Cameron vs. Spud: A case of political correctness?

Eusebius McKaiser says we are slipping between two extremes

Is Spud: The Movie a naked exhibition of the "casual denigration of gays" as claimed by Justice Edwin Cameron? Is writer Annelie Botes a poster girl for brute racism? Or, are critics of Spud Milton (the title character in Spud) and of Annelie Botes simply pathetic proponents of political correctness who cannot see the virtue of showing off one's prejudices? Are we in danger of becoming a nation of thought police?

The truth is that we are slipping between two extremes in our public debate about race, class, culture, language and other identity conundrums. We wrongly think that we must either celebrate the uncritical expression of any and all convictions regardless of their content (and, so, pat Annelie Botes on the back for being "honest") or we must promote political correctness and discourage the expression of speech that offends or moves us in uncomfortable ways (and hence the claim by some that we'd be better off if an Annelie Botes kept her views to herself). 

Both of these positions harm society. We must reject them with equal contempt and carve out a third way. The alternative position is to uphold the entitlement of each of us to express our views publicly (subject only to outlawing clear cases of hate speech) while, at the same time, developing a language framework that facilitates interpersonal dialogue and debate so that we can allow our speech to be up for interrogation by others. Let's unpack each of these claims.

First, it is not inherently virtuous to be honest. The fact that someone might be a racist and that the subtext of their work - say, for example, a film or television series or book - sustains a racist ideology is not something to be commended just because they dared to put it on public display. It was bizarre to see even black critics, who normally are quick off the mark in pointing out instances of anti-black racism, thanking Annelie Botes for her "honesty."

You should not get moral discount for sincerity. We do not think a rapist or murderer is any less of a rapist or murderer just because they shout out in court, "It was me, Your Honour! I confess!!" Their actions remain morally odious despite their truthfulness and we have a social interest in sanctioning what they did.

What we should be proud of, however, is the fact that an Annelie Botes has the space in this country to express her views openly. But that should by now have been a pedestrian fact of living in a liberal society in which freedom of expression is securely entrenched. It is telling that we regard the exercise of this right as "brave". This indicates the sad reality that norms like free speech are not yet an uncontested part of the grammar of post-democratic South Africa. 

I am very comfortable with a writer depicting their views on homosexuality as they wish or with wearing their racism on their sleeve. But I refuse to regard these actions as praiseworthy. The entitlement to do so simply flows from the constitutional vision which we have adopted. So no brownie points from me for Annelie Botes' "honesty", I'm afraid. 

That we should be comfortable with letting each other speak and emote openly about sensitive issues does not, however, mean that engaging each other critically is inappropriate. We must distinguish between political correctness (which is undesirable) and critical engagement (which is the lifeblood of public discourse). Here is an example of how to strike the balance.

It cannot be true that we only want films that portray gay teenagers as heroes worshipped by their classmates who all wish they were gay too. Or, worse still, it cannot be the case that we desist from inventing a character that refers to his gay friend as a "faggot". 

That kind of political correctness belies reality. It will thus also result in art works that are premised on lies. The consequence will not be a safer world for gay people but a world in which homophobic violence and prejudice are never effectively engaged. It is not in the interest of a vulnerable group to be pseudo-protected in a fit of political correctness. 

For another thing, the role of writers, film producers and artists more generally surely is to portray the world as they see it. Sincerity on the part of an artist is a necessary ingredient of good art. Anything else is socially manufactured not unlike jingles composed by pro-Mugabe musicians for propagandistic airing on national broadcast channels. 

Political correctness is therefore both counter-productive (since it thwarts social dialogue) and morally flimsy (because it undermines authenticity).

But the opposite of political correctness is not immunity from moral criticism. Justice Edwin Cameron is not being illiberal in criticising Spud. All art is subject to both artistic and moral criticism (and praise). We may or may not agree that Spud condones homophobia but having that conversation cannot count as disrespecting a producer's right to free expression. After all, one can freely express a viewpoint that is morally pernicious. We must separate the producer's right to produce the work from our right to engage their work's impact on an issue as important as the plight of black lesbians who are raped because they are not heterosexual. A defensible claim within the liberal rights paradigm can be developed to the effect that artists should guard against possible negative consequences that might result from their work. 

My aim, however, is not to settle here the disagreement about Spud but rather to point out that we must both be comfortable with rejecting political correctness, for the reasons offered, while being equally comfortable with the critical engagement of our views by others (regardless of whether these views are stated in a letter to a newspaper or through the seemingly innocent medium of an art form). 

It is disappointing that the producer of Spud, Ross Garland, responded with thoughtless threats of legal action rather than displaying intellectual and ethical fortitude by engaging the actual criticisms that had been levelled against his work. Like many of us, Garland conflates political correctness with legitimate debate about the impact of a work of art and of the role of the artist in society. 

What does this means for ordinary folk sitting around the dinner table or the tea room at work? We should not hastily censor ourselves when we wish to express a viewpoint that might be deemed politically incorrect. However, when we do take our viewpoint to the marketplace of ideas, we must be prepared for critical debate about the correctness of our convictions. 

We should therefore stop choosing between the extremes of political correctness and the uncritical assertion of our convictions. Those two choices represent a dangerous false dichotomy. A healthy third way to strive towards this year is the free expression of our most deeply held convictions, subject to tough, critical dialogue with others, yet without hastily pulling the freedom of expression-card. Let's hope that Spud Milton's teachers include this lesson in his 2011 curriculum.

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics and also hosts a weekly politics talk show on Talk Radio 702. An Afrikaans version of this article first appeared in Beeld.

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