Thursday, January 22, 2015

Maybe ignorance IS bliss!

I grew up in apartheid South Africa, where virtually all the normal rights accorded to citizens everywhere else were denied to those who were not White.  If one was not White, myriad laws controlled every facet of life.

Not surprisingly, the apartheid government also wanted (and needed) to control the Whites too, to ensure they didn’t get any wayward ideas that segregation may not be the most desirable way to run a country.  To this end, for example, South Africa didn’t get TV until 1976 – and even then what was shown was severely controlled. 

Of course, since the apartheid government comprised mainly conservative Christians, it also had a very active censorship board.  In our genre, wonderful mysteries by James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn were banned because they challenged the premise of segregation.  It was rumoured that Anna Sewell’s famous book Black Beauty was initially taken off the bookshelves until someone discovered that it was about a horse!  And if one wanted to read publications such as Playboy or participate in such soul-endangering activities as gambling, one had to travel to neighbouring Swaziland.

Although many of us were constantly aware of censorship, it was my first visit to The Netherlands in 1972 that really opened my eyes as to what a free press really meant.  At that time Oh Calcutta was being staged in Amsterdam, and conservative groups were objecting to the on-stage nudity, particularly the male nudity.  One evening I was watching the evening news, when the announcer reported on the protests.  “And this is what they are objecting to,” he continued.  The viewers were then shown 10 or 20 seconds of said nudity.

I remember being blown away by this trivial occurrence.  This is how the news should be, I thought.  It is the role of the news to show what is happening so people can make up there own minds.

Equally vivid is my memory of my first exposure to TV news in the United States later that year.  I was shocked by the severe self-censorship – nothing was said or shown that would offend anyone – particularly sponsors.  The disconnect between the USA being the home of the free, and the lack of spine of all news agencies was incredibly distressing.  Even stodgy Britain did a better job.

My last blog, Je suis Charlie, here at Murder is Everywhere honoured those who died in the despicable events in Paris and endorsed what I regard as one of the most important attributes of a democracy, namely free speech.  And millions of others did the same, which is laudable. 

However, I continue to be really depressed by the hypocrisy I see prevalent throughout the West, often at universities, which should know better.  Invited speakers are uninvited because students and staff disagree with their political or religious beliefs (for example Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagard).  Political correctness prevails, and disturbing the status quo is regarded as a negative rather than a strength.  Television programs are pulled because sponsors threaten.  Open debate is shunned.  Instead, pushing one’s own agenda takes precedence over trying to find common ground.  And making money pushes aside the basic tenets of a free society.

I am depressed by the actions of governments, organisations, and private citizens around the world to ban books.  The list is frightening (see here), and the list continues to grow.  I am even more depressed that citizenry allows banning to happen.

Why are so many people afraid of saying what they think?  Why are so many people unwilling to listen to ideas they disagree with?

Je ne sais pas!

Maybe the ostrich isn’t as dumb as we think it is.  

Maybe ignorance IS bliss!

Stan - Thursday


  1. I had the same sorts of experiences as Stan, of course, although I left South Africa in 1960, but returned twelve years later. I think the point he makes is a very important one. All too often the discussion degenerates into the 'Shouting Fire in a crowded theatre' argument, but that is about the legal issues rather than the intellectual ones. The point is that listening and considering first and then, maybe, rejecting is what one asks. So often one gets the rejection before the other parts of that equation.

  2. Thank you Stan! What is happening on our campuses is for me more frightening that the upfront statements of those whose views I shrink from. My definition of "liberal" is a defender of free speech. I was shocked when a member of my family (remote, true) congratulated on a far-left blog those who did not advocate hearing both sides of an issue. At the risk of too long a response here, I would like to describe the experience that changed my way of looking at things. I taught starting in the late '60s and was on the faculty during the era of student protests, sit-ins, and so forth. On one occasion, we were told by the administration to poll our students about whether they wanted me to hold class during a major demonstration on campus. It was almost the end of the term and many of my students were applying to graduate, law, and medical schools. Maybe they were just aware of how many of these demonstrations came just before final exams. In any event, the decision to hold class was unanimous. So we did. About ten minutes into class, a group of students came into the classroom with pots, pans, and instruments to strike them with. They set up such a din and resolutely continued it, that there was no point in our holding our ground. So class was canceled. For me, totalitarianism is totalitarianism, whether of the right or left. And one last comment, again at the risk of being tedious. I often taught classes in which I was to teach students to take a position on a controversial subject and write a brief essay defending their position. My students never knew what my position was. I gave C's to those whose views I agreed with, and A's to those I disagreed with if their papers were well-argued. I taught my students NOT to ignore the opposition but to describe its argumentsand then show why the opposing argument was stronger. When I look back at my teaching career, I am rather proud of this aspect of it. In my department I was considered that loathed thing, a conservative. But almost all my letters of appreciation came from minority students who thanked me for what I taught them. In any event, they really didn't need me to tell them they had suffered from racism. I was trying to train them to have my job someday.
    I loved James McClure!

  3. One of my favorite South African music groups, "Kalahari Surfers," (really just an ongoing project of Warrick Sony) released an album "Bigger than Jesus" in 1989. It was banned by the authorities because it was deemed "Abhorrent and hurtful." This was a case of the weak challenging the state, the very reason we have the right to free speech.

    I'm worried when the powerful assert this right to perpetuate their power. Case in point: Condoleeza Rice. She actively lied to the U.S. and the world to help start a war of choice in Iraq. There are plenty of reports and investigations official and otherwise that make that plain.

    Unfortunately, she happened to graduate from the same graduate school I did, only a few years earlier. When the school chose her as the honorary Keynote speaker for its 50th anniversary, I was appalled and let the school know that I didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore. I don't think I'm being intolerant. Why should I listen to someone who knowingly violated international law and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?

    1. But you didn't go to the talk and try to disrupt it. Letting the school know you felt is an exercise of free speech. I wish that kind of exercise was more effective, more often.

    2. Michael, as Barbara says, you exercised your free speech in a responsible manner. Actually, I would have been less opposed to Rice speaking (I, too, probably wouldn't have attended), than I would have been about her being given an honorary degree.

      I have always held the belief that giving an honour to someone living is a probably not a good idea, particularly when the person is in the political or religious domains.

      That being said, I wouldn't
      decline an Edgar!!

  4. I applaud your position on the American press, Stan. I've about had it with the righteous self importance of folks milking stories solely for viewer share, while at the same time avoiding taking on the sorts of issues that should be tackled by a free press. They're all afraid, in this 24/7 news world, of doing something to offend their viewer base or a government that could screw with their licenses or telecom deals.

    As for those at universities that dis-invite clearly responsible speakers as a sign of political awareness, I think they should switch stimulants. It will be interesting to see how they come to interact in the work force once they learn the entire world does not share their opinions.