To see liberty thrive - Politicsweb

I suspect the main reason why liberalism is so much stronger and more enduring than the fiercer (and all too often indistinguishable) ideologies to its left and right is that it does not see the challenge of history as an effort directed at eventually reaching an ideal objective but rather as a daily striving to see liberty thrive.

Michael Morris

I suspect the main reason why liberalism is so much stronger and more enduring than the fiercer (and all too often indistinguishable) ideologies to its left and right is that it does not see the challenge of history as an effort directed at eventually reaching an ideal objective but rather as a daily striving to see liberty thrive.

This may not seem very impressive against the drilling phalanxes on the right and the cheerless cadres avidly organising on the left. To be sure, there’s nothing as grand in the daily struggle as one might imagine there’d be in an epochal one. But it does mean that liberalism is much more vigorous than it looks, being perpetually unresting – and always somewhat restless, filled with questions, instinctively doubtful, willing to think everything through afresh in every given circumstance. Liberalism is always alive to the moment, and the opportunity that every moment presents.

And, there, in a nutshell, is what a free society is. Conservatives and leftists alike fear the danger of not being in charge, of not being able to design the schema and determine the rules, and of allowing other ideas to come to the fore; liberals relish the freedom of others, whatever the risks, recognising that the freedom of everyone else is indivisible from their own.

Some readers will at this point doubtless be filled with foreboding at what’s to come: a reprise on the theme of Julius Malema, race hatred, and free speech in what is a continuing conversation among liberals (and in particular between myself and Martin van Staden). Van Staden began the exchange with his piece of 10 August, ‘Flags and threats: a liberal rumination on the limits of free expression’. To my response, ‘Mistaking the “Malema” risk: a reply to Martin van Staden’, Van Staden replied with ‘Julius Malema’s threats of force and the liberal order’s rules of the game’ on 7 September. This, in turn, is my answer.

I am embarrassed to be reminded that, when I thanked Van Staden in the comments section for ‘devoting so much energy and insight to what I think is a critical topic, freedom of speech being, after all, the foundational freedom’, and concurring that ‘we agree on more than we disagree on – as well as that it’s the disagreements that are notable, and likely to produce the most interesting and important conversations’, I promised to respond ‘in the next few days’. Well, that was in the second week of September. We are all busy people.

The topic, however, does not age. For this we must be grateful; the argument, as I suggested last month, must go on.

A good place to begin, then, is to dispute Van Staden’s impression that I am – as he felt my initial arguments implied – a ‘free-speech absolutist …defending the freedom of people to say unpopular things regardless of what it is they are saying’.

Worst possible things

In fact, I am not a free speech absolutist – I have actually never met one, and doubt very much I ever will – but I do believe in striving to keep the limit at a discomforting extreme, that is, steeling myself to be willing to hear the worst possible things, to know what they are and so to have the opportunity to decide how to respond. This is not a question of tolerating the worst possible things. Toleration is not a good word, because at least part of the purpose of being willing to hear unpalatable things is to determine if and perhaps when and certainly why they cannot be tolerated.

For me, the yearning for the freedom to speak wells from a conviction that free speech remains the best means of countering – not tolerating – intolerance.

This is the essential reason why I believe one must be willing to take free speech to a discomforting (though not an absolute) extreme. It is at the extreme that bad ideas must be fought, if only because that is precisely where they live and breathe.

I am reminded, here, of reader Dawie Swanepoel’s direct request in the comments section, in which, referring to an element of Van Staden’s argument (touching on racism, homophobia and the contentions about the ‘dead piece of cloth’ that was the old South African flag), he asked: ‘In your reply I would like to see your opinion on “Kunene, Sparrow, Momberg, Qwelane, and a ‘dead piece of cloth’”.

Set against all the things that Julius Malema has said, the bigotry and racism of ‘Kunene, Sparrow, Momberg, Qwelane’, and the offensiveness (or otherwise) of that quite aptly described ‘dead piece of cloth’, arguably pale into insignificance as threats of a kind that the average sensible South African would consider worth paying much attention to.

No match for us

Bigots and racists, and even those all but emasculated white supremacists who remain determined to invest their shabby nostalgia in that ‘dead piece of cloth’, may well pose some sort of threat (just as provoking racial hatred often has in history) to the rest of us who are more or less level-headed and manage to assert our differences without being infantile, demeaning or gratuitously offensive. But the truth is, they are no match for us – for as long, and only for as long, as we are willing to defend and sustain freedom of speech, which has proved so effective in defeating the kind of narrow-mindedness and fear that these examples represent.

It stands to reason, then, that as I baulk at the idea of using the law to punish Malema in the hope of defeating his hateful ideas, I am no less resistant to the idea of using the law against ‘Kunene, Sparrow, Momberg, Qwelane, and a dead piece of cloth’.

I’m inclined to think the only comparable elements in this greater equation are Qwelane and Malema, in the sense that it is not inconceivable that their sentiments could be traced in some way to real harm being perpetrated against real people. Equally, knowing how differently Malema sounds to me as he does to others, I have no doubt there are likely legions of South Africans for whom the words of Sparrow and Momberg cut deeply.

The issue, however, is not the degree of offensiveness, or determining permissibility on the grounds of what we are willing to tolerate.

Risk is the issue; how does society respond to ideas that place it, or its members, at risk? Does banishing certain ideas rehabilitate conduct, or guarantee safety? If we lock up people who think hostile thoughts, will we rid society of hostility?

Van Staden raises interesting legal questions about the almost impossible difficulties associated with the idea of ‘imminence’, imminence in the sense, as the Constitution has it (and to which I am wedded), of setting the limit of free speech at, among other things, ‘incitement of imminent violence’.


I think he is right to emphasise the difficulty, but my inclination is to wrest this subject away from the legal domain, the domain of precision and cool rationality. Let us rather be imprecise, and uncertain, and steel ourselves to be reckless. Let us try to be as free as we can manage, let’s listen to the other side, and be willing to consider every kind of counterargument, and every threat to our position, and try to remember that our opponents are as human and as fallable as we are. Perhaps if we see their freedom to speak as being equivalent to ours, we will find it easier to listen, and be heard.

The risk of abandoning free speech in favour of law and order is that we abandon even the questions about what it is we wish to sustain and preserve.

Van Staden highlights these things when he writes: ‘One cannot speak of a “freedom to threaten the freedom of others”. The very notion is incoherent. When we advocate for freedom and live in freedom, we are thinking and speaking precisely of a society where freedom is legally secure from aggressive force. If a “free society” allows aggressive force, then it is not a free society.’

And, later: ‘When Morris, therefore, writes, “Ideas, no longer contestable, become actions, points of dispute become stones, bullets, missiles. Contest becomes conflict, and contestants, combatants. The idea will out,” it is precisely my approach that seeks to stop society from reaching this point. It is Julius Malema who has moved beyond the realm of ideas into the realm of physical conflict.’

To this, I have to ask: But has he? I am still not convinced. He has spoken, or sung, or chanted, about ‘physical conflict’, but not engaged in it.

Not a warlord

He remains a political actor on an open political stage – he is not a warlord, whatever his fevered fantasies and tinpot tyrant antics – and this is where we must meet him, and make him account for his views. (By doing so, we also contribute to making sure that he is compelled to remain in the political sphere, and not feel in the least justified in moving out of it.)

Whatever the potential import of his revolutionary repertoire, judging how to respond to Malema’s sentiments or the manner of his expressing them is not in any way akin to deciding how to react to legislation such as the Nuremberg laws (as Van Staden suggested), which – like any other law or any decision of government, from imposing a tax to declaring war – can only sensibly be counted as an action, not an idea (and one that will have been the shaped by or been an expression of the presence or absence of free speech).

On the other hand, I am almost entirely at one with Van Staden when he writes in his conclusion: ‘Freedom is something – perhaps the only thing – worth using coercive violence for, but never against. Far from merely arguing for it – which we must also do, relentlessly, as Morris correctly advocates – we must be willing to invoke force in defence of freedom. And, indeed, going all the way back to John Locke, this is precisely why the state exists.’

This is quite right, as far as it goes. But a niggling, quintessentially liberal question is this: what exactly is this freedom that is worth invoking force to defend if it is not a freedom to express dangerous thoughts? Aren’t these every society’s most pressing?

To return to my opening thoughts, my sense is that freedom – the ‘liberty’ of liberalism – can only be virtuous to the extent that it risks tolerating the contemplation of its very antithesis. If it doesn’t have the confidence of winning that argument, what confidence can it possibly have?

Fundamental rule

Van Staden’s headline refers to ‘the liberal order’s rules of the game’. I think the great virtue of the liberal order is that it doesn’t set much store by rules, generally finding that rules obstruct more than nurture liberty. You could have all the mutual respect in the world, all the amity you could wish for, and the highest standards of law and order capable of guaranteeing a peaceable society unmarred by disruption and the threat of violence – but without free speech you would not have liberty. That, to my mind, is the fundamental rule of the game, and the key to the opportunities that only a freely speaking society has access to.

In what at times seems the furnace of South Africa’s 2023, it may have become instinctive to conflate a man expressing a violent idea with a man committing violence. But I remain convinced that (even accepting that sincerely expressing a violent idea may indeed pose a real danger), in failing to separate action from idea – and so being willing to invoke the law to silence the thought in the hope of disabling the action we fear it may provoke – we risk lending credence to the notion that less freedom may better serve our wellbeing because it is the only way to confront the threats our history has delivered.

Liberals, I suggest, think differently.

IRR head of media Michael Morris was a newspaper journalist from 1979 to 2017, covering, among other things, the international campaign against apartheid, from London, and, as a political correspondent in Cape Town, South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has written three books, the last being Apartheid, An Illustrated History, and has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. He writes a fortnightly column in Business Day.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.