Last week saw yet another storm in a social media Z-cup when Justin Nurse, head honcho of a small company called Laugh It Off, which parodies corporate brands, took exception to clothing label Jay-Jays apparently ripping off one of his designs. A play on the WWF logo, with two pandas in a compromising position and the slogan ‘WTF’, is not exactly earth-shattering satire. Nurse’s response was to pen an open letter to Jay-Jays on the online culture magazine Mahala (for which I also write).* This came along with a parody of the Jay-Jays logo, changing the company’s name to – wait for it – Gay-Gays.
In case anyone doubted his liberal credentials, Nurse explained that he didn’t mean gay ‘in the awesome, homosexual sense, but rather in the lame, weak and creatively bankrupt way’. Unsurprisingly, some actual gay people, who’ve spent the last few weeks worrying about punitive and repressive anti-gay legislation in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, were not appreciative of this pat on the head and reacted with amusing vitriol on various bits of the internet.
Nurse and LIO have also, to the best of my knowledge, not responded to Jay-Jays’ claim that the image was freely available online before they starting using it. If that is indeed the case then what’s going on here is someone attacking someone else for stealing something that they stole, which was in fact parodying something that they ‘borrowed’ from someone else, all of which is so postmodern that I may need to go and have a little lie-down.
Nurse’s juvenile gaffe is not the point of this article. A few days later an LIO newsletter arrived in my inbox with the title ‘Thick, Black, Gay Brown Skins’. Purporting to be an explanation, it insisted that gay is now universally accepted to mean ‘lame’, citing links to an article in the UK Daily Mail and another quoting a journalist from the UK Telegraph. There was no mention of the fact that both of those august organs are notoriously conservative and list liberal-baiting and gay-bashing as their hobbies on dating profiles. The email’s claim that everything is a-okay because ‘words evolve and meanings change’ was dangerously disingenuous given that gay is also, still and consistently, used as an insult to terrorise people.
The email went on to say that LIO apologises if it hurt anyone’s feelings, immediately after which it launched into an increasing tedious series of defences. Of course LIO isn’t bigoted! It’s just a tiny company trying to fight the good fight! In fact LIO is the victim of online intimidation. And also, have you heard of the Constitution? Free speech, mofos! And then the trump card: not only is the dude writing this gay himself, he’s also BLACK WITH AN ASIAN BABY!! It’s like a royal flush of right-on guiltlessness. Ergo, LIO is a brave, scrappy underdog and those oversensitive gay people who keep mentioning homophobic violence are nothing but bullies. This scores about 9.25 on the Bad Apology Scale.
The debacle recalls the saga of Max Barashenkov and Montle Moroosi and their tasteless corrective rape jokes, which I wrote about for the DM in July last year. Soon after that article was posted M&M published a similarly laughable apology that wasn’t an apology at all, instead positioning them as crusaders for free speech and fighters for constitutional rights. The line here, like the line taken by LIO, is, at base, ‘we’re sorry you were offended but we’re not sorry we were offensive’. Now, I’m not espousing a ban on free speech, nor am I in the forefront of the feminazi political correctness police (no, commenters, I’m really not). But if you say something horrible, and people get upset, and you’d prefer them not to be, why not just take it on the chin, say that you’re sorry and move on, instead of nailing yourself to a metaphorical cross? LIO may have fought the good fight against SAB in the Constitutional Court, but this outraged defensiveness won’t do their reputation (or their sales) any favours.
Back in 2011 Helen Zille found herself locked in a Twitterspat with half the digital nation after she accused the musician Simphiwe Dana of being a ‘professional black’. Whether you think Dana is the authentic voice of a generation or a misguided celebutard who should have stayed out of politics, this is hardly an appropriate statement from an elected official in a country with tricky race relations. But instead of apologising, Zille blamed Twitter: ‘It is possible to ask a complex question in 140 characters, but usually impossible to answer it adequately. Inadequate responses generate many complex misinterpretations (often deliberate) that multiply stratospherically through cyberspace.’ And if that didn’t make the culpability clear enough, she also stated, ‘I worked hard at resisting the temptation to respond [but] I took the bait and replied.’ Not only did the Twit-o-sphere wilfully misinterpret her words, it’s also so darn addictive. Poor Helen, at sea on the irresistible tide of social tech.
Why are South Africans so bad at saying sorry? My guess is that there’s a sort of cultural machismo at work here, an idea that genuine apologies make people in the public domain look weak. But there’s something very worrying about a media and political class that is incapable of admitting mistakes, even when those mistakes clearly alienate so many of the people that they want on their side. And so, in the spirit of ubuntu and reconciliation, I offer a heartfelt apology to any readers I have offended thus far, and any I may offend in future. (Except Steve Hofmeyr. I meant that bit.) DM
*I would like this column to serve as an open letter to all writers of open letters: stop. Just stop. Please. It was bad enough when Miley Cyrus was involved, but this really is scraping the bottom of the barrel of public communication.
Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits. She's recently returned to South Africa after almost 14 years of living mostly in the UK, during which time she was, variously, a journalist, author, student, semi-professional feminist, radio pundit and singer in a Yiddish reggae band. She tweets (infrequently) as @barbrastrident.