle. The moral ug­li­ness of apartheid and the very real atroc­i­ties that ac­com­pa­nied it are such that a tim­o­rous critic of po­lit­i­cally cor­rect po­si­tions can be cowed into si­lence by the mere sug­ges­tion that their views rep­re­sent a dis­guised de­fence of the old or­der and show an in­sen­si­tiv­ity to the plight of black peo­ple. The mer­its of the ar­gu­ment be­come less im­por­tant than the sus­pected moral stance that is said to lurk be­hind it. White in­tel­lec­tu­als are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to this kind of at­tack, since po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness preys on white guilt.

Like­wise, among their black coun­ter­parts, to go against the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect nar­ra­tive — whether af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, the na­tional min­i­mum wage or land ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion — is to run the risk of be­ing per­ceived as hereti­cal, a traitor to the black cause. Yet many black South Africans have reser­va­tions about these poli­cies.

Some have ex­pressed con­cern about the un­in­tended con­se­quences of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion on black self-es­teem and self-re­liance. I have ex­plic­itly, con­sis­tently and as­sertively made this ar­gu­ment, but in many cases, con­cerns such as these are ex­pressed in a muted way.

I have never counted my­self among those who ex­press them­selves in a muted way, es­pe­cially when it comes to the plight of the un­em­ployed. It is more im­por­tant for the 9.4 mil­lion un­em­ployed to have jobs than to have well-pay­ing jobs. For this we need a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment that re­spects and pro­motes free en­ter­prise and vol­un­tarism be­tween em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees.

For this view, on Twit­ter, I have oc­ca­sion­ally been called un­savoury names — in­clud­ing be­ing told I was some­one who needed to be “quar­an­tined” and “re­ha­bil­i­tated” on Robben Is­land — by de­fend­ers of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. An­other tweeter said that when whites are sent “back to Europe”, I must be sent with them.

Iron­i­cally, the lat­ter tweeter quoted Fred­er­ick Douglass in sup­port of his po­si­tion, when Douglass would likely stand with me on this topic. An ar­dent de­fender of free­dom of ex­pres­sion, Douglass (a for­mer slave who be­came a states­man, among his many other achieve­ments, in the US) op­posed the iden­tity pol­i­tics that to­day would be as­so­ci­ated with po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

In his last ma­jor speech, Douglass said: “I recog­nise and adopt no nar­row ba­sis for my thoughts, feel­ings, or modes of ac­tion. I would place my­self, and I would place you, my young friends, upon grounds vastly higher and broader than any founded upon race or colour . . . It was not the race or the colour of the Ne­gro that won for him the bat­tle of lib­erty. That great bat­tle was won . . . be­cause the vic­tim of slav­ery was a man and a brother to all other men . . . and there­fore should be recog­nised as an ac­count­able be­ing, a sub­ject of gov­ern­ment, and en­ti­tled to jus­tice, lib­erty and equal­ity be­fore the law, and ev­ery­where else.”

Lib­erty is non-ne­go­tiable, even for those who would call me un­savoury names. For the guardians of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, I echo the protes­tant cleric Martin Luther, who, in re­sist­ing some as­pects of Catholic dogma, stead­fastly main­tained: “I will not re­cant any­thing, for to go against con­science is nei­ther right nor safe.”

This was later para­phrased as: “Here I stand, I can­not do oth­er­wise.”

Po­lit­i­cally cor­rect cen­sors, do your worst!

Fred­er­ick Douglass was an ar­dent de­fender of free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

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