Our enemies of open debate

Michael Cardo says Helen Zille is the latest person to fall victim to the undemocratic practice of "no-platforming"

The moral cowardice of ‘no platformers’

The undemocratic practice of “no platforming” has spread from university campuses to the chummy world of South African literary festivals.

To “no platform” individuals is to ban them from addressing an audience because they have expressed opinions or hold views that might be deemed offensive to a sector of society.

Often, their utterances are distorted by false reporting. As Winston Churchill once scowled, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on”.

In the age of social media, where fabrication and falsehood go viral, the truth remains in a permanent state of undress.

In 2016, the University of Cape Town withdrew an invitation to the Danish journalist Flemming Rose. He was due to deliver the annual T.B Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom. The free-speech advocate, who years before had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed, was traduced as an “Islamophobe”.

Earlier this year, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille was disinvited from the Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) and the Kingsmead Book Fair. She had been scheduled to talk about her best-selling autobiography, Not Without a Fight.

These two snubs followed a series of tweets by Zille on the legacy of colonialism, which were subsequently misrepresented as support for colonialism itself.

On the morning of 17 March, just before the FLF programme was due to go live, the festival director contacted Zille’s publishers. “I am sorry to do this to you”, she wrote, “but we are pulling the Helen Zille event from the programme”.

The organiser of the Kingswood Book Fair followed suit a few days later. She informed Zille’s office that there had been “an overwhelming call from our various stakeholders” to withdraw the politician from the programme.

Zille was sent packing. The festival director, having capitulated to pressure from nameless censors, signed off her email, without any hint of irony, “Courage Always”.

In fact, courage is a commodity in short supply among the do-gooders in kaftans who tend to oil the wheels of South Africa’s literary, cultural and artistic scene.

These self-appointed guardians of public virtue are so desperate not to upset politically correct sensibilities – and, when they are white, so conscious of their “whiteness” – that they rush like lemmings to silence dissident voices.

Taking offence on behalf of groups who enjoy victim status confers on them a refracted moral glory. It offsets their white privilege.

Last year, the (white) convenor of the Grahamstown Festival’s “Think!Fest” – billed as a “festival for your brain” – put a bullet through her own cerebrum when she censored an audience member during question time.

Whipping away the microphone from an impertinent interlocutor, she pronounced: “When white people speak, they take advantage of the fact that the Constitution allows them an extraordinarily huge amount of privilege”. According to her, the Constitution, “in which everybody has equal voice” did not “obtain in this moment, in this context, at this time”.

It is astonishing that such unconstitutional tripe could be uttered by someone who presumably regards herself as politically progressive. But such is the Stalinist mindset of the regressive left, its intolerance and dogmatism now channeled in service of a new tyranny: policing the borders of identity politics.

Bizarrely, thanks to social justice warriors, the effects of words, images and symbols have become synonymous with actual violence. They are said to provoke “microagressions” and trigger trauma. On campuses, students seek refuge from “violent” ideas and opinions that might challenge their own certitudes. The upshot is a stifling conformity of speech and thought and an oppressive orthodoxy around identity.

In the United Kingdom, even progressive LGBTI activists like Peter Tatchell and feminist icon Camille Paglia have been warned off campuses by swivel-eyed identitarians on the grounds of their alleged “transphobia”.

This is hardly an example that the organisers of South African literary festivals should follow. Freedom of expression doesn’t only apply when you approve of the views being aired. And no-one has the right not to be offended. Public discourse thrives on contestation and persuasion, not censorship.

If cultural practitioners, of all people, can’t understand that, then they really should sign up for some sensitivity training.

Michael Cardo is a DA MP.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.