The folly of our hate speech laws was demonstrated by recent court cases against Julius Malema, for threats and insults, and Jon Qwelane for condemning homosexuality. In both cases the hate laws have only stirred up animosity and given publicity to the accused.
Julius Malema has gifts of showmanship and political organisation. Otherwise he is a tedious figure with nothing original to say or offer. He adorns his body alternatively in the battledress of a toy soldier or in expensive European clothes and Gucci accessories. He thrives on the publicity from his loud and outrageous statements against other people and races. Mainly he should be ignored. If he does explicitly incite people to violence against named targets, he should be charged under common law.
The case of Jon Qwelane is more pertinent. It has come up before various courts in the past twelve years and has now come up in the Constitutional Court. Qwelane is one of our few interesting journalists and never shies away from controversy. In 2008, in the Sunday Sun, he wrote an article entitled “Call me names, but gay is NOT okay”. It condemned homosexuality but did not incite violence against homosexual people. It compared intercourse between people of the same sex with intercourse between humans and animals. My own feelings on homosexuality are clear, and are the same as those of most people in most ages: it’s a fact of life, accept it. We must give full legal rights to homosexual union. But we must allow free speech on the matter.
I find the term “gay” offensive. It seems to mock homosexuality and suggest there is something frivolous about it. (It also robs us of a nice word meaning “cheerful” or “lighthearted”, so that when we use it in this way there are sniggers.) The problem with the word I use instead, “homosexual”, is that is it clumsy and contrived. This is because it was only invented in the 19th Century. Before then there was no word for a homosexual person, and this is because nobody bothered about homosexuality. Nobody cared whether you had sexual intercourse with a man or a woman. Armies down the ages, from Alexander’s Greeks to Hitler’s Nazis, were rife with homosexuality, often openly displayed, and nobody cared. This is not because ancient people were always tolerant; they were fiercely intolerant towards certain minorities, including left-handed people, who were branded as “sinistra”.
You can comb the four gospels of Jesus and you will find no mention of homosexuality. Jesus didn’t care. He had more important things to deal with. Paul did, but Paul was not the Messiah. (I am an atheist, and can be objective about this.) For most of history, homophobia was unknown. But there were times, for mysterious reasons, where it flared up. The 19th and 20th centuries were such. I don’t know why. Today in Islamic countries and in some African countries, homosexuality is illegal and may carry the death penalty.
Qwelane’s article was said to be “hurtful”. But if it were illegal to write or say anything that might hurt certain people, almost everything would be illegal, including jokes, plays, articles, novels, and histories. Consider a shy, trembling little girl who is bullied at school. If you said in public that she was “fat and ugly”, it would cause her incomparably deeper hurt than anything Qwelane said about anybody. It might even kill the little girl; it might lead her into some eating disorder that could end her young life. But I can’t see that it should be illegal to call anybody fat and ugly. There is a far more effective deterrent than the law against making such hurtful comment, and that is social censure. Humans are desperate for approval, and if you called a little girl fat and ugly, you would be annihilated with disapproval. You would be stigmatised for life, a punishment worse than any court’s decision.
Qwelane’s hate speech case reached Concourt last month. His advocate, Mark Oppenheimer, said that under the hate speech laws the Bible would be banned because of its violence and bigotry. True. The Bible, by far the most influential book ever written, is filled with bloodshed, prejudice, vengeance and sin. It is also, in the King James version, a literary masterpiece.
The hate speech laws should be removed from our statutes. The common law will deal with real crimes of speech, and social disapproval will stop most hurtful words in public. I don’t condemn Qwelane for anything he has written or said about homosexuality. I’m just puzzled and curious. I’d like to ask him why it bothers him so much that some people are attracted to their own sex. So what? What harm does it do to you, Jon?
Private Eye, the UK satirical magazine, wrote fictitious letters by Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, to “Dear Bill”. Denis expressed his views on other people’s sexual preferences like this: “What a man does with his wedding tackle is his own affair.” My sentiments exactly.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR