My way or the high way, and the constitutional way

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My way or the highway

Can it be argued that; it is human nature to think that our opinions are the right ones? And to actually think that our opinions should take precedence over other people’s opinions?, can this really be? These are probably some of the important questions one would have to go through if we are to talk of tolerance or other phrases we use, like “celebrating diversity”. This being an important issue in how we are grown up in our homes, how we socialize and the kind of education that we receive in our schools, it becomes important to look more in depth into the issue of whose opinion is “right”. Although I struggle with the issue of what “right” is, as this seems to be changing at different times in the same place and in different places at the same time. But which falls in another topic deserving of its own opinion piece.

If it is one’s expectation that those around him are to go with his/her opinions on a particular issue, the first question that would probably come to our minds is; why should I go with your opinion, which in a rational case, the person whose opinion is to be adopted, would then provide a fair and compelling argument so that the others will agree and appreciate their view to the point that they also adopt it. But on the other hand one of the concerning things with our views is how much they change. Thinking about, how many times in my short existence my view on a number of issues, has changed I am actually lead to inform those who may look up to a particular view I hold to say, please don’t refer to me because it might change tomorrow.

I am lead to the belief that if we actually took the time to ask how our opinions come about and become entrenched in our minds as the right ones we may actually be on the path to some tolerance. Some of the issues that raise concern are the “hard” ones that we often prefer to avoid as they in many cases lead to serious disagreements which may even strain relations.  Issues of sexuality, masculinity, the roots of rape and religion, are just some of the issues that come to mind. Views on these issues are not only limited to individuals, but they can form part of fierce debates, involving national parliaments and some of these views being adopted as legislation and becoming the view of the states. One issue that comes to mind at this point is the much debated “kill the gays” Bill that is sitting before the Ugandan parliament. We know of states that adopt single religions that then become the national religion and thus the view of the citizens in terms of religion, this is the case with some Islamic Republics and those of other religions. There is very little question, at least among some of my peers that religion can be a bit problematic, especially where there is differences in religious preference, more so when ones religious preference goes contrary to that of the state.  This is because; whether or not the state has a national religion and allows for anyone to hold their religious views, has a bearing on how the laws of the country will treat these views. A simple illustration in this case is the fact that the Republic of South Africa is not a religious state, but allows for the existence and protection of the rights of people who fall into a variety of religious groups, from Christians, Jews, Muslims and Rastafarians. On the other hand, a state like the Islamic Republic of Iran has a national religion which is Islam. Of interest is the effect this distinction has on the recognition of other religions in the particular nation. This difference is key, since the constitution, the laws and the justice system in the country will be fundamentally different, as in SA for example, different religions will have to comply with the country’s constitution, which is seen as the supreme law of the country in issues of justice, morality, ethics and human rights, where as in a religious state, the country’s constitution is subservient to the text or source upon which the religion is based.

People being different, even within a state that would be considered homogeneous in terms of religion or ethnicity, differences in opinions are always seen in a number of cases. The difficulty being that in religious states, the law of the country is often based or is subservient to texts (holy books) which some believe should not be changed or the views on them, this in addition to the different kinds of interpretations that different people will have with regards to different sections of the text. Are non religious states better than religious states? This is really a question that any individual is at liberty to decide for oneself, however, the fact that in the case of constitutions which are drafted by parliaments and which have clauses to that allow for amendments based on changing environments and people’s views on issues which may have been taken for granted previously, my preference lies with, a constitutional democracy like the one we have in South Africa and a number of other countries. This does not mean that I do not recognize the good that comes out of the teachings of holy books which may add a lot of good in the social fabric of the states, although there are distortions which I will later point to, that actually lead one to an aversion towards religious texts determining the constitution of a country, especially in an increasingly globalized community. It is however worth noting that democracies are not necessarily reigning supreme in the question of protection of rights of individuals and those who would fall into minority groups, based on ethnicity, among other things.

Still trying to make sense of the preference for a constitutional democratic state, the main issue would be the protection of the rights of the citizens of the country and the ability of the state to bring those who infringe on these rights to book. Paramount in people’s rights; are the obvious ones like the right to life, the rights to education, food and shelter for all citizens of the country, important here would be to mention that, these rights merely being enshrined in the constitution is one thing, the next part is for the state to have measures to protect these rights and as mentioned just above, to also have proper legal measures to ensure justice in the case that the rights are infringed upon.

The impetus for writing this essay, lies heavily in the recent cases I and many concerned individuals have been observing, including a number of corrective rapes committed against lesbians in South Africa, a picture of a gay guy being beaten which I saw on facebook and most recently the brutal rape against an Indian lady which culminated in her death in another country (Singapore) where she was receiving serious medical attention.  Many of us would have noticed the images associated with this case of the 23 year old, Indian medical student. There would be little difference in many countries, including India in the opinion that it is important to bring the perpetrators to book. I was however very concerned on reading in South Africa’s “The Times” about a spiritual leader (Ashram Bapu) who felt(and articulated this in public), that “This tragedy would not have happened if she had chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers. The error was not committed by just one side,” now my understanding of the reported news on the brutality of the rape leaves me without words. This did not only remain a concern but it reminded me that much of the issues we see, actually come about as a result of long held views around gender, sexuality and the dynamics of sex, including how men can even feel that they are entitled to decide what women will wear, look like to be acceptable and what to actually do when they (women) do not conform to these views. It is obviously not my intention to present these issues mentioned above as the only concrete sources of these acts, although I remain convinced that there is a huge link, which lead to the intertwined nature of the source of these injustices and criminal acts.

To delve much on this single case, important as it is, would be to miss the point, since these cases are seldom isolated and do not start in these extreme ways, they start with the rights of the individuals and the question of how the perpetrators are brought to justice when such acts are committed. These issues point a lot to the rights of women, and how their bodies are viewed and ultimately seen as ways to inflict pain or revenge. India and South Africa not being the only countries where these crimes are committed on a continuous basis, with estimates that about 1357 rape cases( in SA) in the 2012 festive season, which is usually a time where there is a generally jolly mood, and also understanding that a number of these acts are committed by loved ones , we are then faced more with the question of why this is happening, because in truth; merely bringing the perpetrators to book might not be the ultimate way to solve the problem in a socially constructive way, Important as justice is.  We will have to look at the fundamental changes in attitudes that lead to these criminal offences. It is not uncommon to hear of the idea that “she can’t refuse me sex”, simple as the statement may be, it has a long history as to why she can’t, and whether it is applicable vice versa.

Soosan Feroz, lauded by some and shunned by others as the first female rapper in Afghanistan, sings about these issues in her music where she looks at some of the commonly held opinions by men in some countries being the idea of a deficient female as she says in the song; Naqis-Ul Aql (Deficient in mind) to be released soon. Afghanistan being a country that some would define as sexist. Although one is to respect the sovereignty of countries and individual people’s views, things tend to be different when we have to address human rights and issues, among which; slavery was and injustices on the basis of gender fall into. This may be what Nadine Godimer was referring to when she spoke of “crimes of conscience” where one would be committing a crime against his/her own conscience by standing by and watching injustices in the name of what sovereign states, culture or what individuals deem to be the law.

There are of course a number of issues that lie behind this treatment of women (though gender injustice is just one of many), but chief among these I feel lies in patriarchal, cultural and religious views that we have adopted, all of which may hold some economic or social benefit for one group at the expense of the other. With some people choosing to hold on to orthodox views on these issues, we also realize that as societies grow, there are many things assimilated from other cultures, many things reviewed and some discarded as we learn more among ourselves, from other cultures and scientific research which has helped to a large extent in how we currently understand a number of things about man and the world.  Some things having been called unnatural for long periods of time, the next question is one that points to the kind of views that leave us with the kind of brutal acts, as I described above.

Are people born gay or choose to be? And what then?

Writing this and tuned to talk radio 702, the show presenter being one who I have found to do a good job in challenging these issues and those who hold them, Eusebius Mckaiser, as he engages the author of an article that appeared in Business Day Live, the previous day (06 January 2013). In this article Stephen Mulholland argues that Same-sex parents have special duty to their children, where he looks back in time and mentions a number of people who made immense contributions in human civilization  from the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Francis Bacon who had homosexual relations and goes on to quote the Christian bible in the book of Leviticus; “With a male you are not to lie (after the manner of) lying with a woman; it is an abomination.” As I read along I sense that he could be religious and his quoting of Leviticus directs me to him being Jewish or Christian unless he is a non religious person who sources morality from any place convenient, but then my suspense was resolved when the author writes that “In the US, nine states plus Washington DC recognize same-sex marriages notwithstanding the powerful opposition of the Catholic Church, to which I belong”.

Although the United States of America is a federation of a number of states with their own constitutions which may not necessarily agree with the views of the other states or the federal government, it is a different case in a country like Republic of South of Africa which is a single constitutional state, which essentially means that the different sectors of society will come together to discuss issues and furnish reasons why we see a particular view to be good for the state, which when the majority of those who are charged by the electorate(our representatives) with making the law of the country, it will then be signed into law, the supreme law of the country being the constitution. What happens when the constitution of the country states that there shall not be discrimination on the basis of gender, race, creed, sexuality and religion, but we have a number of people who are prejudiced with regards to these issues? The basis of these prejudices may learn a thing from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche, when he says;

“You have your way, I have my way, as for the right way, correct way, and the only way, it does not exist”

Citizens being bound by our geographical and social coexistence, beyond our individual opinions, religions and sexual preferences, we may have to look at a common set of laws which are meant to guarantee that we are all entitled to our liberties in opinion and belief without infringing on the rights of others. The constitution may not be the best of all texts pertaining to justice and morality, but for our common existence we may benefit from learning what it entails, to ensure the best form of coexistence in the face of all our differences.

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Phillippa Yaa De Villiers

Phillippa Yaa would love to see Peace and Justice in her office at 9 please!

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