South Africans must listen when others are weeping
The Spear debate has become clouded in a sea of red herrings, but may yet prove in retrospect to be one of the most important of our post-apartheid history.
There is lively discussion on many forums, including social networks, about the nature and value of art. There is another, potentially more dangerous debate about race which carries the seeds of revived hatreds if it is cynically exploited for short-term political gain.
Cultural values are under the microscope as some argue that Brett Murray's painting of President Jacob Zuma as Vladimir Lenin with his zip open offends the traditional values of some communities.
And there is argument also about the constitutional rights and limitations that can be invoked either to defend or to denigrate the Goodman Gallery's decision to hang the painting and the City Press newspaper's art review that gave it a wider audience.
But the real value of this furore must surely lie in the opportunity it has brought - for anyone who is willing to learn - for us to discover so much about the elements of our society and the way they interact.
The red herrings that cloud and could smother the debate come, as they usually do, from those willing to cynically exploit national or personal pain for a transitory political edge.
Though he wrote it in a different context of religious difference, Oliver Cromwell's plea in a letter to the synod of the Church of Scotland in 1650 has always seemed to me to be a better motto than the one we have, which few can quote or even pronounce. "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken," Cromwell wrote.
I thought of it first last week as the liberal constituency - of which I count myself a member - defended with trembling lip the right to say or depict anything about anyone as long as it could plausibly be labelled "art".
Freedom of expression is protected by our constitution, they argued. And so there.
At a World Economic Forum meeting at the height of the global recession, a group of the world's top bankers faced a small, invited audience for a debate about their role in creating the crisis.
To a man and a woman, they argued their catastrophic lending had been permissible under banking rules and they were, therefore, blameless. Not one conceded they could have behaved differently or even that they had learned anything.
It was the fault of the regulators and that was where the solution should be sought, they said.
The same mindset afflicts our public sector and legislatures on the matter of corruption and self-enrichment.
People seldom ask themselves whether they were right to do something, but instead proclaim they had the right to do it. Remember when nearly every new cabinet minister spent to the limit on the cars they bought after Zuma had summoned them to his inner circle, and said afterwards. "But it was in the rules"?
Because we may do something does not mean we must do it. Imagine if we took the same approach on the roads and everyone drove at the speed limit all the time, regardless of other traffic.
Outside of the sycophantic ANC circle around Zuma, there is broad acceptance that Murray and the gallery had the right to present the painting. And once it was up, liberals and ANC leaders who really do honour the constitution had and still have an obligation to defend that right.
But how on earth will we get anywhere closer to the unity and reconciliation we all profess to seek if each of us chooses the rights we count most important and insists upon exercising it to the full under all circumstances?
This is not about race. That much is obvious from the racial spread across both the pro and the anti camps. Those who are still trying to make it racial deserve no place in the debate.
But it is about personal histories and past experience, as demonstrated by advocate Gcina Malindi's dramatic breakdown during legal argument over the impact of the painting.
None of us can really imagine what it is like to live in someone else's skin, but as we try together to fumble forward, we could try.
There has been much discussion about rights and the responsibilities that go with them, but only in the past few days has "sensitivity" come into the discussion.
Those who have identified this controversy as a rallying point in the campaign to buy Zuma another term at the top may succeed in crushing freedom of thought and expression with marches and court applications.
If they succeed in hobbling our new democracy, we may then find artists, analysts, columnists and fireside critics fear free expression, and we find ourselves humming the chorus of Dan Heymann's iconic protest song, Weeping: "It doesn't matter now / It's over anyhow / He tells the world that it's sleeping / But as the night came round / I heard its lonely sound / It wasn't roaring, it was weeping."
We can all have so much fun debating crucial matters with intelligence and wit, but EQ is going to be as important as IQ to the success of project South Africa.
If we listen to each other and try to learn from this debate more about the people with whom we share this country, we may find we have a lot for which to thank Murray.
To succeed, though, we will all have to think it possible that we, not they, may be wrong - and to hear the sound of weeping.
- Brendan Boyle is editor of the Daily Dispatch