By Thorne Godinho
A recent viral video depicting crude bullying at Höerskool Overkruin in Pretoria certainly ought to have raised some eyebrows. The rof-en-onbeskof pupils’ hair-pulling, smacking, pushing and swearing has been shared by nearly 8000 people on Facebook, and I have been following the conversations streaming from the supposedly apocalyptic vision this video illustrates.
Although the commentary on social media often doesn’t amount to substantive engagement with the topic at hand, it can be a good barometer of public perception overall. When two girls in perfect red uniforms decided to kick, push and bully another girl everyone on Facebook angrily spoke of how “unrespectable” these women were. South Africans spoke about corporal punishment, and the failure of the male pupils to protect the victim. This misplaced moral outrage dominated the social media discourse, pushing the real issues of abuse, violence and victimisation to the curb.
Moral outrage is an effective tool – it breeds further outrage, and allows for emotion to override reason. Moral outrage disturbs debate and engagement in such a manner that the issue is never really addressed – it is only spoken about in hyperbolic fires of upset and anxiety. I witnessed this kind of misplaced unreason two weeks ago as I watched students from the University of Pretoria who were running for SRC “twerk for change”. The outrage expressed on twitter over a small campaign managed to make me cringe, whilst also bruising my ego a bit (I confess: I had convinced the candidates to get students interested in the election by twerking in public). Twerking soon represented an affront to gender relations in the workplace, and the dignity of women everywhere.
Men who commented that women who twerk cannot be taken seriously and thus should not demand to be taken seriously in the workplace, received multiple endorsements from other slacktivists – male and female. The real issues (student politics) and the real debates surrounding the sometimes overtly sexist criticism expressed on social media platforms were ignored. Beyond shifting the goal posts, moral outrage can also serve as a vehicle for sexism and misogyny. In the wake of something disturbing (like bullying) or innocuous but controversial (like twerking), people often reveal their penchant for outdated views of women, femininity and masculinity through criticism and inane commentary.
The more subtle variant of this outrage can be found in the exaggerated suppositions made in support of a common cause such as preventing sexual violence. For example, most people wouldn’t be upset by a car sticker proclaiming that “real men don’t rape!”, but this kind of statement (which is more like an unproven hypothesis) doesn’t actually support the fight against sexual violence. Creating an other (the rapist, who is not a real man because of his crimes) in this instance actually presents an affront to any kind of meaningful debate and action on the issue of rape. When society pretends that the other is the only problem it fails to solve the underlying problems which perpetuate sexual violence, and thus fails to promote the equality and freedom of women.
The only group who benefits from this subtle moral outrage is the ‘real man’ who isn’t a rapist. In other words: men who are not guilty of sexual crimes are absolved of any responsibility for the actions of their peers – who are real men too. The men who are not guilty of rape can pretend that the overwhelming culture of inequality promoted in the home and church do not have any kind of bearing on the fact that real men do rape women. The men who are not guilty of rape can pretend that their cat-calling and displays of machismo and violence do not result in an environment which is hostile to women.
A keyboard and the unpredictable, fast-paced nature of internet content makes it easy for your friends, followers on twitter and the people who hide behind anonymity online to smother debate and engagement through unreasonable hyperbole. Closing off the space for these people to stoke the fires of internet-anger (and sometimes: the accompanying misogyny) is easy: call them out, take them on, and clear out the crowd who refuse to engage in a meaningful way. By pushing moral outrage to the edge we’d be doing a great service to real engagement and discourse, whilst also preventing the perpetuation of sexism and misogyny.