I was supposed to write about human sacrifice today. As one does. But something else has been playing at the corners of my mind. Lessons. For all of us who write, in any shape or form.
I try to avoid the darker side of South Africa on my blog. And our dark side is pretty damn dark. But this little patch of darkness is fundamental to the points I want to make, so here goes.
South Africa is not a nice place to be a lesbian, particularly not a poor, black lesbian. I don’t think being gay is an easy thing anywhere. There’s a lot of prejudice out there. But South Africa has its own particularly nasty take on the issue. It’s called “corrective rape”. And it is very ugly indeed.
Ostensibly, the point of corrective rape is to turn a lesbian woman straight by gang-raping her. This is not only a phenomenally stupid concept, it’s also just an outright lie. These young women are often killed at the same time. No-one is trying to “fix” anything. This is just pure hate.
A young woman called Duduzile Zozo was killed like this a few weeks ago. I won’t go into the details, but they were horrific.
Enter the stars of the post. Their names don’t really matter. What matters is that one fine, upstanding young man put a status update on his Facebook page. “I propose”, he said, “correctional rape and sterilization for any white person who twerks.” Nice. Twerking, by the way, is apparently the correct term for booty shaking.
This is not a very good joke. It is callous, insensitive and juvenile. But it’s not at all unusual. The internet is full of this kind of stuff. Something about the perceived anonymity and the immediate reaction generated by stuff like this turns otherwise (I’m sure) perfectly pleasant and presentable people into flaming assholes.
Our flaming asshole was not alone. Enter flaming asshole #2. “I think,” he replied, “rape can be quite fun if executed in a romantic manner. Like saying ‘I love you’ before you slip a roofie in her Earl Grey tea.”
Like I say, the internet is full of this stuff. But this case was special. These were no ordinary flaming assholes. These flaming assholes were writers for FHM magazine.
FHM, if you don’t have it in your own country, is one of “those” magazines. It’s a men’s magazine. It’s not Playboy. There’s no actual nudity or anything. But there are plenty of photo shoots of women with their yayas out. These women are asked enlightening questions like “If you had to have sex with another woman, which of your fellow models would it be”. The guys at FHM are not gender activists, is what I’m saying.
When the story broke, the flaming assholes were immediately identified as FHM writers. And that meant that FHM had to respond. A magazine that specialises in asking young women about their sex-lives before asking them to get their yayas out simply cannot afford to sit by when they find themselves at the centre of a gender rights storm. The flaming assholes were suspended.
So there’s lesson number one. Just because no-one is paying you, or even reading you, doesn’t mean you haven’t been published. You have. If it’s on Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr, or pretty much anywhere, really, it’s out there. And you can’t take it back. If there’s a piper to be paid, you can’t get out of it by claiming it was just for you and your friends. You’re a published writer now. You stopped owning your words the moment you sent them out into the ether, and they started owning you. Choose them a little more wisely than these flaming assholes did.
The instant public outcry must have scared the hell out of them. As must their suspension. And so, our fiery pair did the only thing they could do. They apologised. Unreservedly.
“Dear South Africa” they said. “We apologize sincerely for our distasteful and insensitive comments and would especially like to extend our apologies to anyone who has ever gone through the horror of rape. There is little excuse for our words and the careless manner in which they were delivered. We do not condone any form of violence against women, or against anyone for that matter.”
They went on for a bit in the same vein, but that was it. They were sorry. Done. South Africa shook its head, mumbled “flaming assholes” and turned to go off in search of the next big issue.
But then, as South Africa reached out to open the door, there was a loud “Ahem”.
South Africa turned slowly around. And there, with their hands on their hips and their lips pursed, stood the flaming assholes. Oops. Maybe I jumped the gun on that “unreservedly” thing. They raised a finger in the air and started to wag it.
“The media madness that was unleashed over the posting of our private – and do keep in mind that it was private, with all Facebook privacy settings set to ‘friends only’ – conversation was surreal in the sense that it received a lot more attention, social media reach and established media buzz than actual cases of rape. We struggle to recall quite as much of a public outcry over the Zozo case itself – Twitter didn’t rage and Gareth Cliff (a popular and controversial DJ) hardly made wisecracks about it. And that is an issue we cannot help but raise.”
They went on. For ages. You can read the rest here. It was one of the most breathtakingly stupid things I’d ever seen. By the time they were done, you would have sworn they were misunderstood gender activists themselves, and we were all personally responsible for the scourge of corrective rape.
The arrogance of it was simply astounding. Which leads me to lesson number two. Words are powerful things. For people who write well (and these guys must write well. FHM might not be the darling of the women’s liberation movement, but it is well written and upmarket.) it’s easy to be misled by that power.
People listen to what they say. They follow their advice. They feel the way they want them to feel. And do the things they want them to do. To watch a good spin doctor at work (and we have some doozies out here) is to watch a master magician at work. They can turn a perpetrator into a victim, a thief into Robin Hood, and they must feel like gods.
But here’s the thing. You can start a war with words. And you can finish one, too. But in between, there’s a patch where no-one can hear you because of all the shooting. Spin doctors can do amazing things, but they cannot perform miracles. Your words can only take you so far.
And besides, looking at the mawkishness and self-importance of their “apology”, our flaming assholes weren’t nearly as good with words as they thought they were.
And that mawkishness and self-importance lead me to the final lesson I learnt from these flaming assholes. It sounds like a stupid one. A joke. It’s not. It is a deep and profound. It can change your life and the lives of those around you. It makes the world a better place.
Don’t, the lesson goes, be a dick.
Those flaming assholes know that now. They don’t have jobs any more.