Homophobia and the politics of outrage

The morning has brought one of those Twitter Groundhog days, where everyone is making the same points about Heritage Day/Braai Day as they did last year – mostly complaining about how offensive it is that someone else is telling us that it should be about X, and how offensive it is that someone else has co-opted it to make it about Y. Because liberty on these particular terms is the only liberty that matters, or something.

Another Twitter war that’s raging today is around homophobia, and can be traced back to the advertisement below (subsequently pulled, and also the subject of an apology from the agency concerned).

Flora ad

The ad was part of a sequence. The (only?) two other ads in the sequence involved the idea of Malema becoming president; and a Kama Sutra reference – in all cases, the idea was presumably that you need to protect your heart from excessive strain or shock, and that Flora margarine could give you added protection.

I’ll link to the opinion pieces that are being fought over at the end of this post, because the squabble between their respective authors is not the point of this blog post.

I want to go back to the ad, and the question of whether it is homophobic at all.

A literal understanding of homophobia would involve fear, but more colloquially judgement, prejudice and so forth against gay persons or communities. This definition is difficult to sustain here, because the judgement being expressed is against the holder of the “fragile” heart depicted in the ad – that person is weak, unable to deal with reality, and so forth. They need external assistance from the margarine to strengthen their (naturally weak) defences against some information (or exertion, in the Kama Sutra case).

This analysis of how the ad is supposed to work is consistent with all three versions of it. You can criticise such a campaign on various grounds, one of which would (and I think, should) be the choice of examples meant to serve as the “bullet”. If you want to highlight the things that some folk are hypersensitive, prejudiced or bigoted about, then the campaign should make that element clear – otherwise it runs the risk of being perceived as being particularly insensitive to those examples it does choose to use (with the ones left out being given a free pass). In fact, if you don’t make this element clear enough, the stereotypes you leave out are defined as normal by their exclusion.

So, the campaign I would have run (easy in retrospect, I know) would have involved “uh, Dad, I’m an atheist”. Or “uh, Dad, my boyfriend/girlfriend is black/white/Christian/Muslim/French”, or whatever.

Alternatively, you leave out the one ad that deals with a social prejudice at all, and replace it with “it’s about your child”, or “uh, Dad, I took your car keys”. The point is that in only including gay folk as an example of the sort of child that a parent might have a prejudice towards, you certainly take the risk of disproportionately offending gay people in this campaign.

One logically defensible stance here is that the ad uses the example of a homophobic person (the father) to make its point, rather than being homophobic itself. Critics will argue – not entirely without merit – that this is too narrow a definition of homophobia, in that we should also count as homophobic language and images that treat (technical, in the first sense above) homophobia as “normal”, or expected.

This broader understanding of homophobia certainly accords with what I perceive and see reported as being the experience of many homosexual people. Rebecca Davis (of the Daily Maverick) pointed out in a comment to one of the pieces that gay teens disproportionately commit suicide, partly (presumably) for fear of being othered, marginalised, cast out by parents and so forth – and that these fears are immediately prompted by an ad such as this. If, like me, you listen to the fabulous Dan Savage podcast, Savage Love, you’ll not go a week without hearing some heartbreaking story of parental or societal prejudice of this sort.

I’m sympathetic to the view that the ad is homophobic in this broader way, but only because of the failure of execution highlighted above. If the ad had consistently focused on prejudice of other sorts too, the campaign could easily have been read as affirming ways of living and being that some considered (and sadly, still consider) to be marginal, immoral or taboo. The ad might even be trying to do that now, and failing – so I can understand why it’s caused the outrage it has.

Here’s something else that I’d hope we can consider, though, even while saying it’s a bad ad, that an apology is merited, or even that the ad should be pulled. And that is that we do our language, argument and political battles a long-term disservice by calling an insensitive, poorly-executed ad concept homophobic instead of calling it “offensive”, “insensitive” or somesuch, including whatever qualifiers necessary (mildly, extremely, and so forth).

Our reactions to offence need to be proportional, because language and the words we choose to use signal the degree to which things are regarded as wrong. If anything that offends on the grounds of sexual orientation is homophobic, and anything that offends on the grounds of race, racist, then we are leaving no room for mistakes, or for implicit cultural biases to be recognised as unfortunate (and needing remedy) while not being wilful (and thus, more wrong). There are degrees of moral failing, and our language needs to take those degrees into account.

Lowe and Partners (the agency who made the ad in question) are not homophobic in the sense that Jon Qwelane or President Zuma are. Using the same language to describe them all is not only lazy, but also counts against a long-term project of getting people to think about the nuances of their language and behaviour. I’d wager that shouting at someone for their homophobia will not encourage as much reflection as explaining to them why gay folk might find the ad offensive would.

The point is that there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.

It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.

The Daily Maverick columns, in order of appearance:

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.