More on Foschini’s sexist T-shirts

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Drawing a line between hypersensitivity and justified affront is sometimes rather difficult. Political correctness often helps to facilitate the former, because we become so used to not being offended that it seems increasingly outrageous when others dare to offend our sensibilities. And while outrage is easy to manufacture, and difficult to ignore, the fact that someone is offended doesn’t mean that they are justified.

Eleven women, including the Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis, were recently offended by a selection of T-shirts they considered sexist being offered for sale by stores by stores in the Foschini stable. You can read the justification for this in Davis’s column, though I’d recommend only reading the ensuing comments if you’re feeling strong – or if you’re looking for further evidence in support of your application for asylum with some other species. Because what starts as a civilised and reasonable expression of disappointment by Davis and others that these T-shirts were put up for sale rapidly descends into quite unpleasant abuse of character and motive, especially targeted towards those commenters who dared to question whether the objections to the T-shirts were an overreaction.

The abuse came from all quarters, though – including from those whose apparent motivation was a call for greater respect for their viewpoint that the T-shirts were legitimately offensive. And here one can arguably see an interesting asymmetry, in that while the premise of the debate is that certain views aren’t being afforded enough respect (women’s rights and interests), the debate then proceeds as if alternative views aren’t worthy of any respect at all, and that people who express those alternative views aren’t entitled to do so.

It’s easy to forget that if we are campaigning on behalf of some interest, we become ambassadors or representatives of that interest. So, when someone dares to challenge your cause, we sometimes need to take care to not respond in such a way as to undermine the exact cause we’re fighting. If the issue is that certain interests or arguments are being sidelined, that issue can only win a hollow victory by sidelining dissent.

Now, of course some issues might take priority over others. Not only legal priority, as in the balancing of rights, but also moral priority in that it might sometimes be obvious that there is a genuine problem worthy of attention or redress. And sexism is such a problem in that we are perhaps less sensitive to it than to other forms of unfair discrimination. This is perhaps evidenced by our language, in that gendered epithets are given less attention than racist ones.

So on the surface of it, sexist T-shirts, or sexist jokes, are obviously a problem when they consistently target one sex rather than another. If sexism was an equal-opportunity offence we could accuse the offenders of crassness, but not of sexism. But hypersensitivity is also a problem, and we should take care to avoid undermining our causes through taking a fundamentalist approach to them, or through treating dissent as axiomatically reprehensible.

To try and avoid misinterpretation here, I did think that some (not all) of the T-shirts were sexist. Consumers are free to point that out, and you’d think that retailers are free to respond by withdrawing them from sale. The qualifier of “you’d think” hints at what some comments to the Davis column were perhaps trying to point out, in that it’s unclear that Foschini had any actual choice in the matter.

Because just as it’s difficult to imagine something like a sunset clause on affirmative action, it’s difficult to conceive of a point at which accusations of sexism can’t be levelled without being privileged. They are uttered from a position of not being privileged, but gain privilege in that they are impossible (or at least very difficult) to refute. Playing the “race card” already wins most of the battle, and making accusations of sexism can do the same – the sense of being offended can be justified merely by feeling that you are offended.

In these debates, we should be wary of words and attitudes that can act as silencing devices, and that can forestall or inhibit debate. Because viewpoints and attitudes can become immune to, and protected from, challenge. Immune because of their orthodoxy, and protected because of our fear of being labelled as racist, sexist or in some other way opposed to the orthodox view.

In the case of these T-shirts, there is a marked difference between the measured tone and argument of the original letter protesting these T-shirts and some of what came after, including on the comment thread to Davis’s column. Whether it’s true or not, it’s still legitimate to raise the question of whether the opposition to the T-shirts was a sense of humour failure (I don’t think it was). It’s also legitimate to ask whether calls for a boycott of Foschini are taking the matter too far (which I think it did).

To rule these questions as out of order, or to not engage with the questions without attacking the characters of those who raise them, forestalls any possible debate, and entrenches existing prejudices on both sides. We want Foschini to be able to withdraw the T-shirts, or not do so, through being able to make a decision – not through being subjected to what can easily become a form of moral blackmail.

The boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable offence (ie. merely risqué rather than legitimately problematic) are not only subjective, but also present a slippery slope problem. If T-shirts like the ones in question are withdrawn from sale without the possibility of debate – or with the polarisation of debate evidenced in the comments to the Davis column – a new level of what is acceptable and not can be set. And then, potentially, one less thing can be debated and one fewer thing can be a legitimate source of humour – because something is always potentially offensive to somebody.

One possible outcome of these sorts of (lack of) debate is simply a world in which those who shout the loudest get heard, or are taken more seriously than others. So even as we are fully entitled to object to things we find offensive and attempt to get others to see our point of view, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that our own views are beyond challenge, or that we’re automatically justified in attributing some degeneracy to those who object to those views.

In this case, some of the offence was certainly justified, and I think the letter that Davis and the others wrote was not hyperbolic in the least. But some of the ensuing commentary raised the possibility of yet another issue where being offended is its own validation, and where it is unquestionable that others should bow to the demands of your offence.

We might be entitled to be offended at whatever we like, whether it’s justified or not. But with the exception of hate-speech (an exception which can itself be challenged), others are entitled to be offensive. While we can try and persuade them to stop, we should be careful to not do in a way that stops us talking – and listening – to each other.

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.