Hearing ideas you don’t like is one of the costs of living in a free society - IRR

Marius Roodt says bad ideas are like mushrooms, they thrive in the dark

Comment by Marius Roodt, head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) at a briefing today co-hosted with AfriForum on why the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, 13 February 2019

The IRR believes that there should be no limits on what you are allowed to say or think except where such ideas threaten physical harm against another person.

It is dangerous that South Africa has imported from abroad a culture that seeks to protect people from things they don’t like to hear and savaging any person who holds an opinion that goes against the prevailing view.

This often leads to a situation where a small group of politicians, activists and journalists effectively decide what you are allowed to say or think.

We at the IRR advocate against all threats to freedom of speech and all attempts to force ‘group-think’ in business, academia, the media, civil society, and politics. A diversity of views is important, and all should be heard, including those that may offend others.

We must remember that offense is largely subjective. For example, many Christians would be offended if one questioned their belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Although such a statement will cause offence to some (even most) Christians, should it be banned? Our answer is no.

Part of the cost of living in a free society is being prepared to hear ideas that you don’t like. Freedom of speech is an important freedom, and must be protected fiercely. But, like any freedom, this is not an absolute freedom. Freedom of speech does not, as the Constitution states, extend to inciting violence against others, or propaganda for war, or advocating hatred against a person based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.

But it is better for bad ideas to be out in the open, rather than hidden. Bad ideas are like mushrooms, they thrive in the dark, away from light. The speech and ideas of, for example, Black First Land First, should not be forced into hiding. They should be displayed in the full illumination of our press and social media, and thus shown for the awful ideas that they are.

But it is not only hateful speech and bad ideas which we must steel ourselves to resist banishing to the darkened corners of society – the same is true for symbols.

There has been much talk around banning the old South African flag, which was the national flag from 1928 to 1994. Those in favour of not banning it argue that it was the country’s flag before apartheid (ignoring that institutionalised racial discrimination was common in South Africa before 1948) and it represents heritage rather than that evil system. By the same token, there are those that say the old flag is only a symbol of oppression and totalitarianism. Both sides have valid points. But banning the old flag will simply give it power it does not deserve. And banning it is unlikely to make those who think it is acceptable to wave it more likely to see the error of their ways. And just because you are allowed to wave the old flag, does not mean that one should. People should be aware of the offence such symbols can cause, but those symbols should not be banned.

And many flags or other symbols represent oppression and tyranny. A number of migrants came to South Africa during the Cold War, from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, fleeing the Soviet jackboot. To these people, the hammer and sickle represents tyranny. But should it be banned? Many would say it should, but in a free society we should argue it should not.

These symbols, like certain speech, may cause offense but they should not be banned.

Free speech is an important right, and it is a cornerstone of all free and open societies, and it is a right that must be protected fiercely. And free speech includes the right to offend. But every free society should also strive to be a decent society. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean that you should.

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. Stand with the IRR by clicking here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).