Political correctness is supposed to protect me, but I reject its censorship

Freedom of expression and individual liberty are prerequisites for a free, open and equal society as promised in the constitution, yet this freedom is always in a precarious position in any society, especially in South Africa. It requires eternal vigilance.

South Africa requires people who are willing and able to defend the idea that no matter how unpopular or even deeply offensive one's expression might be - short of calling for violence - it must be allowed. Those who would see these values undone in the name of political correctness must be engaged on a consistent and nonracial basis.

Anti-freedom measures such as the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill - which will soon be tabled in parliament - embody this sad phenomenon of political correctness.

In violation of the proposed policy as it stands, there is a real danger that one could be sent to prison for up to three years for expressing such inexpressible ideas.

Political correctness is a phenomenon that was popularised in the US in the 1980s as a movement to change the use of language; to get people to "mind what they say". It was directed mainly at language that referred to women, black people, gay and disabled people - groups which (it is persuasively argued) were disempowered by a dominant white, male and physically able majority. The oppression these groups endured, it was said, was perpetuated in the very language used to describe them.

No one who cherishes individual liberty would have a problem with what the politically correct tried to achieve. They would welcome a greater pluralism in our approach to language, and agree that the language we use should not be determined only by the most powerful in society.

The line, however, is crossed when the methods used to achieve this pluralism of language become coercive. In the US, what began as a critique of language - an attempt to contest the use of language in public discourse - was transformed into an attempt to impose certain forms of speech and writing on others.

As political correctness moved from the margins to the mainstream of American intellectual life, certain views became inexpressible. It was implied that those who expressed these views were racists, sexists, or reactionaries, and that these opinions flowed from a hidden inner perversity, a desire to defend unequal power relations - or worse, active contempt for the oppressed - even when these views on their own merits did not amount to racism, sexism, or resistance to change.

In South Africa, we find ourselves in ideal territory for the politically correct to do battle. The moral ugliness of apartheid and the very real atrocities that accompanied it are such that a timorous critic of politically correct positions can be cowed into silence by the mere suggestion that their views represent a disguised defence of the old order and show an insensitivity to the plight of black people. The merits of the argument become less important than the suspected moral stance that is said to lurk behind it. White intellectuals are particularly susceptible to this kind of attack, since political correctness preys on white guilt.

Likewise, among their black counterparts, to go against the politically correct narrative - whether affirmative action, the national minimum wage or land expropriation without compensation - is to run the risk of being perceived as heretical, a traitor to the black cause. Yet many black South Africans have reservations about these policies.

Some have expressed concern about the unintended consequences of affirmative action on black self-esteem and self-reliance. I have explicitly, consistently and assertively made this argument, but in many cases, concerns such as these are expressed in a muted way.

I have never counted myself among those who express themselves in a muted way, especially when it comes to the plight of the unemployed. It is more important for the 9.4million unemployed to have jobs than to have well-paying jobs. For this we need a political environment that respects and promotes free enterprise and voluntarism between employers and employees.

For this view, on Twitter, I have occasionally been called unsavoury names - including being told I was someone who needed to be "quarantined" and "rehabilitated" on Robben Island - by defenders of political correctness. Another tweeter said that when whites are sent "back to Europe", I must be sent with them.

Ironically, the latter tweeter quoted Frederick Douglass in support of his position, when Douglass would likely stand with me on this topic. An ardent defender of freedom of expression, Douglass (a former slave who became a statesman, among his many other achievements, in the US) opposed the identity politics that today would be associated with political correctness.

In his last major speech, Douglass said: "I recognise and adopt no narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or modes of action. I would place myself, and I would place you, my young friends, upon grounds vastly higher and broader than any founded upon race or colour ... It was not the race or the colour of the Negro that won for him the battle of liberty. That great battle was won ... because the victim of slavery was a man and a brother to all other men ... and therefore should be recognised as an accountable being, a subject of government, and entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law, and everywhere else."

Liberty is non-negotiable, even for those who would call me unsavoury names. For the guardians of political correctness, I echo the protestant cleric Martin Luther, who, in resisting some aspects of Catholic dogma, steadfastly maintained: "I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

This was later paraphrased as: "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise."

Politically correct censors and intellectual fascists, do your worst!

Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Sunday Times on 06 May 2018
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