Category Archives: Free Speech

Thought police impede liberty

The South African Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, has introduced the “Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill” to the National Assembly, in which he proposes that all pornography accessible through the Internet and mobile phones – not only the already illegal forms such as child pornography – be made illegal. The bill does not provide any clarity on how he expects to be able to track and block (if necessary) the 136 000 new internet domains registered in the last twenty-four hours, nor all the ones that could get registered before he figures out how to shut down the internet.

Besides the mysterious desire to introduce bills that can’t possibly be enforced, what is notable about this bill is Section 4, titled “Consultation”. In this section, it is revealed that four organisations were consulted, of which three are explicitly Christian, and one apparently so. What’s more, the three Christian groups are already on record as being in opposition to all forms of pornography – which, as indicated earlier, means that the nature of their input towards this bill would have contained no surprises.

Read more here.

Pornography should be embraced as freedom of expression

In the March 11 edition of The Cape Argus, a number of respondents took the time to comment on my article exposing the bad science behind conservative allegations regarding the “harms” of pornography. Of the six published, only one produced scientific evidence, so let us begin there.

Rachel Mash mentions that the American Psychological Association (APA) published a report (Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls) in which “more than 400 studies were examined. The finding showed that women and men exposed to sexually objectifying images of women were found to be significantly more accepting of rape-myths, sexual harassment, sex role stereotypes and interpersonal violence than those in control conditions.”

The APA report authors were certainly thorough and ambitious, analysing approximately 280 peer-reviewed journal articles, 80 books and book chapters, and dozens of other sources. However, their subject was the effects on young girls – not adults – of ordinary, everyday media, including magazines, television advertisements and music videos, finding that all of these had ‘harmful’ effects on children.

As mentioned in my previous article, the adult content channel that was under study by Multichoice made use of reliable protection measures to prevent child access – and the focus of the APA report is therefore on the possible effects to a group which would be normally be unable to view such a channel. The key issue here would not be potential harms to children, but rather parental responsibility to make sure that they use those protection measures.

Secondly, even their conclusions concerning children are in doubt, due to the limited scope of their analysis. Lerum and Dworkin responded to the study as follows: “the conclusion that sexualization has only negative impacts does not stem from considering a broad array of evidence; it was a forgone conclusion based on the fact that the task force only ‘evaluate(s) the evidence suggestive that sexualization has negative consequences’ for girls and the rest of society” [italics added]. The impression of authority the APA report offers is therefore misleading – while hundreds of studies were analysed, only studies delivering a pre-selected result were chosen for examination.

It’s also worth pointing out that the specific claim cited by Ms Mash from this report relies on only three studies, which themselves make sure to caution against assuming that the effects are anything more than temporary. Our search for scientific consensus therefore gains little from the APA report, and from Ms Mash’s letter.

At the core of the thesis offered by the APA report – and also underpinning much of the commentary resulting from my last article – is the notion that there is something inherently bad about adult women being ‘sexualized’ in the first place. We should however guard against letting sexist paradigms of female sexual purity, innocence and submissiveness underwrite our policies.

By contrast to the prejudicial and stereotyping view that pornography always involves abuse and disempowerment, numerous female porn stars and sex workers find that their chosen career is enormously empowering. According to porn star (and ex-prostitute) Annie Sprinkle: “Pornography also made me feel more beautiful and glamourous than I ever thought I could be because I was very shy and insecure and it really did bring me a lot of confidence and attention that I needed … sometimes I feel like I contribute a lot to the women’s movement and even somehow to women’s sexual freedom.” And consider the powerful words of sex-worker Margo St. James on the charge that pornography ‘represents women as whores by nature’: “Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m a bad girl. I like being a bad girl. I like my whore status. I have control and power over men, in private certainly, and now also in my public life”. Lastly, porn producer Anna Arrowsmith will be a candidate for parliament in the UK during the upcoming elections. These examples speak against the narrative of disempowerment, and need to be taken into account by critics of pornography.

They are certainly not accommodated in the response offered by Anne Mayne, who claims that “there is harm in images of sexist male fantasies”. This viewpoint is damaging not only to modern feminism, which has recently begun to sever its historical and uncomfortable association with pro-censorship movements, but is also deeply insulting to men. The claim seems to be that watching pornography that portrays male fantasies and desires would change our very nature, and strip away the thin veneer of civilization which prevents us from raping and beating women. This sort of sexist nonsense does little to illuminate the debate on pornography, and instead simply offers an example of a different – and known – social harm.

Finally, there is Peter Langerman, who asks: “Do we really want to run the risk of exposing (mainly) men to scenes which depict, in many cases, sexual mistreatment, violence and the sexual objectification of women?”

Yes we do, because alongside the strong sexual instincts we have evolved with, we also have the capacity for rational thought, and the opportunity to exercise our moral agency. This freedom and ability (which we share equally with women) gives us all the ability to overcome base desires and live a moral life.

Indeed, there may be parts of the spectrum of adult entertainment that we find offensive in their presentation of violent and sexist themes, just as these themes exist in some of our films, advertising, music videos and consumer products. But one cannot legislate for offence, or on one group’s definition of what is offensive – yet this seems to be exactly what fundamentalists wish us to do.

There is a better solution to what we may consider offensive within the pornography genre. Ms. Sprinkle puts it rather succinctly in saying: “”The answer to bad pornography is not no pornography, it’s better pornography!”.

A version of this article was published by the Cape Argus on 17 March 2010.

How harmful is pornography really?

In the Cape Argus of March 3, Errol Naidoo (the director of the Christian-based Family Policy Institute) claims that pornography is harmful, and that the proposed Multichoice “Porn channel will be a ‘destructive influence’”.

He quite correctly attempts to back up many of his assertions with scientific evidence, and quotes some sociological and psychological studies in his letter of opinion. But does modern science really support the proposition that pornography is harmful? Let us examine some of his claims, and consider what evidence exists for them. Continue reading How harmful is pornography really?

Comment on DStv’s plan to introduce a porn channel

DStv’s plans to introduce a pay-view porn channel continue to attract protest from groups such as the Christian Action Network, and now Errol Naidoo has also weighed in against the proposed channel. I’ve previously written about this on Synapses, but a fuller explication of some of the issues can be found in my second column for The Daily Maverick.

Giving JZ the finger

Giving freedom the finger

In a recent interview, President Jacob Zuma expresses regret that, contrary to the urgings of Mandela for us to live in harmony, we have “not taken that discussion further”. But it is untrue that the discussion in question has become dormant. In the context of the divisive rhetoric emanating from some quarters of his party, as well as the incoherency of the moral leadership offered by Zuma himself, it can be argued that we have in fact taken that discussion further – further towards a rejection of the sorts of values implied by Mandela’s wish for us to live together in harmony.

Stable and lasting harmony is premised on a recognition and tolerance of opposing viewpoints, which of course requires the freedom for citizens to express their points of view – regardless of whether those views conform to those of any other citizen, or to the views of any political party. The starkest alternative to this – that of a society of repression and the stifling of dissenting views – is not at all in keeping with the values expressed in our Constitution.

While our general commitment to free speech does permit (rare) justifiable exceptions, it does not, and cannot, allow for the suppression of views simply because we find them uncomfortable to hear. And it is in this context that the case of UCT student Chumani Maxwele may end up setting a most unfortunate precedent, if it is not firmly dealt with in a manner which reinforces our right to criticise our political leaders.

The details of the case appear to be that on the evening of February 10, Mr. Maxwele was subjected to unlawful harassment and intimidation by members of Jacob Zuma’s security detail, after they allegedly spotted him giving the finger to the presidential convoy. According to Maxwele, men with guns pulled a bag over his head, and drove him to a police station where he was arrested for crimen injuria, interrogated as to his political views, and held overnight while his house and personal possessions were searched.

While a Constable at Mowbray Police Station has confirmed the charge of crimen injuria, little about this case is known for certain – Maxwele claims that he merely “waved the convoy away”, as they were making noise, while the commander of the arresting officers, Captain Sandisile Mafunda, said Maxwele “was showing gestures with his right-hand with his middle finger pointing up-right (sic) with the remaining fingers folded, uttering the remarks towards the President’s convoy saying ‘fuck you Zuma… you are disrupting traffic.”

In light of the existing attempts to soften the media impact of this story, as well as the spin that will certainly follow, it is important to remind ourselves of some crucial details. First, and most importantly, it is not illegal to be rude, and nor is it illegal to indicate dissent or displeasure with the ANC or the nation’s President.

Second, police spokesperson Zweli Mnisi’s claims that Maxwele had apologised (a claim later disputed by Maxwele) are utterly irrelevant to the wrongfulness of Maxwele’s arrest and harassment. Maxwele may have been rude, but we have no plausible evidence – from Maxwele or the police – of any illegal actions on the part of Maxwele. Whether or not Maxwele believes himself to have been in the wrong would also have no bearing on the wrongfulness of the actions of the police.

On the evidence available to us, it seems far more likely that it was the police who were engaging in illegal actions in their detention of Maxwele and the searching of his house. Unfortunately, in light of the absence of any apology for their actions, one cannot help but suspect that they were looking for evidence of something that could be retrospectively used to justify their abuse of power.

Third, the revelation of Maxwele’s criminal record by police is nothing if not a transparent, and embarrassing, attempt to save face by trying to present Maxwele in a negative light, thereby shifting public attention away from the apparently criminal actions of the police themselves.

The hypersensitivity to perceived criticism evidenced by this case is deeply troubling, as it demonstrates a lack of commitment to free speech, and to allowing dissent. Furthermore, the reactions of the police following the incident (with the exception of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who has asked the ICD to investigate the matter) are also troubling, in that no further comment has been offered in justification of the arrest itself, besides the admission that it was simply for insulting the President.

Most troubling of all, perhaps, is that we have had no comment from the Presidency itself, affirming a commitment to free speech, and apologising to Maxwele. The statement would ideally also include recognition of the fact that the police seem to have taken their personal commitment to the ruling party too far, given that their actual job has nothing to do with defending the interests of any particular political party, and that Maxwele’s political allegiances were irrelevant to the alleged criminality of his actions.

Moments like these provide an opportunity for President Zuma to demonstrate to South Africans – and to the world at large – that we are not simply another country in Africa, where stereotypes regarding thug rule, cronyism and a lack of respect for democratic processes come easily to mind. In the case of Maxwele, a statement condemning this sort of behaviour on the part of police would go a long way towards damage-limitation. But what we get is silence.

If Maxwele did in fact disrespect Zuma, our President should perhaps be reminded that respect is something that is earned, rather than a perk that comes with the job. And if he truly believes that “it’s time to talk about our moral code”, this belief would strike South Africans as far more plausible if he were to demonstrate a commitment to it in cases like these, by denouncing these erosions of Maxwele’s – and our – freedoms.

Versions of this piece were published in the Durban Mercury (22/02/10) and the Cape Times (23/02/10). This is the original text, as submitted to the newspapers.

Zuma’s insecurity

With the recent arrest and interrogation of a university student in Cape Town, the President’s security team have flagrantly and unapologetically violated a citizens right to freedom of expression. The FSI strongly condemns the actions taken by Captain Sandisile Mafunda, and hopes that the Captain, the Minister of Police and the President will apologise for the incident and take measures to ensure that it does not happen again.

Jacques Rousseau, Director of the FSI, has written more about the incident here