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Morality Politics

@Women24, sexism and @6000

One of yesterday’s social media flare-ups (the rule, I think, is that we need at least 3 per day) was caused by a post at 6000.co.za, in which Mr. 6K highlighted what he regarded as mixed messages emanating from the media outlet Women24.

The mixed messages, according to 6K, result from the fact that Jana Joubert of Women24 had asserted that it’s wrong to criticise Members of Parliament for what they wear, and that we should instead focus on how well they do their jobs. This standard – with which 6K agreed (as do I) – was highlighted as being in conflict with previous Women24 posts like this one:

De Lille at SONA2013, image via 6K

For those who can’t see the caption, the text under this photograph of Patricia de Lille reads: “Ag nee, Patricia. Couldn’t you have tried harder? You can pose all you want, it doesn’t make this outfit any less boring or hideous. Are those satin tracksuit pants?! Urgh. Someone get this woman a new stylist. PLEASE!”

Highlighting this and a few other examples, 6K says:

But before women24.com go out of their way to tell us what we should or shouldn’t be saying about the fashion on the red carpet at SONA or anywhere else, maybe they need to get their own house in order.

So, is the accusation of “mixed messages” justified, and fair? I don’t think it’s fair, and I think that the justification available is weak – so weak, in fact, that the point didn’t merit making. But, I also think that Women24 – and specifically their editor, Lili Radloff – are avoiding a real issue in the way they chose to respond to 6K.

(An aside: the fact that there is arguably fault on both sides has nothing to do with the relative severity of the faults in question. I’m making no suggestion of equivalence, and as you’ll hopefully see, I think 6K was undoubtedly in the wrong – on aggregate – in this case.)

I don’t think the criticism of Women24 was fair because the image of de Lille (and the other examples used) were from the same event last year, while Joubert’s comment regarding shaming women for their outfits was made this week. Not only do times change and editorial policies change, but 6K and Radloff are also Twitter ‘friends’, so he could easily have sought comment or clarity from her on whether she sees a mixed message or contradiction, before making that accusation in public.

Doing so would be required of a journalist, and I can hear 6K (he’s a friend, in case that matters to anyone) telling me off, in that he’s “just a blogger”. I don’t think that matters – new media and old have blurred these distinctions, and when a flare-up like this ends up being discussed on radio (as this one was), we can be sure that there’s a chance for reputational harm – which incurs some responsibility, even if not the high levels of it we’d demand of a ‘real journalist’.

So, I’m claiming that 6K didn’t do sufficient homework before posting what he did. For those of you who don’t read his blog, he’s not averse to being controversial, and I think that impulse got in the way of common sense in this instance.

The reason his critique was only weakly (and insufficiently) justified is that a year isn’t that long a time, and that – to the best of my knowledge – the editorship have not made this policy change clear. In fact, Radloff’s early Tweets in response to 6K (“we might have botched it a bit this time“, or “I hear what you’re saying“) – posted before Radloff realised the images were from last year – make no mention of a policy change, which would seem to have been the strongest available response. Instead, we saw what amounted to an apologetic response at first, before 6K’s use of old images became apparent.

But make no mistake about it – in an environment where everyday sexism occurs, well, every day, Radloff and Women24 – a large, feminist-driven website – are obviously going to be aggrieved by being told that they are inconsistent, and unfortunately (but also, in reality) the sex of the critic will always come in to play in situations like these.

Arguments should stand or fall on their own merits, but given the lunacy of identity politics, they don’t. 6K could – and should – have anticipated that his post was going to read as an attack on the politics of Women24, which in turn could – and should – have made him ultra-attentive to getting his facts right.

In closing, where Women24 are erring is arguably in thinking that the market is able to separate individual voices from the overall brand, as Radloff asserted on Twitter (again, in an early defence before it became clear that 6K had used last year’s images). “Different opinions”, she said, are not the same as “mixed messages”, which was the phrase 6K used in his post title.

I don’t agree with that. A readership would perceive it as mixed messaging if a website set up (at least in part) to serve a cause spoke of the wrongness of mocking attire with one voice, and then did that mocking with another. The early rebuttals to 6K, which included the “different opinions” claim, didn’t strike me as indicative of having thought through this aspect of brand identity sufficiently.

But these are matters for another day, as is the unfortunate presence of pseudoscience on the pages of Women24 (both astrology and multivitamins feature strongly).

When we get around to engaging each other – on these and other issues – let’s try not to assume the worst, though. It’s getting more and more difficult to talk about issues without presumptions of guilt or virtue, and we all play a part in creating – but if we care to be more careful, undermining – a culture in which blaming, judging, and shouting are valued more than understanding is.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

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