Opinion: Why we won’t debate bigots


Matthew Clayton

In the lead up and aftermath of Minister Malusi Gigaba’s decision to prohibit homophobic pastor Steven Anderson and others to enter the country Triangle Project received considerable media attention.

One of these invites included a chance to take part in a panel discussion with a notably homophobic preacher based in Cape Town, but not necessarily widely known outside of the Western Cape.

As an organisation we wrestled with this decision. What is our responsibility as an LGBTI human rights organisation in this instance? Do we have the responsibility to loudly shout down hatred at every opportunity or do we pick our battles and make sure that that we do not play a role in amplifying that same hatred?

In the end, we decided that we would not debate this man and I want to set out the reasons below.

Debating is an exchange or a battle of ideas, where two or more sides argue about an issue. To have a debate suggests that there are different and equal interpretations of an argument battling for supremacy. This is where the first problem exists when we are called to share a stage with a bigot; it suggests that our views are of equal weight and should be granted equal respect as competing ideas.

We want to be clear: there can be no space for an idea that LGBTI people are dangerous predators, animals or innately immoral. To debate with a person who holds those views – even when they are religiously based – is to suggest that those ideas can potentially be valid.

If people wish to debate this man as one Christian to another, both debating their interpretation and application of their faith, that is a different matter. However, to suggest that this man’s interpretation of the bible which suggests killing LGBTI people is subject to debate within a human rights or constitutional framework is dangerous and sensational.

Debate must also play a role in informing people. Hearing two sides of an issue often brings people to question their own assumptions and their own position on issues. It is difficult to see how a debate with a virulent homophobe does anything more than reinforce and amplify hateful views and serve as entertainment. It was tempting to take this opportunity; the man in question has a habit of letting his words run away from him and making outrageous statements. It would have been an easy task to use the harsh lights of a television studio to expose him as the small-minded representative of the fringe’s fringe that he actually is. While this may have been satisfying for many people at home who get to enjoy the spectacle of a man spinning out of control, it does little to further actual debate about LGBTI people, their safety and their rights in our society.

This second part speaks to the quote by Justice Louis Brandeis that “sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” There is of course merit in this argument and perhaps progressive Christians and others would have valued the opportunity to distance themselves from such hatred being perpetuated in the name of their religion. This argument seems to be based on the fact that the views in question are not known or accepted and holds that the scrutiny of many will be the disinfectant that we need to cleanse ourselves of them. What is less clear is what happens where these views are not widely considered abhorrent or – in one form or another – accepted.

A recent survey conducted by The Other Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council found that 72% of respondents believed that same-sex sexual activity is “morally wrong while 48% did not think that gays and lesbians were included in their cultural or traditional heritage. While, 2/3 of respondents support current constitutional protections for LGBTI persons a staggering 1 in 5 have or would consider verbally or physically assaulting an LGBTI person.

In a climate where violence against LGBTI people is common – and often deadly – Triangle Project is concerned about giving publicity or validity to someone who espouses views shared by 72% and 48% of South Africans and encourages violence by the 20% who have declared that they are willing to carry out such a task.

Some of the last words Phoebe Titus heard before she was stabbed in the neck were “vuil moffie”. David Olyne could have overheard his murderers tell some young boys “come watch me kill a moffie” but if he was still conscious he may have heard someone chanting “burn fire, burn!” as the kindling under him was lit. For those who have survived a targeted rape because of their sexual orientation, we know that verbal taunts and degradation include “we’ll show you you’re a woman.”

The inclusion of this gore after valorizing the values of debate and discussion and condemning spectacle may seem hypocritical, but I’ve done so to try to remove this debate out of the abstract. For many LGBTI people the idea of hatred and disgust at their “immorality” is not something they need to discuss on a panel show but is a daily reality. David Olyne, Phoebe Titus and dozens of others who we know and do not know, experienced what happened when you combine hatred with a willingness to kill.

We could also be called hypocrites by our willingness to engage such people in other settings – including this one. We are not against engaging the issues or what they mean, we do however want to be sure that dangerous views do not get the airing they so desperately want. In short, bigotry is not up for debate.

This would have been a good opportunity to give the organisation some needed national exposure and there is much to be said for pragmatism over principles – or principles for their own sake. If we had taken part in this debate, I doubt we would have been able to draw a line between this man’s words and someone’s death or humiliation but he might have provided the final layer of bricks in a wall of hatred which compassion, empathy and respect for the law were not able to scale.

Matthew Clayton is the Research, Advocacy and Policy Manager at Triangle Project, a Cape Town based LGBTI human rights organisation.

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