Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:

denise

In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

Get your problems out the way of my comfort

We naturally dislike people who attend to the bare minimum of their responsibilities begrudgingly and with endless complaint. I no longer shop at certain retailers because asking assistants for assistance earned me bad attitude. There are hundreds of films that feature lazy people who, if they had just gone and done what they were supposed to, none of this would have happened, or who do it with endless grumbles but just in time to avert huge disaster (but I can’t think of a single example right now).

This week, South Africa’s most in-the-news hospital, Baragwanath, left a badly burned man to die, seemingly neglecting the bare minimum of their profession and their humanity. You can read that sad story here (caution: unpleasant pics). However, one of the state doctors today wrote a must-read response arguing that when it comes to lack of care and responsibility, blame should rather be placed on the politicians who have run health administration into a state of collapse. Either way, such lack of care is horrifying.

It is easy to take moral high ground in such circumstances, but sometimes we’re just as uncaring; we’ve just found ways of clothing our selfishness in diplomatic dress. Such as in church this weekend…

In Religion: Speak to God about it (just don’t make your problems mine)

In the church, we’re champions at spiritualising our selfishness. I spoke on the weekend at a church on the subject of relinquishing our wealth as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Afterwards, a woman apparently in terrible poverty spoke to me about it, claiming that at other churches, she had been told to bring her problems to God and ‘leave them at the altar’; to let God sort them out. She felt unable to speak about her desperate needs to anyone in the church any longer.

Of course, we must trust God, and God is the ultimate provider. However, telling someone to leave their problems at the altar is another way of making sure that they don’t share their problems with you. We can sound spiritual while also telling people not to bother us with their uncomfortable issues.

The Bible should make us very uncomfortable when it comes to our money and the poor in our congregations, because when it tells us that there ‘shall be no poor among you’, it also tells us the mechanism by which this relief from poverty takes place, namely, those whom God has given much must be generous towards those who have little. For example, in Acts 2 & 4, when there was need, the church would not consider their property to be their own, but would sell something so that they could provide for one another. That’s an often-repeated pattern in the Bible for provision for the poor in our congregations.

Now, the Bible is not at all like communism, and it is true that giving handouts can sometimes do more harm than good. Nevertheless, we do not therein find an excuse to avoid our responsibilities as the rich in the church. Be strategic about how you use the wealth God has leant you, and be sure that you use it for the reasons for which He gave it.

In Politics: Look to the future (Don’t remind me what I did in the past)

A third thing this week that illustrated selfish comfort trumping concern for due responsibility was an article in the City Press, written by Alistair MacKay, called How Whites Can Reconcile. He points out that after the horrors of Apartheid, most whites have coasted along in silence (usually, I’d add, breaking silence to complain that the new government is ‘ruining the country’), until now, 20 years later, we become impatient with people who still feel the hurt and injustice of the past system. As MacKay says:

I saw this comment on reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy the other day: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?” No, we haven’t.

It’s curious that among white people now, it is hard to find a person who was ever racist during Apartheid. We’ve washed our hands of it and ensure that we now deflect away any blame for that system, because it makes us uncomfortable to be associated with it.

In response to the article, many of the comments demonstrated exactly that, ironically confirming the author’s message in their criticism of him.

“Alistair, what I can remember about apartheid was that it oppressed just about everybody. There is a reason your parents, their friends and acquaintances didn’t ‘toyi-toyi’ outside parliament. They did what they could under the circumstances.” (sean.crookson)

“Oh please, look its your opinion but lets face one fact. You cannot continue to cry about the past. If I hear another person say apartheid I will soil my pants. When can people stop. We live for tomorrow not for what happened yesterday! Maybe it was horrible, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Honestly I do not care.” (Mr.T)

“The past was awful yes, but it is not today and we cannot change it other than changing what we think and feel now, so stop focusing on what was wrong and start focusing on what is right.” (WessBergg)

If I were a sufferer of Apartheid, I’d not be experiencing feelings of forgiveness hearing that whites were oppressed too and did all they could; that we should just live for tomorrow. It’s easy to look forward to tomorrow when today was so pleasant. Not everyone can say that.

Three Lessons: #1 Empathy

We can learn a few things from the mistakes of these commenters. The first thing is empathy. Let’s remember that whites in the past 300 years or so took something like 70% of the best land for the white minority and put the black majority in the remaining 30%. In living memory, many South Africans lost homes and land without compensation due to group areas legislation, and were put in new high-density housing areas.

I don’t think I’m too far wrong if I say that black South Africans weren’t allowed to touch the same crockery or toilets as whites, or go to the same beaches and parks. They couldn’t buy houses in the best neighbourhoods. They had to carry passes to be on their own streets. They could have any job as long as it was manual labour, were forced to study in Afrikaans, and couldn’t vote or tell the newspapers if they didn’t like it. That’s besides the daily attitude and abuse from many whites, ‘special treatment’ from the police, continual propaganda that said they were less valuable, less able, less human. I can still remember how unusual it was to see a black person driving a car in the 80s, and how we as whites would normally suggest that he must have stolen it.

Like me, you may have grown up in a home that aimed at being non-racial, but even still we owe the country an apology. If nothing else, there was not a mass exodus of upset whites to other countries, nothing like the one we have seen since Apartheid fell. We stayed and we didn’t fight what was wrong. That’s bad enough. But I can see — even as someone who hated the more overt racism of my classmates — how part of it I was. We were racists, as much as we might hate to admit it now.

But here is an example of how whites still respond to the suffering caused by Apartheid:

“Great article? It’s just another whining, guilt-tripping piece distorting our past. It’s all to obvious that separate development… was a necessity for Whites to survive and shield them against risks for their livelihoods. Any rational person could have seen that. Ultimately this is shown step by step to be true now. Fact is also that Blacks had a fair chance developing their own communities. And that they were supported in this by the then White government. One may say that Blacks were poorer. Really, but why was that? Despite efforts of Whites to lift them up or due to something else?” (andreas.meyer.12327)

That’s right, whites had to be separate from blacks out of necessity for survival, and the white government was trying to uplift black communities the whole time. The fault was somehow with the blacks. That’s the undistorted version of our history.

“Blacks under apartheid were more literate than black Americans. They also enjoyed the highest standard of living of all blacks in Africa. Even in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it is stated that 40% of SA’ns claimed that life was better under apartheid (whites constitute about 9%). The tragedy is that modern youth has become so narrow minded, stupid and uncouth that they can’t distinguish between freedom and slavery anymore.” (alan.secreve)

The fact that we can pull narrow statistics to ‘prove’ that we were actually being kind to black South Africans is startling. It’s sad that people still experience terrible quality of life, but hardly stands as an argument that Apartheid was freedom.

So, fellow whites, when our brothers and sisters of other races are still struggling with pain and dire social circumstances created by Apartheid, try to have a little empathy before you decide to dodge how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

True, we can’t go back and fix what we’ve done, and it will take decades to get beyond it. True, we must look forward. But while we’re moving forward, we can stop making hurt worse by parading opinions that range from pretending we had nothing to do with it, to the idea that blacks should be grateful for what whites did for them in Apartheid.

And while you’re at it…

Lesson #2: Count your blessings

We are extraordinarily good at taking all the credit for our personal achievements and claiming that we never received a dime from anyone. Whites are generally under-appreciative of the benefits we had under Apartheid. Years ago this Zapiro ‘cartoon’ offended me into thinking about it:

I could argue that my upbringing was not privileged — we sometimes had to rely on ‘handouts’ to be able to eat, for example — but it was. I lived on a nature reserve on the edge of a quiet white suburb. There was no poverty and hardly any crime in our areas. I was at excellent schools that were cheap and well resourced. I could even play tennis for free.

When I began my tertiary education, I had to work nights and weekends to support myself for much of it, and I eventually got excluded from the course because I couldn’t pay. Yet for all my life, I had the freedom, government support, and social infrastructure to be able to learn and to excel. I am who I am because I benefitted from Apartheid.

But some say:

Sorry but you are saying that we should feel sorry for other peoples lack to move on. I was born in 1983 and had to work 2 jobs through varsity while my black counterparts had scholarships and used the money to drink and party… JUST because your classy English Family benefited from Apartheid doesn’t mean that all whites were as lucky or unlucky as you… I will not feel ashamed and neither will I apologize for working my ass off to get to be where I am today. (R3ndi3r)

Hard work and struggle is what 95% of people everywhere have to endure. Yes, that is true of many whites under Apartheid, but that is a far cry from receiving no benefit. Everything about Apartheid government was structured to give whites the best and to keep blacks weak. If you are white, you received favour and benefit at the expense of the dispossession and cheap labour of everyone else. To complain that black South Africans are now just seeking handouts is to forget that the whole country was previously engineered for your welfare.

David Wong recently wrote an outstanding article called Six Things Rich People Need To Stop Saying that deals with exactly this attitude, but on a more general level. You should read that article right now.

Lesson 3: Make relevant arguments

Maybe there are some reasons for us not to dwell on the past. Feel free to argue for them when it’s appropriate, but make sure you don’t make hurt and division worse by using irrelevant smokescreens to escape taking responsibility. Take this commenter for example:

Most blacks… are made to believe by their “leaders” that all whites fell into bottomless riches during Apartheid. Taking myself and my family… Afrikaners before WW2 were the poorest Europeans on the planet. My late father had to go to the township in the small town we lived in, to go and BEG for food. World War 2 saved him from poverty… When I finished school,there were no money for university. I had to struggle on my own, leaving South Africa, in the hope i can get my foot in the door somewhere… If I see the opportunities black people have today, in the new South Africa, I feel envy. I did not have those opportunities. Every time I went back to South Africa, to find work, the door just became more shut every time I tried… Just in “AA”, racist (ANC) SA that I had this problem. (HenriLeRiche)

It’s a sad story of struggle. I don’t want to minimise that. But it ends with an invective that calls affirmative action and the present government racist, and none of it has much at all to do with the article that it criticises.

There is ample evidence that white South Africans have showed far too little awareness of how bad their behaviour was and how gracious the current government has been in visiting absolutely no punishment upon whites at all. Even affirmative action is not punishment, and we still have (warning: statistics from my sketchy memory) something like 90% of whites employed, versus less than 60% of the rest, and about 50% of the economy in white ownership. The article is about us dodging responsibility for our role in the past. What does it have to do with anything that some whites aren’t rich, or that the Afrikaaner was also poor once? What does present government performance or policy have to do with it?

We all have reason to be apologetic for our role in Apartheid, even if small, and to be thankful for the grace that black South Africa has thusfar shown. Yes, it is an uncomfortable position to be in, but let’s not make things worse by refusing to let pain that we helped cause intrude upon our comfort.

Peter Bruce fumbles Zuma Spear

Yesterday I posted an article that laments poor analysis of art. This morning’s Business Day includes yet another literalistic interpretation of ‘Spear of the Nation’ that shows little capacity for visual communication. Editor Peter Bruce says,

But I cannot for the life of me understand what he has done to deserve to be immortalised in a painting with his genitals hanging out of his trousers. Too many wives? It’s legal in SA. Rape? He was acquitted. A womaniser? So what, as long as his sex is with consenting adults. What then? Having your genitals depicted in public is a hell of a price to pay for being a rotten political leader, for being weak on economics or beholden to too many political interests. Brett Murray is, of course, free to do as he pleases in this democracy and you could just bet on the ANC to make matters worse by kicking up such a fuss.

But the sad fact is stuff like this only works in a Victorian society like ours. The artist went out of his way to shock and it proved depressingly easy, whatever side of the “debate” you are on. There’s no artistic thought here, merely the prudish notion that you can hurt somebody you disapprove of by pulling his pants down in public and giggling as you run away, this time crying “artistic freedom” as you go. (Business Day)

This again demonstrates confusion about what the painting is and what it means.

Firstly, Jacob Zuma hasn’t has his genitals displayed anywhere public; it’s someone’s drawing of a penis on someone’s drawing of JZ. Similarly, no one pulled JZ’s pants down; they remain firmly around his waist. Both of those are massively important distinctions when it comes to supposed abuse of his dignity. It’s a painting, an idea, not a sexual assault.

Secondly, why the assuption that the painting means what this author thinks it does? Everyone is interpreting it clumsily with zero appreciation of symbolism and the way that protest art communicates. The painting could mean a myriad of things other than ‘JZ’s penis is out too much’. It’s an overly-literal analysis, decrying a field that the author seems not to understand.

Even if this painting is so crass as to be merely taking a shot at Zuma’s embarrassing sexual exploits, why is it so unbelievably hurtful to raise such issues by means of visual protest, but acceptable to tell the entire nation in newspapers like Bruce’s that he impregnated his friend’s daughter? I’d rather someone drew fictional naked pictures of me than made my actual private transgressions into international news. Whose hypocritical ethical yardstick are we being forced to use here?

Full Member of the Ruling Party

Brett Murray’s painting ‘Spear of the Nation’, featuring President Zuma in a VI Lenin pose, with a generously proportioned penis protruding (impossibly) from the shadows, has provoked a storm of controversy, and has been written about so much that it barely warrants any further comment. You can see the painting and read comment here: Mail&Guardian. Then you can read about the attempts at government censorship of the image here: CityPress; and some other decent pun-laden commentary here: Mondli Makhanya.

By the standards of the art world the painting is relatively tame; an artist called Ayanda Mabulu has suddenly gained some attention for also having painted Zuma in the buff (though without controversy), and his stuff is way more shocking. You can look at his Zuma pic here, or a nutty one about Robert Mugabe over here.

Some of the criticism clearly comes from people who do not visit galleries. But there are three areas of the debate that are genuinely shocking that I’d like to raise, because our national tendency towards outrage so frequently misses the point. All of them are embodied in this response from the presidency (Source: CityPress):

Said spokesperson Mac Maharaj: “We are amazed at the crude and offensive manner in which this artist denigrates the person and the office of the President of the Republic of South Africa.

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

Maharaj also said the Presidency was concerned that the painting “perpetuates a shocking new culture by some sections of the artistic world, of using vulgar methods of communicating about leading figures in the country, in particular the President”.

“Intense hatred of the new democratic administration or the ruling party should not translate into distorting South Africa’s value system of emphasising respect and of ensuring that disagreements are expressed in a cultured and civilised manner, which these artists are failing to do.”

1. Moral compass and degeneracy

Maharaj talks about our value system. Last night on the news, Reverend so-and-so was speaking at a high-profile funeral and used the opportunity to speak about the President’s penis (wouldn’t have been my go-to anecdote for a funeral). He expressed dismay that our society has lost its moral compass to such a degree that an artist could sink to such levels of degeneracy. He added that freedom of expression could not be allowed to cover such horrors.

This is utter raving lunacy for a few reasons. Firstly, as I’ve said, this would not have been considered shocking by the standards of the art world for the last number of centuries (even if we only restrict ‘art’ to mean paintings and galleries; literature has been nuttier for longer, and even the Bible is more graphic and passes harsher commentary on its leaders). Where have these people been?

Secondly, our country’s moral compass has been pointing far further south than this painting suggests for a very long time. Yesterday, a suspected thief was beaten by a township mob and then set on fire. Parents rape and kill their own kids here. Even our own wildly polygamous president has a chequered history with sexual abuse, conspiracy, and corruption, which is presumably part of what this painting is protesting. Many of those charges against Zuma remain unproven, but I haven’t heard too many reverends using high-profile funerals to complain that our president fathered a child with his friend’s daughter out of wedlock. If we’re going to talk about moral compass, let’s not imagine that this painting is a step down from our usual standard.

Thirdly, this presidency claims God’s blessing upon his party (see point 4 of this article) such that they will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’. The president — and especially his outraged reverend — should know then that the Bible disagrees strongly with them that leaders deserve unqualified reverence:

Deuteronomy 17:17 “The king must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is … not (to) consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.”

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.”

In both passages, leaders are not to see themselves as superior to ‘ordinary’ citizens. They are brothers. They are not due special respect or disrespect. They are open to the same criticism as the rest of us. If our Christian and political leaders wish to invoke Jesus’ favour, then they should at least share his outlook.

If someone wishes to use their imagination to paint me in the nude then I should be as flattered or insulted as suits my personality, but I should have the same constitutional protections as the president. If it’s libellous for him, it’s libellous for me. None of this ‘But he’s the President (awed hush)’. If you’re not allowed to criticise the president in a democracy, don’t be surprised when you wake to find that you don’t have a democracy.

2. Bad analysis of visual communication

The second problem is that the outrage about this painting is so devoid of analysis appropriate to the field. All public commentary is on the level of ‘It’s Jacob Zuma’, and ‘That’s a penis’, and consequently ‘It’s trying to humiliate Jacob Zuma by showing his penis’. Maharaj’s analysis viewed it as ‘intense hatred’. That’s how toilet-stall graffiti works, but not art.

Visual art communicates primarily on symbolic levels. Depicting Jacob Zuma as the subject could mean lots of things. He could be representing Jacob Zuma, that’s true. But he could also stand for the present government, the ANC more broadly, the whole of the country, and so on. His penis might represent his shame (and so be an attempt at humiliating him), but it could also represent sexualisation of (for example) our society, it could represent abuse of power; it could even represent our government’s moral compass.

In other words, the picture may just as easily be about you, not JZ.

I can understand public misunderstanding of the function of art, because we don’t really study the arts deeply at school, and even if you did, you only had to get 30% in matric to pass, so you might have missed every point that mattered on the way to getting your qualification. But even our ministers overseeing the arts somehow fail to understand their field.

3. Threats to freedom and democracy

The most worrying feature of all is how something so innocuous could now form a new attack upon civic freedoms in this country. By way of reminder, Maharaj said:

“The Presidency is concerned that Brett Murray fails to appreciate that freedom carries a deep responsibility,” he said in the statement, adding that the right to freedom of artistic expression is not absolute.

The government set their lawyers upon the gallery, the newspapers, and anyone else that lingered long enough, trying to destroy the original image and any existing copies. At least they’re currently only sending lawyers. How long before it’s soldiers?

If this picture is indecent, then where does one draw the line? Does one censor Michaelangelo’s David for indecency, as in a famous Simpsons episode about the arts? If the problem is the implied criticism or humiliation of the president, then what about written criticisms that impugn his character or conduct? Is calling the president a dork treason now?

It’s amazing to me that the same people whose blood was shed to win freedom from enslavement to an evil government are willing to sign over those freedoms to a new government, just because they think this one will surely not abuse their trust.

Freedom of expression does carry responsibility, but I would have thought that the ANC of all people would recognise the importance of being able to protest wrongs in government. If anything, one of those responsibilities is to criticise those in power, not to pander to them.

Romney, Obama, Gay Marriage and Freedom

I’m not particularly invested in US politics, but seeing as half the country votes for the Republican party and many of those because it’s the default ‘Christian vote’, I take an interest in the role that theology and faith plays in their rhetoric. In that vein, I’ve been keeping half an eye on the recent ‘gay marriage’ issue in the presidency war.

Obama’s View

Obama has been getting flak from the GOP for claiming that his view on the issue of gay marriage is ‘evolving’, and for eventually coming down in favour of ‘civil unions’ (I’m not sure whether he’s decided that it is right to call it ‘marriage’ just yet).

I don’t think the criticism is deserved; there is something commendable about each of these points. Firstly, it means that his opinions are open to change and that he’s actually thinking about things, rather than giving whatever his party/publicist considers to be ‘the Right Answer’.

Secondly, while conceding civil unions, he also identified his faith as a reason why he is/was unhappy calling these unions ‘marriages’. Maybe he was overtly trying to appear more centrist than the average Democrat — to appeal a tiny bit more to Christian voters — bit still, I thought that it was a risky admission and demonstrated a bit of principle. It’s probably politicking, but it may just show that he is willing to express a personal belief that may be unpopular, and also to subordinate it to what he considers best for those who don’t share his beliefs.

Romney’s Recent Speech

This morning I read that Romney had been campaigning at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and had used the opportunity to take a veiled jibe at Obama, but mostly to argue that:

  • Marriage between “one man and one woman” is an “enduring institution” that should be defended
  • Faith in our Maker is more important that trivial things, and that differences in creed and theology can be overcome by emphasising shared moral convictions and worldview
  • Religious freedom is something that needs to be protected

I agree with nearly everything that he argues here. Nearly. But the point at which we disagree seems to me to call into question the integrity of everything else he says. My issue is the supposed ‘shared moral convictions and worldview’.

Romney is a Mormon talking to a broadly Christian audience. There is a great deal of difference in ‘moral convictions and worldview’, even just between Mormons and Christians, so much so that Romney’s church would typically be defined as a cult by his audience that day. We do not share beliefs and worldview, except maybe on the broadest terms.

More importantly, this attempt at finding common ground with his audience is even more unpracticable when applied to the nation as a whole. As he tacitly acknowledges by pleading ‘freedom of religion’, there isn’t complete homogeneity, even among the religious. The US is a pluralist society where opinions on morality and worldviews vary drastically, and their right to differ is constitutionally protected.

It is freedom of religion that enables Romney to be a Mormon, and he can be one even when Christians or Atheists or Clintons are in office. Leaders who are willing to protect the rights of those with whom they disagree ensure that such freedom exists. Leaders who only protect the liberties that suit them are actually a danger to liberty altogether.

Someone so eager to collect on the leeway that this particular freedom offers him ought to be more sensitive to groups that consider their freedom to be unfairly restricted in other areas. Romney’s talk about protecting marriage is the positive way of saying that he plans to restrict the freedom of people outside his camp to be married. Because their different moral and religious beliefs are too different. Now he may be right, but he’s not even acknowledging the complexities involved, let alone solving them.

It is ironic for someone defending the long and venerable tradition of Christian marriage that the Mormon church spent 50 years defending their right to practice polygamy. Some factions still do. Interestingly, polygamy was outlawed in the US because freedom of religion protects what people believe. What people do is governed by law, and polygamy was considered unlawful practice, not an idiosyncratic belief. Seeing as the US does not consider the practice of homosexuality to be unlawful, I find it hard to see how lawmakers can become inflexible concerning beliefs about marriage and deny civil benefits to couples whose behaviour is perfectly legal.

Romney makes pretty speeches, but he needs to demonstrate why his message doesn’t amount to ‘Yay freedom, except for those who are too different from us’.

So Romney received a standing ovation from the 30,000 in his audience, when in reality, it seems that Obama is the one whose faith and worldview is closer to that audience, and Obama is the one who is concerning himself with protecting the civil liberties also of people with whom he disagrees, not just in the convenient matter of religious freedom, but in the more contentious areas of governance too.

It’s easy to love your friends and to protect what is yours, but what does Romney plan to defend and protect for those people who do not fit into the homogenous faith community that he tries to paint here?

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A note on my own beliefs: As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is wrong, and I would prefer marriage to be defined in traditional ways. The trouble politically is this:

  • Marriage is not Christian. It is nearly universal, and even in ‘Christian’ countries, non Christians may marry regardless of their faith. Seeing as marriage is not exclusively Christian, I find it hard to see how it can be protected on religious grounds, except if Christians campaign to protect some  religiously defined marriage concept that belongs only to them (which I would support).
  • Homosexuality is not illegal. If homosexuals have all the sexual and relational freedoms of marriage made available to them already, it makes the matter of calling them ‘legally married’ or not fairly irrelevant. We seem to me to be scrapping over legal status and benefits. The horse has bolted.

If gay marriage is wrong, it needs to be demonstrated more carefully. There may be some value in arguing that long-standing definitions of marriage are inherently worth protecting, but antiquity is not necessarily a sign of value. There may be some worth in arguing that there is social and psychological value in preserving the definitions of family that we do. I certainly believe that children probably benefit from growing up with a parent of each gender, but kids have turned out OK after being raised by one parent or even one grandparent, so what do I know? Point is, it’s complicated, and the matter isn’t settled by shouting ‘protect the family’ really loudly.

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Reader Comment

A friend helpfully observed the following:

You’ve alluded to something that could be made more explicit.  There are two aspect to marriage, a legal and traditional part.  The tradition of marriage, which is informed by a person’s beliefs, came first and because of the partnership accept to marriage and the resulting implications for society, governments have realised the need to legislate marriage.  The distinction is very obvious in countries such as France but can also be observed in South Africa.  In France, you get legally married before the town mayor as the agent of government.  The traditional ceremony is then performed afterwards according to your beliefs. Priests, Rabbis and other religious leaders don’t have the right to perform the legal ceremony so one can clearly identify the two different aspects.

Given these two distinctions, I’ve always thought the legal partnership should be made available to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation because of the impact on society.

I see two questions, the first is: is gay marriage wrong?  The answer is most certainly yes, according to God’s word.  The second question is: given the reality of life in fallen world, should it be legislated?  Here I would say yes, to protect the weakest person in this partnership.  I don’t think one has to assume that because it’s legislated it’s not wrong.

I therefore think Obama’s stance on gay marriage says nothing about his beliefs.  His stance on abortion probably says much more…

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Politics of Hatred in South Africa

South African politics reached a near-miraculous high point under Nelson Mandela, with a much-wronged political leader putting self-sacrifice into practice to lead the whole nation out of its Apartheid mire. His party, the ANC, has been trading on that capital for 20 years, and rightly so. However, that goodwill has been exploited so ruthlessly in recent years, with one corruption scandal after the next, and catastrophic failures of entire provinces, that many of its supporters have become disillusioned and have stopped voting, or have given their vote to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC seems to be genuinely concerned by the ground they’ve lost, because more than ever, the political tactic is to brand their opponents as racist, even with all the evidence to the contrary.

The best recent example involves the DA leader Helen Zille’s remark on Twitter that people flocking from the ANC-run  Eastern Cape province to the DA-run Western Cape in order to find proper schooling are ‘education refugees’. The migration has been happenning because of scandalous corruption and mismanagement of schooling in the ECape, which has brought it to the brink of collapse. The department managed to spend only 28% of its budget in the face of incredible need, compared with the WCape, which spent all of theirs. Instead of public discussion raging about this awful deprivation of the right to education in the ECape, certain sectors began decrying Zille’s fairly innocuous metaphor (‘education refugees’) as racist. Our country has now spent a whole month pretending to be shocked about that statement, while the near-fatal pillaging of the ECape by its leaders is hardly an issue.

In the Papers Today

In this morning’s Star, the front page reports on Patric Mellet (a senior Home Affairs official) who spewed a deeply offensive rant on Facebook about Zille’s supposed racism.

The Star quotes him as saying:

The Devolved Apartheid Party (DA) are now really going back to their roots… Zille everyday more and more sounds like PW Botha… the skew mouth, the wagging finger, the voice with the wry smile and pregnant pause, and the Apartheid talk about alien refugees flooding into the White-Coloured Labour Preference Area… wow… this closely follows her Butcher of Hangberg orders to deal ruthlessly with opposition resulting in ‘the shoot the eyes out of protesters’ action by kitskonstabels.

Mein Fuhrer Helen Zille motormouth does not cease to amaze with her cloned NP style.

The DA really have become the Devolved Apartheid Party. How she justifies her racist rants just deepens the foot in mouth disease. PW Botha has risen from the dead. She really does him proud.

Now let’s see on what the comparisons to Hitler and Apartheid villain PW Botha are based:

  • finger wagging
  • pausing and smiling while speaking in public
  • ‘Apartheid talk about alien refugees flooding into’ the Cape

The first two points are shameful in their own way. The argument is, ‘Hitler used standard public-speaking techniques; Botha used standard public-speaking techniques; Zille uses standard public-speaking techniques. Therefore Zille is a hateful, racist Apartheid psycho.’

Zuma and Malema use the same rhetorical techniques when they speak, so are they also returning to Apartheid politics? Of course not. It is a ridiculous, cheap ploy to transfer similarity in one area (physical appearance) to other areas (political ideology) without any relevant evidence.

So what about the evidence?
The last point has the appearance of evidence, but again, it is misleading. Mellet clearly believes that Zille’s statement was motivated by xenophobic hatred for refugees, because he’s spewing this on Facebook, not in some political point-scoring forum. But he’s believing his own party’s spin on words that she herself never said (‘alien refugees flooding’). In fact, Zille herself explained a week ago on the party’s newsroom page what her not-very-unclear refugee metaphor means:

That brings me to the matter of the “education refugees”,  which is how I described the thousands of learners who arrive during the course of the first term in Western Cape schools, because their right to education has been betrayed in their home province, the Eastern Cape.  These learners accounted for 44% of all new registrations, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, in Western Cape schools this year.  This student migration is the major reason we are undertaking an emergency school building programme to complete 45 new schools within our term of office (while the Eastern Cape spent a paltry 28% of its infrastructure budget last year).  The difference is clear: We treat all children as full, legitimate South African citizens and we respect their right to education. The ANC does not.

This is the real scandal.  But it was buried by the eruption of pseudo outrage about the word “refugees” – which was conveniently uncoupled from its qualifying noun “education”. Very soon it became “self-evident” that I had referred to all black people in the Western Cape as “refugees”.  And, of course, this was irrefutable “proof” of my “racism”.

In other words, the idea that the DA is opposed to the presence of ECape people was drummed up by those trying to make her look bad. She herself was describing the ECape like a warzone from which people must flee (hence ‘refugee’), and pointing out that they are in the process of building new schools so that they can serve these people. Her concern is for the worrying state of the ECape and the shortage of schools in the WCape as a result. There is no mention of the undesirability of the people in the slightest. Generally, if you want to prevent refugees from staying in your land, you don’t accommodate them. And generally, if you’re trying to be a racist and keep a certain group beaten down, you don’t educate them. I don’t know why the ANC doesn’t care about educating people in the ECape, but Zille and her ilk are the ones trying to improve their lot. What a freaking racist she is (that’s sarcasm, if you’re bad at metaphor and irony).

So Mellet, a person acquainted (I hope) with metaphor, context, and the DA Newsroom website, should have had no trouble differentiating between what Zille said and meant, and what spin doctors have said about it. The fact that he even complains about her attempts at explaining, when he clearly needs the explanation, is even more horrifying.

So What?

One of the online comments to the Star article thought that this was just a case of name-calling of the sort that takes place all the time in politics. He said:

it funny dat helen zille can call President Zuma names but when it happens to her people must be fired.

Name-calling is always regrettable, and Zille is obviously not always impeccable, but there’s a difference between name-calling and attempting to sow racial hatred by likening someone to an Apartheid monster. The latter is slander, and it might even qualify as racial incitement and hate speech (a British student was imprisoned for racist joking on Twitter recently on these grounds).

One way or another, it is yet another instance in a long line of ANC accusations of racism in the DA, when the evidence is uniformly to the contrary. If you say something enough times, people will start to believe it, and it seems to be the weapon that the ANC is employing to attempt to discredit their opposition, who have an annoying habit of not running provinces into the ground. But if the ANC is having to drum up racism that isn’t there, then who is the one guilty of Apartheid divisiveness?

This tactic seems to me to be an attempt to bring back the divisions of 20 years ago so that it can once again be ‘the ANC against the racist oppressor’; it is an attempt to restock Nelson Mandela’s political capital without having Mandela’s integrity. And sadly, if some of the comments on the Star article are any indication, it is working.

Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

I recently wrote criticising the Democratic Christian Alliance for being over-sensitive in the matter of the slightly-sexually-suggestive DASO poster. In the same post, I also hinted that, according to my moral outlook, sex belongs only within a marriage relationship. A reader complained that, in implying that certain sexual acts are immoral, I was demonstrating that I actually agree with the CDA position that I claimed to oppose. This is my attempt at explaining how the CDA and I differ.

The difference between my approach and that of the CDA is the difference between public and private ethics. In a pluralistic society, there is likely to be (or ought to be) a difference between what one personally considers to be morally right, and what one considers to be morally binding on everybody else. The CDA response to the ‘immoral’ poster was out of line because as a political organisation they need to demonstrate why their moral opinions should be binding on all; they ought not to be making accusations without evidence and on the basis of their preferences.

The harm principle

Public morality—at least in the hands of liberal politicians—tends to be governed by the harm principle. It says that one is permitted to do nearly anything, so long as no one gets hurt (against their will). It is not too different from that common moral teaching, ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you’. It is a good principle in the sense that it gives wide and satisfying scope for individual freedom, and it is also a reasonably simple and practical guideline for public behaviour.

I am in favour of the harm principle as the criterion to which members of society should be held. While it makes it highly unlikely that the wider public will ever live in a way that I consider moral, it also means that no one will force their ideas about morality on me. Furthermore, the same principle gives me the freedom to practice Christianity even under the rule of non-Christian governments, it allows me to tell people what I believe, and it allows us all to change our beliefs if we wish. Even if I wanted a government that forced Christian standards upon all citizens (I don’t), I would undoubtedly be at war with a government that attempted to force me to live according to another religion. If I would find this government interference to be evil when it goes against me, how could I consider it good and loving to others to support such interference just because the moral preferences suit me?

So I find the principle of harms to be the best way of accommodating the variety of belief present in pluralistic society, but I don’t think therefore that it is an ideal moral system.

The problem with harms

The harm principle is something of a lowest common denominator. I strongly believe that there are moral criteria that extend beyond merely inflicting pain on others.

For example, when conservative religious parties complain about sexual immorality (such as with the DASO poster), the usual response from further left is that the act involves consenting adults acting within a relationship of love, they are harming no one, and so who has the right to tell them that their behaviour is immoral? It seems to me, however, that this line of reasoning is abandoned by nearly everyone when one of the lovers also falls in love with a third consenting adult. There remains a relationship of love between both pairs of consenting adults, and yet the first lover experiences it as betrayal.

As far as I’m aware, infidelity (or is this just premarital polygamy?) doesn’t violate the harm principle. There is no compelling reason why you have to feel hurt when someone loves  you and someone else, and certainly there is no intention to inflict pain. Either way, it is the absence of the positive virtue (fidelity) that defines this sort of action as immoral, rather than the presence of a negative (harm). Sleeping with someone else remains immoral, even if your spouse could not possibly find out and never does.

So, as a public-policy-defining moral basis, the harm principle is good. But as an actual standard of moral ideals, it leaves out too much. Morality, for example, ought to include positive virtues.

The love principle

Rather than ‘harm’ as the main idea, I prefer ‘love’ as the basis for morality, even though that may sound vague or hackneyed. Instead of ‘not doing to others what you’d not want done to you’, the moral ideal should be ‘do as you would have done to you’. It’s an active principle of doing good, rather than merely avoiding evil. Furthermore, the love principle incorporates the principle of harms; as St Paul says,

Whatever commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. [Romans 13:9-10]

Love allows people of different beliefs to coexist in freedom, but it also demands more, both in responsibility to others, and in the limiting of one’s own freedoms for the sake of higher goods, such as fidelity.

Qualities such as ‘love’ and ‘the good’ are difficult to define and harder to legislate, but nevertheless, an individual’s moral judgements should be informed by avoiding immediate harm, positive application of virtue, positive action for the good of others, consideration of function and purpose, and willingness to intervene to prevent present or future harm to the individual or to society. Love, as they say, must sometimes be tough, and so this principle may prove more restrictive (in some ways) than harms does, but nevertheless, morality is always a higher calling than what we do by nature.

Me, the CDA, and sex outside of marriage

So, like the CDA, I believe that promiscuity is immoral, yet unlike the CDA, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of officials and organisations to agree with me or to insist that the wider public must. This is especially true of issues that we consider immoral because they are against God’s commands. If something is to be binding upon everyone, then there needs to be strong support for it beyond ‘It’s against my beliefs’. After all, I wouldn’t want to be punished for having a birthday party or refused a blood transfusion for my child just because a Jehovah’s Witness happened to be in power.

While I believe that adults should be free to engage in sex outside of marriage if they wish, I consider it immoral for reasons in addition to divine command. To be moral, sex needs to conform to the principle of love, and therefore be suitably other-person-centred, yet sex can easily be selfish behaviour that can be extremely unloving.

Because the sex act involves unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust between participants, and because participating in it (generally speaking) includes the possibility of bearing children, there is a level of commitment implicit in the act. If one is truly acting in a loving way towards one’s partner, then one should be able to precede sex with an act of commitment that matches the level of trust implicit in sex. If you’ll commit in word to be faithful, but not in deed (by actual contract), then what good is your word? You may well argue that the commitment of marriage is disproportionate to the one implied by having sex, but that’s a matter of opinion. Sex is a powerful emotional force that can do damage if abused, and especially if one adds a pregnancy to the equation, then the willingness to commit to a relational environment built to cope with such consequences (i.e. marriage) no longer seems that extreme. Again, if you can’t take responsibility for those kinds of consequences before sex, are you sure that you will after? So I’d agree with the Biblical judgement that premarital sex has a tendency towards self-gratification rather than the other-person-centeredness of love, and is as such immoral.