A South African model, Jessica Leandra, took to Twitter recently, expressing her anger at being accosted by a man in a store. She said: “Just, well took on a an arrogant and disrespectful kaffir inside [the store]. Should have punched him, should have [sic].” Many people are upset by her use of the term ‘kaffir’, since this is considered to be one of the most offensive racial slurs (I’m not sure how words’ offensive powers are measured), at least in South Africa. Her sponsors are leaving her, the magazine that gave her plenty of attention has condemned and dropped her, and columnist Mabine Seabe has lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), to many people’s satisfaction.
We can’t ignore South Africa’s racially-charged past. People were denied opportunities based on the colour of their skin. My father once told me he had always dreamed of being a pilot, but, despite his coming first in the country after graduating from high school, he really only was allowed two options: teacher or doctor. Also, my parents could not live in certain areas and were forced into certain districts because government officials of the apartheid regime couldn’t decide if they were ‘Indian’ or ‘coloured’. Such stupidity and hatred is barely two decades out, so it is understandable that, within this context, racism is particularly charged. We’re not talking simply about judgement of others and name-calling but conjuring up images that justified horrific oppression of certain people, in our terrible history.
However, just because that is how the environment currently is does not mean that’s how it should be. As one can imagine, Ms Leandra has faced much scorn. She hasn’t done a particularly good job of ‘defending’ herself, since what was uttered in a state of emotion, coupled with stupidity, can’t be defended (though she tried to apologise).
What concerns me more than some arbitrary female who gets paid to stand still is the amount of attention she is receiving for being stupid. Because she occupies some kind of celebrity space, her words are given a bigger megaphone than the rest of us mortals. Thus, when she says something stupid, it travels further than if one of our angry, racist colleagues did the same. But our reaction shouldn’t be sending complaints to the Human Rights Commission. We should simply ignore her.
Of course what she did was stupid: her career is probably doomed. But people like her don’t deserve our attention or time. They’ve doomed themselves, already. What do we hope will be achieved by trying to lay charges or lodging complaints? How will slapping her with charges or human rights violations change her mind (maybe it will reinforce her views)? More importantly: What does it matter if she thinks black people are inferior to whites, if she doesn’t act on it? People think many stupid things, but we don’t and should almost never make a habit of prosecuting people for thought-crimes. Furthermore, we’re not talking about a powerful intellectual writing a 600-page thesis on why black people should be exterminated: we’re talking about an arbitrary female, known for not being fat, who awkwardly expressed in 140 characters, what she was immediately feeling. Again: this doesn’t mean she wasn’t stupid, but it’s not our business to prosecute or persecute stupidity in this fashion. Why should we care? If you want to see her punished, realise that sponsors and her continuing career opportunities are dropping.
I don’t perceive anything good about laying charges or filing complaints against her. We waste time and resources, instead of just saying “That was stupid” and moving on. We undermine ourselves by giving in to the rhetoric of idiots. We’ve established that her ideas are stupid – what do we hope to achieve by arguing with her or making her some kind of criminal? If an individual says something, out of a combination of anger and stupidity, you don’t make it right by trying to reason or criticise her. What she Tweeted has nothing to do with being reasonable or making a justified point – you’d be operating on ground already chaotic and disregarding rules of argumentation.
Free speech means defending views you don’t like. Let them come out. Let’s hear idiots preach stupid things on race and science and politics. I, for one, am always glad when we identify a racist or when a racist outs himself. I don’t want to associate with such people and we should be glad that we have platforms for people to out themselves like this (as someone on Twitter said: “How do I stop following someone I don’t follow?”). She’s damaged her career, she’s probably going to be struggling for years because of 140 characters (apparently she also called black people ‘African monkeys’ in a previous Tweet). We shouldn’t let the emotions of one person, the words of a racist, hold some kind of power over our reactions and thoughts. Ignoring her undermines the power of the slur: after all, she used that term because of the amount of offence it holds and the power it appears to have (clearly seen in responses).
We are doing ourselves in all ways a disservice by further engaging with her and caring what she thinks. Let us be glad that there are platforms for instant communication, but let’s not start charging people when they start expressing themselves on these. There will always be hateful and horrible things that we don’t like hearing – but that’s the nature of free speech. Let’s assign actual human rights complaints to the HRC, instead of ones based merely on offence. Just as we are free to express ourselves, so are those people we do not like; just as all are allowed a platform to express their ideas, so we are free to ignore and, indeed, respond in kind. Charging her, sending her to prison, laying complaints of human rights violations are not the solutions – our ability as free individuals to respond with ignoring or (if you really must) arguing with her is, since we're using the very same freedom she is. What better way to show how far we've come, as a species and nation, than to ignore racists who shoot themselves in the foot with a 140 bullets?
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Related post: Why No Words Should Be Banned