Ernst Roets, AfriForum’s Head of Policy and Action, took to Twitter late last week to draw his followers’ attention to a vigorous debate on the Daily Friend arising from arguments advanced by Ivo Vegter on Tuesday and Friday, and claimed that, in sum, the IRR ‘values ideology over religion, or Liberalism over Christ’.
This immediately struck us at the Daily Friend as an excellent opportunity to deepen the debate about what South Africans believe and what they argue for. I wrote to Roets on Friday evening to invite him to contribute a piece for publication on ‘what you think, and why’, guaranteeing that we would use his contribution ‘as is’, and hoping that he would ‘give this invitation the serious consideration we have given to extending it’.
Roets responded early on Sunday. Though he declined the invitation, he explained why at some length.
I wrote back immediately to thank him for his ‘considered and detailed response’, promising that, while I would ‘respond more fully … [I wished] to convey my appreciation to you for setting out your position as you have done’.
A few minutes later, Roets posted his lengthy email on his Facebook page – an encouraging indication of his willingness to engage publicly.
What follows is the fuller response I’d promised him (contained in a reply to Roets last evening), with the paragraphs from Roets’ email of Sunday morning in bold.
Thanks, again, for responding at length. I think the debate in general, and your response in particular, raise several cardinal issues that cut to the heart of liberalism, and indeed the cultural wars you refer to.
I have attempted to address your various concerns point by point.
Dear Michael, I am sincerely grateful that you have taken the effort to write to me and also to invite me to participate in the discussion by writing for the Daily Friend.
- There is however a serious underlying issue here – and the crux of the matter as far as I am concerned – with regard to which my good friends at the IRR who have spoken about this issue have not yet illustrated comprehension. My issue is not with the IRR’s right to publish the ridiculing of God, Jesus, Christians, other religions and other religious people, but with the IRR’s decision to do so – on its own accord and on its own platform. The editorial in which this decision is defended goes to the core of my concern. If I might paraphrase into slightly less diplomatic language, the IRR’s line seems to be the following: Many of us are Christians – believing that the Bible is the Word of God and everything that goes with it. Many of us aren’t Christian, but religious in other ways. However, we are also liberals. That is why we have decided to ridicule God and mock his believers (including ourselves) on our own platform. We might not agree with what we publish, but we are liberals and that is why it is imperative that we make a mockery of God – you know… to allow for debate and discussion… because debate is very important.
MM: The Daily Friend didn’t think twice about publishing Ivo Vegter’s argument, as it developed a rationalist’s perspective on a topic of broad significance to South Africans; the ‘importation’ of Christianity into the region, its evolution, and its effects. It was considered and forthright. As Vegter was candid in his appraisal, it was obvious that many Christians and perhaps even members of other faiths would object. You are no doubt not alone in seeing it as an instance of ‘ridicule’ and ‘mockery’. But we are not convinced that a difference of opinion about religion – any more than about Marxism, climate change, Critical Race Theory, or BEE – is ridiculing or mocking to the extent that it raises fundamental questions. The truer mockery would have been declining the piece on the grounds that Christian detractors would be offended – because the only possible grounds for such a decision would have been our certainty that detractors would be unable to advance a defence, and that rather than give them the opportunity to prove otherwise, we would devalue the integrity of their faith by denying it.
Reason, like respect, is always best served in practice.
A text I often call on – I referred to it in my own piece on the Daily Friend on Sunday – is poet John Milton’s monumental defence of free speech, the Areopagitica of 1644. Here, he writes: ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.’
Subjecting every human notion to scrutiny is in itself a token of confidence in a pursuit of truth that has no pre-ordained or preferred outcome. But rendering discussion of certain ideas impermissible has the effect of suggesting they might be lacking, or need protection against reason, or that, were they exposed to argument, they would be the loser.
The notion that any idea must rely on special protection against scrutiny risks seeming not only an admission that it is vulnerable to inquiry, but a confession of its weakness.
This is why we argue that the worst mockery might lie in suggesting that the validity of one or another truth depends on its being shielded from scrutiny.
(Incidentally, Milton – whose thinking is by no means entirely secular – makes this telling point, too: ‘Yet if all cannot be of one mind, as who looks they should be? this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather than all compell’d.’)
- See the problem here? This is to say that the Christians and other theists at the IRR value their political ideology over their belief in God. It is to say that upholding the importance of debate is more important than the sanctity of God.
MM: It is false to suggest there is a choice between upholding liberal principles – less an ideological canon than a way of thinking predicated on the liberty of the individual and equality before the law – and asserting one or another kind of religious faith. Only the former determines membership of the liberal community, and the freedom of individuals to believe what they wish flows from their liberty as individuals.
- From the publication of these articles, it appears to me that the IRR doesn’t truly comprehend that we are being attacked in a culture war; a culture war in which the core of Western identity, Western history and Western beliefs are the target. The IRR has declared itself to be on the side of Western and Christian values in the recent past, yet the IRR is now ridiculing the values it claims to defend, and celebrating it!
MM: In fact, it is precisely because the ideals of freedom are everywhere contested that the freest argument is so pressing, worth defending and worth celebrating. I often think of the cautionary wisdom of Cushrow Irani, the long-time editor of India’s leading The Statesman newspaper, who warned Indira Gandhi over her determination to impose press censorship in the name of the national interest in the 1970s: ‘There are no freedoms so dangerous as those that are not exercised.’ As so many in the world seem willing to retreat from freedom into the closed world of a misguided ‘cancel culture’ moralism, boldly exercising freedom rather than prevaricating in the face of controversy is the surest counter.
- Even more startling, the IRR’s defence of Ivo Vegter’s mockery of God, Christians and religion in general, seen within the context of the IRR’s firing of David Bullard because his tweets about racism was “at odds with the principles of the IRR and the Daily Friend” leaves one flabbergasted. The IRR seems to believe that ridiculing God, Christians and religious people in general is not at odds with its principles, while ridiculing people on the basis of race is. The IRR is effectively claiming that offending people on the basis of race is unacceptable, but offending Christ, Christians and religious people in general is worth celebrating, because [of] liberalism.
MM: A few points. First, the IRR does not relish offensiveness of any kind – but that is ultimately a question of good manners, and the success or otherwise of advancing the cause of reason. On principle, the IRR cleaves to the conviction that there can be no right not to be offended in a free society – and essentially on the grounds spelled out under point 3, above.
Second, David Bullard: This is a subject on which we have been widely misunderstood. There is a distinction between our defending everyone’s right of free speech (and the record shows we have done so in the case of, well, David Bullard, but also Julius Malema and Andile Mngxitama), whether we agree with it or not, and our choosing to associate with speech that aligns with our values. Severing a relationship with an associate whose speech we reject because it does not align with our values is not a repudiation of the associate’s right to speak. Defending free speech is not the issue.
A fundamental liberal principle is that people are individuals, not classifiable by race. The fight for non-racialism is too important; you cannot claim to advance a liberal argument if you rely on an illiberal classification of people, which is what Bullard managed to do in exploiting the popular understanding of ‘K word’ (he claims he meant something else – but the fact is he didn’t say so). For this reason, offensiveness did not enter into the decision to sever his relationship with the Daily Friend.
Third, it is flawed to dismiss as offensive a challenge to one’s own truth on the grounds that the absence of unanimity is unbearably discomforting. On the contrary, tolerating offence is the necessary condition of celebrating liberalism’s conviction in the rights of individuals to believe, think and speak as they wish.
- I am all for public debate. I am also all for publicly engaging in the discussion on religion and debating with atheists. I am however not going to participate on the IRR’s platform on such discussion. The IRR is supposed to be on the right side of the history, but positioning itself as a platform and a voice for anti-Christianity and anti-religion is exactly the opposite. The response that the IRR also published a pro-religion article, or that we ought to remember that the IRR isn’t a religious institution “is neither here nor there”. Publishing a pro-religion article in response doesn’t “put the genie back in the bottle”. This just goes back to my core concern, which is that the IRR seems to value political ideology above faith in God; that the IRR decision makers seemingly believe in God only as far as God complies with the strict demands of their ideology. The ridiculing of God on an IRR platform “is so serious that only an unconditional retraction could suffice”.
MM: It is a liberal article of faith that, should there be any matter that could be thought of as a genie in a bottle, far better that it be let out and confronted. Belief in God is a matter for individuals whose liberty the IRR prizes above all else. It follows that there is no contradiction; conversely, it would be a contradiction to argue that free people should be compelled to choose.
- There is a larger debate to be had about how liberalism, despite its good intentions, has become the root of Western civilizational self-destruction – precisely through decisions such as these, but perhaps that is a debate for another day and another platform.
MM: Freedom is always difficult because it is always, by definition, a risk. Free people do not always make the best decisions, but the alternative is unfree people being denied the opportunity to make any. Making the case for individual liberty means having the courage of conviction and stamina of reason to address error, to persuade, to reflect, and be always willing to test the verities which, from time to time, sway whole masses of people to the point that they cede their choices to those who would rule or mislead them.
- The IRR is on the wrong side of the issue and on those grounds alone, a public response on a platform other than that of the IRR is justified.
MM: As I have hoped to explain, the IRR does not consider itself to be on one side or the other on this subject. But if there’s a risk, here, of seeming to be playing with words, this is not the rhetorical ducking of the issue it might seem to be. We have no reason not to entertain the claim that we have erred; other detractors have made similar claims in recent days. It is the argument itself that matters; shutting down the argument, on the other hand, would place the IRR squarely on the wrong side. To the no small extent that your contribution has provided the opportunity to deepen and widen the argument, I thank you for it.
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