Euthanasia and the permissibility of moral debate

One should, in general, be able to discuss controversial moral topics without it being assumed that you support the worst possible consequences of the topic under debate. I add the “in general” because it’s rather difficult to imagine someone arguing in good faith when they ask that we debate whether one race is superior to the next, or some similarly prejudiced proposition.

And, there’s a distinction worth retaining between stating that something is right or wrong, and having sympathy for someone who is placed in the position of having to make a difficult or controversial moral choice – whether or not that person ends up making the choice that you’d make, or hope that they would have made. Continue reading “Euthanasia and the permissibility of moral debate”

No, voyeurism is not a “human right”

Much of what I end up writing here has to do with the nuances of some or other situation. Whether I get things right or wrong is your call to make, but hopefully many of you read what I post because you at least agree that the simple or instinctive reaction is often wrong, or incomplete at best. And in another example of how hype and hyperbole can people to switch off their brains, this morning I heard a caller to Redi Tlhabi’s show trying to make the case that his human rights were being violated, as he was unable to watch or listen to all of the Oscar Pistorius trial.

I don’t know the details (I’m not following the trial, except through the occasional summary recap or meta-commentary like 6000’s archives of the “insight” our journalists are occasionally displaying on Twitter), but some things can be seen and some not, some can be live and some delayed, and so forth. Cricket bats sound like gunshots, and if you’re a white model, you get to have your “dignity” preserved in death in a way that Anene Booysen never could.

The caller thought it grossly unfair – a rights violation – that he couldn’t follow the soap-opera, even though the outcome of it makes no difference to his life. Furthermore, the fact that two courtrooms had been set up for journalists to be able to observe proceedings was also grossly iniquitous – why them and not me, Lord? As I’ve argued in a different context, if you train people to expect sensation instead of subtlety, you should shouldn’t be surprised if they keep expecting more of the same, and eventually, become capable of understanding nothing less.

Hamba Kahle, President Mandela

NYorker cover

My friend Jonathan Faull has already written a piece that captures the significance of Mr. Mandela’s death for most of us South Africans, and for many elsewhere in the world, better than I’d be able to. As 6000 remarked, British audiences could perhaps contextualise this as “the equivalent of a hundred – a thousand – Dianas”. Commiserations to all who are feeling somewhat bereft, today and in the coming weeks.

My contribution is simply to briefly state that if you’re concerned about honouring Mandela’s memory, or making his life mean something beyond the significance already captured in history, then remember that the symbolic force he generated was all about understanding why we are in disagreement, and trying to find a way out of that disagreement. It was about reconciliation, and hope, and progress. He offered a genuine source of energy for moral courage, and for effecting change.

Regardless of the details of history, and whether you think certain factual details should be emphasised or de-emphasised, that’s the effect of Mandela the icon rather than Mandela the man. So when idiots like those at the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) say that they will be coming to picket his funeral (Mandela supported gay marriage, thus will be in hell, thus WBC are happy), the last thing you should do in honouring Mandela is to threaten them with violence.

Some hyperventilating types from the tabloids and Twitter (often indistinguishable, I guess) are worried about the fate of SA now that Mandela is dead. But that’s bollocks – we’re in as good or bad shape as we were yesterday. We’ve been saying goodbye to Mandela for months if not years already, and besides, the South Africa he presided over is not the same one we have today.

Our success, or our failure, rests more in whether democrats (and generally, ethical voices) inside today’s ANC can rescue it from the likes of Jacob Zuma. Jacob Zuma is not my president. I’ve not had one since Mandela, but hopefully I’ll have one again, sometime soon. And if you want Mandela’s death to mean something, then consider using it as a motivation to think about what his life meant, and the legacy he left us, and then to buckle down and renew your efforts towards helping us achieve his vision.

Dennett’s ‘seven tools for thinking’

In 2009, I had the great pleasure of sharing a number of meals and pub-sessions with Dan Dennett, when he visited South Africa for a series of lectures. The picture below is of his first encounter with something called a “bunny chow” – a hollowed-out section of bread, filled with curry. Since meeting him then, he’s always been exceedingly generous with his time and thoughtful input when requested, as I’m sure any of you who have dealt with him would concur.

In case you hadn’t noticed, he has a new book out which looks well-worth our time and attention. It’s titled “Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking“, and is certainly next in line for consumption on my Kindle.

The Guardian recently carried an excerpt detailing “seven tools for thinking”. Number two on that list is certainly one I wish more of our “community” would take to heart, and deals with the tendency to caricature our opponent’s positions. I’ll paste a snippet below, but please go and read the rest – we could do with a reminder in many of these respects.

Begin quote:

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

I get (real) mail

It’s been very many years since I’ve received a handwritten letter in the mail (not counting letters from the UCT Registrar, who sometimes prefers to record official business on paper, with pen. I’m afraid I have little idea as to his heuristic for deciding when email is sufficient and when pen and paper are necessary, and in realising this, resolve to ask him that question soonest.) It’s probably been at least 10 years since any other correspondence has arrived in this format, though, so I was quite surprised to find this in my postbox at work today.

Seeing as the Daily Maverick has a real names comment policy, and this was intended as a comment to my column last week, I’ll presume that it’s okay to post it here, before briefly responding. I’ve shrunk the images, so in case you can’t read them, the covering letter includes the question:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

This gave me little indication of what was to come, considering that the question is sensible even if (to my mind) put somewhat hyperbolically. The letter itself reads:

Failed attempt to submit to the Daily Maverick, in reply to Jacques Rousseau’s article on culture.

Our ‘sentient and compassionate’, ‘affirming and inspirational’ culture condones ‘oppressive and restrictive’ attitudes towards those it deems ‘inferior and unworthy’ for questioning its orthodox principles.

A paid-up member of this ‘groupthink’ culture is required to:

  • Replace puritanical attitudes to sex with puritanical attitudes to thought.
  • Endorse strident feminism.
  • Support pugnacious homosexuality (see Pierre de Vos’s bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland).
  • Be sceptically deconstructive (see Richard Poplak’s diagnosis of J.M. Coetzee as a substitute for examining his sensible speech at the Wits graduation ceremony).
  • Excoriate the government but sanctify The People, and increasingly untenable position.
  • Curse colonialism, Christianity, apartheid and big business (modish apocalyptic horsemen, past).
  • Lament racism, poverty, inequality, and unemployment (modish apocalyptic horsemen, present).
  • Embrace multiculturalism while proselytising his own.
  • Hound the carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture.

A tall order, but then virtue was never easy.

To be honest, I have no idea what to make of this. I was hoping that typing it out would make it more clear, but I still have little idea whether Ms Vorster thinks I am either a member of this ‘groupthink’ culture, or a campaigner against it, or neither.

It seems that her first paragraph introduces a dissatisfaction with political correctness and groupthink, and that her letter is concerned with some negative effects this culture could have in allowing for unfair judgements against ‘outsiders’. The quoted bits describing culture are plucked from various paragraphs of my original column, though, where some were descriptive, some aspirational, and some facetious. She seems to have read me as describing an actual and extant culture, which I certainly wasn’t. The major point of my column was that we normally can’t be prescriptive about culture, and that it’s as meaningless or meaningful as you’d like it to be. We can be prescriptive about behaviour, though, and if your culture involves harming unwilling participants, I’ve got no problem with saying that aspect x of culture y is reprehensible, and must change.

If it wasn’t for her covering letter, where she refers to reading my columns “with pleasure”, I’d have no problem interpreting this letter as a rant against lefties, and an appeal for less wishy-washy tolerance of various cultural norms. Because this seems to imply that she thinks me an ally. Fair enough, I might say as a general response to many lefties, in that I hate the soft relativism of not making judgements as much as some of you might do. But then, this doesn’t need to be accompanied by an endorsement of bigotry, as Ms Vorster seems to be demanding when referring to my colleague Pierre de Vos’s “pugnacious homosexuality” and his “bitchy reply to the unfortunate Mulholland”.

Mulholland deserved all he got from de Vos, and more (though I preferred Rebecca Davis’s response myself). To pick up on a few of the other points Ms Vorster makes, I’ve got complicated responses to feminism, in that we’d first need to agree on what the term means. If “strident feminism” entails pointing out the pervasive privilege afforded to men in society, and campaigning to eliminate it, then I’m a strident feminist myself – even though the need for feminism as a special cause can be interrogated, seeing as this particular inequality could be captured in a general assault on discrimination. But if strident feminism means thinking that “The Rule of Men” informs any potential experience, then we speak very different languages (and, live on different planets).

If Poplak’s critique was flawed, Coetzee would – from the little I know of him – be concerned with the flaws, but nevertheless applaud the attempt at a challenging and interesting reading. As for excoriation, I’m happy to excoriate both or either of the government or the people, depending on which of them do or say the most stupid things while I’m trying to come up with a column idea. Of all the horsemen listed, I don’t like any besides big business, which can be good or bad depending on what it does and how it spends its profits (if any). If groupthink means it’s bad to not like apartheid, poverty and so forth, I really hope that Ms Vorster thinks I’m a victim of it.

I don’t embrace multiculturalism. I embrace the idea that people should leave each other the hell alone, regardless of culture, that arguments should be judged on their merits (with cultural longevity or popularity certainly not counting as a merit), and that if we end up agreeing (“groupthink”) it should ideally be because we’ve all considered the issue, and come to the same reasoned conclusion. Maligning our general agreement on something like anti-sexism as “groupthink” obscures the fact that reasonable people tend to agree on what’s reasonable, for good reasons.

As for the “carriers of our plagues, usually conservative, white, heterosexual men or black men who understand the efficacy of patronage within their own culture” – it’s little surprise that these categories are responsible for most of our social ills. For much of white South Africa, those conservative, white, heterosexual men wrote the rules, and the rules are bad ones (because they are aimed at inequality and perpetuating privilege). For much of South Africa, the same is true for powerful black men, who dominate through similar networks of patronage. Are we supposed to be blaming the poor for our misery, or the otherwise disenfranchised?

Back to the covering letter:

If you could single out what distresses you most about life in South Africa, what would it be? For me, it is the Aztec-like acceptance of violent death in civil society.

That too many people seem to think that complaining, signing a petition, or Tweeting furiously is going to make any difference to anything. If you have a skill, you could donate some of it to a civil society movement. If you can teach, do so. If you have time, give some of that. If you have money, find a worthwhile charity. That’s the high-minded answer. The more banal answer is that it’s distressing to have the same debates, each and every year/month/day, where (sometimes) it seems that nobody is doing any listening at all.

Covering note Page1 Page2

Halaal cross buns and Christian hypersensitivity

That Sheffield-refugee 6000 has beaten me to the draw on this one (and also on Red Bull pulling their blasphemous ad) – both posts are worth a read. Errol Naidoo’s outraged newsletter regarding Woolworth’s latest offence against women, children, God, Naidoo, decency and family values hasn’t arrived yet, so we can’t be sure just how much offence Woolworths have caused, but it seems to be quite a lot. You see, they had the unfathomably insensitive idea of putting a Halaal certification on hot cross buns.

Yes, hot cross buns – those delicacies eaten over Easter, a religious festival that some Christians refuse to celebrate because of its pagan origins. But no matter how offensive it might be to have the obvious pointed out to you (and it often is), these buns have always been halaal. And kosher. And the relevant stamps have been on the packaging for years now. From next year, you’ll be able to buy the buns without the relevant stamps, but they will be the same buns as before – still kosher, still halaal. But the hypersensitive Christians among us will at least then be able to go back to burying their heads in the sand, and forget about this full-scale assault on all they hold dear.

But since when have hot cross buns been considered a religious food, in any case? For quite a while, at least according to Wikipedia, which tells us that they were “eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess Eostre”. We should certainly boycott those blasphemous Saxons, then. And how is this worthy of a boycott threat to Woolworths in any case (not to mention a front-page story in The Mercury), when all Woolworths are doing is reminding a significant proportion of their client-base that these buns won’t result in whatever damnation the eating of something without a halaal stamp is supposed to cause?

There are more serious things to worry about. Not only genuinely outrageous things, like the occasional evils committed in the name of religion (like the girl who recently died during an attempted exorcism) , but also (less serious, of course) things like consistency. These buns are sold year-round, and again, have been for years (with the halaal stamp). If hot cross buns have special significance to Christians, I’d imagine that significance to be strongly linked to Easter. So, if you want an extra thing to hyperventilate about, dear Christians, consider boycotting Woolworths until they also agree to only sell hot cross buns between certain dates, specified by you (or God, if you can get her on the line).

The fact that Woolworths have capitulated to this hypersensitivity is absurd. The complainants should simply have been told to grow up and remember that they live in a multicultural society, where they can’t demand special respect for grievances such as these. Judging by the jokes and mockery from other Christians on Woolworth’s Facebook page and on Twitter, this threatened boycott would probably have resulted in approximately a dozen fewer hot cross buns being sold, and surely that’s a worthwhile price for Woolworths to pay to avoid lowering the bar on what counts as significant offence even further?

On a related (albeit tangential) note, consider this billboard I spotted in Camps Bay recently:

We probably won’t see any claims of copyright infringement emerging from Tiger Brands, because of the default respect that is afforded to religion. Perhaps if the Laugh it Off folk had used this logo on a t-shirt there would be some complaint from the copyright holders, but here it would no doubt simply be considered a light-hearted and excusable appropriation of their logo. They wouldn’t mind this usage, in other words, because the association with this church is by default a positive association. Well, seeing as I’m an anti-natalist as well as an atheist, I’ll henceforth boycott All Gold until they sue that damn church. Perhaps.

Of course I won’t, partly because I don’t care, and because I might have done the same thing if I were involved in the billboard’s planning, and the same (no-) thing if representing Tiger Brands. It’s not worth a fuss, and can only be considered offensive from a position of deep insecurity (and of course, the same sort of response can be found among atheists also). And if Christians want to boycott Woolworths over this, all they will achieve is diminishing their own credibility, as 6000 points out in the link above. As for me, this Easter I’ll hopefully be able to enjoy some hot question buns, as in previous years, thanks to my blasphemous wife:

Insha’Allah, of course.

Char Margolis back to astound SA audiences (apparently)

A Sandton community newspaper reports that this “World-respected intuitive medium” will be in town this weekend to take some money from gullible folk to talk to the dead and teach people “to connect with their own intuitive gifts”. The article reads like a straight copy-and-paste of something written by Margolis’s PR team, such is its breathless enthusiasm for everything she claims to do. It’s really quite amusing what counts as a virtue when it comes to promoting woo-woo like this. Like the equally exploitative John Edward, one of her gifts is talking to the spirit world. Like this:

But if those impressive skills don’t persuade you, Margolis is clearly something special seeing as she “is a frequent guest on Dr Phil. In fact Char recently appeared on an episode of Dr Phil along with her colleague John Edward”. Dr Phil? The problem with him is less that he temporarily lost his licence to practice psychology (1989 – 1990) after (certainly) employing one of his 19 year-old clients and (allegedly) having a sexual relationship with her – rather, it’s that he doesn’t seem to apply very high standards when it comes to what he’s prepared to endorse. (To avoid a Federal Trade Commission investigation into this product, Dr Phil pulled them from the market in 2004, and settled a class-action lawsuit from some disgruntled users for $10.5 million.)

Another of her claims to significance rests in the fact that she “not only works with everyday people but she also assists law enforcement with missing person cases and solving crimes”. Apparently – although her most widely publicised success in this regard (helping to locate a missing pilot) appears to have involved a dollop of common sense and obvious inferences, rather than anything mystical.

But it’s your R350. If you do decide to attend, there’s a final snippet of good news over and above getting the chance to have someone lie to you about getting messages from your dead relatives: the venue (a beauty salon!) “was selected by John Edward, International Psychic Medium as he felt the energy that owner, Shelene Shaer had created was excellent.”

#Jugcam – private, public and the paparazzification of the everyday

At some point last night, a debate on “jugcam” started raging on Twitter, which I’m probably well-advised to stay out of. But seeing as nobody is around to give me that advice, here are a few thoughts on the matter. First, for those who haven’t heard about jugcam is, it’s a Twitter meme involving the broadcasting of photographs of the breasts (more accurately, cleavage) of female cricket spectators. Some women are offended by this, claiming that it’s a violation of their privacy and that it could inhibit them from wearing bikinis or other revealing clothes to cricket stadia.

What this might immediately bring to mind is the furore and 2010 lawsuit involving “Girls Gone Wild”, where “Jane Doe” sued the makers of the show for damaging her reputation, after her breasts were exposed during the filming of an episode of the show. But the cases are not at all symmetrical, in that Jane Doe had near-certain knowledge of this sort of thing happening with some regularity at parties filmed for GGW, and also knew that the filming was taking place. This is not to excuse the person who pulled her top down, or to express a view on whether Jane Doe was violated in any way, but simply to say that the case is different to that of a woman sunning herself while watching cricket.

Having said that, it’s always been the case (well, for many years now) that the cameramen and producers of the live cricket feed for television tend to focus on attractive females with some regularity. Lingering close-ups of cleavage are a common occurrence, and frequently involve whole-body shots – making identification and potential embarrassment that much easier. By contrast, many of the jugcam shots are simply of cleavage, making claims of any sort of violation more difficult to sustain. Many do also include faces, though, so are at least potentially violations of privacy.

One difference between GGW, the TV camera feed and jugcam is that these involve a sliding scale of implied consent. You fully expect to be filmed at GGW, you partially expect that you might be filmed by the TV cameras, and you don’t (or hadn’t, until now) expect to be photographed by random strangers while watching cricket. And the latter typically involves the opportunity to give actual consent – especially if you’re the focus of the photograph, rather than merely a character somewhere in the background of one.

So I can sympathise with the idea that there has been a failure of courtesy on the part of those who take these jugcam shots without obtaining consent. But treating this as an analogue to rape, or linking it with SlutWalk, is taking things too far. SlutWalk (which I’ve criticised here and here) is about protesting victim-blaming, where those unsympathetic to the exploitation or abuse of women imply (or make explicit) the claim that women invite sexual abuse through what they choose to wear. With jugcam, there’s no suggestion that these pictures lead to sexual violence, merely that they are creepily invasive and that they objectify women.

But if you go to a stadium containing 40 000 spectators, where the goings-on are being broadcast on television, many people are going to see you. Many of those might find you attractive, and enjoy looking at you. This applies to both men and women, although men are far less likely to mind the attention given their artificial (and unwarranted) social privilege. To think that you welcome sexual abuse based on what you wear is obviously offensive – but to think that people shouldn’t look at you if they find you attractive is insane.

These thoughts (of finding someone attractive) and the subsequent behaviour (of looking at them) are entirely normal, and to regard them as constituting objectification is political correctness gone mad. We would not be able to meet, marry and/or procreate without these impulses. As I commented with regard to the Foschini T-shirt episode, it’s dangerous for us to keep amplifying our feelings of offence and responding with increasingly hyperbolic outrage – the real offences could simply get buried over time by self-important bleating. Furthermore, an excessive focus on symptoms of patriarchy might do little to address the underlying causes – not to mention the possibility that even focusing on patriarchy itself could obscure the more general (and more important, to my mind) fight against inequality in all forms.

Jugcam goes further than simply looking, though – it involves public exposure via Twitter (and websites). Do those wielding smartphones have an obligation to ask for permission to take photographs that TV cameramen do not? Paul Jacobson says no, arguing that

we live in a time when we are increasingly online, socially connected and capable of publishing a dizzying amount of content on the Web for virtually anyone to see. … We are getting to a point where you can’t go anywhere without seeing smartphones or other devices being used to take photos, record video and publish that content to sites you have no control over.

When it comes to the #JugCam meme (which is an organized version of what guys have probably been doing at sports events for some time now), we have to start making decisions about how we behave in such a connected world. I know how this next bit sounds but I think it has to be said and really does have some merit as an argument: women who wear bikini tops at public sports events like cricket matches must be aware that their photos could be taken and uploaded for broader consumption. I’m not saying its ok for that to happen, it is a little creepy, but it happens. Arguing that people (ok, men) shouldn’t be allowed to do this in public spaces without express permission is a little disingenuous. If a woman is opposed to being photographed in a bikini top and having her photo published online then she should reconsider wearing a bikini top at these events. Women should also be free to express outrage at their photo being published and demand that it be removed but whether that actually happens will likely come down to a decision based on the rights to freedom of expression, dignity and privacy being weighed up. I suspect the legal position will be something along the following lines: women in public wearing bikini tops have no real legitimate expectation of privacy when they are in public and can’t complain if their photo is taken and published online, particularly where they are aware that this could (and does) occur.

He’s right that we are at the point where this sort of thing often happens – but that doesn’t make it right that it does. As I outline above, there are some known risks of public exposure when attending a public event like a cricket game, and you might think there’s some chance of a TV camera focusing on you. Things like jugcam add to those risks. The point is not only a “real legitimate expectation of privacy”, but also that the bounds of what is private and what is public are being affected, where everyone you meet could take on a paparrazzi role. Yet we are not all celebrities, and it seems disingenuous to argue that we can treat any random female cricket spectator as if she were (leaving aside the question of whether even celebrities deserve this sort of intrusion).

My point is this: The fact that something like jugcam is not illegal, and also not offensive to the extent that some have argued on Twitter, does not make it a meme to be encouraged or defended. Jugcam is simply an excuse for being an ass, and an attempted legitimisation of a boorish and juvenile impulse to entertain yourself and your fellow frat-boys. There’s a simple question of courtesy and respect here – genuine celebrities know what they’re in for, and can’t be surprised by the attentions of photographers. The average cricket-watcher can not only be surprised, but more importantly, she can have preferences in this regard that outweigh the value you get from posting her picture online – even if it’s not that offensive to post her picture online.

It’s really not a lot of trouble to ask. And not asking – where someone might have a good reason to refuse – is rude. And it’s the sort of rudeness which comes from the invisibility of privilege, where the protagonists of jugcam can appear incapable of understanding why anyone would mind. The reason for being incapable of this understanding is the key thing – namely that it’s incomprehensible for some to think that their understanding of what is and is not problematic aren’t universal. Here’s a simple take-home lesson: if something you do affects someone else, and you have the opportunity to establish whether they welcome that effect or not, the default behaviour should be to ask them to express a view.

Having said that, we shouldn’t be at all surprised when people act like asses – and not every slight or insult needs to be spoken of as evidence for civilization’s downfall. Unauthorised jugcam pictures are rude, sure, but that’s all they are.

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011

2022 Columbia Road NW
Apartment 702
Washington DC

That’s an address I’ve had for 5 years or so. It’s where Hitchens lived, or so I’m told. And I’ve been to DC every year, sometimes twice per year – but never got around to visiting, even before the esophageal cancer diagnosis. This, despite Hitch apparently welcoming these visits. I’ve heard many stories from colleagues in the atheist community of how they dropped by his brownstone, or knew someone who had done so, and how Hitchens welcomed them in for a drink. Of course, these stories might be apocryphal. But I wish I could say I tried to find out whether they were true.

I am trying to express, in words, the value of Hitchens’ ideas and words in my, and many other people’s lives. But words were his domain – he treated them as a puppeteer does, and it’s daunting to even begin to try and say something about him. And the sadness weighs heavy also – that mass somewhere in my chest, those tears close to the surface. I don’t like the confessional mode, but this is a sadness than can be confessed.

In April next year, I’ll be attending the Global Atheist convention in Melbourne. All 4 of the so-called ‘horsemen’ were scheduled to speak, and I think everyone knew that Hitchens was unlikely to make it. But we hoped he would, even though he’d already defeated the typical 6-months that esophageal cancer gives you. I’ve met the others, but never met him. The conference will be a sad event, and he’ll be missed.

2011 can go. There’s been enough death. There’s been enough dishonesty. There has been enough opportunism in politics, both locally and abroad, with callous or blindly selfish puppeteers playing not with words, but with our lives. Hitch left so much writing, that I doubt anyone has read it all. If you haven’t, or if you’ve read little or not in a while, do so. He faced death bravely, and life also. He faced everything with a bravery that one could respect, even where you didn’t agree with him.

More of us need to be so brave. More of us need to expose ourselves to the criticism that comes from those who don’t like – or don’t want to hear – uncomfortable truths about the convenient fictions that religions and governments tell us.

We’ll miss you, Hitch. But may your death inspire us, just as your life did.

Sensationalism, morality and the media

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

There is a difference between exposing hypocrisy for the sake of satisfying the public’s desire for scandal (thereby perhaps increasing newspaper sales), and doing so in a way that makes the hypocrisy part of a larger story. Much over the weekend coverage of Malema and Mbalula’s various indiscretions seemed to prefer the former, leaving at least this reader with the question: Why should I care?

It’s not obvious that we should expect moral virtue from political leaders – and even if we were to do so, we’d first need to agree on what those virtues are or should be. Who Mbalula has sex with is not my business, nor is it something that should be. Unless, of course, the Minister’s choice of sexual partner entails some direct impact on his credibility or on consistency between his words and deeds.

If we believe Mbalula himself, he was separated from his wife at the time of his liaison with Joyce Molamu, so it’s not even clear that he has contravened the standards he appeals for others to follow. Members of the public might nevertheless consider him a hypocrite, and this will no doubt complicate his attempts to position himself as the next ANC secretary-general.

But until Stephen Grootes discussed Malema and Mbalula in these pages, the liaison – rather than any of its potential implications – was the story. Likewise with Malema. It should be no surprise to any of us that he’s a far wealthier man than many of his supporters, and that he’s more likely to have friends who host R10m parties. Yet another example of the lack of consistency between his rhetoric and his actions is not, in itself, front-page news.

The timing of such a party and the way in which it dilutes the force of the Youth League march against poverty can be. But as was the case with the Mbalula story, the media focus was more on rubbing his nose in this apparent evidence of hypocrisy (notably also tainted evidence, in that the business class flights and accommodation were apparently sponsored by the groom).

Outrage and sensation might be effective ways to sell copy, but they do little good in fostering a society that welcomes debate, and is able to engage in it. There seems little reason to believe that these stories will do anything other than entrench existing positions, where either M&M are being victimised by some white media cabal, or are untrustworthy demagogues.

We get the society we deserve, in that we are that society and it takes on the forms we encourage. As someone said on Twitter over the weekend, what the public is interested in is not equivalent to the public interest – and it’s the latter that gives newspapers licence to broadcast what would otherwise be details of someone’s private life.

Where those details are not contextualised as part of a story that is in the public interest, such as succession battles in Manguang, the press is not only feeding our appetite for sensation, but also starts taking on the role of moral authority and watchdog. Feeding our appetite for sensation is the job of the tabloids – not of the few variably-respectable local newspapers we have access to.

And neither being a moral authority, nor policing whatever version of morality is concocted is their proper role. The line between reporting on the news and aiming for objectivity – or at least making your biases clear if you’re not interested in objectivity – and trying to regulate society has become increasingly blurred.

For this reason alone, the extensive overlap between LeadSA and some of our media is problematic. If we were to discover that a particular LeadSA campaign is founded on poor evidence, or that a representative of LeadSA was somehow corrupt, are the chances of reading about these matters in an Independent Group newspaper at all diminished by their affiliation with LeadSA? I’d guess the answer to be yes. But I’d also guess that if this sort of event were to come to pass, that we’d see much crowing from the competition, and very little analysis that tracks something we could describe as being in the public interest.

And where the media endorse this sensationalism by practising it, we cannot be surprised to find citizens thinking they should care. Not only care about details that are stripped of context and meaning, but also care so much for their own hyperventilations that they think their worldviews should be enforced on the rest of us. A recent example of this can be found in complaint laid against an advertisement for Axe deodorants, where a single viewer convinced the ASA that it was offensive enough to require being taken off the airwaves.

That the ASA were convinced by this complaint is mystifying, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out ( What is perhaps more perplexing still is how they can proceed from here, having set the bar for offence so low. Every advertisement that includes images of an attractive man or woman could be described as sexist, and if we pretend to be offended enough (or sadly, actually feel offended enough), will the advertisement be pulled? Or how about those Fatti’s & Moni’s ads that so offend us Pastafarians, in subjecting us to images of our deity being boiled, over and over again?

If someone in the public eye has done something that weakens their case or exposes them as a fraud, this can certainly be in the public interest. But simply pointing out their indiscretions is not – we need to hear what this implies in terms of some larger issue. Without that context and analysis, the media is feeding a large and ugly beast. We know the public want sensation. And it’s likely that they’ll want more of it if we keep giving it to them. But perhaps, we should be encouraging them to want less of it.