Every year in February, the Remember And Give (RAG) team at the University of Cape Town publishes an irreverent, funny, satirical – and sometimes offensive – magazine known as Sax Appeal in order to raise funds for the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO), which does truly amazing and inspirational work in very difficult circumstances.
Every year on Sax Appeal Day, groups of energetic and enthusiastic students in fancy dress and sometimes distinctly odd costumes spread out all around the Cape Peninsula, pouncing on unsuspecting motorists at intersections and traffic lights, teasing, pleading and cajoling them to buy one, two or even three copies of Sax Appeal.
The cover of this year’s Sax Appeal looked like this:
Almost invariably, there is always at least one article or cartoon in the magazine that causes offense to someone somewhere, and it’s usually politicians or religious organisations.
This year, it was a two-page article called “Top Ten Atheist Retorts to Fundamentalist Christians” that caused a huge outcry. So that you can judge for yourself, and in case you haven’t bought a copy of the RAG-mag, I’ve scanned in the offending two pages (be warned, they ain’t pretty, so please don’t pelt me with rotten eggs for posting them).
Here are a few extracts from relevant newspaper articles.
“Prominent Cape Town Christian leader Errol Naidoo [from the Family Policy Institute in Cape Town] on Thursday sent out a mass email asking Christians to protest what he described as an ‘outrageous’ attack on their faith. ‘If UCT attempted this despicable attack against any other faith group there would have been a major outcry by now and perhaps even violence,’he said in the email.” (UCT apologises for ‘blasphemous’ satire – article dated 20 February 2009)
“Earlier on Friday, the Christian Democratic Alliance said it would ask the SA Human Rights Commission to look into the contents of Sax Appeal. The CDA realised the matter should be taken to the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Language Communities.
‘But according to our information this commission is dysfunctional at the moment, and according to information obtained from the media, ha[s] not found in the favour of Christian complainants in a single case.'” (UCT apologises for ‘blasphemous’ satire – article dated 20 February 2009)
The Rev Kenneth Meshoe, MP and President of the African Christian Democratic Party, issued a statement on 23 February, demanding a public apology from the authors and editors of the magazine for publishing hate-speech on Christ, Christians and Christianity. (UCT must apologise over Sax Appeal– Kenneth Mashoe – 23 February 2009)
Another insert that raised the ire of Christian organisations was a full-page cartoon by the (in)famous Zapiro (the pen-name of Jonathan Shapiro):
“Naidoo also took issue with a full page of Zapiro cartoons which he said ‘mock the Levitical injunction against homosexuality’.” (UCT apologises for ‘blasphemous’ satire – article dated 20 February 2009)
This is the cartoon (again, please refrain from egg-tossing):
Personally, I thought it was really clever satire!
It derives its humour from the fact that taking the Bible (or more specifically the Old Testament) literally in the 21st century is fraught with contradictions, and that self-righteous bible-thumpers who quote chapter and verse from the Bible (usually selectively) in order to justify their beliefs and actions or demand certain behaviours from others may actually be rather silly.
Never one to mince his words, or to tone down his views, this is Zapiro’s response to the outcry:
“But artist Jonathan Shapiro said yesterday religions of all kinds were given far too much respect in society. He dismissed Pick ‘n Pay’s action as cowardly. Shapiro said he subscribed to the sentiments in the recent Atheist Bus Campaign in Britain that read: ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
Bill Maher’s controversial document ‘Religious’ – which took a swipe at several organised religions – was the sort of thing that should happen more often, he said. ‘This is exactly the kind of thing that should be in SAX Appeal to make students think and not just to swallow everything whole.’
Shapiro said he believed that ‘religious groups spend their lives waiting to be offended’.
‘It gives them reason for being. That’s what they want. This is their stock in trade, it makes them feel holier than thou, and they all join together in this holier than thou-ness.'” (Rag says sorry for offending Christians – article dated 21 February 2009)
It is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, that Pick ‘n Pay reacted to the hullaballoo by withdrawing copies of the magazine from its shelves:
“Pick ‘n Pay, long-time sponsor of the magazine, has withdrawn copies of the magazine from its shelves following protests.” (UCT apologises for ‘blasphemous’ satire – article dated 20 February 2009)
“Pick ‘n Pay, which has sponsored SAX Appeal and UCT’s community development programme for over 40 years, will meet the university’s RAG committee next week. Some Christian groups had mooted a boycott of the retail group if it did not take corrective action.” ((Rag says sorry for offending Christians – article dated 21 February 2009)
The outcry, which included a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, also forced major advertiser, Pick ‘n Pay, to withdraw the magazine from its shelves and to demand an apology from the students.” (Rag says sorry for offending Christians – article dated 21 February 2009)
In response to a flurry of emails, faxes, phone calls and other correspondence, the UCT RAG team duly apologised, with RAG Chairperson Cameron Arendse saying:
“‘We value all the responses and comments that we have received and we will endeavour to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future. We believe that, in our honest intention to raise funds for the needy, we overstepped the mark and we hope that you will accept our unconditional apology,’ he said.” (Rag says sorry for offending Christians – article dated 21 February 2009)
Even the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Dr Max Price, apologised:
“‘Many of us regardless of religious affiliation have been offended by aspects in the publication and for those let me add my apology.’
The SAX Appeal editorial team would meet UCT management and revisit the role of the editorial advisory board, he said.” (Rag says sorry for offending Christians – article dated 21 February 2009)
As a result of the outcry, a meeting was held last week between Errol Naidoo of the FPI, representatives of the Consultation of Christian Churches, university executives and the marketing director of Pick ‘n Pay, Jonathan Ackerman.
“But Sax Appeal’s student editors were not present at a meeting between Naidoo, representatives of the Consultation of Christian Churches, university executives and Ackerman – because, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor said, ‘the atmosphere created by (the angry emails) made it wise for them not to be here’.” (A sense of outrage, hurt and anguish – article dated 25 February 2009)
On 27 February, Dr Max Price, the University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor, sent out the following email to staff and students at UCT. I am going to quote it in its entirety so that you can get the full impact of his argument, because I think he puts forward his points brilliantly, taking into account all sides of the story:
“Dear Colleagues and Students
This year’s edition of Sax Appeal, the annual UCT Rag publication produced by students, has elicited widespread reaction and debate. I feel it most important that our community discuss issues like these freely and I therefore share my views with you. I welcome your views.
This year’s edition elicited an outcry from many people – including many Christians – objecting strongly to a feature on pages 84 and 85 offering possible retorts for an atheist to certain imagined questions from Christian fundamentalists contained in 10 picture comic frames. Some also objected to a Zapiro cartoon, and to other statements in the magazine.
Following an intense discussion and interrogation of the content on the two pages in question, the RAG chairperson apologised unreservedly to those offended by aspects on these two pages. As Vice-Chancellor, I publicly expressed a view that the apology was indeed appropriate and I added my own apology, expressing regret at the publication of the two pages.
Both apologies are an acknowledgement that aspects of the two pages were offensive, hurtful and disrespectful, particularly to Christians.
The magazine as a whole is not in question and I regret to say that some people who complain about the general quality admit that they have not read it! There are excellent offerings in it. I believe the magazine is a good one – a typical student offering of satire and humour.
The RAG magazine has been produced by our students since the early 1930s and as you know it is sold to support an excellent cause – the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO). The popularity and appeal of Sax Appeal has always been through being provocative, irreverent, funny, satirical and often silly.
I have no doubt that – as is typical in most years – the content will continue to elicit varied responses from different people, from being thoroughly enjoyed to being seen as boring or juvenile.
However, an upsetting number of emails received were insulting in the extreme, even threatening the lives of UCT staff members and insulting individuals in the most grotesque, vitriolic personal attacks. Many have demanded that we discipline the students and institute controls to prevent this happening again. This is regrettable and dangerous, not just for the individuals being threatened, but for society, because such behaviour threatens freedom of speech more generally.
The RAG magazine is produced by a student editorial team that holds editorial independence. Prior to finalisation, the magazine is submitted to an editorial advisory board that this year included one staff member. Its role is to advise on content and other issues relating to the magazine. The emphasis is on advice. It is not – and never should be – the role of the editorial advisory board to edit or censor the content.
For the future, we will strengthen the seniority and weight of academic input into the editorial advisory board.
I think you will agree with me that the independence of students is in itself contributing to the learning experience and we all expect students to take responsibility and to work independently. If, as a result, an error occurs or problems arise, the students have to accept the consequences and we trust they learn from the experience.
In addition to the response from a segment of the community who were offended and wished to see future censorship, there have also been letters in the press questioning whether UCT should have apologised at all, arguing that this hints at self-censorship and concedes to limitations on freedom of speech.
UCT has a proud history of defending freedom of speech. Democracy and political freedom cannot exist if people are not free to express any views and beliefs they have. Furthermore, if this freedom were to be in any way restricted based on the content of the views expressed, it would require some authority to decide which views are unacceptable to society. But how can we trust such an authority not to pursue its own interests, or even with benign intention, to know what is best for all of us, particularly when we are prevented from hearing dissident views. So we tolerate the dangers of ill-informed views, lies, untruths, offensive comments, socially divisive propositions being given public hearing because we cannot trust anyone to hold the monopoly on truth. The evidence suggests that progress is better served through the market place of competing ideas.
A university like ours must defend free speech and enquiry even more vigorously than society in general for it is the basis of our pursuit of truth, and discovery and analysis. The danger of a religious authority prohibiting the expression of views that offend it is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the classic conflict between Galileo and the Church-ruled establishment, for whom the proposal that the earth and humanity were not the centre of the universe was heretical and led to his detention.
For all these reasons, this freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right. Why then would I have discouraged the publication of the picture comic frames, and why have I apologised for them?
Because no freedoms are absolute. The freedom of speech may be limited under certain circumstances. Hate speech is a recognised limitation. So is defamatory speech. In the case of these picture comic frames, they are not hate speech, nor defamatory – but I believe they are gratuitously offensive; they insult people of a particular faith and they insult their God.
If these statements were made in the course of a satirical article, or a political argument, in the pursuit of ‘truth’ or for the benefit of advancing a view on religion in general or a particular belief system – the offence caused could still be justified. But if they are simply the stuff of a joke at another’s expense through ridiculing the other, making a whole group of people out to be stupid, I think it communicates intolerance of diversity, a lack of respect for every individual’s innate dignity which is the foundation of our whole system of equal human rights.
The consequence of these statements is to offer a few laughs for some at the expense of the dignity of others. It also has the consequence of causing social division and conflict. While this in itself is not an argument for censorship, it must weigh against making such statements if no positive purpose can be shown to be served. There is no other utility. So the negative social and individual consequences outweigh the positive. But that is a reason for being more considerate and not publishing them, it is not a reason for censorship, the practice of which would be far more negative in the greater scheme of things.
At UCT we welcome different views. Ideally they are expressed in a respectful manner.
I would like to make clear that we will not discipline the students involved nor will we censor the magazine in the future. We will ensure that the editorial advisory board plays its role appropriately. And we will ensure that the students who produce Sax Appeal understand that with every right – also that of expressing oneself – comes a responsibility.
Anyone wanting to comment is welcome to write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We value your views and learn from them.
Dr Max Price
And that is why I think our VC ‘rocks’.