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25 October 2014 20:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Davis

First they came for my rape metaphors…

  • Rebecca Davis
Ivo Vegter argues in his latest column that comparisons between gang rape and the Businesses Licensing Bill are perfectly acceptable. As one of the people who found a recent Business Day column employing this metaphor to be offensive, I – unsurprisingly – disagree.

There I was in Speech Police HQ, putting my feet up, when my two-way radio crackled to life.

“We got a Code Red on our hands,” barked the voice on the other end. I dropped my donut, uneaten, and reached into my drawer for my Tippex and a cloth gag. “Unapproved rape metaphor deployed in national newspaper. Perp is a middle-aged white dude. GO GO GO!”

Is this how Ivo Vegter imagines that scenes play out whenever someone daringly presumes to defy the feminazi power bloc that controls our world? I couldn’t shake the impression from reading his latest column. On behalf of the “self-appointed speech police”, the “shrill” objectors, the “nannies” and the “sanctimonious busybodies”, allow me to say: Yes. Yes, that is how we roll. And we’re coming for you next, Vegter.

Flippancy aside, I thought Vegter’s latest column was awful. I know I can state that without fear of misunderstanding, because Vegter will instantly appreciate that I intend “awful” in the original 13th century sense of “inspiring wonder”. There was much to wonder about in Vegter’s argument, not least his claim that the word “rape” can acceptably be used today to mean a kind of vague “plunder” because that’s how they used it in the late 14th century. That’s cute.  (I mean cute in the modern sense, not “keenly perceptive or discerning”, 1731.)

Incidentally, if it’s fine to use “rape” in a loose way to mean “plunder”, then presumably the same must hold for “rapist”. I look forward to putting this to the test at my next visit to the bank, when I raise the issue of my exorbitant service fees. “You’re a rapist!” I’ll shout at the bank teller. Perhaps I’ll turn around to people in the queue, point at him, and say “That man right there is a rapist!” They will all understand that what I mean to say is that, through the performance of his professional duties, he routinely depletes my savings. Then we will all have a good laugh and  the “rapist” and I will high-five, or whatever contact is permitted through that little bit of glass at the bottom of the window.

Vegter has taken it upon himself to defend rape metaphors from the scourge of political correctness threatening our fundamental liberties because, he says, of an “outcry” sparked by a column written for Business Day by Free Market Foundation director Leon Louw, titled “Yet another example of ‘rape by regulation’”. I don’t know how Vegter defines “outcry”, but to me it suggests a public reaction outstripping about five tweets, which is all I could find on the matter.

However, I was one of a number of people I know who found Louw’s comparison between gang rape and proposed business legislation to be a grotesque rhetorical choice in a week which saw Anene Booysen’s horrific attack dominating headlines again. Though Louw began by comparing the strategy of gang rapists manipulating a victim to the strategy of a government trying to coerce business into complying with its regulations, as Vegter suggests, this does not adequately convey the glib manner in which the rape analogy is extended towards the end of the piece.

“My 45 years of activism have exposed me to countless examples of regulatory gang rape, such as when mines opposed confiscation of their mineral rights”, writes Louw, for instance. Small and emerging businesses are “the obvious victims of rape by regulation”.

Because I found this language use on a prominent public platform disturbing, I – along with around 40 other signatories – wrote an email to Leon Louw outlining my discomfort, and the reasons for it. Gender activist Michelle Solomon followed up by telephoning Louw personally to discuss the issue: a conversation she described as mutually constructive.

I have the privilege of a public forum available to me, in terms of my employment with the Daily Maverick, but I wrote an email to Louw, rather than a public op-ed condemning Louw, because I have come to realise that too often these issues are used as an opportunity for public points-scoring rather than a genuine attempt at engagement. “Grandstanding by anti-rape activists makes the message commonplace, and the messengers appear shrill,” writes Vegter. But where is the grandstanding on this occasion? I would suggest Mr Vegter takes a look in the mirror.

Because Vegter has no actual public material in this instance to argue against, he simply makes some up. The great thing about creating an imaginary argument is that you can make up a really weak one. To give a few examples:

“Some might say – falsely and revealingly – that my gender disqualifies me from having an opinion.”

They might, mightn’t they. But that would be pretty dumb, right? The email I wrote to Louw on the subject was signed by a number of men who felt themselves perfectly entitled to the view that this kind of loose use of rape as a metaphor may be offensive and potentially harmful.

“For those who believe only a victim has a right to a view…”

Well, again, that would be silly, wouldn’t it? These are not reasonable points, but Vegter devotes part of his column to tramping on them.

The use of metaphor underpins all of human language, and Vegter notes correctly that other metaphors of violence are commonplace. The importance of metaphor in shaping our understandings of the world, and sometimes in directing concrete public policy, has also been recognised for a number of decades. Anyone who doubts this should consider taking a look at a 1991 paper by one of the world’s foremost linguists, GeorgeLakoff , titled Metaphor and War.

The paper is an extremely coherent explication of how the US government’s use of certain metaphors to frame the public understanding of the situation in Iraq systematically concealed the terrible consequences of the Gulf War. Lakoff wrote it as a cri de coeur as much as anything: “It is vital, literally vital, to understand just what role metaphorical thought is playing in bringing us to the brink of war,” he pleaded.

In healthcare, too, the ability of metaphor to shape thought and policy has been much observed. As early as 1978, Susan Sontag warned in Illness as Metaphor that the tendency to frame cancer as a “battle” had negative real-life consequences: a focus on particularly violent, invasive treatments, and a lack of attention paid to long-term palliative care, to name a few. “Of course, one cannot think without metaphors,” Sontag wrote in her follow-up, Aids And Its Metaphors. “But that does not mean there aren’t some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire.”

In short, metaphors matter, and they should be used with care from influential platforms. Sometimes metaphors have been around so long that we don’t notice they aren’t literal any more. Linguists call these “dead” metaphors. “Live” metaphors, on the other hand, are those which leap out at a reader or listener because they have not yet been divorced from their literal meaning. Writing on the specific problem of the rape metaphor, Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky notes: “A lot depends on how many people – and which ones – can’t shake the literal sense of rape.”

Perhaps this holds the key to our current disagreement: that Louw and Vegter, and many others, are more able to disassociate “rape” from the literal act than people like me, and many others, and consequently do not find its loose application metaphorically to be disagreeable. This could be for a multitude of personal and social reasons. But I am given reason to doubt this due to the fact that Vegter explicitly says that he knows the rape metaphor is shocking: “the rape analogy would fall flat if it was not widely viewed as extremely grave,” he writes.

He continues: “Those who wish rape to be taken seriously should welcome its use as the standard for evil”. Vegter believes that the proposed Businesses Licensing Bill is “evil”. To me, that is a vast rhetorical stretch. Misguided, maybe; potentially disastrous, sure; but evil? And if Vegter’s argument is that the rape metaphor should be reserved for situations of “evil”, then presumably he should join me in deploring the common slang term “Facebook rape”, to describe a situation in which a friend hacks into your account to post a fake status.

Zwicky concludes his discussion of the rape metaphor by pointing out: “These aren’t absolute matters, in which one set of speakers or another gets to stipulate which usage attitudes are ‘right’. It’s a complex negotiation.” In other words, Vegter is completely within his rights to argue that a rape metaphor is justified. I am completely within my own rights to argue the opposite. That is the true beauty of “free speech”, which the likes of Vegter sometimes seem to think protects only their right to say whatever they please.

Here’s one final thing I never get about these kinds of “free speech debates”, and those who style themselves as their champion. “Non-PC” language is pretty much the norm. Sure, that may not be the case for certain prestigious newspapers and broadcasters, but you only have to breezily glance at the Internet to see that in society generally, it very much is the case. Those who ride bravely out to defend rape metaphors, sexist jokes and the like are not fighting some lonely, righteous crusade. They are staunchly upholding a very old, very tired status quo. DM

  • Rebecca Davis
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Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

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