“What is political correctness? It’s an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of all-inclusive language. Now, there are all sorts of problems with it, but it’s better than what we had before.” – British comedian Stewart Lee
I hesitate to wade into the recent Laugh It Off / Jays Jays saga, mostly because there are far more important things to think about, like Uganda being the latest (out of 76) countries to make same-sex gender desire illegal, our own Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor’s reaction to this occurrence, and the unconfirmed reports of gay men in Uganda already being assaulted. But over the past few days I’ve had pause to think about two different aspects. I am also, tangentially, part of the whole thing, or, at very least, born of the same mind-set, so I feel I might have something to contribute, even though being a straightish white male voice in this discomforts me.
First, a quick recap. Laugh It Off, famous for parodying South African brands in a cheeky and, it had always seemed, satirical manner, accused the brand Jay Jay’s of ripping off one of their designs (Jay Jays counter-claimed that the design in question was not created by Laugh It Off and existed on the internet sans copyright). Laugh It Off tried to couch this accusation in satire by posting an open letter on Mahala that changing the Js in the Jay Jays logo to Gs, making it Gay Gays. Rebecca Davis of Daily Maverick picked up on it and tweeted, and then there was outrage. Andy Davis, whose Mahala had posted the open letter, quickly posted an opinion piece that’s central thrust was “maybe Laugh It Off went too far but what about the guys who stole copyright?” Nowhere in this back-pedalling did Davis acknowledge that the post was wrong, or even that Mahala had hosted the open letter in the first place. Tweets were tweeted, scorn was heaped, and then Laugh It Off’s Bartlett put out this David Lurie-esque justification / non apology that (as Nicky Falkof pointed out on Daily Maverick) was very similar to the non-apology made by rape-jokeists Max Barashenkov and Montle Moorosi of ex-FHM notoriety.
I once issued my own non-apology on a similar issue. I am not going to go into the context leading up to the event, as that may read as an excuse. After an altercation on a pavement outside the Kimberly Hotel in Cape Town, I posted this statement on FB: “A lesbian just called me a white liberal.” The shit storm of outrage that followed was overwhelming. I back-pedalled with a Zille-like will. I justified and contexualised till I was Bullard in the face. None of it mattered. I had used, in a public space, a word in a manner that could be construed to be derogatory to a minority community that is battling violence caused by dismissive, derogatory attitudes. The jab, the personal insult, I was attempting to deliver about the incident was lost because I stripped it of context. By using the word “lesbian” in this manner I was, perhaps only incrementally but all the same, contributing to a mind-set that causes actual physical violence and, yes, death to lesbians not more than 10km from where I live.
I could, and did, cry context for all I was worth, but once a statement like this reaches the public space, the context, for all intents and purposes, is irrelevant. The statement is out there and, because it’s incorrectly positioned, has the potential to cause harm. I will forever be grateful to the woman about whom I made this statement for being so goddamn patient with me in the email exchange that followed. It was a moment that severely altered my thinking about the effects of construed public behaviour.
The discussion we need to have regards the ever-narrowing difference between public and private space, and whether this affects this “often clumsy negotiation towards an all-inclusive language”. When Alec Baldwin called someone a “toxic little queen” last year he was operating in what he assumed was a private space, a heated one-on-one conversation, but because of his fame, and social media, he was quickly branded a homophobe. This saga culminated in an apology letter, and Baldwin’s retirement from public life. His reasoning and apology is measured and resigned, and it contains this line: “I want to learn about what is hurtful speech in your community.”
Baldwin is of the opinion that the campaign against him is driven by new media’s desire for click bait controversy: “In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day.” Baldwin’s apology is non-combative, quite unlike Max and Montle’s non-apology, or Laugh It Off’s Bartlett apology or whatever the fuck that was. Max and Montle (referring to them in this manner is a further frustration as I believe they should have given separate statements) turned their apology into an attempt to classify what had happened to them as a “witch-hunt” and then went on to whine that their statements were made on their private Facebook pages, and that everything was terribly unfair. The lesson here, beyond “don’t make jokes about corrective rape”, is that in new media there is no such thing as private space; and when it comes to the struggle to find this all-inclusive language, I don’t think that is a bad thing. They may cry freedom of speech, but there is also the freedom of others to call them out on it. Some of the issues raised in both the Max and Montle and Laugh It Off explanations may even be pertinent, but they are rendered irrelevant by their tone, by their positions.
Using, as Laugh It Off did, a gay slur in a public space only legitimises the word as a slur. The further legitimisation of the slur came from the manner in which it was broadcast; had Laugh It Off’s Open Letter to Jay Jays merely been sent out on its mailer, it might not have attracted so much attention, but the fact that it went out on a supposedly independent media outlet such as Mahala lent it more credence. The fact that Mahala posted it to its Facebook page with the tagline “Too Funny” surely implicates it as well. It’s important here to look at some background.
Both Max and Montle worked at Mahala for some of the time I was a part of the outlet. As did Linda Stupart, who tweeted the screen grab of the corrective rape joke that took it out of the “private” facebook realm and into the real world. I remember Stupart taking both Max and Montle to task about their language at several points during my time at Mahala. The response from publisher Davis was always that we should go for the angle that created the most controversy, in order to drive hits. These are the new media environs Baldwin references in his retirement letter. I also remember how dismissive Max and Montle were of Stupart’s critiques. Mahala and Laugh It Off have had a longstanding relationship, of which I do not know the exact parameters, but I was always aware of Davis’ affinity to Laugh It Off’s struggles, so that they later shared an office was not a surprise to me. That Mahala published the open letter with no disclaimers, but rather with puerile teenage glee, was also not a surprise. It reminded me so much of the knee-jerk, low-hanging fruit variety of writing that became a hallmark of all our work while we were there. I was, of course, as deputy editor partially responsible for this. And this writing is not unique to Mahala − we see it everywhere from David Bullard to Mr Cape Town. Davis’ response to the outrage was also not a surprise − it read as a muted apology / defense of the slur, and nowhere did he admit culpability for being the Open Letter’s initial broadcaster.
There is a sneaking disingenuousness to Davis’ analysis that can be best illustrated through a tangential observation. The picture that accompanies Davis’ ‘analysis’ is of a nuclear explosion digitally retooled into a clown’s face. In the comments thread Margot says, “Jesus, even the graphic depicts a pink, laughing clown. Do you honestly not know how to apologise?” Davis’ response is, “Margot, you see what you want to see. We googled ‘Nuclear Explosion’ and tinged it pink in Photoshop. Image to accompany story resolved. The laughing clown is a trompe l’oeil – never even noticed it until you pointed it out. But it’s in the actual image. And the image is of a bona fide nuclear explosion. So, ja, not intentional. But you’re upset anyway, right?”
A cursory reverse Google search of the image reveals that it is indeed not a real explosion; that it is, in most iterations, rendered in red and grey to emphasise that it is a clown. Mahala it seems has tinted it pink to hide this. Why would they do this? Perhaps to hide the fact that they had stolen an image off the internet, the very thing that Davis’ rationale tries to bring to the fore as the actual issue. “Laugh It Off’s Jay Jays spoof was a giant mistake, so big that it basically lets Jay Jays off the hook for stealing and exploiting the originality of another broke creative,” he says, while stealing and exploiting yet someone else. Your argument is invalid; you are a dining room table.
Davis spends most of his column talking about how wrong Laugh It Off was, but what a terrible position it’s in and how we must all feel sorry for it. Bartlett’s non-apology at least is bald enough to try to pseudo intellectualise Laugh It Off’s way out of the whole sorry mess. Unfortunately for him it reads like a bad Ricky Gervais skit; you can just see the dirt pilling up as he digs himself deeper. The retooling of Gay Gays to Vajaysjays doesn’t help either. Both Bartlett’s and Davis’ piece share an indignant language with Max and Montle, and people such as Bullard. It is the language of never having been wrong before – the ‘oops, I got caught’, the ‘where did that carpet go?’
Bartlett’s justification hinges on a central idea – that words evolve through usage, and not to be “allowed” to use certain words is a form of censorship. He is, of course, correct that words evolve through usage (as Rick Santorum had to find out), which is why it is a good idea to not use them in a derogatory manner, thereby contributing toward the word having the power to do more harm. If you continue to use “gay” as a signifier of lameness or something lesser than the heteronormative definitions of masculinity then, yes, you are influencing the evolution of a word into something that can be used to wield power over people who do not fit into these heteronormative ideals. Just because Potch students claim they didn’t know the history of the Nazi salute does not mean that performing the salute is not offensive and does not cause distress to Jewish people. Just because Leon Schuster continues to use blackface in his films does not mean that the usage of blackface is any less hurtful, and in fact Schuster’s use of blackface has given licence to advertising agencies to use blackface in commercials. The Cape Town Fish Market advert caused significant hurt – and for what? – all in the murky name of satire.
Both Bartlett and Davis claim “the gays” as collateral damage in the attempt to cause hurt to (or “debate”) Jay Jays. This is precisely the point. Homosexuals as a group, in their reading, are less important than Laugh It Off’s right to assert its, in hindsight very shaky, copyright claims.
In one of the many comment threads that spawned from the debate, a self-identified gay man claimed that people should get over it as he, being gay, did not take offence. Bartlett, who self-identifies as a “gay black man with an Asian baby to raise” (the flippant language here brings into question Bartlett’s identity, as does his statement elsewhere that “Apparently we need masks to get away with saying what we really want”), echoes this when he says, “I disagree with the assertion of Andy Davis et al that would only have the oppressed call the oppressed the name of the oppressed… If I am gay and black, does that give me exclusive rights to call others fags, niggers, or bitches?” Here he is once again quite missing the point.
An example: I have a friend – let’s call him X – who is homosexual. Many years ago, while discussing the entomology of the word “faggot” we started to call each other “faggots”, and then “dirty faggots”. To this day in our wild private moments, particularly when he is telling me some detail of his private life, I still call him, in mock horror, “a dirty faggot”. This is very different from posting on Facebook or writing in any publicly published, text-based, tonally stripped forum that X is a dirty faggot. When stripped of context the phrase has enormous potential to contribute towards discrimination and violence towards homosexuals.
Bartlett, of course, disagrees: “But if we pussyfoot around every word with context, we’ll only ever end up digging our own hole when what we are simply trying to do is call a spade a spade.” The word to pull out of this statement is “trying”, as in not succeeding, and when you are not sure whether you are going to succeed or not, surely the path to take in this clumsy negotiation is the one that has the least potential to cause harm, even if it means you have to work a little harder to produce actual satire? What is the function of the satire? Why are we pushing this particular envelope, and to what end? Is “collateral damage” a necessary product of satire?
Elsewhere in his statement Bartlett claims that “we know that each one of us could equally have said or at least felt the same thing”. His logic that those thoughts should be expressed is equivalent to saying that because Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni feels that gays are nasty, it’s good that someone finally expressed this by dragging them into the streets and burning them. It’s flawed, it’s disingenuous and it’s very privileged thinking.
There is no denying that we all have groups of friends, or colleagues, with whom we test the limits of certain words. We have these thoughts, but to have them is not to say that they should be used wholesale, publiclally, to test the limits. The need to test the words, the keeping it to oneself, this pause should be the indication that perhaps using the word in a public space, baldly, might have the potential for damage. In his defence, Davis recognises this when he writes that “after dropping the G-bomb, it always kinda sticks in the craw”, but that consideration did not prevent his outlet from saying the usage was “too funny”. Why? Why was it so impossible to resist the urge? Whenever I’m privy to debates on the N-word, there is always a voice that pokes in, the voice that says, “But if you can say n*gg*, so can I. I mean, aren’t we meant to be over race already?” It’s the voice of a spoiled, entitled child, angry that they can’t have all the toys in the toy store. It’s the voice of whiteness dispossessed. In reference to the term “gay” or “faggot” or “lesbian”, it’s the voice of straight society trying to retain its grip on the vocabulary of power.
But in the protected and mostly theoretical world of personal rights that exists for men, and white men in particular, it is an alien idea to think that using a word in the wrong context could entrench actual physical discrimination Not only can words not harm male privilege, but male privilege does not experience systematic discrimination.
Bartlett also tackles the hate speech issue. In his mind, the use of the term “gay” in a derogatory sense is less hate speech than Twitter users calling Justin Nurse a “fucking idiot”. The point Bartlett misses here, once again, is the generality of the term. Calling an individual a fucking idiot cannot be misconstrued as incitement to violence of all fucking idiots in general, just this idiot, and not because of his sexual orientation or the colour of his skin or any other generalised term that is used to wield power over supposed subsets of society, but because he is regarded as a fucking idiot by that commentator.
The past and the future are always at odds. How you use words, how you act, all the things that make up humanity, guide the clumsy negotiation between the two. As a writer, as a person operating in the public space, your words have permanence and consequences beyond the computer on which you are typing them. Be part of the negotiation towards an inclusive language, rather than away from it. The methods of Bartlett, Davis, Max and Montle, and David Bullard of dealing with critique, in all its new media forms, essentially deny other people their pain, dredging up unimaginable hurts upon imaginable hurts. It is not now, nor will it ever be, acceptable to use terms that describe a group of people in a negative light when violence is still being committed on those groups of people. Respect the pause given when those terms bubble to the surface. It saddens me that something so obvious has to be pointed out, but it had to be pointed out to me.
“Freedom of expression is just that, a freedom,” claims Bartlett with no trace of irony, then going on to deny rights of expression by saying, “Self-righteous indignation is a form of censorship”. No one has asked Laugh It Off, or Davis, or Max, or Montle to censor themselves, but rather merely to consider how their words and actions have the potential to cause harm. And, with their handwringing attempts to justify themselves, that’s something they all failed to do.
Adlai E Stevenson once said, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” The writers I’ve mentioned have all made themselves unpopular, and it will take them some time to regain their reputations, but because of some itineration of privilege – be it whiteness, class, patriarchy, heteronormativity or anonymity – they are safe. They don’t have to fear for their lives for being disliked. This is a luxury homosexual men and women in Uganda, in Khayelitsha, in Diepsloot, in KwaMashu, and in myriad places around the globe do not have. Why is that so very hard to understand?