Sisulu and Socrates

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Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/vectors/socrates-bust-portrait-3d-greek-6274858/

A great debate is raging in the democracies of the world – and I include South Africa in this company – about the freedom to air one’s views in plain speech. What we used to call freedom of speech.

The parameters of the debate are well delineated and fall under the general rubric of “woke”, an attitude of mind that is ever alert to injustices, especially racism and gender issues.

Speech, including legal but harmful speech that might cause offence, it is argued, must therefore be cancelled, banned or censored. Speakers, often solid academics and writers whose somewhat tendentious opinions were once thought worthwhile listening to, are being regularly “non-platformed” as a result, often at the last moment on university campuses, with the connivance of university heads. No subject is off limits. Gender, race, history – all are fertile ground for talks and lectures that could unacceptably bruise young minds. Safer not to host the controversial speaker, goes the mantra. Reputation is also no barrier to being “cancelled”. Even famous writers like Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who believes a woman or a man are biologically not able to change from one to the other, have had lecture circuit invitations withdrawn.

The gender issue has become a hot woke potato, triggering slanging matches during the current round of nightly debates between candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister. Front runners like Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss have been under pressure to “declare” where they stand on the thorny issue of “self-identifying” as male or female, binary or non-binary, and being known as “they” rather than he or she. Mordaunt opposes gender self-identification, a form of individual licence which allows anyone who is self-gendered to enter previously off-limit spaces, like women’s or men’s lavatories. So entrenched has the issue become institutionally, that even the National Health Service no longer refers to “women” in some NHS trusts, but “persons with wombs”.

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The British government has been so worried about the perceived woke assault on free speech, that it introduced an online safety bill designed to control “legal but harmful” content, and at the same time define a separate approach to guaranteeing free speech on Britain’s university campuses. It is proving incredibly difficult to implement.
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The British government has been so worried about the perceived woke assault on free speech, that it introduced an online safety bill designed to control “legal but harmful” content, and at the same time define a separate approach to guaranteeing free speech on Britain’s university campuses. It is proving incredibly difficult to implement.

The final stages of the online bill have been attacked by critics from all parties, who argue it will infringe on freedom of speech, with online “censors” inevitably inclining towards subjective interpretations of what constitutes “harmful” speech. One influential Tory MP, Kemi Badenoch, herself an immigrant from Nigeria, insisted the bill was in “no fit state to become law”. She added: “I will ensure the bill doesn’t overreach. We shouldn’t legislate for hurt feelings.”

As for government stamping out censorship on campuses, the pushback from woke academia has been unsurprising. Five Oxford colleges have grouped together to create a “framework” to “effectively and respectfully tackle difficult discussions” on race and gender. The “Oxford Free Speech forum” is being led by a former LGBT leader, as well as a Rhodes Must Fall movement cofounder.

British society is mirroring the effects of woke in interesting ways, using language that South Africans like Lindiwe Sisulu will recognise. For example, Leeds School of Contemporary Dance is set on “decolonising” its curriculum, with classical ballet effectively being cancelled. Ballet is described by the school as an “elitist white art form” built around “white European ideas and body shapes”.

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This brings me to the strange case of Sisulu and Socrates, who have become unlikely bedfellows in this fight to speak your mind, albeit from diametrically opposed corners.
What do Lindiwe Sisulu and Socrates have in common, beyond a shared “S” in their names?
Not much, you might imagine, but in fact for different reasons they have emerged as outspoken champions of free speech. Ironically, in Sisulu’s case, it has to be said, but strangely apposite.
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This brings me to the strange case of Sisulu and Socrates, who have become unlikely bedfellows in this fight to speak your mind, albeit from diametrically opposed corners.

What do Lindiwe Sisulu and Socrates have in common, beyond a shared “S” in their names?

Not much, you might imagine, but in fact for different reasons they have emerged as outspoken champions of free speech. Ironically, in Sisulu’s case, it has to be said, but strangely apposite.

Let’s take Sisulu first.

Lindiwe Sisulu is a seasoned, many-decades veteran of the political landscape in South Africa, very used to operating at the highest levels of government.

But recently she was carpeted by President Ramaphosa for employing a pejorative and offensive expression which many of us would regard as utterly abhorrent and harmful speech. The woke brigade would definitely non-platform any speaker who used such an expression. But surprisingly, Sisulu, who is as woke as they come and on message, refused to apologise or withdraw, instead defending her graphic expression as one commonly employed by black people in America, and therefore not so abhorrent. Indeed, she went even further and insisted it accurately describes black judges dutifully imposing law in the context of South Africa’s constitution, which she maintains has colonial overtones.

Lindiwe Sisulu’s thesis is that the law and the constitution are basically a “colonial” construct still, and that black judges harbour ongoing colonial tendencies; they are blacks with “colonised minds”, and they inadvertently stand in the way of true African liberation.

Sisulu said, “I asked [Ramaphosa] why should that be so offensive, and I pointed out that I had received a colonial education for a better part of my life I consciously struggle to unlearn.” [sic] She tells Ramaphosa it is a “lived” experience that enables her to unshackle herself from the colonial tropes she has imbibed since being at school and thereafter.

In seeking to “unlearn” her colonial education, Lindiwe Sisulu raises an important question, namely, which part of it was “colonial”, and what does she mean exactly? Is it, in fact, feasible to “unlearn” the kind of education Sisulu would have enjoyed at her old exclusive school of Waterford, modelled originally back in the 1960s on a British or Natal private establishment like Michaelhouse or Hilton College, and which followed a common curriculum of the day, largely based on the Enlightenment idea that reason requires knowledge, and that reasoning skills are necessary to succeed in any society?

This is a universal ideal, in fact, and one may find in all the world’s schools, from the best to the worst, an emphasis on reading the classics of the country in question – including modern classics – debating skills, language, history, geography, biology and the other sciences, including mathematics.

Latin used to be a requirement in order to study law and advance in the civil service – less so today, but legal systems everywhere in Europe, Africa, North and South America, India, Pakistan, Australia, etc, are larded with Latin expressions, and Latin is still taught at many schools.

Lindiwe Sisulu’s own grandfather, Albert Dickenson – a white man, an Eastern Cape magistrate and civil servant of some standing, born and educated in England – would undoubtedly have studied Latin at a level enabling him to read some of the classics in the original. His learning allowed him to adjudicate criminal and civil cases on the basis of a body of law centuries in the making, imported into South Africa from Holland to begin with, subsequently enhanced by law makers in Cape Town during British colonial days, and so on through the years of Union, and after – through the post-apartheid decades – right to the present day.

And the law is cosmopolitan as well. Judges in England and Wales do, occasionally, refer to decisions in other Commonwealth countries (mainly Australia, New Zealand and Canada). They do so in developing areas of the law, and not because they like the look of them, but because (in those developing areas) those countries have gone a bit further than the courts in Britain have. Nothing prevents judges in member countries of the Commonwealth, including South Africa, from consulting legal precedent across the board, in other words. In South Africa’s case, the matter may, however, be complicated by the fact that South African law has many of its roots in Roman Dutch law.

Kempton Park bequeathed a new constitution for the new South Africa. There is a distinction to be made between the laws and the constitution. Most constitutions stay unchanged, because they don’t need to change (or to change very often). But “everyday” laws (where countries do occasionally cite each other’s laws) do tend to be constantly developing.

Sisulu says we need to “unlearn” the colonial context and mentality – the baggage, as it were – that the law carries with it. The law needs to be re-interpreted by a new generation of lawyers and judges – or Africanised, in a word. Or popularised, if you like. We must “cancel” those aspects of the law that offend us. Lindiwe Sisulu is nothing if not fashionably woke in this matter.

What she seems to be saying is that the laws in South Africa, because they are “colonial”, are also wrong for South Africa, regardless of whether they are “colonial” or not. But would not going for Africanisation by simply changing the judges, asking them to interpret the existing laws through an African prism, be asking for trouble and compound the problem, since the laws would be considered wrong for the country to start with? One flawed system would be simply swapped for another.

Putting it another way, the best way to get the laws which are right for South Africa is surely to repeal and replace, or to modify, what doesn’t work at the moment.

One can see where Lindiwe Sisulu is coming from, however. She believes this “imported” colonial law was – and remains – like a hydra-headed squid, a central instrument of oppression, a carry-over from apartheid days, a means to defang legitimate critics, even within the ANC itself.

In broad-brush terms, her argument resonates with much of what we see happening in the UK and other countries in Europe, where determined efforts are being made to “decolonise” assumptions about exhibits in museums and art galleries. Portraits of worthies from, for example, the 18th century in the National Gallery, now inform us whether the mansion in the background was built with the proceeds of slavery. The National Trust, which is the custodian of Britain’s stately homes heritage, is also very big on decolonising the history of these buildings, careful to remind visitors of the blood price, so to speak.

Fortunately, and just to show that Sisulu’s challenge is not confined to our own times, we additionally now have the father of rational debate, Socrates, to show us how to cope with woke (perhaps) in a serendipitously timed new play in London. Its two-month run was sold out in minutes, but I managed to get a ticket.

It is entitled Cancelling Socrates and is written by Howard Brenton, a celebrated British playwright whose previous plays include Goethe’s Faust, The arrest of Ai Weiwei and Lawrence after Arabia.

Based on Plato’s accounts of the time, Cancelling Socrates is a provocative account of an uncompromising voice in dangerous times. Socrates found himself in exactly the same position in ancient Athens more than 2 000 years ago as, say, JK Rowling might find herself today – “cancelled” as an invited speaker to a modern university campus, merely because some students might be “offended” by her views. Socrates was an irritating gadfly in his day, always asking inconvenient questions in search of Truth; his method forms the basis of the famous “Socratic dialogue”.

Plato’s dialogues, laid out as play scripts, show Socrates teaching even the most stubborn of his audience that their knowledge is not as certain as they think. When they protest, he insists that he himself knows nothing: infuriating and disarming in equal measure.

Eventually, the common people, the hoi polloi, weary of the constant whine in the marketplace of this social gadfly, decide to “cancel Socrates”, and by popular vote the law is interpreted in such a way that he is found guilty of disrespecting Zeus and the other Greek gods, and he is sentenced to a death of his choosing. Socrates finds himself awaiting dawn in the death cell, when his warder tells him that his escape into exile has been arranged. No one actually expects him to drink the hemlock, since the usual way with death sentences is that the prisoner’s escape is always arranged.

But Socrates explains to his wife that no, the law is there to be obeyed, willy-nilly. Even if interpreted with prejudice, the majesty of the law prevails. He cannot go into exile.

Socrates: The highest value is to live well, yes?
Aspasia: Yes, yes.
Socrates: And we’ve always agreed, to live well is to live honourably and justly?
Aspasia: Yes.
Socrates: So, it is just for me to get out of here at all, foreign money or not?
Aspasia: Just? (For me to be condemned to a social death, widow of an executed criminal.)

Socrates says he has debated with the “laws of Athens”, which have told him that even if one is unjustly treated, one should not return injustice. The laws gave him his education, the freedom the war was fought for, the defeat of the tyrants when they trampled on democracy. They gave him the space to live, to speak.

Aspasia: And now they are silencing you!
Socrates: The laws are all we’ve got.
He drinks the hemlock.
Socrates: Accepting the jury’s verdict.

Also read:

Boris: Hero to zero in three years

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Kommentaar

  • Helize van Vuuren

    An exhilirating, refreshing read. Thank you. Give us more of this broader, humorous perspective. Most enlightening, whilst entertaining ...

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


     

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