Should Assange be anybody’s “Man of the year”?

In a column for The Daily Maverick (insert obvious disclosure here), Brooks Spector reports that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is the Maverick’s “Man of the Year”. In closing, the article notes that Assange is awarded this honour for “his sheer impact on the world and the lives of ordinary people”. And since the article was published a small battle has been raging on Twitter, involving myself and other Maverick columnists, along with a few (mainly one) vocal reader.

The reader is incensed at the lack of “gender sensitivity” that she feels the column betrays – in her view, Assange is not worthy of being should not be named man of the year, despite the significant impact he has had in 2010. This is of course because of the allegations of rape against Assange. The situation is further complicated by the fact of the #Mooreandme trend on Twitter, kicked off by Michael Moore publicly expressing the view that the charges against Assange are bunkum, and simply an excuse to bring him to justice of other sorts.

Unfortunately, #Mooreandme has gone much further than that. Women (and men) who have protested the trivialising of the rape charges, and especially the disclosure of the identities of the rape accusers, have been subjected to a stream of invective and insult. Some of those doing the abusing are perhaps no more than abusers of the verbal rather than sexual sort, but many are cloaking their tirades behind a conviction that Assange must be innocent, and that these attempts to smear him must be false.

But we don’t know either way, yet, and I’m fully behind those who argue that we shouldn’t dismiss or trivialise the accusations of rape, whether or not they end up being true. Kenan Malik wrote about this on December 18, saying more than I intend to here. As for the Daily Maverick, and the Man of the Year award, I would not be at all concerned if the award was for something like “Newsmaker of the Year” – that’s a claim that is difficult to dispute, and easy to defend.

“Man of the year” can suggest that the award is for the man as person, not only his work or impact. And even in terms of impact, if the rape allegations end up being true, that impact includes that felt by the women that he raped. So it is a risky time to give Assange this honour, and this is perhaps part of the reason why Time chose not to do so this year. Nevertheless, there’s a history of making a separation between the impact a man like Assange has had, and unfortunate truths about a person’s private life or beliefs. Ivo Vegter reminds us that Time chose Hitler once, Stalin twice, and in that Twitter conversation, I agreed that we should be able to separate endorsement of a person’s actions or character from an award like this, which we all know to be given for newsworthiness and impact.

Sipho Hlongwane challenged us to do so, saying that a “higher standard is the @dailymaverick not treating its readers like they are children”. And again, I agree, for paternalism is most often odious, especially in the case of paternalism directed at a presumably intelligent target audience. Having said that, it is also true that with such an emotive issue, and in the context of #Mooreandme, there is scope for justified sensitivity. And if I were awarding Assange “Man of the Year”, I’d feel compelled to at least mention the allegations and court case as complicating factors in Assange’s current and future reputation. Spector doesn’t do so[ref]see his comment at 20:37 on the original article, where he points out that he does in fact allude to them – quite indirectly though[/ref], and I wish that he had. But at the same time, I can’t be sure that I’m not being oversensitive myself. Any thoughts on this?

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.