Simon Howell
Simon Howell

Against PigSpotting

Knowing of both the popularity and following of PigSpotter, in writing this article I feel it necessary to begin with an obligatory disclaimer: this is not an attempt to an indict a single person or project, nor is it a criticism of the good work that PigSpotter has done in ensuring that the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) and the larger South African Police Service (SAPS) are held accountable for corrupt acts or malpractice. I am also not concerned with the legality of the project or his posts. This article is rather a brief questioning of the discursive logic of “pigspotting” — it is a questioning of what I feel is an obvious irony in the calling of the police “pigs”, and some of the consequences thereof.

I have been following PigSpotter for a number of years, and for the most part he presents a fairly balanced criticism of the daily activities of both the SAPD and JMPD, calling to book abuses of power while congratulating those who go beyond the call of duty. In the course of doing so PigSpotter has developed a vast repertoire of names for both the services and individuals — pigs, porkers, hams, porcine, snorters and crackling to name but a few. These metaphors are often received with great amusement by his 185 000 odd followers.

What I find problematic however is what might be called a dissonance between the aim of the project and the real effect. PigSpotter, through his tweets, informs both the public and senior management of the respective services of corruption or malpractice generally perpetuated by officers that are interacting with the public. As far as I understand the intended consequence of this surveillance is to increase compliance, root out corruption and restore a sense of pride to the services, while at the same time giving handy hints to motorists. Yet here, unfortunately, is where I find the practice of the naming of the police as “pigs” paradoxical or contradictory. The contradiction is a function of the power of naming — to call the police “pigs” (which I take most people will find offensive if called it themselves), while at the same time playing a part in increasing the services’ level of service delivery through public shaming or praising serves to belittle them while at the same time (ironically) exalting them.

Taken from another perspective, if I were a police officer that was referred to in the media as a “pig”, “porker” or “ham” what reason would I have to take my job seriously, and what pride would I have? I completely accept that there are many, many corrupt, lazy, and generally incompetent officers in both forces. However, if I were a police officer faced with the very real and violent dangers that I would be, would I stand up against corruption if I knew the general public loathed me? In no other country that I’ve been to have I seen the police so abhorred and feared, and yet so necessary. In the process of calling the police “pigs” then, is the metaphor not serving to help sustain this antagonistic relationship in which corruption and inefficiency thrive?

I understand too that this is perhaps not PigSpotter’s intended aim. However it must be recognised that the practice of calling the police “pigs” further perpetuates a cycle of loathing and fear that in the end only serves to create difference and antagonism. The act of naming is an extremely potent tool in contemporary South Africa, and we are all extremely sensitive to how one is named and defined in public, least not because of our history. Because of this I cannot help but feel that the terming of the police as “pigs” actually does a disservice to PigSpotter’s cause, while also making problematic the projects of those police officers who do take their jobs seriously and who want to make a difference in the communities they serve.

I very much doubt that if a female police officer was termed “pig” out of uniform it would be accepted, and with obviously good reason. Equally, I expect that the fire services, medics and doctors that help road users every day would express outrage at being referred to as “pigs”. As much as we love to loathe them, the police play a vital and extremely important role in our (violent) society. Terming them “pigs” without due reason, or as a blanket term for the police force as a whole undermines public respect, undermines the police’s respect for themselves, and ultimately serves to legitimate the very actions PigSpotter and others are attempting to stamp out.

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