Daily Maverick Morality

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.

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

Well said.

I especially agree with your last comment stating that awarding Assange the “Man of the Year” award heavily implies that the type of person he is is being taken into consideration, not just the impact he has made. For that reason I would fall into the category of people who would advocate for the title to be changed to something more focused on his work, such as “Newsmaker of the Year,” as you suggest.

Despite Assange’s pending trial I don’t think that his personal life, as severe as these accusations may be, honestly overshadow the phenomenal impact Wikileaks has had and is currently having on media and democracy. If he is found guilty on the charges which are being leveled at him then he should pay the penalty, whatever that may be, and do right by the women he has wronged. Any non-misogynist should not have a problem with that.

However, the only reason this trial is public is because he is a notable person. Being found guilty or innocent will not change the impact of Wikileaks or its importance. Let the justice system deal with Assange the man, and let society acknowledge the importance of Assange’s work separately.

Of course I would say that my opinion is case-specific and relative. I might not say the same thing for someone charged with serial rape who had invented the ruler.

Thanks for this, Jacques.

A part of my job is to sit here at my desk and to absorb the news of the day. I happened to be the one who got to cover the WikiLeaks story. As the weeks have ticked by, my views of Assange and WikiLeaks evolved a great deal and I have been able to formulate an opinion which I believe acknowledges the man and his organisation’s work, whilst denouncing his personal foibles and the obvious organisational and legal traps that WikiLeaks is falling into.

The point is, I often forget that most people don’t have the privilege of working in news media, and are therefore bound to have half-baked views on most things. It therefore almost always annoys me when people conflate issues that are obviously separate, or confuse issues that are so crystal clear to me. We have no reason to believe that WikiLeaks has anything to do with Assange’s troubles in Sweden. And WikiLeaks as a news phenomenon has been huge this year, and will, in my view, change the world forever. Assange is Man/Person/Newsmaker of the Year, whether Times acknowledges it or not. It has nothing at all to do with any rape charges. Anyone who thinks that acknowledging the former excuses the latter is bound to annoy me.

The “Man” problem is perhaps a matter of predilection, and the “intellectual snob” (shall we say?) within me bridles at the notion of editing ourselves to please the PC brigade. The choice of words was Brooks’s prerogative as the writer, certainly no one else’s at the Daily Maverick. But this really is a separate debate (again with this conflation of issues!) to the Assange – Newsmaker one. It most certainly has nothing to do with “gender issues”, at least not in the way that the person on Twitter interpreted “gender issues” when she scolded me. The thought that by saying “Man” the DM is somehow endorsing Assange’s character is unfortunate, but misguided.

I most certainly do not change the stance that I took this morning.

Thanks for commenting, and I can’t disagree with what you say. The dispute around which words to use is a political one in this case, not one of moral obligation or journalistic integrity.

Firstly Sipho, I find it extremely arrogant (and telling) that you can think that I have “half-baked” views or don’t know the case, simply because I feel the story in question does not address certain gender nuances.

I am also a working journalist, so that is a silly assumption to make on your part.

You make the point again that Wikileaks and Assange are different issues – this is an obvious assertion. So why then, is Wikileaks not the “maverick” or “innovation” of the year, as opposed to Assange? If the story is about the Wikileaks movement, and not Assange, this does not seem like a vast leap of the imagination.

Your inner “intellectual snob” can “bridle” as much as it likes. We are not talking about one of the opinionistas columns, where is clearly prefaced as being a column and you can do whatever you like with it. This is prefaced as a story, a news feature, and is bound by some standards of journalism. I feel this would include gender/race and other sensibility and sensitivity, but also balanced reporting. If this is not a concept you can understand, I cannot help you.

Again, it is not about whether Daily Maverick is “endorsing” the man’s character. It’s about the fact that Daily Maverick willfully ignores and lambastes as “irrelevant” the allegation of an extremely serious crime against women.

Hi Mish

You make some really valid points! In light of everything that has happened, “Newsmaker” is definitely a better choice of words than “Man”. (‘Most influential man’ would also be more appropriate)

That said, I do agree with Sipho in that as readers, we should be able to distinguish Assange’s rape allegation from his Wikileaks contribution. But the readers’ competence (or incompetence) shouldn’t exempt the writer from choosing the *best* possible description for the headline.

I’d change the wording not because of political correctness, but because influence is only a subset of qualities that make up a man, and recognition should be confined as such. It’s kind of like awarding ‘Best album of the year” to an album that only has one exceptionally good song. Sure, we can all acknowledge that one song is perhaps the best song of all time, but it doesn’t deserve the accolade of best album.

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