IF YOU believe you support free speech, try this test. A bank decides it wants to signal to its clientele its support for our elected government. It flights an advertisement in which young people in the suburbs berate their parents’ generation for voting for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and urge them to change their allegiance. One of the youngsters featured in the advert calls a DA leader "brainless".
How do you think the DA ought to react? Would it be within its rights to angrily criticise the advert? Would it also be entitled to urge its supporters to take their banking business elsewhere? And would it not be sensible of the bank to apologise so that it could keep DA supporters’ goodwill?
If you answered "no" to any of the questions, it is hard to understand why. If a political party encounters an advert urging people to vote against it, it is surely entitled to an angry response. And, if a business antagonises customers for any reason, the most obvious recourse for those who are offended is to switch to a company that does not offend them. Consumer choice is a core principle of a market economy: customers can change from one business to another for any reason. Urging people to change businesses is not an abuse of power — it is a call to exercise a consumer’s most basic right. And any business that offends customers is surely doing the sensible thing when it says sorry.
If you answered "yes" to the questions, you presumably agree that the African National Congress (ANC) was within its rights to object to FNB’s recent advert and that the company did the right thing by apologising. And you surely also agree that those who have been denouncing the ANC for objecting and FNB for apologising are not supporting free speech but trying to crush it.
One obvious objection to this argument is that the ANC is in government. If an opposition party expresses anger, it can’t use the state to punish those who act against it — the governing party can. But at no stage during the dispute was there the slightest suggestion that the government would get involved in the issue. Nor did the ANC ever threaten to use its control of government to punish FNB. Throughout, the ANC acted as any party would in the same circumstances.
The analogy is, therefore, accurate. If you attack political parties, they have a right to defend themselves — whether in government or in opposition. Those who accuse the ANC of bullying are, in effect, saying that it has no right to react when an advert campaigns against it. This means everyone is entitled to free speech, except the governing party.
Commentary on the FNB controversy shows how deep the disconnect between our mainstream debate and reality have become. Much of the commentary implies that it is normal for a bank to flight an advert that includes an appeal to vote against a particular party and abnormal for the party to take offence. But there seems to be no other case anywhere in the world in which a major company in a democracy has included appeals to vote against a particular party in any of its adverts.
The reason is hardly rocket science. In a free society, companies can put anything they like in their adverts as long as it breaks no law — but those who the adverts offend enjoy the same freedom to speak. So, if companies identify themselves with attacks on parties, the parties and their supporters are entitled to react angrily, creating problems for the company. It was not the advert that was normal, but the reaction to it.
To ignore this is to betray a deep prejudice that makes freedom impossible: a belief that free speech is the right only of those with whom you agree.
Those who use democratic language to demand rights for some but not others are giving freedom a bad name — they offer ammunition to those in our society who say that democratic freedoms impose the values of a minority on everyone else.
It should not normally need saying that to defend anyone’s right to speak is not to agree with what they say. But so distorted has our debate become that it is necessary to point this out because anyone who defends the governing party’s right to speak is dismissed as an apologist.
So it needs repeating: democrats can disagree with everything a party says, but still insist on its right to say it.
Those who deny the governing party free speech also prevent the society having the conversations it badly needs. It is absurd to argue that we need more talking between the key interests and to demonise one of those interests whenever it speaks.
We remain a deeply divided society and so we desperately need a frank national conversation in which our differences are aired in the hope that compromises can be found. It cannot begin as long as prejudice disguised as a concern for freedom insists that only some of us can be heard.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.