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Freedom of speech vs political correctness in a world of super ‘wokeness’ and populist slogans

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Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

While highlighting the atrocities of male violence, the media could also highlight other representations of masculinity beyond the toxic, such as maleness which has sensitivity and gentleness in the range too.

I was interviewed on national television for about half an hour the other day, and the questions forced me to think hard in order to give thoughtful answers. The topic was the role of the media in combating “toxic masculinity”.

At first, I had declined, as “toxic masculinity” is not my area of expertise, but I was persuaded because it was really about what role the media can play to stop gender-based violence (GBV) and stereotyping.

I will start off with the last question I was asked. The interviewer talked about “a word” that was used in a “certain tabloid newspaper” that is a really “derogatory” word for sex workers. I challenged the interviewer to say the word and mention the newspaper, as I had just spoken about the value of calling out the sexists, bullies, rapists and murderers (which the media often do, once they are already named in court).

In my head, if the word (I don’t know the word yet but I intend to find out) was used and I could say it and explain why it’s not acceptable, then maybe members of the public and the newspaper would have some awareness and stop using it.

However, the interviewer asked what if he was sued for using the word. That wouldn’t happen because the word is already in the public domain. But my point is that we need to use our media spaces and opportunities for speaking out and not self-censoring. That’s the role of the media in ending toxic masculinity.

Choice and agency

Some difficult questions were: how are music videos perpetuating stereotypes? Is any kind of sexiness now verboten? Do women not have the agency to decide for themselves how much they want to reveal or how sexily they want to dance? And isn’t that also part of their feminist freedom and choice?

We don’t have a lot of choice in SA to walk the streets at night and feel safe. Imagine if we could — imagine if wearing revealing clothes didn’t draw too much attention?

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign starts on 25 November, and we will once again highlight the rape and murder of women. And the media will be full of it. And it’s good, but it’s also overkill — excuse the pun — because people turn the page. It’s like it’s too much.


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On the one hand, I do want to know the names and faces of the women who have been brutally killed. Because they were in the media so much, I will always remember the names Tshegofatso Pule and Uyinene Mrwetyana.

Some of my reflections on the topic included that though I am cognisant of the views of the woke generation who have contributed so much to change, I don’t like the hashtag #MenAreTrash, as it’s alienating and we need progressive men as allies. There are also positive role models, with more and more men taking fatherhood seriously.

So the media, while highlighting the atrocities of male violence, could also highlight other representations of masculinity; maleness which has sensitivity and gentleness in the range too.

Social media toxicity

I didn’t get a chance to mention in my interview that the worst place for toxic masculinity is social media, in particular Twitter and Facebook, where women are trolled, vilified and harassed.

Women Journalists in South Africa: Democracy in the Age of Social Media, my new book I wrote with Kate Skinner, was released this month, and details the horrors women are going through on social media. 

Advertising and stereotypes

Another question: has the advertising industry made any progress with stopping stereotypes? I haven’t done any quantitative research on this in terms of representations, semiotics and discourse. However, through observation, I see some change. I do like the ad with the man in the pink shirt and trousers showing us how to remove stains on clothes — about time.

In conclusion: what’s the point of freedom of expression, and our Constitution, which already makes provisions against hate speech, such as racism and sexism?

We should be careful not to be overly politically correct about everything.

Back to my interview. I enjoyed it more than I expected, as these are not easy issues to deal with in the world of super “wokeness” and populist slogans. 

Freedom is about being fluid and not hermetically sealed, and that’s the beauty of it all. The purists can ruin the enriching ways in which we can express ourselves, if we let them. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    I have two questions to raise in this article, around their actual validity:
    “There are also positive role models, with more and more men taking fatherhood seriously.”
    Taking fatherhood seriously??
    And then this “I do like the ad with the man in the pink shirt and trousers showing us how to remove stains on clothes — about time.” Care to elaborate what a pink shirt has to do with anything? And by your logic above, is this then about men taking cleanliness or stain removal more seriously?

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