Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Is #whitegenocide funny if corrective rape isn’t?

Brace yourself. Some of you are not going to like this piece. Possibly quite a few of you. That’s the only predictable thing when it comes to jokes: somebody, somewhere is going to be offended.

For years I’ve studied comedy from various angles: academically, from the trenches in the ad industry and as an occasional humourist. In my experience, the real question when it comes to humour is less that of offense, which the individual doing the joking can’t control, and more about what we choose to mock.

So today, I am going to explain why I thought it was appropriate to tweet about #whitegenocide a few weeks ago — but why I thought the jokes about corrective rape by two FHM writers weren’t funny, and got them into trouble for good reason.

First, a bit of background. The #whitegenocide hashtag came about after Siyanda Mohutsiwa started tweeting about what she planned to do when blacks rose up against the whites after the death of Nelson Mandela.

Here’s a good example:

White genocide tweets

It was provocative and subversive. I felt somewhat disconcerted. What did I do? I joined in.

Here’s why:

1. The hashtag was clearly tongue in cheek, and it was being used by a self-described agent provocateur who has a track record of challenging preconceived ideas, both in her Thought Leader blog and on Twitter.

2. The mockery was not of actual murder (which is not funny), but the long-standing conspiracy theory that blacks would rise up against whites the moment Madiba dies. This is a ridiculous and stupid belief no matter how sincerely you hold it, and mocking it is a way of marking a distinction between what we accept as a commonly held belief, and what we do not.

3. I felt that the conspiracy theory was in itself offensively racist, so should be mocked in order to make my views on it clear. Addressing fears that many might feel afraid to express was a way to bring them into the open into a way that was healthier than discussing them around the braai.

4. If whites did not join in, then it would become and us vs them situation. Whites attend the Blacks Only comedy shows and laugh at David Kau’s jokes, so why shouldn’t they participate in a hashtag that mocks them?

5. Genocide, used in its correct historical context (as in the Holocaust, Armenia and Rwanda) is not funny at all. But claims of genocide where they are not justified debase the term and the gravity of what it means. The former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Alain Destexhe, has said that the word genocide has fallen victim to “a sort of verbal inflation, in much the same way as happened with the word fascist”.

Most of those who participated used the opportunity to demonstrate how completely unfounded fears of a “white genocide” are. Of course, some missed the point completely and turned a satirical construct into a real threat. This guy’s tweets were definitely not funny, and they certainly didn’t qualify as satire. This appears to be a genuine instance of hate speech.

hate speech

But there is a world of difference between these tweets and Siyanda’s, and that should be clear to anyone attuned to the subtlety and nuance of living in a diverse society with many competing views. I felt then — and still do — that tweeting ironically about #whitegenocide was a way to strengthen commitment to some kind of consensus about the society we want to be. Far too many white South Africans witness tacit or explicit racism and say nothing. Being visibly opposed to racism by mocking a racist construct was, for me, a counterintuitive way to strengthen those common terms of reference that are at the root of any collective identity, however loosely you want to define it.

Contrast this with the jokes this week by now suspended FHM features editor. Who knows, his comments may have been ironic. The most sexist comments on that thread were from a woman, a Wits philosophy and anthropology graduate — so all is not what it seems.

But joking about corrective rape is very different from joking about #whitegenocide. One is real, an act of violence against a very vulnerable section of society. The other is the perception of a politically motivated programme of murder, one that is deeply entwined with right-wing extremist narratives. One kind of joke reinforces existing power structures; the other subverts them.

corrective rape

This does of course bring up debates around political correctness and hate speech. Remember, there is no law that silences tasteless jokes. There are, however, consequences, as those FHM writers have discovered. They brought their employer into disrepute and risked advertisers pulling revenue. (The growth of social media has magnified the power of interest groups, and perceptions of racism or sexism are kryptonite for most mainstream brands — the ones that have the most ad rands to spend.)

Reaching agreement on what we may joke about in the public realm is not easy. It is an ongoing form of negotiation. We have evolved from a society where racism, sexism and homophobia weren’t just widely accepted, they were government policy. Now, we live in a world in which these things are unconstitutional, even as we battle with the reality of living with a set of laws and principles that often seem to be largely theoretical. Nonetheless, those earlier prejudices are still rooted in culture, and the only way we are going to reach a new consensus is if we have it out.

This is where mockery is so useful, even essential. It is a form of catharsis within a safe space. Learn to laugh at the same things, and the basis of common ground is expanded. Agreeing — mostly, even if some of us feel uncomfortable — that #whitegenocide is satirical and therefore acceptable, but jokes about corrective rape are not, is part of that painful, often infuriating, but vital process.

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    • Rory

      Can’t say I agree with you. I’m sure a lot of white families and farmers that have had family members killed would not find the #whitegenocide tag very funny at all. Frankly I don’t think joking about any violent act on twitter is OK. Twitter, like all words in the digital space, lacks tone. If you hadn’t explained the #whitegenocide background to me, there was no way I would have known that was a joke. No way. And clearly didn’t Sfiso. And your argument is “Because the mass murdering of white people hasn’t happened, it’s ok to joke about it?” Why not start joking about disempowering women and making them slave labour? Why not joke about the Zulu nation reviving history and hunting down the Sotho? It’s a childish argument. #womenshouldbecomeslaves #relivetheslaughter #doublestandards

    • Rory

      Ironically, I think if these jokes were told on stage, where people could judge the tone and ludicrousness of the humour….they are both ok. Because it’s clearly a joke.

    • Rory

      Sorry for the third comment…but I really do find this a silly article. A quick scan of #whitegenocide on twitter shows a select number of twitterati enjoying the joke…and a whole bunch of people (from what I see, the majority) being deadly serious about the murdering of white people. Granted, they do seem a little on the right wing side…but it is clearly a sore point for many. But hey! It’s a joke right? they should get over the fact and stop being so sensitive. Take this guy for instance …he finds it hilarious….

      David Spohr ‏@DavidSpohr 7 Jul
      Satire about #WhiteGenocide by black people is akin to Germans making fun of Auschwitz. Sick and disgusting and devoid of any satire or fun.

    • Sue

      Good heavens, we have to “reach agreement” now on what we “may joke about in public”? Orwell was an optimist.

    • Steve from Beep Bank

      Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for telling us what we can laugh at and what we can’t.
      Just for clarity, you should maybe state that this is in your opinion and perhaps acknowledge that others may differ in their views.
      Not that I’m condoning the FHM guys. Just that I’m not necessarily into accepting your views and your immediate dissent of anyone that has the temerity to disagree with you.

      It isn’t your internet.

    • Peter Terry

      I was talking to a man who spent ten years of his life writing comedy sketches for a living. He said that all comedy sketches have anger as their seed. I’d say this is true about satire, too, but less so when it comes to jokes. And yet all humour is potentially offensive to someone, because of its symbiosis with stereotype. You can find the irony in the notion of corrective rape, not for what it is, but the idiotic name. If you want to make a joke relating to corrective rape, then you need to approach it from an angle other than the FHM one. eg – Julius Malema has announced that his new party’s economic policy will follow a line of corrective theft, and then one can start playing games with all kinds of epithets using corrective to mean its opposite, kind of thing. Then one is ridiculing the use of language. eg Julius Malema’s new party will move all whites to homelands as part of his ethnic spitting and polishing policy. Did you see what I did there? Right. That.

    • OneFlew

      Groan… Sarah, I’m not overly concerned about the minutiae of the SA debate but your logic does appear to have deserted you a little here.

      A joke which, as you say, mocks an idea that has currency in ‘right wing extremist narratives’ is somehow subversive of ‘existing power structures’? Precisely what power is exercised in SA by right wing extremists? (Besides, haven’t they mainly been murdered with their trousers around their ankles?) How then does the joke speak the truth to power or subvert power? That’s right: not at all.

      It is much more likely that such a joke will give airtime to an idea which doesn’t really exist in the popular discourse. Which, as you appear not to have registered, is what happened with Mbatha. (Surprisingly, there is racial tension in South Africa and not everyone grasps that references to racial murder are meant ironically.)

      Humour is generally in the gap between expectation and reality. It can be satirical. And it can turn people into the butt of the joke. But that is not the mechanism of humour; that is simply one of the ways in which humour is used as a social tool.

      A photon enters a hotel and asks for a room. ‘Do you have luggage?’ asks the receptionist. ‘No, I’m travelling light’, replies the photon.

      Not great, but recognisably a joke. No one was hurt. See?

      There is no doubt lots of scope for edgy subversive humour in SA. The genocide joke just seems to be mocking the weird kid in the corner of the…

    • Wurn

      Funny, if I as a white man made a joke using the dreaded “n” word, how many will find it satirical and funny. If you are a comedian making such jokes as part of your act, that is different, but Social media has never been a auditorium for stupid religious or racial jokes. I cannot believe that you only find something about rape disgusting and not racism. As you have said, “Far too many white South Africans witness tacit or explicit racism and say nothing. ” sounds more like we should not accept white racism.

    • Percipient
    • Somal

      Surely you might note that the terms are not so distinguished as you stated.
      After all, (corrective) rape is met with a perception of a politically motivated
      programme of oppression, one that is deeply entwined with feminist narratives.

      Let’s see some more mockery of racism etc. emanating from today’s ‘power structure’.

    • biobot

      Is it okay to make ironic jokes about the corrective rape of rapists?

    • Steve from Beep Bank

      “Rape is the most humiliating crime a woman could experience – if she survives”
      This is why it is NOT OK to reduce it to some joke.

      Whereas genocide… no… wait.

    • Adriaan

      As far as I know, laughing at David Kau’s jokes is nonpunishable by genocide so… yeah.

    • PM

      Good article, sarah.

      Interesting that the apparent point of contention is whether or not white genocide is a credible fear. This seems come from a misunderstanding of the nature of genocide–it isn’t that whites do not have credible fears of homicide in SA (why should they be less exposed to the threat of violence than any other group?), but the threat of genocide is an entirely different thing–and a foolish delusion.

    • Dan

      Hate speech is a stupid classification. If someone wants to rail against a particular group then let them. If you don’t like what they have to say then speak against them.

      Calling one lot of humour satire and another not, but hate speech is arbitrary. Someone doesn’t think it’s funny, so it’s hate speech or harassment or some other such nonsense. Many people simply don’t get black humour. They think it is appalling. An integral part of really black humour is that it is delivered in an entirely serious manner.

      It’s my belief that if FHM readers truly believe in freedom and freedom of speech they’ll let the magazine and it’s advertisers know that they’re going to boycott their products for seeking to punish someone for their speech.

      As far as I’m concerned society has been seriously damaged by political correctness, hate speech laws, broad, vague harassment law and punishing people for what they say rather than what they do.

    • Momma Cyndi

      It is about time they made breathalyzers for phones and computers.
      An app where a hand comes out and slaps you senseless may be needed for Sfiso!

      We, the audience, determine what is funny and what is not. We also determine what is socially acceptable and what is not. Unfortunately, the written word doesn’t have intonation so the message is one dimensional and the translation of that message is subjective.

      I did find the #whitegenocide funny because it is so ridiculous but I can also see why so many others did not. We interpret the message via our own filters of learning and experience. In writing, there is little one can do about the interpretation of the message and what you really meant by it.

      The move to a largely written form of social interaction may make this the era of politically correct. We may even go so far into politically correct that we lose all sense of humour

    • marty

      apparently white genocide and xenophobia do not exist in SA! but then I also hear that the anc believe that they are actually doing a good job?

    • John

      White genocide is real in the SA context and the statistics and anecdotal evidence back this up. Rape is real in the SA context and the statistics and anecdotal evidence back this up. “Agreeing…that “white genocide” is satirical and therefore acceptable..,is…cathartic” (Sarah Britten). Thus if the majority find it funny, then it IS. I guess the Jews and gays during WW2, Tutsis in Rwanda and Afrikaners in British concentration camps were just stuck up snobs who couldn’t appreciate a bit of humour with their morning lead pill. Luckily for some careerists, it pays to pander exclusively to one segment of the population, irrespective of the topic of the day. Because surely if it pays it cannot be rape?

    • ps

      so who gets to decide what’s funny and what isn’t?

    • Paul

      I think this SARAH BRITTEN character should go and explain to the families of the thousand of whites murdered in the New Souith Africa what is so funny about that. She has lost all her marbles.

    • M.M.

      @ Paul. Sarah should go and explain to the thousands of black families murdered in the old SA as well. Apparently this was not black genocide?

    • Willem

      Irony: Expecting the joke to become funny through explanation.

    • AM

      Gregory Stanton from Genocide Watch International placed SA’s white population on stage 6 out of 8 stages of genocide in 2012 after an investigation which he carried out in SA.

    • OurAfrika

      I understand where you’re coming from Sarah and perhaps if we used that reasoning then we would all agree but as a black person, I don’t like the white genocide joke. White people are paranoid enough as it is. This is just enough to drive them mad, literally. That kind of mad usually results in them being very nostalgic about apartheid, even if they were “not part” of it.

    • CS

      What a stupid thing to say Sarah Britten! Threats of genocide towards either Black or White families is no laughing matter.

    • Luka

      Great article Sarah. From the comments here though, it seems like it is falling on deaf and racist ears. And you even made it so clear for them. Pity.

    • Paul

      MM, Go and check the TRC figures and you will realise that not even 1 thousand blacks were murdered/killed by security forces/whites. The rest were all black on black murders and even that is nothing to make sick jokes about.

    • Derek Gerber

      There is a saying, that if you are in a hole, stop digging…

    • bernpm

      Momma Cindy…the wisest words in this blog and responses:

      ” Unfortunately, the written word doesn’t have intonation so the message is one dimensional and the translation of that message is subjective.”

      This might even weigh heavier in a country with 11 different languages where the “mental translation” (perception, understanding the spirit) is often deformed by the “literal translation” (words and meaning of words).

    • Chris Robinson

      I’m so glad you brought this part up, “But joking about corrective rape is very different from joking about #whitegenocide. One is real, an act of violence against a very vulnerable section of society. The other is the perception of a politically motivated programme of murder, one that is deeply entwined with right-wing extremist narratives.”

      Please, tell that to the 230 victims of “Black on White” attacks this year – from only 1 January 2013 to 27 June 2013 there 97 murdered, 17 women and 2 men raped, in most cases by a whole gang. There were 3 people left with permanent brain damage and 1 paralysed. There were 102 farm attacks.

      I’m sure you’d love to tell that to them. But of course you cannot because they are dead. With their murderers walking free.

      It’s all fun and games until it’s you. And then when you’re looking in the eyes of the callous and cruel person about to kill you, maybe you’ll wish you’d taken a stand when you had the chance, instead of playing devil’s advocate and playing murder down as joke for the purposes of catharsis.

    • Jack Sparrow

      Agree Chris Robinson. Pastor Niemoller’s words come to mind.

    • dillon

      The subject of a joke has got little to nothing to do with whether it will be funny or not. Separate your issues. Ask yourself, is corrective rape funny? No its not. Rape of any kind is a horrible act that destroys lives, of course its not funny. Can a corrective rape joke be funny? Of course it can! Depends on whether the actual joke was homorous or not. Simple.

    • Momma Cyndi

      The ‘whitegenocide’ was relating to the daft idea that all black people would go nuts and murder every white person on the day that Nelson Mandela dies. It is not about farm attacks.

    • George Annandale

      Any form of “humor” relating to any form of violence is unacceptable! It’s offensive to to past and future victims, and by adding humor to these acts one diminishes the severity of these crimes and thus condoning it! But I see a trend among the media where it’s acceptable to joke, and even not to report, about the death, rape and torture of a white population! You are quick to down play fears of black racism and genocide( in your words) as paranoia, but after reading hundreds of anti white comments on social media plarforms one can understand why some whites fear large scale ethnic violence. What irritates me most is the fact that you try to defend your poor taste in humor and not even try address and condemn violent attacks on the victims you “joke” about! Remember joking about an act is joking at the expense of the victim! I would feel ashamed if I were you there’s nothing humorous about any form of violence!