The painting that keeps teaching – Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

2012-06-02 12:16

Our country’s history is too complex to ignore the public when it speaks so loudly

I gather we have let down a lot of people by pulling The Spear from our website.

Many have accused us of caving in to the ANC’s dictatorship and betraying the Constitution that guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

There is also the temptation to feel sorry for ourselves and to milk the sympathy City Press got from those who believed we were bullied by the ANC into making a decision we otherwise would not have made.

If the ANC’s triumphalism this week means it believes and is proud it gagged a newspaper, then it says more about the ANC’s commitment to a free media than it does about our newspaper’s supposed cowardice.

The ANC’s gloating reminds us why it is imperative that we disabuse ourselves of the notion that newspapers plan their content around what would please or displease the ANC.

Newspapers are about their readers and everything and everyone else is secondary to that.

It is also important that we debunk the myth that until we adopted the Constitution we have, South Africans never had a sense of right and wrong.

Even under apartheid and in the most brutal dictatorships, people can tell between what is right and wrong.

Even at the height of the oppression of others on bases of race, sex or sexual orientation, all reasonable people knew it was wrong to unfairly discriminate even if all they could say was because it was “not nice”.

That is because sometimes human beings are regulated by aspects that have no philosophical, legal or even religious underpinnings, such as “bad taste” or “bad manners”.

They can tell whether something is wrong or right without needing to depend on scholarship or divinely revealed wisdom.

Readers and South Africans told us that The Spear was in bad taste and insensitive, especially given the history of our country and in particular the subjugation of blacks by whites.

We listened.

Many who said this, at best, did not give a hoot about President Jacob Zuma and, at worst, believed the president’s conduct invited this kind of derision and disrespect to his dignity.

Many others, offended by the painting, saw no contradiction with the principle of freedom of expression and believed that drawing the genitals of any person, especially a father and grandfather, was plainly “wrong” and “in bad taste”.

That is how things are. Sometimes we do what we do because it makes it easy to live with each other as part of a community and not because there is a law that compels us to do so or threatens us if we do not.

The constitutional framework of our post-1994 country is a grand a departure from our past, but it will be regressive if it replaces common sense.

The Constitution was made for humanity and not humanity for the Constitution. It does not have the answer to all questions that society will have to contend with from time to time.

It is erroneous to defer to it alone the right to dictate moral or immoral, decent or indecent.

Like all peoples, South Africans derive their morals from, among other things, their families, cultures and communities.

Some of these agree with the Constitution; others are at odds with it.

It is not possible to legally enforce those with divergent views from the Constitution to agree with it, but their views are not always wrong or irrelevant.

One of the lessons we must take from this much-publicised The Spear debacle is that there are many sensibilities to be appreciated and not all of them are adequately catered for by our Constitution.

Another lesson is that common sense and common sensibilities by common people still have a place in deciding the mores of society.

As a responsible corporate citizen and part of a newspaper that aims to create a nation in conversation with itself, we can ill afford the zealotry of new converts who suddenly believe that everyone who does not defer to their holy texts is bound for eternal damnation, hell – or a constitutional hell if there is one.

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