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FHM: When a rape joke trumps the news

By Vincent Clery

For a long time I have been sitting on the sidelines of an issue that has really irked me. Like most people I am a poor conscientious objector, I keep my opinions to myself, I cowardly express my grievances in safe, dim-lit places. Bars and dinner parties, the occasional early morning coffee rant — but never in public. God forbid the court of public opinion turn its beleaguered head back at me. Ironically the one thing that has got me riled up enough to sit down and be one of those people that writes a letter of opinion to the public is the dismal state of public opinion itself.

Two people were suspended. Just like that. People who, from what I can tell, were respected enough and presumably liked among their peers. And while I won’t say their livelihoods were lost, a fair amount of their dignity and pride was thrown by the wayside. What did they do? They expressed an opinion. An opinion on what they thought was a protected, if not completely private, platform. That platform was Facebook. The opinion was inappropriate, it was crass and it was in very bad taste. Whether it was intended that way, nobody seemed to care, the reaction was fast and it was unanimous. In short: unacceptable.

FHM’s feature editor Max Barashenkov made a status in which he joked about sterilisation and corrective rape. Fellow writer Montle Moorosi made further comments jokingly justifying date rape (provided that you tell her you love her first.) A fair amount of banter ensued and unsurprisingly somebody got offended. Namely Linda Stupart who took a screen-grab and tweeted her 500 odd followers about it. Linda’s twitter bio self-describes as a killjoy. It seems she got her wish, for what can only be described as a social media shitstorm shortly ensued. By the end of day, News 24, IOL, Mail & Guardian, Women’s Health, 5FM’s drive time, Cape Talk and numerous other news stations ran the story. Social media was incensed, a lot of people suddenly had a lot to say and shortly FHM found itself trending above Nelson Mandela the day before what is likely to be his last birthday.

What amazes me is that something as small as a Facebook status (inexcusable as it was) could become headline news. And yet I should know better, in a country where moral outrage recently erupted over a satirical painting over our premier exposing himself (a figure who has been under a litany of moral and sexual scrutiny yet should somehow be immune to jest). Where a food chain was boycotted and ridiculed by its wealthiest customers for not explicitly advertising to them its lowest paying jobs. Where something as simple as a Halaal hot cross bun led to hate speech and religious intolerance.

Not to mention the capriciousness of race. Where what is deemed to be racist versus not racist colours the vernacular of today’s public discourse so perversely that to say anything of consequence is to offer yourself up to the wolves. To give an example, in a varsity newspaper, Qamran Tabo recently got hung out to dry for posing the question “Is Love Colourblind?” An article where he surveyed which (if any) race, other races, generally found to be more attractive. While he may not have gone about it in the right way, was what Tabo did racist? Surely not, Insensitive? Perhaps, but most importantly and my case in point here, it was incredibly inflammatory. This in and of itself is not a bad thing — public debate is the cornerstone of any democratic society. But are these things inflammatory in the name of the real issues they bely or are they merely sensationalist tirades by social media lynch mobs? Is an insensitive joke between friends really more worthy of our eyes and ears in the discussion of correctional rape than the very real thing itself, such as the heart-breaking case of Duduzile Zozo, the 26-year-old women murdered and raped earlier this month for being a lesbian? Social media, sadly, would tend to say yes.

Furthermore, it seems so trivial, so petty and so indicative of today’s epicurean society that someone can effectively ruin another person’s life merely by taking a screen shot. That somebody can take away all context, stand on a soap box, cry wolf and feel vindicated for having made a difference — then move on to their next target with conscientious ease. While I in no way condone what Barashenkov or Moorosi said, and while Stupart was clearly a “Facebook friend” in the loosest sense, one cannot help but feel that this is an issue that could have easily been resolved, thrashed out, argued even over an inbox message. Leaving the real issue of “men who rape” separate from the far removed issue of “men who joke about rape”.

And yet judging by the divided response there clearly is a bigger issue here: whether it’s about the indifference among the males of our society to the on-going daily realities of rape in this country or the oversensitivity of those who are insensitive about rape. But this is not an issue that Barashenkov ever signed up for or intended to fight. He told a terrible joke. Most telling of all, it wasn’t even a joke about rape. It was about twerking. Not for the first time in this country it seems that the distinction between freedom of speech, hate speech, humour and the deliberate defamation of ones character by the media, has been blurred.

In understanding this particular outburst of social discontent, context, something that is far too often neglected, yet again finds itself thrown by the wayside. Did this man actually mean what he said in the greater context of the word rape, in the even greater context of our grim national situation? A situation where a woman is raped an estimated every 26 seconds. And if he didn’t is he actually relevant to the debate or is he merely an innocent idiot who said the wrong thing, got caught with his “literary pants down” so to speak without even realising anybody was watching (or even interested) in what he had to proffer? The conclusion seems obvious.

To make matters worse (and for what little worth context in hindsight is now worth,) the original comment was made in jest against a man who makes a living off making a joke of himself. He goes by the name of Anton Taylor, is notorious for his depravity and has recently gained traction via a series of satirical YouTube videos of himself. His most recent post being a cringe-worthy, almost bordering on ludicrous, video of himself sporting only a thong and tiger tail, learning to “twerk”. A video that is so satirical that it begs the question how any reasonable response to it, especially one made by an accomplished tongue-in-cheek magazine writer, could be perceived as anything but satirical in return? But then as we’ve established context doesn’t really apply here does it? This is merely a debate of opinion. And yet when it comes to issues of real, tangible consequence, issues such as the George Zimmerman murder case, context appears to be everything. It’s worth noting — since we’re still talking about context — that not a single journalist, blogger or media house contacted either of the two to hear them state their side of the story. Not that fair trial has any place in the court of today’s media any more.

It’s become too easy to make nameless judgments from the protected bastion of our computer screens. (Just as it has clearly become too easy to broadcast our inappropriate private thoughts.) Our dissatisfaction should require more commitment from us than the click of a button, a comment, a tweet or a dislike. These little blips of outrage among all the other blips are not enough when it comes to real issues. To be a “social-media activist” is to try and engage the masses to act. It is not to ridicule two fairly innocuous people over the flavour of the day then let them disappear back to relative obscurity. I am not saying that there is a not a significant place for the almost instantaneous mobilisation of the masses through today’s interweb — we need only look to the Arab Spring and the current state of Egypt. But the fact remains that the majority of our population are still not online, and it is no coincidence that they are the self-same majority that still know how to truly protest.

So my question to those who have the opportunity of informing themselves is this — how did we become such champions of sentiment over substance? How has a nation that has endured so much — social segregation, disappearances, necklacing, rape, Aids and chronic corruption — forgotten how to take task with real issue? It would be easier to understand if all was well in our sovereign state, if we had nothing better to do but sit on social-media platforms and complain. But on a day when a rape joke trumps the news. (While Johan Kotze’s sentencing and the Judge Willie Seriti inquisition are comparatively forgotten.) During a time when we are too busy sensationalising the incumbent death of our most accomplished hero that we are too distracted to even remember the values that he stood for. Where crime and poor governance and corruption are visibly crippling our nation on a daily basis. Where in some unfathomable turn the man on the street is economically worse off now than he was during the height of the apartheid regime. You cannot but beg the question, what the hell is happening to our supposedly great nation? There are real issues worthy of our attention — issues far greater than conspiring to get somebody fired from a good job for making an insensitive joke on Facebook. Perhaps Barashenkov’s real crime was having the audacity to mirror us as a people. The sad realisation that despite our past we are becoming a nation of flippancy. Where we take what we say far more seriously than what we do.

Vincent Clery is a politics, philosophy and economics major currently working as a freelance writer for numerous blogs and independent publications.

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    • Amber

      Maybe they will learn some compassion through this. They found it easy to laugh at those going through far worse experiences than they are currently experiencing. Sometimes life teaches us lessons and I think they are well deserving of this one.

    • Anne-Sophie

      YES!!!

    • Zimzalabim

      On one hand I see your point here. As a nation we are too quick to get outraged. True. There’s been many instances, which you mentioned, where taking the time to look for context, understand the background and looking at the finer details would have prevented so many very public frays.

      However, Facebook is hardly private. When the average Facebook user has 130 friends, then posting to even a ‘friends-only’ group becomes nothing short of publishing. For two people who work in the industry, I can only assume that both guys would have also been fairly well-versed in the so-called grey areas of social media.

      After initially hearing about this furore I didn’t jump on Twitter, Facebook or my blog within seconds and wax lyrical about what dreadful human beings these two guys are I took the time to find whatever context there was. The two writers have provided more than enough context with their recent apology. Which actually is not so much of an apology than a self-indulgent exercise in turning the tables. For them to now suggest (in an apology) that they have inadvertently done us all a favour and exposed the lack outcry for all rape cases is actually laughable. For them to go onto suggest that one way of dealing with this national scourge is make jokes about it is really easy for them to say… Considering that the likelihood of them ever being raped is drastically less than if they were women.

      I’m sorry but I just don’t buy that these two are the victims here.

    • Nicola

      It is mystifying to me that people are surprised that “a little facebook status” or tweet can make such a big impact. Of course it can. I would be wonderful if we were all out there preventing these tragedies productively, but instead we are glued to a feed and eager to voice our lazy, frustrated grievances at the latest asshole- while we while away the work day. Separating “real” media and social media is obsolete- unfortunately.

    • glob

      Cuts right through the complications.

    • The Flash

      Make no mistake, the only crime these guys committed was getting caught.

      It is time for all you humourless trolls to get off their collective high horses and lighten up.

    • peejaymahoney

      Ivan, instead of trying to dissect the authors credentials, why not concentrate on the issues at hand? Indirectly you are perpetuating exactly what the article sets forth – people concentrating on frivolities. Whether he is a coloured kid of privilege, a white kid of privilege or a black kid of privilege, what should it matter? He at no stage condones corrective rape or the fact that rape is a massive problem in our “great” nation, but instead is questioning why it is that we tend to sensationalise social media ‘statuses’ and ‘tweets’ instead of concentrating on the more pressing issues. Can you understand that?

    • Carla

      I would be interested to know if Mr Clery’s opinion would be the same if the content had been offensive in terms of race instead.

      I agree that we often take what we say more seriously than what we do (‘corrective’ rape is rarely given coverage in the media), but I fail to see that there isn’t a link between the two.

      I would like to see a culture of respect being expected, particularly of people in the fortunate position of having a public platform, whether speaking in their public or private capacity. I think we as a nation deserve – and should expect – that.

    • http://www,soliphilander.com Soli Philander

      Sorry, that should read was NOT just being sentimental in the second paragraph

    • http://www,soliphilander.com Soli Philander

      And more correction – that young woman IS my daughter!

    • odwa

      nothing bt the truth, thanks for allowing us into your thoughts. truth be said that we are concerned with trevial thing s than matters that require our collective attention. we as a people make comments that we dont mean and that are wrong on a daily baisis bt we a re quick to judge others that have erred in their misdemeanors. our country is in a crisis of poor governess an mismanagement and the our model consitution is being trampled on by those who swore to uphold it and we fid time to hang those who dared to voice their opinions.

    • Chris

      I’m glad somebody finally said this. People mess around and say stupid things, and its sad that others choose to judge before considering context and consequently taking it as a personal affront.

      Personally, I find it sad that these two have been so abused for having an “opinion” (as I’m sure it is, in the loosest sense of the word). Sure, you shouldn’t joke about stuff like that, but you can surf the internet and find the most vile comments about things far worse than what they’ve said.

      They were just unlucky to have a few bad friends, bent on having a soap box to stand on. I feel sorry for them, and for those out there who choose to judge – take a minute and think about the dumb stuff you’ve said, and just be glad that you didn’t put it in writing.

    • Nancy Richards

      You know how bad things are for women in a country where men who should no better can even THINK about rape as a joke, never mind put it out there in the public space.

    • Claudia

      One can get as philosophical as one would like on this issue. The bottom line, however, remains that these two FHM employees made inflammatory comments on a public platform, regardless of privacy settings. It is only natural for a person to pass a judgement on any comment they read, what has happened here is that everyone has most understandably passed similar judgement; utter disgust at such crass insensitivity. Can you really blame an individual for reacting in a way that comes most naturally? No. The two employees in question will reserve such perverse comments to their private thoughts in future, I have no doubt.

    • Stephen

      Vincent, thanks for this dose of measured thinking on this topic. I imagine public opinion is badly represented online since no one wants to risk appearing to defend these guys, lest it be seen as condoning their stupid joke, or male indifference to a horrible situation, or rape itself. So the bandwagon gains momentum.

    • Michelle

      Well said! I feel that rape is a very serious topic but the way this was handled is unjust to the individuals concerned. Let’s say they were two unemployed people with nothing better to do, would the social media bandwagon go anywhere? FHM had nothing to do with this and I feel people accused the publication for the private thoughts of their staff which led to their suspension. It’s as if these social media activists sit and wait for anything to promote their cause and pray that there is a brand they can tie it to just to get the mileage. As a nation, can we not come up with a better strategy to those both on and off these social platforms? It also seems that Linda Stupart wanted some attention, why else take a screen grab without warning, commenting or confronting the perpetrator (this is just my opinion, hope I don’t get lambasted for voicing my thoughts!)

    • RoyVolkwyn

      I’m very surprised that young people active on Social Media (Facebook in this case, but it could just as well have been Twitter, WordPress or any of one of many popular platforms) was not aware that the comments are public and can be used against the poster/blogger. Numerous persons overseas have been fired for offensive tweets or Facebook posts. In South Africa, some persons have been fired or censured for racist jokes distributed via e-mail.

      “Ignorance of the law excuses no man” is an established principle in law. One could equally well state: “ignorance of Social Media rules excuses no-one”

    • TumiM

      What is more disturbing is this attitude of “it was just a bad joke” from those least affected by rape. Maybe if men were the majority of those raped they would understand that it is not funny, and should never be condoned? Please understand that thinking its okay to joke about rape is not okay, and if you don’t see that, we’re in more trouble than we thought…

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    • Pete Mills

      @Friend You might want to read Soli Philander’s comment above.

      Then imagine Max or Montle have a daughter each one day.

      Imagine their daughter is raped in a horrific crime one day.

      Imagine a group of boys at school in the same group as the daughter(s) WHO KNOW ABOUT THE RAPES make jokes about how they would like to rape the next girl in their group who wears her hair in a ponytail.

      How would the daughters feel? How would Max and Montle, the victims’ fathers, feel about the boys making the jokes?

      What these idiots did is the equivalent of going up to a war veteran who’s suffering PTSD, waving a hand-grenade in his face and lighting a firecracker under his chair – for a laugh.

      It is astonishing to me that so many people just don’t get it.

      So much for compassion.

    • Monsignor Malala

      A very incoherent article full of pseudo-intellectual grandstanding

      “I keep my opinions to myself,” Do you? or are you “a freelance writer for numerous blogs and independent publications.”?

      “They expressed an opinion. An opinion on what they thought was a protected, if not completely private, platform” Is it an opinion or a harmless joke? Make up your mind. And Facebook “private and protected”?! Seriously?

      ” Social media was incensed, a lot of people suddenly had a lot to say and shortly FHM found itself trending above Nelson Mandela the day before what is likely to be his last birthday.” Then don’t add to it?

      “we need only look to the Arab Spring…But the fact remains that the majority of our population are still not online, and it is no coincidence that they are the self-same majority that still know how to truly protest.” – You do realise that this is a contradiction in terms? Not to mention your assumption that the “self-same majority” does not use Facebook – which is either ignorance or arrogance.

      “You cannot but beg the question, what the hell is happening to our supposedly great nation?” People like you feel the need to add to the quantum of crap.

      “Perhaps Barashenkov’s real crime was having the audacity to mirror us as a people.” He did nothing brave

      “Where we take what we say far more seriously than what we do.” Your article is a prime example of this.

      See http://www.dailymaverick.co

    • Dianne

      You wrote: “An opinion on what they thought was a protected, if not completely private, platform. That platform was Facebook.” If they thought that, then they’re even more stupid than their writing. Protected? Completely private? Are you SERIOUS?

      Then I guess this was written for a private audience, too: “The tent next door is crammed full of virgin, eight of them, though the number fluctuates. Doing some quick math, that puts anywhere between thirty and sixty-four semen receptacles within a fifteen meter radius of our sleeping grounds. Hunting in the daisy fields is much like hunting in the savannah: locate the weak one in the herd – usually swaying a little too much to whatever crap band is playing; approach and begin lying – how much you love this band, how you know them personally, how you were actually in the band at some stage; flash your media pass and, if you work for One Small Seed, drag the meat back to your magazine’s snazzy tent, club it into submission with pumping house music and have your way. Clean up. Repeat. Glorious.” “Thought leader”? Really??

      http://www.vice.com/read/the-journalists-guide-to-eco-friendly-pedophilia

    • emily vining
    • David

      It disappoints me this article is so dismissive of the culture of rape jokes so rife in this country. That it suggests it is not a real or important problem. One suspects the author is fortunate enough to have not been effected by the impact of rape. Someone I love dearly was raped and the fall out was catastrophic. There is nothing funny or lighthearted about rape. Nothing. And whilst the public outrage seems to have only solidified men like max, montle and the author into lamenting political correctness, hopefully the discourse had enlightened a few. The author offers no solutions to addressing the rape joke culture (as it does not bother him) but I welcome this issue being brought to the forefront and the ensuing debate about rape, the devastating impact it has …as that is what has happened. The author doesn’t realise the add on effect of the outrage -not only are we discussing why it is inappropriate to make light of rape, we are talking about rape, we are talking about the figures. Rape itself (not the jokes about it) is a key issue being discussed. Bring on the outrage.

    • Dan

      Making a big fuss over, firing and even prosecuting people for comments on Facebook, Twitter or somewhere similar has become a disturbing trend.

    • Ingrid

      Stumbling upon this article, I was prepared for the righteous political correctness when i hyperlinked to Linda Stopart’s blog (or did I google her, can’t recall). My feelings: it’s just not funny. Not only are the corrective and date rape comments insensitive, they show a sadly overwhelming lack of any understanding at all. They were not taken out of context, as this well written piece suggests. These guys do need to find another job, they need to learn the hard lesson. Back to my delicious glass of Meerlust. Sorry.

    • Jessica Webster

      Linda Stupart you are an inspiration. When the female body is under siege both subjectively and objectively, both symbolically and in the utterly traumatic real, you remind us at a precisely opportune time how the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword, and how vulnerability may be a manifest power. You are a motivating force to keep on writing, creating, acting and reacting to an often profoundly problematic cultural consciousness. Please return to SA when you’ve achieved your PhD.

      Furthermore, when a PPE major sits down to WRITE his doubts about the power of the word, he promotes an instant failure of the body of knowledge he supposedly subscribes to.

    • M

      People continue to miss the point, so I will write it in capitals.

      JUST BECAUSE YOU FIND SOMETHING OFFENSIVE, IN BAD TASTE OR ETHICALLY WRONG, DOESN’T MEAN THAT EVERY SINGLE OTHER PERSON HAS TO FEEL THE SAME WAY AS YOU.

      YOU DON’T LIKE WHAT THEY SAY, NO ONE FORCED YOU TO LISTEN. GET OVER YOURSELVES.

    • Jack Sparrow

      My view is that in a society where rape and gang rape are so prevalent, to seemingly give approval or suggest rape is not acceptable. So I agree with Soli Philander above. So I think the “Thought” from Vincent and the original tweets from the FHM journos are not acceptable. Acceptance of them is one pointer to why rape is so prevalent.

    • Hannah

      Looking at Max’s previous articles he’s quite contentious so he’s at least true to himself. I think it’s awful that someone he considered a Facebook friend took great pleasure in screen grabbing what was obviously a ‘humorous’ interaction that he probably thought would encourage people to google corrective rape. South Africans are notorious about being blind to social issues until they see it on CNN…so at least people are more aware.

      Just the opinion of a female who has been alarmed about this rape situation for months, ignore me if I offend, I’d hate to lose my job for having an opinion.

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