By Vincent Clery
For a long time I have been sitting on the sidelines of an issue that has really irked me. Like most people I am a poor conscientious objector, I keep my opinions to myself, I cowardly express my grievances in safe, dim-lit places. Bars and dinner parties, the occasional early morning coffee rant — but never in public. God forbid the court of public opinion turn its beleaguered head back at me. Ironically the one thing that has got me riled up enough to sit down and be one of those people that writes a letter of opinion to the public is the dismal state of public opinion itself.
Two people were suspended. Just like that. People who, from what I can tell, were respected enough and presumably liked among their peers. And while I won’t say their livelihoods were lost, a fair amount of their dignity and pride was thrown by the wayside. What did they do? They expressed an opinion. An opinion on what they thought was a protected, if not completely private, platform. That platform was Facebook. The opinion was inappropriate, it was crass and it was in very bad taste. Whether it was intended that way, nobody seemed to care, the reaction was fast and it was unanimous. In short: unacceptable.
FHM’s feature editor Max Barashenkov made a status in which he joked about sterilisation and corrective rape. Fellow writer Montle Moorosi made further comments jokingly justifying date rape (provided that you tell her you love her first.) A fair amount of banter ensued and unsurprisingly somebody got offended. Namely Linda Stupart who took a screen-grab and tweeted her 500 odd followers about it. Linda’s twitter bio self-describes as a killjoy. It seems she got her wish, for what can only be described as a social media shitstorm shortly ensued. By the end of day, News 24, IOL, Mail & Guardian, Women’s Health, 5FM’s drive time, Cape Talk and numerous other news stations ran the story. Social media was incensed, a lot of people suddenly had a lot to say and shortly FHM found itself trending above Nelson Mandela the day before what is likely to be his last birthday.
What amazes me is that something as small as a Facebook status (inexcusable as it was) could become headline news. And yet I should know better, in a country where moral outrage recently erupted over a satirical painting over our premier exposing himself (a figure who has been under a litany of moral and sexual scrutiny yet should somehow be immune to jest). Where a food chain was boycotted and ridiculed by its wealthiest customers for not explicitly advertising to them its lowest paying jobs. Where something as simple as a Halaal hot cross bun led to hate speech and religious intolerance.
Not to mention the capriciousness of race. Where what is deemed to be racist versus not racist colours the vernacular of today’s public discourse so perversely that to say anything of consequence is to offer yourself up to the wolves. To give an example, in a varsity newspaper, Qamran Tabo recently got hung out to dry for posing the question “Is Love Colourblind?” An article where he surveyed which (if any) race, other races, generally found to be more attractive. While he may not have gone about it in the right way, was what Tabo did racist? Surely not, Insensitive? Perhaps, but most importantly and my case in point here, it was incredibly inflammatory. This in and of itself is not a bad thing — public debate is the cornerstone of any democratic society. But are these things inflammatory in the name of the real issues they bely or are they merely sensationalist tirades by social media lynch mobs? Is an insensitive joke between friends really more worthy of our eyes and ears in the discussion of correctional rape than the very real thing itself, such as the heart-breaking case of Duduzile Zozo, the 26-year-old women murdered and raped earlier this month for being a lesbian? Social media, sadly, would tend to say yes.
Furthermore, it seems so trivial, so petty and so indicative of today’s epicurean society that someone can effectively ruin another person’s life merely by taking a screen shot. That somebody can take away all context, stand on a soap box, cry wolf and feel vindicated for having made a difference — then move on to their next target with conscientious ease. While I in no way condone what Barashenkov or Moorosi said, and while Stupart was clearly a “Facebook friend” in the loosest sense, one cannot help but feel that this is an issue that could have easily been resolved, thrashed out, argued even over an inbox message. Leaving the real issue of “men who rape” separate from the far removed issue of “men who joke about rape”.
And yet judging by the divided response there clearly is a bigger issue here: whether it’s about the indifference among the males of our society to the on-going daily realities of rape in this country or the oversensitivity of those who are insensitive about rape. But this is not an issue that Barashenkov ever signed up for or intended to fight. He told a terrible joke. Most telling of all, it wasn’t even a joke about rape. It was about twerking. Not for the first time in this country it seems that the distinction between freedom of speech, hate speech, humour and the deliberate defamation of ones character by the media, has been blurred.
In understanding this particular outburst of social discontent, context, something that is far too often neglected, yet again finds itself thrown by the wayside. Did this man actually mean what he said in the greater context of the word rape, in the even greater context of our grim national situation? A situation where a woman is raped an estimated every 26 seconds. And if he didn’t is he actually relevant to the debate or is he merely an innocent idiot who said the wrong thing, got caught with his “literary pants down” so to speak without even realising anybody was watching (or even interested) in what he had to proffer? The conclusion seems obvious.
To make matters worse (and for what little worth context in hindsight is now worth,) the original comment was made in jest against a man who makes a living off making a joke of himself. He goes by the name of Anton Taylor, is notorious for his depravity and has recently gained traction via a series of satirical YouTube videos of himself. His most recent post being a cringe-worthy, almost bordering on ludicrous, video of himself sporting only a thong and tiger tail, learning to “twerk”. A video that is so satirical that it begs the question how any reasonable response to it, especially one made by an accomplished tongue-in-cheek magazine writer, could be perceived as anything but satirical in return? But then as we’ve established context doesn’t really apply here does it? This is merely a debate of opinion. And yet when it comes to issues of real, tangible consequence, issues such as the George Zimmerman murder case, context appears to be everything. It’s worth noting — since we’re still talking about context — that not a single journalist, blogger or media house contacted either of the two to hear them state their side of the story. Not that fair trial has any place in the court of today’s media any more.
It’s become too easy to make nameless judgments from the protected bastion of our computer screens. (Just as it has clearly become too easy to broadcast our inappropriate private thoughts.) Our dissatisfaction should require more commitment from us than the click of a button, a comment, a tweet or a dislike. These little blips of outrage among all the other blips are not enough when it comes to real issues. To be a “social-media activist” is to try and engage the masses to act. It is not to ridicule two fairly innocuous people over the flavour of the day then let them disappear back to relative obscurity. I am not saying that there is a not a significant place for the almost instantaneous mobilisation of the masses through today’s interweb — we need only look to the Arab Spring and the current state of Egypt. But the fact remains that the majority of our population are still not online, and it is no coincidence that they are the self-same majority that still know how to truly protest.
So my question to those who have the opportunity of informing themselves is this — how did we become such champions of sentiment over substance? How has a nation that has endured so much — social segregation, disappearances, necklacing, rape, Aids and chronic corruption — forgotten how to take task with real issue? It would be easier to understand if all was well in our sovereign state, if we had nothing better to do but sit on social-media platforms and complain. But on a day when a rape joke trumps the news. (While Johan Kotze’s sentencing and the Judge Willie Seriti inquisition are comparatively forgotten.) During a time when we are too busy sensationalising the incumbent death of our most accomplished hero that we are too distracted to even remember the values that he stood for. Where crime and poor governance and corruption are visibly crippling our nation on a daily basis. Where in some unfathomable turn the man on the street is economically worse off now than he was during the height of the apartheid regime. You cannot but beg the question, what the hell is happening to our supposedly great nation? There are real issues worthy of our attention — issues far greater than conspiring to get somebody fired from a good job for making an insensitive joke on Facebook. Perhaps Barashenkov’s real crime was having the audacity to mirror us as a people. The sad realisation that despite our past we are becoming a nation of flippancy. Where we take what we say far more seriously than what we do.
Vincent Clery is a politics, philosophy and economics major currently working as a freelance writer for numerous blogs and independent publications.