Making treason out of reason

William Saunderson-Meyer says we're in the grip of a a deadening intellectual censorship

Political correctness is more stifling than religious dogma

In this computer age, the art of cursive writing has almost completely disappeared, even from the schoolroom. In this age of social media, the skill of what similarly could be called joined-up thinking, is also under threat of extinction.

For while the functioning of society is unaffected by clumsy block lettering, that is not true of crude and disjointed thinking. Fluid and dispassionate reasoning, along with the right to articulate one's views, are vital in an adaptable, evolving, modern democracy. 

They are how we navigate the dangerous maelstroms, rapids and rocks of angry and simplistic political dogmas. They are how we resist the siren songs of populist poseurs. 

South Africa, however, is gripped by a deadening intellectual censorship that makes treason out of reason. 

We are a nation that opted for a secular state because we believed this constitutionally to be the best way of accommodating our remarkable range of human diversity. Paradoxically, this is the same nation that now demands adherence to a creed of political correctness that is far more stifling than any religious dogma, in that it is both more ubiquitous and more widely enforced.

That the former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille is to be “probed” and then possibly expelled from her party for a contentious tweet is bizarre. It’s part of a pattern of DA self-mutilation that started a year or so back with the suspension and fining for a similar tweet, of one of its most capable MPs, Dianne Kohler-Barnard.

Let’s start with the heretical content of the tweet that might condemn Zille to the stake. Within the constraints to rhetorical subtlety afforded by 140-characters, Zille argued that while bad, colonialism also inadvertently provided tangible benefits such as infrastructure, as well as intangibles, such as the judicial system, from which we all now benefit. 

It may well be, to your mind, that this statement is outrageously insensitive to the sensibilities of those who were subjugated. It may well be, to my mind, that it is no more than an inconvenient truth.

It doesn’t really matter. Legally, unless her words arouse hatred to the degree that they incite violence, they are constitutionally protected. Although, scarily, that might change under the draconian provisions of the “hate speech” Bill. 

The issue, then, is the degree of offence – both real and that feigned for personal advantage – caused by her words. Here the witch-burning DA leadership is, on the face of it, on surer ground, for there is no doubt that Zille’s words have damaged the image of the party.

But how much? Among actual DA supporters, probably relatively few will be much alienated. 

After all, part of the liberal tradition to which the DA, in theory, lays claim, is an understanding of polemical nuance and a concomitant tolerance of views that differ from one’s own. Also, from past experience, they by now should be inured to Zille’s fondness for rearranging her dentistry with her own feet.

For much the same reasons, Zille’s tweet is unlikely to have a lastingly alienating affect on those who reasonably can be seen as potential supporters of the DA. The key word is “reasonably”.

It is difficult to think of any measured, thoughtful voter being more offended by Zille’s views than by the patently more inane, offensive and dangerous views of some other political leaders. 

It is risible to assert that Zille’s views on colonialism – actually more curious than controversial – are as intolerable as Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema “not yet” calling for the slaughter of whites. Or that they are more offensive than the litany of gratuitously insulting observations coming from a number of ANC office bearers towards Indian and coloured, as well as white, South Africans.

It is shameful that the DA, for the sake of an illusory short-term political advantage, is happy to collude in limiting democratic space. That it acquiesces so readily in the contraction of the arena where views are aired, interrogated and, if found lacking in substance, are dismissed, is sadly expedient.

Political discourse is a necessarily robust process. Unanimity of opinion is not only impossible in a democracy, it is also undesirable.

Consensus can only be arrived at through debate. To fake accord, to make a pretence at unanimity, is simply to store up fuel for a later explosion. 

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