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South Africa Proposes Law to Criminalize Its Most Racist Slur

Can you legislate for good human behavior, or does proposing laws to imprison those who use racial slurs distract from actual progress?

(Photo: RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)


Last week, the South African government proposed a draft law to criminalize hate speech. The proposed law would place a first time offender in jail for up to three years, while a repeat offender could be sent for up to ten years. Currently, South African law allows for hate speech to be dealt with as a civil issue; last month a judge ruled a man who used an epithet in an argument owed the insulated party 7,000 U.S dollars.

The incident that prompted the drafting of this law, in which a woman lashed out at black police officer with the word “kaffir”, a slur on par with the “n-word” in South Africa. A video taken of the incident has spread like wildfire on the internet and sparked condemnation from all elements of South African society. Of course, the proposed law also has portions of South Africa in a similar uproar.

The proposed law would define hate speech broadly, as: “direct or electronic communication that advocates hatred, incites violence or causes contempt or ridicule”. Critics of the law suggest that it will do little to curb racist sentiment while eroding the freedom of expression. The director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Tusi Fokane, said of the proposed law: “You cannot legislate for good human behavior; you cannot legislate for social cohesion”.

But why does this idea trouble us so? What about the idea of Free Speech makes us uncomfortable with regulation of hate speech?

where-does-freedom-of-speech-end

Most Americans are familiar with a Millsian idea of free speech. In his work "On Liberty", Mill proposed that the only limit to personal freedoms that can be justified is a restriction on activity which causes harm to others. This restriction is called, simply enough, the “harm principle”.

For Mill, as for many people, this means that the only speech that can be limited is that which would directly and immediately cause harm to others. An idea incorporated later into American law by the Supreme Court as the “clear and present danger” and the “imminent danger” standards.

Mill tied his idea of free speech to the Utilitarian notion of the greatest total happiness as a goal of the state.  While some speech is false, misleading, or even detrimental to society, the banning of it would be worse. We are made happier in the long run, he supposes, by allowing objectionable speech in all instances where it causes no harm.

However, while America only tends to regulate speech that is an immediate danger to others, many other nations have laws that go further. Many countries in Europe have laws against denying the reality of the holocaust in public speech. Canada and several Western European nations already have hate speech listed as a criminal offense.

There is evidence that the use of hate speech causes real harm to the targeted groups. Work by the American author Mari J. Matsuda has argued that hate speech can cause “direct physical and emotional changes” in targeted groups. If this is the case, and the data suggests that it is, the “harm principle” would support the prohibition of hate speech. The idea that certain treatment can cause lasting harm to a group was the basis of the ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education, with the court ruling that discrimination "generates a feeling of inferiority as to... status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

The debate also raises old questions about power distribution in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid the ultra-majority black population has held political power. However, cultural and economic power remains in the hands of the less than 10% of the population that is white. Critics suggest that the law will not only do little to reduce prejudice, but may even divert attention from structural issues promoting racism across the country. Issues which go beyond the use of slurs.

South Africa is a country with deep-seated racial tensions, and the recent incident is but one of many similar events to plague the nation over the years. The recent discussion to limit free speech with regulations on hate speech has ironic echoes of the extreme social conservatism implemented to help enforce apartheid, for example: television has only been available there since 1976. The discussion of how free speech should be is relevant not only there but everywhere.

And on US soil, it's more relevant now than ever:


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Image source: Sereno, et al
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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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