Opinionista Ivo Vegter 11 June 2013

The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

The rape survivor who asked me to write last week’s column deeply regrets doing so. I don’t. I wrote what I considered a thoughtful, measured piece. In return, I was subjected to the most vitriolic abuse imaginable. The examples are shocking. The stereotype that I feared and warned against pales against the ugly reality.

The purpose of this column is to hold up a mirror to the rape activism community. It is not to trivialise rape. It is not to dismiss the trauma and anger of rape survivors. It is not to denigrate legitimate outrage about the deeply troubling attitudes to sexual violence that permeate our society. It is not even to generalise about anti-rape activists, since there are many who do a very hard job with great dedication and deep compassion for victims.

However, I fear the self-appointed activists that speak most loudly are doing their cause a great disservice.

A survivor of gang-rape asked me to write last week’s column, and is responsible for several of its most perspicacious points. She had been afraid to incur the wrath of the activist community by expressing her opinion. She kicked the hornet’s nest, and the hornets duly swarmed in attack. She now feels vindicated in her decision not to speak out publicly.

In effect, she has been silenced by the very people that claim to support and speak on behalf of victims of rape. This cannot be a healthy outcome.

My column was a reaction to the censure of Leon Louw over a rape analogy that some thought inappropriate. Not being able to respond to a letter that was sent to Louw, signed by an intimidating list of prominent figures in politics, media, law and gender activism, because neither Louw nor its signatories disclosed it to me, I used a number of public denunciations combined with common arguments about the trivialisation of rape as the basis for my argument.

The essence of my column was that rape analogies are not, by definition, unacceptable in public discourse. Some references to rape do trivialise the brutal fact of sexual violation, and many examples come to mind, but this is not the general case. Rape references do trigger some post-traumatic stress sufferers, and their response is not to be diminished or dismissed. However, this is true for many other potential triggers, and no writer can hope to be prescient enough to avoid them all, nor is this desirable. A rape analogy made in sober commentary does not work if rape really were trivialised.

While it is perfectly reasonable to ask serious writers to be sensitive to the potential impact of their words, public denunciations or intimidating letters that browbeat prominent figures only serve to chill public discourse. It instils fear of provoking one or other special interest group, and forces writers to tiptoe around sensitive issues in ways that discourage evocative, memorable use of language in favour of anodyne conformity.

By acknowledging that Zapiro’s infamous cartoon about the rape of Lady Justice by president Jacob Zuma was an acceptable analogy, but that the almost identical cartoon about the rape of Freedom of Expression was not, gender activist and journalist Michelle Solomon revealed that the line between acceptable and unacceptable is fuzzy and subjective. In fact, her own interpretation is questionable, since the first cartoon could equally well be interpreted to refer to Zuma’s corruption trial, rather than his rape trial, which would make it indistinguishable from the second, “unacceptable” cartoon.

The correct dogmatic position about such cases is evidently impossible to divine even if one is a member of the inner conclave of gender activism. Therefore, it cannot be a standard to which public discourse can reasonably be held.

I expressed concern that the condemnation of the rape analogy drowned out the very serious issue under discussion. It is doubly ironic that this column is not about the permissibility of rape analogies, but about the outcry over my temerity to even raise it as a point of discussion.

In Solomon’s defence, while she did dismiss the qualification of the victim I quoted to “[talk] about these nuances regarding rape”, she was the least vicious and the most willing to engage on points of disagreement. She was the only one to apologise to me, and to the survivor I quoted, over the viciousness of the hornet’s nest. I appreciate the sentiment.

Let me quote some of those responses. Lest I be accused of letting arbitrary internet trolls represent the gender activism community, I will limit myself to public figures and those who, like Solomon, were among the signatories of the letter dispatched to the man who provoked their ire.

“Ivo Vegter has always been a rather boring little man,” wrote Charlene Smith. “The sort who resorts to adolescent ‘shock’ tactics – dropping his pants or someone elses – to get attention away from the fact that he is a dull writer. I suspect he has SD-syndrome.”

Smith is a famous rape survivor and author of 14 books, including Proud of Me, her account of the trauma of rape and fear of HIV. For the uninitiated to gender-sensitive rhetoric, SD stands for “small dick”.

“And in a country with a rape every 26 seconds, some of whom will be women he knows and doesn’t respect,” she continued, “well, denigrating the harm that comes to women, children, and men raped is a way of getting some sort of response. Yawn.”

The rape survivor I quoted is a woman I happen to know and respect. I will never denigrate her trauma, or anyone else’s, and my column explicitly said so. Nor will I permit others to do so. Not even if they’re famous rape survivors who fled South Africa to opine on my genitals from the safety and comfort of the United States.

“I think it’s a lazy, self-serving argument typical of an insufferable entitled contrarian,” wrote Lili Radloff, another signatory of the letter.

When I described this as name-calling, she replied that she thought I was a self-confessed contrarian. Leaving aside the fact that I never write for the sake of being contrarian, although I’m often described as such by people with a banal, politically correct world view, that was not among the insults I thought I spied lurking in her message.

In response to the claim of journalistic laziness (one which Solomon also made), I pointed out that I spent several days on my column, because I thought a serious argument about a grave subject merited a great deal of reflection. Radloff just sneered. She held up the fact that I quoted only one rape survivor as evidence of my indolence, assuming that I couldn’t possibly have spoken to any other affected people, ever.

Osiame Molefe, another signatory to the infamous letter, challenged a particularly offensive commenter, whom I do not know but who apparently routinely makes himself guilty of racist and sexist comments. He wrote: “Vegter, please come get your people.”

If Molefe judges a writer by association with the most odious of their readers, I can safely ignore his judgement, because by that standard, nobody can ever state a valid opinion, and therefore, his opinion is bunk.

The headline response was the column by Rebecca Davis, another letter signatory. With casual disdain for Godwin’s Law, and distinct lack of irony, she likened my argument to Martin Niemöller’s famous anti-Nazi poem.

She wrote an admirably satirical and derisory screed denouncing my view. Or rather, denouncing what she thought my view was. As I pointed out in my detailed response to her column, she misrepresented what I said, and misunderstood my conclusion.

In particular, my column expressed fear that an outcry over the use of a rape metaphor by a serious intellectual in a sober setting would serve to strengthen a particular stereotype of the anti-rape activist. I did not apply that stereotype to those who expressed their disapproval of the rape analogy in question, or argue that the stereotype was justified. I merely conveyed my source’s well-made point that evoking such a stereotype in others does nothing to further the cause of anti-rape activism or solve the very real problems that actual and potential rape victims face.

The viciously vitriolic expressions of outrage, including by letter signatories and famous spokespeople for the cause, unfortunately served only to validate the stereotype, as I had feared.

What Davis thought to be clever hyperbole about the “Speech Police HQ” describes with uncanny accuracy her gathering a mob of high-profile signatories to grab their moral truncheons and go get the offender. In my own case, the lynch mob did not merely express disagreement with the substance of my piece, which is of course their right, but shouted me down, denouncing me as a misogynist of the worst kind. That is also their right, but if so, it is my right to doubt that their position is defensible on merit.

Davis herself went further, unburdening herself of the opinion that “facile rape metaphors should be banned”, without troubling herself to define “facile” as a legal standard. That makes the “speech police” metaphor even more accurate.

What she derided as a silly and weak point of mine, about my standing to address rape discourse while being male, was vindicated by several comments denouncing me as a white, male idiot, including a response that accused me of “mansplaining”.

The latter is a term employed by the kind of feminist who cannot bear the thought of a man expressing an opinion that doesn’t toe the dogmatic line. It seems clever only to the like-minded few. One could write an entire essay on how that term epitomises everything that is wrong with stereotypical “gender activism”. Far from being gender-sensitive and inclusive, it is antagonistic, sanctimonious, exclusive, sexist, aggressive, condescending and dismissive. Men get to participate only if they bring no opinions of their own – other than guilt and contrition – to the activist doctrine.

More’s the pity. The cause of preventing rape, bringing its perpetrators to justice, and supporting its victims (of all genders, I might add), is an important and urgent one. It ought to be inclusive, and hear different views, offered in good faith. If only because in its present form, it seems alarmingly ineffective.

The vindictive vitriol that was spewed last week shattered any faith I might have had in the self-appointed activists to achieve this goal.

Solomon claims to want open and honest discussion. However, when I dared to make a serious and well-considered argument about the language of rape and the reaction to it – one that affects not only how anti-rape activism is viewed, but also has implications for public discourse in general – I got a swift kick in the nuts from her co-signatories.

The intent was to marginalise me. The effect was to silence the rape survivor who asked me to write the column. She feels violated by the reactions to my column, not by the rape analogy she considered quite apt.

She is afraid to even call the activists to prove her existence, because she does not feel she can trust them with her identity. This is inconvenient for me, of course, so by all means, call me a liar, but protecting her trumps my need to justify myself to the kind of people who cannot rise above school-yard vulgarities.

Gender activists, if rape victims are terrified of you, you’re doing it wrong.

And all this emotive outrage, directed at people who are not rapists, do not trivialise it but hold it up as the standard for evil, are deeply concerned about the scourge in South Africa, are in all likelihood personally affected by it, and are trying in good faith to engage in serious public debate about it. No wonder the real offenders aren’t much bothered by gender activism. The noise and fury is so self-centred and misdirected as to be perfectly impotent.

The vitriol dominated the reaction to my column, but I want to express my appreciation and gratitude to the many readers who agreed with me, engaged in honest discussion about disagreements, or just had my back. One response, inspired by the angry reaction my column provoked, was not only touching, but very perceptive: The Inquisitor.

I will continue to love and support the rape victims around me. I will continue to have endless patience with their post-traumatic stress disorder, and their struggle to put their lives back together. I will continue to respect them deeply, and be proud of their will to live, to fight, and to conquer their fear and anger.

I will continue to appreciate those who work to improve the reality surrounding rape in South Africa, whether it is by exploring the causes and manifestations of sexual violence, by supporting survivors of rape and the families affected by it, or by contributing to the successful apprehension, prosecution and conviction of offenders. Many were not part of the hornet swarm, and do not deserve to be held guilty by association.

But I have lost all respect for the self-appointed gender activists that responded to my column with nothing but hatred, derision and vitriol. They do not speak for the rape victims on whose behalf they claim to act.

“I now hate these people just as much as I hate rapists,” says the girl who kicked the hornet’s nest. “Their attitude is part of the problem, not the solution. Nobody listens to people who can’t control their anger long enough to have a sensible discussion.”

I can only hope they take a long, hard look in the mirror that was held up for them. DM


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