Smack talk just isn’t what it used to be, but Twitter does provide the opportunity to experience canned hunting. Leave Lady Gaga out of your sights and take aim at pathological misogynist Chris Brown and his vile legion of Twitter fans. They are “asking for it”.
One of German statesman Otto von Bismarck’s leading opponents was the famous pathologist Rudolf Virchow, who was vocally set against what he considered Bismarck’s unnecessarily bloated military budget.
In those days, what we now might call “smack-talk” carried certain inexorable consequences, and Bismarck was irked to the point where he challenged Virchow to a duel in 1865. It was customary for the person challenged to be allowed to choose the weapons with which they would fight. The story goes that at the arranged time, Virchow arrived bearing neither sword nor pistol, but two pork sausages. One was merely a tasty banger, but the other, though identical-looking, was loaded with poison. Bismarck was invited to choose one to eat. He wussed out, fearing the wurst.
Loads of things about the olden days were rubbish – human waste flowed in the streets, everyone was either racist or a slave and they kept dying in horse-related incidents – but I’m convinced that spats between public figures used to be of a higher quality. There are some doubts about whether the Bismarck-Virchow feud story is actually true, but I’m hanging on to it as fact because it provides a stark counterpoint to the sub-standard celebrity catfights we experience today. We have swapped duelling with toxic frankfurters for expletive-laden Twitter exchanges, and frankly all of humanity is the poorer for it.
This brings me to the case of Chris Brown. If you are not up to date with current developments in pop culture, the dramatis personae of this sordid case are as follows: Rihanna (Barbadian singer); Chris Brown (US R&B star, on-off boyfriend of Rihanna); and Jenny Johnson (a comedy writer popular on Twitter). In 2009, Brown savagely assaulted his then-girlfriend, Rihanna. The full police report is available online, and reveals that Brown punched, bit and strangled her, as well as verbally threatening to kill her.
It makes for harrowing reading, but some extracts may be instructive for the many Brown fans who blithely waved off the assault: “He then drove away in the vehicle and continued to punch her in the face with his right hand while steering the vehicle with his left hand. The assault caused [Rihanna’s] mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle… He then placed her in a head lock positioning the front of her throat between his bicep and forearm. Brown began applying pressure to [Rihanna’s] left and right carotid arteries, causing her to be unable to breathe and she began to lose consciousness.”
Brown reached an out-of-court settlement on the matter, which reportedly required him to go to “anger counselling” and be placed on five years’ probation. But fortunately for Brown, he has attracted an army of fans – “Team Breezy”, as they call themselves – who appear to find nothing remotely disturbing about the fact that their musical hero tried to kill his girlfriend. His fourth album, F.A.M.E. – and judging by his Twitter output, that may be one of the few words Brown can spell with such precision – debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 chart in 2011. His fifth album, Fortune (2012) received more mixed reviews, but Brown continues to live the charmed life of a mega-star.
I can think of a title for Brown’s next album which continues the alliterative trend, but it would be too crude to specify. Because as of Sunday, Brown may finally have exhausted the bizarre stock of public tolerance for his behaviour. On Sunday, Brown tweeted: “I look old as f***! I’m only 23”. Comedy writer Jenny Johnson retweeted this, with the annotation: “I know! Being a worthless piece of sh*t can really age a person.” (Johnson has been attacking Brown on Twitter for years, saying that she believes he should have gone to prison for his assault.)
It is mystifying why Brown did not simply ignore this overture – after all, people tweet worse stuff at Ivo Vegter every day. But clearly whoever ran his anger counselling course bought their accreditation off the Internet, because Brown not only rose to the bait, but dramatically escalated affairs immediately, returning a volley of obscene sexual threats and insults which you can read at your own risk. Johnson responded with icy sarcasm, at one point correcting his spelling.
Now, as feuds go, this is clearly not Bismarck-Virchow calibre stuff (though Brown does reference his wiener). It’s the kind of puerile exchange that blows up often on Twitter. But what makes it more significant is the fact that you have a man who almost killed a woman, for which he faced virtually no consequences, immediately reaching for vile sexual threats when confronted by a woman. And his legion of creepy admirers continued where Brown eventually left off: Johnson received death threats, including some from women.
“Team Breezy” are thorough: after tweeting my own disgust at Brown, I have already been sought out by members of his fanclub on Twitter and labelled an unattractive gardening implement (“ugly hoe”. That’s me: not a looker, but indispensable for harvesting root crops). If any other semi-literate Brown fans are reading this, I urge you to engage with me on Twitter too, as it’s the closest I’ll ever experience to canned hunting.
Shortly after this, Brown deleted his Twitter account, either in a fit of pique or because his publicist was on the verge of having an aneurysm. But by Monday evening he was back, having deleted the exchange with Johnson and explaining that he had interacted with her to successfully prove his point “of how immature society is”. Job done, Breezy, if by “immature” you mean “pathologically misogynistic”, and if by “society” you mean “I”.
But let me try to pre-empt some of the arguments in defence of Brown which have been flying around social media. Firstly, there are those who argue that Brown deserves a “second chance”. There’s not much to suggest, however, that Brown is all reformed. The police report indicates that it took him a full nine days after the attack on Rihanna before he thought to send a text message saying, y’know, sorry. He has since been implicated in bar brawls and homophobic ranting. To quote The Guardian, he has “offered the barest lip service to contrition and backed his unconvincing penitence with nothing material”. True, we haven’t heard of him beating up any women recently, but his outburst to Johnson suggests he doesn’t hold them in particularly high esteem either.
Secondly, there is the unfortunate fact that Rihanna appears to have taken Brown back as a boyfriend. Screeds of Internet text has been devoted to condemning her choice in her regard. But the psychology of women who return to their assaulters, or refuse to leave them, is complex and sad and should not be ignorantly vilified. Whatever form of Stockholm Syndrome Rihanna has fallen prey to, however, does not mean that the rest of us should feel compelled to issue him a cheery thumbs-up as a result.
Lastly, some have suggested that criticism of Brown is partly motivated by racism, because there are high-profile white women-abusers who are still considered fine dinner party guests. Charlie Sheen has been repeatedly accused of violence towards his partners, and yet occupies a space in the public realm best summed up as “awesome, bro”. Geoffrey Boycott, Sean Connery and Sean Penn – to name only a few others – have all been accused of domestic abuse and emerged relatively unscathed.
This difference in treatment is manifestly unfair, though one of the reasons why Brown’s assault received greater attention was because his victim was even more famous than he. But to respond to the problem by saying “Sheen’s career didn’t suffer, so neither should Brown’s”, is bizarre. Instead, a clear and standard message should be sent out to be abusers of any description that they cannot expect to beat the hell out of women and be treated as if nothing has happened.
“Being treated as if nothing has happened” is an apt description of Chris Brown’s handling in the South African media. Brown, you see, is touring our fair land in December, performing in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. When media outlets brought this news to the public eye in October, together with a potted CV of Brown’s career, nary a mention seemed to be made of Brown’s violent record. Overseas, his treatment has been quite different. Brown was denied a visa to the UK, has had bands refuse to open for him, and he has just been forced to cancel a concert in Guyana due to protests from women’s groups.
South African Christian groups like the Family Policy Institute have come out in vocal protest against Lady Gaga’s tour of South Africa on the absurd grounds of her alleged Satanism, but don’t seem to have a word to say about Chris Brown. But perhaps that’s because Family Policy Institute director Errol Naidoo also doesn’t seem to like women or gays very much. This same man who called Lady Gaga a “twisted individual” recently opined that gays and feminists were responsible for Marikana. Maybe Errol Naidoo and Chris Brown would get along just fine. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
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.
"Ah coffee. The sweet balm by which we shall accomplish today's tasks." ~ Holly Black