I spent last Thursday afternoon glued to my Twitter feed, watching Durex put its foot so far down its mouth it has bite marks on its knee, repeatedly, and with bad grammar. It was like watching a train-wreck. I thoroughly enjoyed the immediate and vociferous response from enraged feminists, and muttered angrily at the predictable “ha ha, lighten up you ugly bra-burning feminist” comments. All in all, a good afternoon’s entertainment, especially because of what many would consider a happy ending: DurexSA’s eventual apology.
“We’re really sorry for causing offence today, not intentional. We believe in the rights of woman and safe sex. Thanks for putting us right.”
Obviously, there’s still a lot more to say, and I’m sure it will be said on FeministsSA and elsewhere as time goes by. I don’t think I’m well enough versed in feminist theory to really take this on in all its depth. I do want to talk about one particular aspect of all of this that has been bugging me, and which (I think) resulted in a transparently glib apology, with DurexSA clearly misunderstanding the complaints. The apology was for causing offence, maybe for a miscommunication (which implies that the people complaining somehow misunderstood the joke – I’m not sure what there is to misunderstand), and not for being way out of line. As a friend said to me,
“Labelling the jokes as ‘offensive’ somehow minimises them and makes them less than the violence-perpetuating nonsense they are.” I can’t say it better than that.*
I think the culprit here is the concept “offence” as a whole. Offence. That’s offensive, I’m offended, and we didn’t mean to offend. It’s a nasty little word and it needs to go. I should clarify that I am not saying for even one second that we should not be offended by awful jokes like Durex used today. We should be; everyone should be. What I am saying is that offence should not come into the argument, no matter how real and how enraging it is, for quite a few reasons.
Firstly, it gets people’s defences up. If you tell someone you’re offended, it’s likely that they’ll tell you that they can’t always worry about offending everyone, because everyone’s offended by something. It’s a fair enough argument. For instance, imagine that a friend who’s made an off-colour sexist comment is a very religious man who is likely to be offended by feminist ideas; that’s not going to stop me talking about feminism when he’s around. Offence by itself is not a good enough reason not to say something; there have to be other reasons too. In the case of DurexSA’s “jokes”, there are plenty of other reasons, and so these should be the focus of our complaints.
Secondly, offence is not really the reason we’re complaining. Ultimately, it’s not important that we were personally offended; it’s important that Durex was doing something incredibly damaging by perpetuating the rape culture. When something like this happens, we need to make that point loud and clear: that rape jokes aren’t just not funny, but actively damaging.
Finally, offence is a conversation-stopper; it doesn’t allow us to explain why something was damaging, and it doesn’t allow the culprit to issue a sincere apology with full understanding of what went wrong. They apologise for hurting feelings in the way you would apologise for having bumped into someone on the street: it’s an accident, we didn’t mean to, and now it’s all OK. That’s why DurexSA’s apology seems glib to me. They can happily say that they didn’t mean to cause offence, gloss over the real issues, and march right on.
There are a million different ways of phrasing our complaint when someone says or does something objectionable. We can call it worrying, disconcerting, problematic, damaging, or even just plain wrong and it’ll open all sorts of doors for discussion which “offensive” would shut. “I’m offended” means “stop saying that”, not “stop thinking it”. Of course, just phrasing our argument in a different way doesn’t mean we’ll win it; it just means it might be more likely to be received and thought about for half a second before being thrown away. It’s a step in the right direction, though. There will still be the people who think that when feminists argue with them we’re trying to censor them and make them “politically correct”. These megalomaniacs need to be reminded that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from being told they’re wrong.
I know that Durex’s apology should be the end to this story, and that for many people it’s satisfactory. For me, it isn’t. They’ve used that silly little word to throw out a shallow apology, and they haven’t apologised for the real problem of perpetuating rape culture. “Offence” has been used against us here. We need to stop that happening.
*Thanks to Lee-Anne Bruce for the incredibly helpful discussions about all of this.