Respect And The Right To Be Heard: Some Reflections

In this brief Charles Simkins reflects on the state of play around questions of legitimate speech in contemporary society.
Respect  And  The  Right  To  Be Heard: Some Reflections


We have noted, with great concern, a global trend towards illegitimate restrictions on free speech. For instance, the Atlantic reported on 1 May that:

For more than 30 years, the critic Camille Paglia has taught at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Now a faction of art-school censors wants her fired for sharing wrong opinions on matters of sex, gender identity, and sexual assault.

“Camille Paglia should be removed from the UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of colour,” an online petition declares. The students behind the petition want her banned from holding speaking events or selling books on campus. In their telling, her ideas “are not merely ‘controversial,’ they are dangerous.”

Camille Paglia is certainly controversial. She is well known, having burst on to the United States cultural scene in the 1990s with the publication of her book Sexual personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson[1]. She is a child of the 1960s, a straight speaker, a highly original feminist, and her approach to sexuality is far from conforming to conventional ‘heteronormative’ standards. Talks by her and debates with her can be found on YouTube. Some will find them vibrant, stimulating and sympathetic. Others will dislike them intensely.

The Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) believes that there may very well be some legitimate restrictions on what people should say, and we have discussed them here and here. I have never seen Paglia violating these restrictions. So what is going on here?

There are two related problems. The first is the assumption that hearing or seeing something which you may dislike or object to, harms you.

A while ago, when student financing was a hot button issue, I received a last minute invitation to a workshop on the topic from another NGO. They had had a liberal speaker but she had pulled out, not wanting to ‘police black pain’, and they wanted another one. “Well”, I said, “I would like to help, and I am willing to take my chances with black pain, but you have given me a topic involving the terms ‘intersectionality’ and ‘positionality’ and I am not competent to talk about them.” “Come”, they said, “and talk about what you want.” So, I went, and I was greatly encouraged. Despite the recent arson, stone-throwing, and teargassing on campus, I was not howled down, or subjected to disrespect. There was a Q and A – some questions wanted further information, some comments were critical. That was exactly as it should have been. Most South African students know what real pain is, and are tougher than many of their US counterparts.

In fact, hearing an argument which you initially hear with displeasure, may help you. It may stimulate you to work out your own view in more detail, as you seek to counter it. Or some part of you may admit that you had never thought about it, and that you now have to take it into consideration.

The second, and more serious, problem occurs when people, on hearing an argument, cease to ask the question ‘is this true or is this false’ and ask ‘is the speaker a friend or an enemy’. This used to be known as the ad hominem logical fallacy (better, the ad personam fallacy, to remove the gender restriction). But it can also arise from a radical scepticism about the concept of truth itself – that there is no truth, only power. In various ways, the world is battling with this scepticism at the moment, partly as a result of the influence of social media, and partly as a result of the rise of populist politics. The main alternative view of truth is that it corresponds to fact. ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.

As George Orwell saw so clearly, a society in which a disregard for truth or scepticism about it, has taken deep hold is in a lethal state. It crushes dissent – the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must[2] - and oppresses. It is more likely to go to war or commit genocide. Free speech is necessary not only to advance to a better world, but to prevent retrogression to a worse one.

With these observations in mind, I turn to two incidents which have bothered the HSF recently.

The Honourable Floyd Shivambu MP and land reform

Parliament set up the Ad Hoc Committee to Amend Section 25 of the Constitution in February 2018. Once up and running, it called for oral and written submissions from the public, and the HSF chose to make a written submission (to read, click here). In summary, our view is that a constitutional amendment is not necessary to drive land reform forward. Rather, attention should be paid to amending the Expropriation Act, clarifying objectives, strengthening institutions and increasing financial support.

We were able to apply to make a presentation to the Committee as well. We did so. Our application was accepted and Francis Antonie (Director), Anton van Dalsen (Legal Counsellor) and l (Head of Research) went to Parliament on6 September 2018 for the purpose.

One of the MP questions came from Mr Shivambu:

Why should we listen to three old white men?

To which the answer is:

1. Section 9(3) of the Constitution provides that:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

Section 9(5) provides that

Discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair.

The Committee invited submissions and offered us the chance (which it did not have to do) to make a presentation, so that it cannot be established that it is fair to discount our views on the grounds that the presenters were old, white and male. Section 9(3) establishes our right to be heard on the same basis as anyone else. No more, and no less.

2. Section 59 (1) (a) of the Constitution requires that:

The National Assembly must facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees.

Implicit in this provision is the duty of MPs to apply their minds to inputs from the public. To hear and consider an argument does not imply agreeing to it. It does require having reasons to agree or not to agree. In the event, the Committee decided not to agree to our argument and Parliament in December 2018 on the Committee’s advice decided to amend Section 25, as it was fully entitled to do. Litigation followed, but unless it is successful in overturning Parliament’s decision, the decision stands.

Yet, the process is not complete. A second committee was created to formulate an amendment, but it could not complete its work in the remaining life of the Fifth Parliament. Any further action will have to be taken by the Sixth Parliament. We do not know what the outcome will be. Possibly, it will not be too far from what we have advocated.

To his credit, the Chair intervened and protected us when Mr Shivambu asked his question, rebuking him and stopping the clock while the matter was discussed. We appreciated that, as much as we were annoyed by Mr Shivambu.

Professor Ismail Lagardien and National Health Insurance

To mention Professor Lagardien and Mr Shivambu in the same brief is not to imply that in any way that they are in any way similar. Mr Shivambu is a street smart politician, while Professor Lagardien is an academic with a distinguished record. Mr Shivambu is often coarse, while Professor Lagardien is unfailingly urbane and polite. Mr Shivambu often asserts without evidence, while Professor Lagardien makes arguments and his columns in Business Day are well worth reading.

But I take issue with his column entitled Ideology blinding some to the merits of NHI [National Health Insurance][3]for the following reasons:

1. The term ‘ideology’ needs to be used very carefully. It means different things to different people. For some it refers to any set of beliefs about political, economic and social organization. For Marxists, it means something quite different. It refers to ‘false consciousness’, the systematic obscuring of how societies actually work in the interest of the ruling class. This definition has been influential among non-Marxists as well and deserves some discussion.

Broadly speaking, there are two versions of the false consciousness concept. In the weak version, the ruling class (the bourgeoisie in capitalist society) seeks to promote views that they themselves know to be false. Think of cigarette companies which know perfectly well that smoking damages health in serious ways, but who seek to obscure this fact in the interest of selling their products. Or fossil fuel companies which know perfectly well that the use of their fuel releases carbon dioxide and warms the planet, but cast doubt on climate change. In the strong version, the bourgeoisie believes its own propaganda. Indeed it cannot but believe it. It simply cannot see straight.

It is a question for another day whether Marx believed the weak or the strong version, or not, or whether he believed either version at some time in his life. But what is certain that both versions have been present within Marxism as a movement.

The key problem with all this is Marx’s account of what might be called ‘true consciousness’. That account leads to predictions which have simply not happened, so ‘true consciousness’ turns out to be another form of false consciousness. And then, the whole approach fails. The real tragedy lies in the damage legitimized by the strong version of the false consciousness thesis. For it leads to the fatal transition from ‘is this argument true’ to a belief in the complete incorrigibility of classes opposed to socialism, and sets the scene for gulags, deportations, starvation, mass killings, re-education camps and other horrors which so deeply scar the history of the territories of the former Soviet Union and China and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the world.

Of course, the mild Professor Lagardien does not want to liquidate anyone. But there is a faint echo of the arrogance of the strong view in his argument. I, Largadien, being of clear mind and sound judgment can see merits in the NHI, but you ‘free market fundamentalists’, blinded by ideology, cannot.

2. The term ‘free market fundamentalism’ needs to be unpacked. Fundamentalists, in modern usage, are people who will not change their minds, no matter what. So, free market fundamentalist must be those who insist that markets should always and everywhere be the basis of economic organization. The HSF is not a free market fundamentalist organization. We are well aware of a large economics literature about when and why markets fail, and what might be done about these failures. We are also aware of a literature about why and when states fail, and what might be done about it. And we are aware of the case for leaving markets alone when they do not fail. Consider, for example, the huge drop in the real price of computing power over the last 50 years which could not have been achieved without market processes.

In particular, we are aware of the complexity of the health systems and health economics literature, and the many ways in which both markets and states can fail. Moreover, in any literature there are settled issues and current controversies, and the health literature is particularly rich in the latter.

3. Here we come to the crux of the matter. The HSF holds to three propositions, which can be held simultaneously without contradiction:

(a) The World Health Organization’s goal of quality and affordable health care for all is desirable. It is.

(b) The South African health care system requires urgent attention. It does. Private health care is too expensive, and the public system fails in serious ways, leading to much avoidable suffering.

(c) National Health Insurance, as currently envisaged by the government, is not the best way forward. For accounts of why we hold this position, click here and here.

The government would have us believe that accepting (c) means a rejection of (a), and therefore a callousness about those relying on the public sector in (b). This is not true. There are as many ways to (a) as there are countries. The point made by former IMF head Michel Camdessus and cited by Professor Lagardien, that all the evidence, and not just beautiful models, needs to be considered is true, but irrelevant. The real problem is that the government has been driven by a system vision rather than an outcome vision.

We expect things to change. System changes have to be negotiated, as they were at the time the UK National Health System was introduced. No health system can survive unless it is based in sufficient consensus. As Keynes once remarked in response to a suggestion that he was inconsistent, he said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” So we will be willing to refine and change our views as the debate develops[4].

Conclusion: the Helen Suzman’s expectations about respect and the right to be heard

 We particularly dislike two groups of people: the enraged, pouring out invective without justification (the dark side of social media) and the paranoid, describing us as a part of a global conspiracy seeking to overthrow the South African government and harm the interests of the South African people. In fact, we are a small organization employing about a dozen people with the goals of promoting constitutional democracy, and rational social and economic policy, which has to struggle to raise funds to carry out research and litigation.

We seek to persuade and, because we are human and fallible like everyone else, we are persuadable by convincing argument in turn. We are prepared to take unfashionable positions. Helen Suzman was in a minority of one on many issues in Parliament between 1961 and 1974, yet she was more nearly right than all the other MPs. We are respectful, and expect others to respect us. Where we have a right to be heard, we insist on it, a right we readily acknowledge for others. We do not intend to cringe or succumb to bullying. Helen Suzman laid it on in fighting for what she regarded as right and against what she regarded as wrong. And we are happy warriors too.

Charles Simkins
Head of Research

[1]Yale University Press, 1990

[2] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

[3] Business Day, 21 August 2019

[4] To read our most recent submissions to the Department of Health on the National Health Insurance Bill, 2018 and the Medical Schemes Amendment Bill, 2018 see here: