Brace yourself. Some of you are not going to like this piece. Possibly quite a few of you. That’s the only predictable thing when it comes to jokes: somebody, somewhere is going to be offended.
For years I’ve studied comedy from various angles: academically, from the trenches in the ad industry and as an occasional humourist. In my experience, the real question when it comes to humour is less that of offense, which the individual doing the joking can’t control, and more about what we choose to mock.
So today, I am going to explain why I thought it was appropriate to tweet about #whitegenocide a few weeks ago — but why I thought the jokes about corrective rape by two FHM writers weren’t funny, and got them into trouble for good reason.
First, a bit of background. The #whitegenocide hashtag came about after Siyanda Mohutsiwa started tweeting about what she planned to do when blacks rose up against the whites after the death of Nelson Mandela.
Here’s a good example:
It was provocative and subversive. I felt somewhat disconcerted. What did I do? I joined in.
1. The hashtag was clearly tongue in cheek, and it was being used by a self-described agent provocateur who has a track record of challenging preconceived ideas, both in her Thought Leader blog and on Twitter.
2. The mockery was not of actual murder (which is not funny), but the long-standing conspiracy theory that blacks would rise up against whites the moment Madiba dies. This is a ridiculous and stupid belief no matter how sincerely you hold it, and mocking it is a way of marking a distinction between what we accept as a commonly held belief, and what we do not.
3. I felt that the conspiracy theory was in itself offensively racist, so should be mocked in order to make my views on it clear. Addressing fears that many might feel afraid to express was a way to bring them into the open into a way that was healthier than discussing them around the braai.
4. If whites did not join in, then it would become and us vs them situation. Whites attend the Blacks Only comedy shows and laugh at David Kau’s jokes, so why shouldn’t they participate in a hashtag that mocks them?
5. Genocide, used in its correct historical context (as in the Holocaust, Armenia and Rwanda) is not funny at all. But claims of genocide where they are not justified debase the term and the gravity of what it means. The former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Alain Destexhe, has said that the word genocide has fallen victim to “a sort of verbal inflation, in much the same way as happened with the word fascist”.
Most of those who participated used the opportunity to demonstrate how completely unfounded fears of a “white genocide” are. Of course, some missed the point completely and turned a satirical construct into a real threat. This guy’s tweets were definitely not funny, and they certainly didn’t qualify as satire. This appears to be a genuine instance of hate speech.
But there is a world of difference between these tweets and Siyanda’s, and that should be clear to anyone attuned to the subtlety and nuance of living in a diverse society with many competing views. I felt then — and still do — that tweeting ironically about #whitegenocide was a way to strengthen commitment to some kind of consensus about the society we want to be. Far too many white South Africans witness tacit or explicit racism and say nothing. Being visibly opposed to racism by mocking a racist construct was, for me, a counterintuitive way to strengthen those common terms of reference that are at the root of any collective identity, however loosely you want to define it.
Contrast this with the jokes this week by now suspended FHM features editor. Who knows, his comments may have been ironic. The most sexist comments on that thread were from a woman, a Wits philosophy and anthropology graduate — so all is not what it seems.
But joking about corrective rape is very different from joking about #whitegenocide. One is real, an act of violence against a very vulnerable section of society. The other is the perception of a politically motivated programme of murder, one that is deeply entwined with right-wing extremist narratives. One kind of joke reinforces existing power structures; the other subverts them.
This does of course bring up debates around political correctness and hate speech. Remember, there is no law that silences tasteless jokes. There are, however, consequences, as those FHM writers have discovered. They brought their employer into disrepute and risked advertisers pulling revenue. (The growth of social media has magnified the power of interest groups, and perceptions of racism or sexism are kryptonite for most mainstream brands — the ones that have the most ad rands to spend.)
Reaching agreement on what we may joke about in the public realm is not easy. It is an ongoing form of negotiation. We have evolved from a society where racism, sexism and homophobia weren’t just widely accepted, they were government policy. Now, we live in a world in which these things are unconstitutional, even as we battle with the reality of living with a set of laws and principles that often seem to be largely theoretical. Nonetheless, those earlier prejudices are still rooted in culture, and the only way we are going to reach a new consensus is if we have it out.
This is where mockery is so useful, even essential. It is a form of catharsis within a safe space. Learn to laugh at the same things, and the basis of common ground is expanded. Agreeing — mostly, even if some of us feel uncomfortable — that #whitegenocide is satirical and therefore acceptable, but jokes about corrective rape are not, is part of that painful, often infuriating, but vital process.