Picture: 123RF/PHARTISAN
Picture: 123RF/PHARTISAN

I met Gareth van Onselen in the green room at eNCA. He had just published a scathing column on AfriForum, to which I responded in writing as well.

“Are we here for the same interview?” he asked. “I believe so,” I answered.

“They didn’t tell me that this was going to be a debate,” he said. “I think I’m gonna bail.” With that he left .

The same Van Onselen has now published another scathing article, attacking AfriForum for being opposed to debate. The underlying issue was the anti-Christian article by Ivo Vegter, in response to which I commented on social media, saying that I think the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) should not have published it.

Van Onselen regards this as an inconsistent application of free speech, which is strange, given that he supported the firing of David Bullard by the IRR for tweeting a joke about the “k-word” (referring to kleptocrats).

In glaring self-contradiction, Van Onselen relished in his observation that liberals did not rush to Bullard’s defence under the banner of free speech. It is “perfectly legitimate” for a political advocacy group to fire people or campaign against people who espouse views with which they disagree, he argued.

Between his arguing for tolerance of different opinions, he also claims that it is principally important to mock and ridicule those with whom we disagree. Moreover, ridiculing people who believe in God is especially important, he seems to believe. This because it is in the interest of his definition of what it means to be free.

We all want freedom. Van Onselen’s idea of freedom, with its emphasis on mocking and ridiculing, as opposed to peaceful coexistence through mutual respect, is, however, completely detached from reality. It can only be achieved once human nature, particularly the sense of worth, the desire to have meaning, to be part of and believe in something bigger than our mere individualistic selves (Plato’s thumos and Aristotle’s telos, you might say), has been destroyed.

Perhaps Van Onselen might argue that he wants no such thing. He would, however, have to agree that the liberalism he pursues, seeks to destroy all forms of authority outside the individual and replace it with a new overarching authority: the authority of the detached, atomistic individual, exclusively protected by the state, of course. This is both utopian and imperialistic.

It illustrates zero cognisance of the inverse relation of that which he seeks to achieve and that which he seeks to destroy.

It is a conception of freedom that is, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, “deeply confused”. It demands the repudiation of qualitative distinctions and the rejection of constitutive goods as such, while it employs its own qualitative distinctions and seeks to establish its own constitutive goods.

Put simply: It does not seek to destroy that which people naturally hold dear merely for the sake of an undefined idea of freedom, but to destroy it for the sake of replacing it with their own set of ideas. These ideas are detached from reality, as it can only succeed through the destruction of human nature itself. Only once human nature as we know it has been destroyed, might the likes of Van Onselen succeed in their imperialistic quest to change the world according to their philosophical ideas.

But Van Onselen, and Vegter for that matter, have evidently not given thought to what is going to fill the void once they have succeeded in their anti-religious crusade.

A utopian would merely look forward to a world without religion in which we are all free and happy, as imagined by John Lennon. Ironically, this utopia is not more realistic than that of the other “Lenin” and his mentor, Karl Marx, when they envisioned a communist society as one where we can all “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening [and] criticise after dinner”.

There is room for ridicule and mockery in robust public discourse. However, a world in which the importance of mockery is elevated above the importance of respect is one that you might describe as a world devoid of values. A more accurate description of this utopia is a world in which existing value systems have been destroyed, only to be replaced by the likes of Van Onselen’s own value system.

In the real world, you might succeed in destroying religion — but only for a while. Only once Christianity has been destroyed and the void has been filled by something much worse than their preconceived idea of Christianity, might they discover that Christianity is a force for good in the world. If your quest is to unite the middle ground, showing some respect for Christians and Christianity is a good place to start.

Ernst Roets
Head of policy and action: AfriForum

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