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Op-eds

Wounding words. Who decides?

  • Geoff
What should we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an SMS to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. She admitted it was wrong, but protested that he had invaded her privacy by reading her SMS. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jul 05, 2018

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured, and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character of one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’…”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, which deals with slavery in pre-Civil War America, both of which contain offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years”. But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying that rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel groups. How long will this list of no-no’s become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent WhatsApp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust would be a picnic compared to what they were going to do to them, will test free-speech boundaries. Should those people be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. Economic Freedom Fighters Leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists”, and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should that be allowed? Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words “black” and “beauty” on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

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