I recall a discussion I had with a friend about why she didn’t want to write yet another article on race and racism. Her view was that it had all been written. She said the problem was that the people who continue to argue that race doesn’t matter and that we should just “move on” from race have chosen not to read any of what has been written on the topic in the last, say, two centuries. She ended by rattling off a list of books and other resources that people need to have read before she’d engage in any kind of conversation on the topic with them. Anything else would be shouting into the indefatigable void of ignorance, she said.
Another friend pretty much said the same thing about public discussions of sexism and misogyny, albeit more directly. “It is so boring how in South Africa we have to have the same argument about rape culture every fucking week! READ A BOOK,” she said.
I share her frustration.
This week I got into an animated discussion with someone I follow on Twitter. I saw him tweet that the claims of the woman who accused Zwelinzima Vavi of sexual harassment and rape didn’t have much credibility because she waited six months to file a grievance on the sexual-harassment allegation with Cosatu, the employer of the accuser and accused, and that she’d allegedly tried to blackmail him.
I replied that the only explanation for his tweet was wilful ignorance.
See, a few months ago, I’d read an article this guy had written about rape where he quoted statistics and reports about rape. I took it that he was aware that only an estimated one in nine instances of rape are ever reported. I also took it that he knows of cases where the victims of rape had accepted money and gifts from their rapists. I took it too that he realised he was engaged in the repugnant but all too common act of victim blaming, as he’d not pronounced on the credibility of the accused’s claim that didn’t rape her. If he had taken a moment to interrogate the accused’s story, he should have realised that in the absence of further information, there is no basis to pronounce either way.
In the narrow sense of legalistic arguments for the defence, which elide the normal, understandable human responses to traumatic experience like rape, attorneys could and do attack the credibility of rape victims’ claims based on various things, including what they were wearing, if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, how long they took to report it and, yes, whether they took or asked for money from their rapists. Prosecutors too can and do build arguments for why an accused rapist’s story is not credible based on the accused’s words and actions.
However, as the rest of us are not bound by court procedure and the adversarial, blinkered arguments of prosecutor and defence, we are not compelled to defend an alleged rapist by attacking the credibility of the accuser, nor are we compelled to make pronouncements on the credibility of the accused’s denials. But what happens more often than not is that in rape cases, especially public ones involving politicians, sportsmen and other figures who enjoy a huge following, the accuser is put on trial in the court of public opinion and pronouncements are made on the credibility of her or his claims and the accused is held up as one who could do no wrong.
I expected that this guy I follow on Twitter, the one who’d written an article that showed he’d read at least something on the topic to write about it, would know and understand these things, which is why I accused him of being wilfully ignorant.
The series of tweets ended in him suggesting that we agree to disagree. To this I was going to amend my original response to say that his ignorance wasn’t wilful, it was oblivious. He’d read and experienced enough to feel assured in his knowledge, but either didn’t comprehend enough of what he’d read or hadn’t read enough to really understand and see the blind spots in his argument. I didn’t say this because it would have again set off a tirade of tweets that ended in another offer to agree to disagree, which I would have rejected and so on and so forth we scream until we’re blue-faced and staring into the gaping maw of the indefatigable void of ignorance.
Obliviousness is a social menace. It is the pampered feet in the comfortable boots that march roughshod over the lived experiences of others, the whole time believing it is engaged in some form of “doing good”; that it isn’t sexist, racist, homophobic, or bigoted in any way. Obliviousness bangs on about its right to rape metaphor and freedom to offend.
Obliviousness, sadly, is an antidote to its own antidote: reading widely and with a high level of comprehension. Obliviousness is convinced it does not need to do this, because it thinks it knows enough.
Hello? Obliviousness? Am I getting through? Will you go out into the yonder to read more widely and with comprehension, or are you hunkering down for another fight about why you are really right?
Follow and contribute to Not in My Name, South Africa, a blog of South Africans speaking out against sexism, misogyny, rape myths and rape apology.