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Dignity in la-la land: Why anybody can’t paint anybody’s penis

By Leonhard Praeg

We all know that political liberals live in a la-la land that hovers, somewhat like a virtual reality, over the real geography of political time and space. For citizens of la-la land “freedom of expression” is the same in South Africa as it is in Zimbabwe as it is in New Zealand, Belgium and Canada. The whole point of these rights, they never tire of reminding us with condescending paternalism, is that they are universal and that context should have very little to do with exercising them. There is something so comforting in this belief that I sometimes lie awake at night praying to the Dear Lord to let me grow up faster so that I, too, can be mature. I, too, want to believe that when we stepped out of apartheid hell into democracy; that the playing field was levelled overnight; that we don’t need to correct the imbalances of the past with extra juridical policies like affirmative action because the sheer numerical superiority of blacks will sort them out; I too want to believe that since we all have the same rights, what it means to exercise those rights is independent of our personal and collective history and context. ‘Cause they’re universal rights, stupid!”

But let us not confuse the nature of a right with its meaning. In fact, let’s resist the liberal tendency to say that the meaning of a right – deriving as it does from history and context – has nothing to do with the nature of that right. After all, isn’t this what liberals keep telling us: that in order to enter la-la land you have to forget about the meaning of a right and accept that what matters is only the nature of that right? The nature of the right allows us to say something like “anybody can paint anybody’s penis” because we all have the right to freedom of expression. But it means different things to different people to have this right or to be subject to, or the object of, the exercise of this right. To a white liberal to be called “soutpiel” is not the same as it is for a black person to be called “kaffir”. That’s why we proscribe, by limiting, the right to freedom of speech in case of the latter and not the former. By the same token and despite the fact that it amounts to claiming the same right, what it means to represent a back penis is not the same as what it means to represent a white penis for the simple reason that the latter was never used as synecdoche for “primitive”.

Of course, liberals are bound to argue that “what the right means to you” has nothing to do with me; that we meet at the exact point where our mutual exercise of the right is guaranteed. But that “exact point” is la-la land because it assumes that the playing field is level; that what it means to represent white and black penises is secondary to our right to do so. And this is exactly what is so terribly annoying about the rights talk of political liberals. Zapiro’s first response to The Shield was “this is a much more mature response” to The Spear; much more mature than defacing The Spear or staging protest marches outside the Goodman Gallery. Mature?? Mature?? A silly game of representational tit for tat is more mature than violent rage against a system designed to recognise only the nature of rights but not their meaning; a system that once again leaves black people with very little to fight back against the re-re-presentation of the black penis as short-hand for various forms of legitimate and illegitimate Afro-pessimisms; a political system that acts oblivious of the fact that the meaning of a sign like “the black penis” is never controlled by its author but inescapably functions as continuation of a meaning derived from the archive of colonialism? No, it would be immature to rattle the gates of la-la land because we all have the same rights now don’t we? Best we “get back at them” and paint some “white people with their penises and vaginas” – as if that would put things right; as if that means the same. That’s mature for you.

I personally think the most interesting response in this debacle so far has come from protesters outside the gates of the Goodman Gallery; not those who called “racism! racism!” (although this, too, may be the populist imagination grappling with the distinction between the nature and meaning of rights) but those who insisted on “respect” and “dignity”. But it’s exactly this appeal that drives the liberal escape into la-la land. For, what if we were to take seriously the demand to balance the universality of the nature of rights with the local meanings of those rights? Isn’t that what we tried to do when we included the right to dignity in the Bill of Rights? Isn’t the really interesting conversation waiting to happen here about the tension between freedom of speech and the right to dignity? Wouldn’t such a conversation force us to take (South) Africa’s history into consideration when we calculate the priority of rights? Instead of patronising us with talk of “maturity” should we not be talking about what it means to re-imagine rights from the bottom up, from within history, locality and meaning?

An appeal to dignity would, of course, not be the end, but the beginning of the conversation; a conversation that should take place in the political domain instead of being handed over to the courts to decide on. But it will be an important beginning because some of the questions that must be addressed will include the following. If, as Drucilla Cornel and Justices Albie Sachs and Yvonne Mokgoro have argued, dignity should be considered the bedrock norm (Gründnorm) of the South African Constitution, what would such a dignity jurisprudence look like? What would be the implications of such a jurisprudence for other fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights? Would appeals to dignity be the sole preserve of patriarchal, male presidents or would it also be invoked to enhance the rights of women and children – not to mention all the homosexuals who have been “knocked down” by a president on whose behalf some now appeal to dignity and respect?

Leonhard Praeg is a professor in the political and international studies department at Rhodes University and co-ordinator of its Thinking Africa July colloquium on Ubuntu: Curating the Archive.

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