Weinstein and the evolution of sexual abuse accusations

It’s rare to see social norms change as quickly as they currently are, as we seem to be seeing with respect to exposing alleged sexual predators. It appears to me that there’s at present a fairly widespread acceptance of the idea that not only do powerful men abuse that power in order to abuse women (typically), but also that this unspoken reality should become a spoken-of concern.

Woody Allen didn’t break the dam wall, Cosby didn’t, and neither did Trump. Going further back, folk like Polanski didn’t either, but something about the Weinstein revelations seems to have precipitated a  sea-change in the willingness of victims to come forward with their stories, and in a more general sense, the willingness of the public to recognise that this is a systemic and serious problem.

Zapiro and the rape of South Africa

If you are reading this, then you have likely seen today’s Zapiro cartoon. If you haven’t, you can see it on Daily Maverick. I’m not going to reproduce it here, both because I haven’t asked for permission to do so, and because some folk who I hope to engage via this post might think it’s needlessly provocative to do so.

Building a better society starts with recognising this one’s broken

Today’s horror is the rape of a Northern Cape high school boy, whose classmates tied him to a bed and raped him with a broom handle. “Today’s horror” is of course inaccurate, as there are no doubt many others. But this one stands out for me for various reasons:

The initial use of the word “sodomy” instead of the word “rape”, demonstrating an unconscious (and widespread) homophobia. It’s a mild form of homophobia in isolation – but to note that would really miss the point unless you follow it up with the observation that, for those who identify with marginalised and oppressed groups, all of these mild or micro cases add up to a environment of systemic discrimination.

The norm is white, male and heterosexual. This is not to say that it’s impossible for people to overplay their hand (whatever that hand might be) in terms of being part of some marginalised group – some people can be disingenuous, and excuse some personal failing by reference to a coincidental feature they happen to possess.

That’s an entirely separate issue from whether, on average, someone who is not white, male and heterosexual is likely to have a rougher deal than people like me. So, denying any person’s experience by reference to them “playing the x card” (x = race, gender, etc.) pretends that systemic disadvantage is nonexistent, and makes you sound like a heartless, uninformed and unreflective fool.

SASecond, on the rape case, is the fact that some seem to want to make this all about kids being kids at an initiation ritual, rather than it being a racially motivated attack. The bone I’ll throw at you is that of course we can’t know it was a racial attack. But it’s pretty likely to be, in South Africa, at least to the extent that certain inhibitions about not treating other human beings in a barbaric fashion are more present if the prospective target is white, male and heterosexual.

It doesn’t matter that the crowd of kids who were looking on, and (I’m told) cheering were modeling a united colours of Benetton poster, comprising people of various races. It’s possible to internalise racism against any group, even the group you belong to yourself.

And, as DA spokesperson Phumzile van Damme rightly notes in a statement on this attack

Under the cover of “traditions” such as initiations, children are given the platform to act on their racism and homophobia – sanctioned by the institution and often “protected” by just those who went through the same “rites of passage” themselves. Many of these kids are raised by racist, bigoted parents and then spend years and years in these situations where they barely have to disguise this. In fact, it often gets encouraged.

On Facebook, Max du Preez asked “Isn’t it time to consider legislation declaring racist acts (attacks and serious insults) hate crimes with harsh punishment?” I don’t want to get into hate crimes and hate speech at present, because there’s so much to talk about there, but one thing we do need is to at least recognise that they exist, and identify them for what they are.

We have too many folk who still believe the Rainbow Nation myth, and think we’re pretty much united, and too many who believe we’re still in some sort of (undeclared) race war, or at least socially (or otherwise) incompatible with each other. The truth is in the middle – we’re sorting things out, but that requires work, not mythologising.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, go read and play with the “parable of the polygons” to see an elegant demonstration of how (perceived) harmless choices can still add up to a harmful world. Also, read Oliver Burkeman’s recent Guardian piece, which argues that believing the world is intrinsically fair or just can lead to increased injustice, because we “blame the victim” instead of supporting remedial measures.

I don’t know for sure how we build better societies, but recognising our problems, instead of pretending we live in some alternate and superior universe would surely be a start.

Ched Evans, rape and rehabilitation

Ched Evans playing for Sheffield UnitedTwo high-profile cases of men who have been convicted of rape, but who are now up for (or in) plum jobs, have been in the news recently. One is Ched Evans, a footballer who formerly played for Sheffield United (and who they are considering letting play for them again), the other is David Mason, who raped a 12 year-old when he was 19, and who is now a 24 year-old apprentice at Jamie Oliver’s “Fifteen” restaurant.

Both were convicted, and both have served some time in prison. You or I might think that they served too short a prison sentence – and maybe some readers might even think one or both of them innocent – but most of us have little option but to trust the court findings, both in respect of the conviction and the sentence. That’s what one needs to do, in cases of relative ignorance, because others have access to more information than we do.

The interesting issues now are the non-legal ones: should Jamie Oliver give Mason this prestigious job, or rather give it to some other person, found guilty of another crime (“Fifteen” was established on the premise of being a rehabilitative opportunity for people with troubled pasts)? Should a prestigious club, in a sport known for its laddish culture, involving countless instances of misogyny and fair numbers of rapes, allow Evans to represent them again?

I don’t believe that any crime is, in principle, something that one should be punished for for the rest of one’s days. This doesn’t mean forgiveness is necessarily merited, but simply that the punishment can be disproportionate to the crime if you end up never being able to ply your trade or hold a prestigious job.

Mason was 19 when he committed the act of child-abuse. He should have known better. But we also know that before the late 20’s, male brains are impulsive, and don’t assess risk well. I say this not to excuse him, but simply to make the point that I’m not sure how good a predictor a single act of child-abuse by a 19 year-old is of his future behaviour.

Because if we are not going to punish someone forever, and we reach some sort of agreement on how long they should be punished for, the most important issue seems to be whether he’s a continuing threat, or someone who regrets what he has done, and appears to be rehabilitated. If he does, then I can understand Oliver making the decision to employ him.

If we’re not going to allow people to resume normal lives after serving an appropriate sentence, we shouldn’t let them out of jail. There’s no comfort here for their victims, to be sure, but I don’t think that we should encourage victims, and society at large, to understand perpetual retribution as “comfort” either.

Evans is more problematic. According to The Telegraph, the “woman said throughout the trial that she had no memory of the incident. Evans maintains his innocence, claiming that the sex was consensual.” Yet, the court found him guilty, so as I say above, that’s the basis on which we need to proceed.

That’s also the basis on which Evans, his family, and Sheffield United need to proceed. And unfortunately, friends and one family member of Evans were among those to name the woman he raped, on social media, resulting in such abuse by supporters of Evans that she had to move home and change her identity.

In light of this, Evans certainly has something to apologise for, even if he thinks he’s innocent of rape. He should apologise for his role in having caused the abuse, and he should certainly urge his supporters to stop abusing the woman in question, who was certainly harmed after being outed, regardless of how much she was harmed on the night in question.

Yet Evans has apparently not apologised for anything, nor shown any remorse. Hadley Freeman tells us that he’s due to release a “profound and personal” statement next week – but even if this does amount to an apology, I’d imagine that many of us will consider it somewhat forced by circumstance and opportunity, rather than sincere.

Sheffield United are perhaps waiting to see what he says. But in the case of Evans, with the absence of any contrition, and in the context of football’s apparent misogyny (or at least its trivialising of a culture of fairly crude masculinity), I do think it’s inappropriate for him to resume business as usual, and that neither the club, nor the Football Association, should be perceived as supporting him in doing so.

We do need to hear what he says next week, though – and as I said at the top, I do think that we can’t justify punishing someone for ever.

Pornography is coming to eat your children!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

imagesAt some point on the day after this column is published, I’ll be presenting at ICASA’s public hearings, arguing in favour of On Digital Media’s (ODM) application for a licence to screen three pornography channels on TopTV. Besides myself and a colleague, ODM themselves might well be the only people speaking in favour – the submissions received before the January deadline numbered only 16 for, compared to 440 against.

Their previous application was denied, for what I’ve previously described as very poor reasons, but they’ve decided to try again – this time dropping the most hardcore channel (Playboy’s AdultXXX) from the application, and also pledging to appear at the hearings themselves, by contrast to their conspicuous absence at the time of the previous application.

Late last year, ODM applied for business rescue under the Companies Act, and perhaps hope that being allowed to screen the pornography channels will help with their financial survival. I’m sceptical that there’s enough of a market for pornography distributed in this fashion, and therefore whether being given permission to screen these channels can help TopTV to survive.

Whether they survive or not might be thought mostly of concern to their stakeholders, of which I’m not one. They should however be allowed to try any legal and morally defensible strategies available for survival, of which giving paying subscribers access to pornography of a legally permissible sort should surely be included.

Furthermore, we should stand behind them while they try to survive, and especially in this particular matter, because Icasa is not a moral authority, and should not be allowed to take on the authority of one. Their own response to the previous application demonstrated their desire to take on that role, though. Despite explicitly acknowledging that the data don’t demonstrate this to be true, Icasa’s “reasons” document reported that they regard the “consumption of pornography as one contributing factor, amongst others, to the normalisation of violence against women in South Africa”.

Unfortunately, when we stack what appears to be a hunch up against our constitutional freedoms, it’s the hunch that should give way – at least up until the point where there is hard data to turn the hunch into something that should be regarded as fact. But these hearings are of course taking place in a context of extreme – and justified – sensitivity with regard to sexual violence, and Icasa will perhaps be understandably wary of the public response if they were to grant ODM’s application.

They shouldn’t be. Just as it’s condescending to tell every woman that she’s demeaned by pornography – regardless of whether she herself procures, participates in or produces pornography – the South African population at large should be insulted by being told that all it takes is a little airbrushed televised sex to turn them into rapists.

I won’t rehash the practical arguments of my previous column on this topic, linked above, here. In short, though, the children are safe. TopTV’s PIN code protection is robust enough that any child who is able to crack it would most likely be at MIT – or at least surfing the Internet for porn – instead of becoming the putative victim of TopTV’s relatively softcore offerings. So, thinking that allowing this license will somehow increase the availability of porn to the average child is implausible at best, and adults already have access to all the porn they want.

This won’t be perceived as any obstacle to many of the presenters, though, who all (save one) have some version of “Christian”, “God” or some cognate term in their title or description. I point this out not to say that this isn’t a legitimate interest group, but rather to point out that it is a group with particular interests – which is to defend a Christian version of morality regardless of what empirical evidence might say – or not say – about pornography’s effects on society.

They want Icasa, and the Government more generally, to plant their flag in the territory of Christian morality. This is understandable, but for Icasa to do so would be a dereliction of their duties as an independent communications watchdog in a state that bills itself as secular. The data – not the hysteria – needs to support pornography as being a cause of increased sexual violence for TopTV’s opposition to persuade them.

The data do not support that view. As mentioned above, even Icasa are prepared to say that the data are agnostic. I’d go further, and suggest that the USA, Germany and Japan are only a few examples of countries that legalised pornography and saw no resultant increase in sexual violence. As with most social ills, the problem of sexual violence probably involves a nexus of poverty and resultant powerlessness more than anything else.

In South Africa, it is looking increasingly clear that we need to add tik to that causal nexus, thanks to how methamphetamine results in increased sexual arousal and aggression. But perhaps above everything except economic empowerment, I’d argue that what we need to focus on is fostering respect for the choices of others, whether in serious matters such as saying no to sex, or in trivial matters such as watching pornography. Compelling citizens in a secular state to obey the prescriptions of (your interpretation of) Biblical morality does nothing to respect autonomy, but instead treats us as permanent infants.

There’s no question that rape and other forms of violence are a problem, no – but there’s no reason to think that porn has contributed to causing that problem. Without such reason or reasons, all that Icasa would be doing in denying this application would be to award another victory to religious moralisers, and to chalk up another loss to our freedom.

Read a City Press report on the hearings, and listen to my conversation with John Maytham towards the end of the day’s proceedings.

Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim-blaming

Originally published in the Daily Maverick


On the afternoon of this column’s publication, I engaged in brief debate with Michelle Solomon, a local anti-rape activist, on radio. You can listen to that here if you like.

Even since Anene Booysen’s rape and, later, death last weekend, much of South African society has been engaged in a sustained period of reflection regarding the staggeringly high incidence of sexual violence in our country. Alongside the reflection, there has also been much furious Tweeting and Facebooking, as the slacktivists all rise up to say “something must be done” – without ever telling us what it is that we might do.

Rapists aren’t going to read a Tweet and realise the error of their ways. So, for all the solidarity that these public shows of support provide, we need to do more. I don’t know what that could be, except for the obvious things everyone knows about – better resourced police and rape-crisis centres, for example.

It’s not that public debates can serve no purpose – Lindiwe Mazibuko’s suggestion to debate this in Parliament, for example, could actually be useful. The more often that patriarchs like Patekile Holomisa and Jacob Zuma get to hear that women aren’t chattel, the better. Because that is the root of the problem, is it not – that women aren’t treated with respect, but rather as objects for male exploitation of various forms?

How do you fix that, even as you try to improve policing and offer increased support to victims of crimes such as these (and certainly, those involving male rape also)? Some of us can certainly set a better example, whether in the copywriting contained in our advertisements, or in the lessons we teach to our children. But in a community riddled with drugs and gang violence like Bredasdorp apparently is, perhaps the best that many children could hope for – at least in the short-term – is to somehow escape their hometown, and their families.

In the longer-term, though, I’d like to offer a more modest proposal relating to our arguments and our language around rape. Simply put, I’d ask that we guard against sacrificing common sense on the altar of politically-correct principle, because if we’re not having a full (and fully-informed) discussion about the causes of rape, we’re handicapping the search for solutions to rape. One area in which discussion is becoming impossible is risk-mitigation with regard to rape, where every mention of it earns you little more than a reprimand for “victim blaming”.

The vast majority of rapes have nothing at all to do with the situation and conduct of the victim, meaning that victim blaming would not only be offensive, but also factually confused. But, if even 5% of rapes do have something to do with those factors – and are thus potentially avoidable through some form of risk-mitigation strategy – we have to be allowed to talk about those strategies. Currently, we can’t, because any suggestion that potential future victims should consider risks (and thus perhaps not experienced the crime in question) is shut down with a refrain of “victim blaming”.

Note the first confusion alluded to above – we can distinguish between existing victims and potential future victims. If you were to quiz an existing victim of a theft on whether he was counting his bankroll in public, he’d probably feel justified in asking  why you were paying attention to his behaviour, rather than that of the perpetrator. But if you offer tourists the pre-emptive advice to not count their bankrolls in public, the advice seems perfectly sensible and inoffensive.

Sentiments don’t become true through repetition. We just stop thinking about them, or start pretending they are true through fear or experience of being bullied. Why accusations of “victim blaming” are not always appropriate or true is because the moral and statistical aspects of rape are entirely different matters.

The moral aspect of rape – put simply, who committed a wrong, who should feel guilt, and who should be punished – is easy to resolve. In all cases, the rapist is the answer, and his victim has committed no moral wrong. But rape, like other crimes, occurs in a context. Or rather, it occurs in many contexts, and this allows for a purely scientific assessment of whether any particular aspects of those contexts correlate with a higher or lower incidence of rape.

This is how we respond to every other crime. If you were to be involved in a car accident involving a drunk driver running a red light, it’s that driver’s fault – entirely. But if this accident happened at an intersection where everybody knows drag racing takes place, you chose to expose yourself to a higher-risk situation than you could have (assuming there were other routes home). The fact that you shouldn’t need to take another route home is an entirely separate issue from how sensible it might be to take this particular route home.

What we say in situations like that is something like “watch out for that intersection”, and provincial authorities might feel inclined to put up one of those red spot “high fatality” road signs. What we say to children is things like “I don’t want you hanging out with Seamus” (at least, that’s what I was told). If you’re involved in an accident, or if Seamus introduces you to cigarettes, we could always have known that this was more likely than could otherwise have been the case. Risk-mitigation is, in other words, a standard component of our hardware.

As you all know, correlation doesn’t by itself indicate causation, but it can certainly act as a clue that there is some causal factor at play. More to the point, if it turns out that situation x tends to correlate with a higher incidence of rape than situation y, we never criticise someone for choosing situation y. And when someone knowingly choses situation x, you wouldn’t apply moral blame, because the blame belongs only with the criminal. But you could certainly feel entitled to ask potential future victims whether they are sure they want to visit the neighbourhood in question.

If you’re a policeman, you’re not doing your job through asking that question or questions about clothing after the fact, as the Toronto policemen who inspired Slutwalk did. Because only one person has committed a crime and that person is the rapist. But you’d also not be doing your job if you didn’t keep a detailed record of crime hotspots, and use that record to advise people of which areas they might want to avoid, for which reasons.

Of course it’s obscene that risk-mitigation with regard to rape asks women to voluntarily imprison themselves, only go out accompanied by chaperone, not walk alone at night, or to be constantly vigilant against someone spiking their drinks. These sorts of realities are an outrage, and the disproportionality of the burden carried by woman is likewise an outrage. Men are afforded the privilege of mostly being oblivious to these realities – and in many ways, it is men being oblivious to their privilege that allows gender-based violence to flourish.

Unfortunately, most situations that correlate with a higher incidence of rape can’t be avoided. The 2012 Victims of Crime survey (pdf) indicates that 17% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by family members, and a further 58% by someone known to the victim. 22% of sexual assaults took place in the victim’s home, and a further 25% in someone else’s home – areas we’d normally hope are safe.

Over this past weekend, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee published an editorial  in which she raised questions about risk-mitigation. A full day of criticism for “victim-blaming” ensued, because Haffajee asked whether firmer, or different, parenting, perhaps including a curfew, would have made a difference in Anene Booysen’s case. It probably wouldn’t have, at least not in any particular case. But we make a mistake when only thinking about Booysen’s rape, or any other instance of rape, while not also thinking about the rapes that don’t fit the pattern of the one under discussion.

For those (mostly) girls who live with a rapist uncle, cousin or brother, of course a curfew won’t help. But not all victims of rape can add that particular misfortune to the other misfortunes they have had to endure. So even though it’s true that most rapes happen in the home, and are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, that doesn’t mean curfews or parental interventions of other sorts can’t help avoid rapes that don’t fit this pattern.

People should be allowed to say that, because even though it’s wrong to have to limit your choices in the face of a dysfunctional society, doing so could save lives or prevent at least some of these crimes from occurring. That’s surely worth doing, even if it does nothing to address the root causes. If you insist that there is only one thing worth talking about – and one language to use when talking about it – the conversation quickly seems to be more about you than about Anene Booysen. And she can’t hear you anymore.

Do liberals misrepresent Mourdock?

As submitted to Daily Maverick

It’s not easy to be objective. In fact, it’s close to impossible – and it might not even be desirable. But being objective is not the same thing as being fair to the evidence, which is something we should always strive for. No matter what perspective you think the evidence justifies, you’re not going to get anywhere in persuading someone else of that perspective if they discover that you’re wrong about the facts.

Being right about the facts is itself difficult. Not only because the data we have can sometimes be contradictory, but because our datasets are always incomplete. The facts that contradict any given interpretation might not be known, and worse still, might not even be knowable at a given point in time.

What we can do, though, is to try to acknowledge the biases we do know of, and try to not allow those biases to lead to misrepresentation. Unless you care more about persuasion than being fair, that is. And in politics being fair often seems to take a back seat, because the stakes are high and people might pay attention for just long enough for you to plant some impression in their minds, but rarely for long enough that you could actually engage them in debate.

So, you won’t try talking theology or in this case, theodicy, with regard to Richard Mourdock. Far better to simply assert that he thinks God intends for rape to happen, and for that rape to result in an unwanted pregnancy (which, by his lights, it’s naturally immoral to terminate). That assertion is of course one interpretation of what he said at a recent Indiana Senate debate (see video below), and it’s an interpretation that fits neatly with a stereotype of Mourdock belonging to some disreputable group (whether this means Republicans, men, Christians, or whatever).

But shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves, and from our media? It’s invigorating to have cartoon villains roaming about, to be sure, because it allows for those impassioned speeches at the dinner table, and for us to cast some opposing force as the one who will save us from the approaching menace.

There’s no question that many Republican candidates (most, if you only count the ones we’ve been hearing from) are intent on rolling back the current permissive legal framework around termination of pregnancy. They go further than that in what’s been called the “war on women”, with suggestions for mandating invasive procedures like transvaginal ultrasounds rather than allowing women to choose other ultrasound methods.

As I’ve argued in previous columns (on Obama’s rejection of the FDA recommendations on the morning-after pill, and the Republican ‘Personhood Pledge’), the conservative moral voice does seem to hold a significant influence in American politics, and this influence tends to be exerted to the detriment of reproductive rights. I’ve firmly stated that to my mind the Republican view on this is wrong, and that voters (especially female ones, of course) should oppose these attempts at curtailing their freedom.

But this is because I don’t think a foetus morally significant. If you do – and perhaps especially if you do for reasons such as the sanctity of life – it would be unsurprising for you to think that abortions are immoral. And if you did think they were, this attitude would have to be expressed at the cost of women, because women are the ones who bear the full burden of bringing a child to term. So yes, you could cast this as a “war on women”. Or, you could cast abortion rights as a “war on unborn children” – and both would be hyperbolic, false, and eliminate a whole lot of potentially interesting conversation in favour of being able to hurl epithets at each other.

Just in case this column is triggering anybody’s confirmation bias, I’ll repeat that reproductive freedoms should not be curtailed (in fact, I’d wish for us to be able to discuss extending those freedoms, whether we choose to or not). Regardless of this, it simplifies the conversation to an unfair extent when opponents of abortion, like Mourdock, are cast as claiming that God desired for a woman to be raped.

Listen to the recording for yourselves. Most of you would disagree with him, just as I do. But what he says is that God intends for the life to happen, and he makes it clear that he’s struggled with this issue, and that rape is “terrible”. Sure, this doesn’t go as far as we might want it to. And yes, he wants to take away a women’s right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy or not, except in situations where her life would be endangered by bringing the child to term (which, we should note, makes him more progressive than some of them).

If what you hear, though, is a Republican candidate saying “God wanted you to be raped”, then the villain you see in front of you is at least partly a projection of your own moral outrage. I believe he he’s wrong, yes – but that he’s wrong for exactly the same reason that millions of Christians around the world are, in believing that one value (the preservation of life) trumps another (the woman’s right to choose). And, in believing that he can pick and choose when to attribute something to God’s plan (the pregnancy yes, the rape no), while simultaneously asserting that God’s ways and plans are ineffable.

So, if you want to pick a fight here, give some thought to whether you’re picking the right one. The same people who complain about Mourdock and the Republican war on women don’t seem to picket traditional Christian churches, where this same message on abortion is conveyed every week. We don’t see op-eds lambasting the one survivor of a bus crash for saying it was God’s plan for everyone else to die.

The outrage regarding Mourdock, in other words, is selective, unprincipled, and born of exactly the same cherry-picking that allows Mourdock to say the sorts of things he does.

President Zuma on religion and “humanity”

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.

If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.

“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.

The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.

My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.

This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.

If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.

If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?

Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.

Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.

I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.

And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.

#SlutWalk and the politics of re-appropriating words

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

When a representative of the Toronto Police said that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, it’s unlikely that he intended to foment extensive debate on the meaning of words, and which of these words could and could not be “reclaimed”. However, while people all across the globe are participating in SlutWalks in order to highlight and protest a culture of victim-blaming, others are choosing not to do so – exactly because they think the word “slut” cannot be reclaimed, and that the SlutWalk movement might be an obstacle to its own stated goals.

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?