Over the past 48 hours a series of people and institutions once dedicated to freedom of expression and tolerance have surrendered their position on The Spear in the face of intimidation and bullying. In each case, an emotional justification has been offered. In many cases it has been accepted, for bullying is felt as intimidation not by the victim alone. I am not taking down The Spear from Inside Politics. What follows is an open letter and explanation as to why.
“We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind.” [Captain Beatty, Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451]
News24 has followed City Press editor Ferial Haffajee’s lead and removed from its website a picture of The Spear. Like Haffajee it too offered an explanation, in the form of a letter from its editor-in-chief. Yesterday, the Goodman Gallery announced it would no longer display The Spear, a decision accompanied by an appropriately grovelling statement. Some two weeks ago I put up a picture of The Spear on Inside Politics. Since then, it has received some 32 000 views – no doubt significantly less than the amount City Press and News24 received but substantial none-the-less. Certainly it would take some doing to get 32 000 people into the Goodman Gallery. So, in the spirit of open letters and heartfelt explanation, let me to offer a justification for my decision.
First, I like The Spear. I think it’s clever and insightful and, as with all good art, it manages in a single image to capture several powerful ideas in a compelling way. As such, it contributes to debate, it represents criticism – so fundamental to progress – and it is original, the hallmark of provocative art. For all these reasons I like it, as I do many other pieces of art. That does not mean everyone has to like it. Nor does it mean I’m right. It’s a choice. It is my taste. It is subjective. But it is mine.
Choice is a cornerstone on which any democractic order is built. Steve Biko chose to write what he liked. I choose to like this painting. Likewise, I choose to share it. I have not forced anyone to agree with me or to look at it. Anyone wanting to see it must seek it out. That is their choice. If they choose not to open the page; if they choose not to like it; if they choose to speak out against my decision, that is their right in turn. It is no weaker or stronger than mine. Both rights co-exist. And both are legitimate.
So here is that choice now. I offer it to you. Click on this link and see the painting. If you choose to look at it, with that choice comes a certain amount of responsibility. But that too is at your discretion – although how you exercise it will say much about your character. It is a right hard fought for and one to be cherished. Were this a totalitarian state I would be unable to offer you that choice. Indeed, you would be entirely unaware the choice existed at all, and the poorer for it. That is authoritarianism’s intended effect: to rob from you both choice and responsibility and to augment secrecy and uniformity in turn. It is the way of demagogues and dictators.
I choose to stand up for choice.
Second, it represents a threat and I choose to keep it up because of this. That threat is intolerance – intolerance of my rights and the rights of others, all of whom under our constitution are entitled to make the same choice I have made and to decide for themselves their position. Allow intolerance to remove that choice and one denudes freedom of its very worth. I will not side with those who are against freedom. They are an anti-democratic menace. And they do not have my rights or the rights of others at heart. Throughout history, through humanity’s darkest hours, this fight has been waged. Always freedom has emerged ultimately triumphant. If I can offer a small space where it can seek refuge in this latest assault on it, I shall do my part.
Third, I am a rationalist. I believe the evidence on which The Spear stands is valid. And I cannot wish it away. Agree with it or not and irrespective of the veracity of any accompanying argument, Jacob Zuma’s presidency has, in fact, been largely defined by his various sexual proclivities. To attack the author of that point, to evoke sensitivity, to interrogate motive at the expense of reason is to set up the ultimate Straw Man. In order to counter the opinion The Spear represents, one has to counter the evidence on which it is based. I have seen no such counter-argument proffered – yet several in support of it. Indeed, I believe such evidence cannot be presented; for, as I say, the painting is ambiguous, it passes no judgement on whether or not the focus on this aspect of Zuma’s presidency was justified or not. That judgement lies in the interpreting of it and that too is a choice. The painting merely notes that this focus has been defining. And of that there can be no doubt. Ironically, if anything, the painting’s influence alone proves the point. It has, through its infamy, justified its purpose. Those who disagree are welcome to present evidence to that effect. The court of public opinion and history will decide on its merits.
Fourth, I respect the Office of the President. That Office is an institution – an abstraction. It is incapable of emotion or hurt. It represents a set of ideals towards which the incumbent should aspire. The incumbent does not, on assuming Office, assume with it the values, principles and ideals it symbolizes. At best they can strive to uphold them. Hence the question: ‘Is this person fit to be President?’ Our President has demonstrated quite the opposite. By failing to protect and promote the principles his Office demands of him, acting instead deliberately to subvert them, it is he who has disrespected this Office and, with it, the South African constitution. In turn, he has violated his pact with the people. The Spear has come to represent a great damage that has been done to the Office of the President – our Office, for it belongs to the people of South Africa, not Jacob Zuma. The conflation of these two things has seen that institution dragged down in the public mind, from the idealistic heights at which it was once imagined, deep into the mud within which its current representative wallows. The painting should stay up as a reminder of the ideals for which the Office of the President stands and the failure of its incumbent to protect them.
Fifth, I understand dignity is determined by other people and whether or not one has it, dependent on their behaviour, as seen in through the eyes of others. It is for this reason someone in deep and fundamental distress might appear none-the-less dignified. Everyone has the right to protection from those things that might impose on them some circumstance which causes them to act in an undignified manner. But once those rights are secured, the individual concerned is solely responsible for upholding their own dignity. If anyone in South Africa enjoys the full effect of those rights, it is the president. In truth he enjoys an environment with special protection. What he has done with those rights is quite another matter. The painting in question has no impact on the president’s behaviour. His actions are his own, undertaken with the full protection of the constitution, and for them he must take responsibility. Ironically, it is his response to the painting that has devalued his dignity in the eyes of thousands. His behaviour in this regard is the sole cause behind any damage his reputation might have suffered.
Dignity is not an emotion. Emotions are private luxuries unique to an individual and not the duty of the state to regulate. It is for this reason the constitution does not prescribe happiness or outlaw regret, promote pleasure or define insecurity. Nowhere does the constitution mention an emotion for the very reason that, to try and dictate something so particular and varied, would be to reduce human nature to a robotic electronic impulse, uniform and stripped of every unique facet that renders it so wondrous. Embarrassment is an emotion. Likewise shame. The president is entitled to both. But in the privacy of his own conscious. They have no bearing on me, nor am I responsible for them. He is. And while I might demonstrate compassion and empathy for his distress, his discomfort does not outweigh whatever satisfaction I might or might not draw from the painting. My feelings on the matter are just as legitimate as his. Indeed, I might be the single, solitary soul in the country to feel that way. It matters not. My response is my own and legitimate regardless.
Sixth, I am a constitutionalist. Until a court of law tells me the painting is illegal for some reason I have not yet considered, I shall interpret the freedoms granted to me under the constitution as the way of things, just as Brett Murray might practice his art safe in the knowledge that his right to express his opinion is guaranteed by law. Until the law changes, it will guide my thinking on this matter. Those who do not like the law do not like freedom and, as I have said, history has repeatedly assigned them to the backwaters of human progress and enlightenment.
Seventh, I hold no opinion on whether the representation of a penis, or a hand, or a foot for that matter, is intrinsically offensive. A hand can just as easily be used to throttle a throat as a finger might be used to gouge out an eye, and each might thus represent some violent injustice. I do not regard the actual appendage as offensive, they merely form part of the human body and that, to my mind, is a beautiful thing. Attitudes, however, can be disturbingly ugly. What we do with our bodies says much about who we are; what we take offence at, much about what we value. I take offence at the president’s attitude, his values and behaviour. Whether I can see a representation of his penis or not makes no difference, my offence remains.
Eighth, flowing from the above, I understand metaphor, its power and purpose. A metaphor is an illustration of an argument, its value lies in its ability to bring together several thoughts in a single blow. The better the metaphor, the more powerful its impact. But it remains an allusion to something else. A metaphor in and of itself holds little weight. Animal Farm resonates as an idea because Stalinism breathed life into it. On its own, a pig walking upright is nothing more than a fanciful image. One can censor the image, not the reality to which it alludes. One can hide The Spear in the basement but the fuel on which its light burns will continue to flow uninterrupted, waiting for another vessel it might light up. And rest assured, those attempts to dampen down its flame will only ever ensure it bursts forth brighter still.
Ninth, while my right to choose enjoys equal weight with the right of every other citizen to exercise the same choice, what I get offended at does not. My offence at the president is not shared by many. That does not make it right or wrong. It simply makes it mine. Were it that offence was understood in this way much unnecessary indignation would be avoided. Alas.
It is true, there is a moral scale against which offence might be measured and those who take offence at embarrassment can be weighed against those who take offense at a gross human rights violation but not us; for the most part we make little use of any such moral gauge. In its place we have substituted deference and ‘respect’ is the word we use to evaluate offence. The argument goes we must respect everyone and every thought from first principles or risk offence; certainly it is demanded that we respect those in high office or risk our patriotism. What is actually meant is that we must be deferential to the beliefs of others and the positions they hold. Unquestioning. That, in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘personal belief’, all views carry equal moral weight – the right to hold an opinion confused with the idea that it is therefore intrinsically reasonable. That is a sure path not just to ignorance but obsequiousness and authoritarianism in turn. I will have none of it. I shall respect those things that have earned my respect. The Office of the President is worth my respect. The president is not.
At the heart of this issue are two general forms of offence: those offended at the painting and those offended at the abuse our constitutional values and principles have suffered at the hands of the morally outraged. What has happened is one form of offence has been elevated and legitimized over the other. That says much about us and those who would ostensibly claim to uphold that which is right and good. In turn, I am told I must be sensitive to the offence of others. Nowhere have I read any demand that others be sensitive to my offence and the offence of those who share my concerns. Why is that? It is because those whose emotions have been hurt carry bigger sticks than those whose principles have be violated. Emotional hurt lends itself to physical retaliation, principled offence to argument and reason. But the one thing tolerance should never accommodate is intolerance. And so I shall not accomodate it here. The picture stays.
This, then, is my thinking.
In conclusion a final pragmatic concern: When one capitulates before a bully, ironically, one surrenders one’s dignity in turn. Your standing in the eyes of those who fought by your side is reduced. There are those, capitulators themselves, who will suggest this sort of deference noble and sing the praises of the meek. It is not noble and submissiveness not praiseworthy. They are merely projecting onto others their own insecurity. To surrender any defence of a principle in the face of violence is to compromise the ideal itself, and the effect of that is to augment in the public mind that might is right and principles negotiable. They are not. Where those capitulators are leaders, their influence on others is all the more powerful and so, one would hope, their responsibility all the more heartfelt. If it is not, when they capitulate, their dignity in the eyes of their allies is all the more denuded; albeit their general affect all the more damaging.
We live in a country of heroes and villains. Of moral absolutism. And every day, in the blink of a morally outraged eye, any hero might become a villain, any villain a hero. Beware those who would advocate instantaneously to the public which is which. Very often they have little more than their own standing in mind. A hero is willing to sacrifice something for the greater good and often their status is confirmed only later in history’s ever-unfolding story, when a proper perspective is possible. In time we will be able to look back on this and determine fairly who was willing to sacrifice what, and who was willing to put principle ahead of pragmatism. Until then, I would withhold your judgement.
Gareth van Onselen
Editor: Inside Politics
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