Fired for going too far

2011-08-08 00:00

FORGET the 27 Club. South Africa is fast achieving notoriety through its Culled Columnists Collective.

Column writers are being fired these days faster than it takes the average blindfolded university student to smell out a beer.

It goes something like this: you write a column, probably ripping off or into someone or something. Someone else doesn't like what you write. They object. You get fired.

Eric Miyeni — the just-axed columnist from the Sowetan — is the most recent in this list of infamous South Africans. He made the mistake of having a go at formidable City Press editor Ferial Haffajee.

And before him — Kuli Roberts, who had the audacity to poke fun at coloured people and make remarks about missing teeth; David Bullard, whose satirical suggestion that uncolonised Africa wouldn't know what it was missing made quite a few liberals choke on their cornflakes; and Rapport's Deon Maas, who suggested satanists weren't such bad folk after all.

Sacking these dudes just shows Oscar Wilde was completely wrong when he said modern journalism justifies its own existence by the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarist. If you rave about politics, race or religion, you're out. Soft porn, however, might just be acceptable, as, it would appear, are swear words and the suggestion that good manners are passé.

Columnists are usually nuts, anyway. Who else would write week after week for a pittance, with the clear commission to be as controversial and irreverant as possible, knowing you might be axed for going just a little bit too far?

This concept of "too far" is problematic. The whole point about free speech in our Rainbow Nation is that unless you're directly threatening to sabotage someone's parachute or kill their manicured poodle in a drive-by shooting (or trying to get someone else to off aforementioned poodle), you should be able to say what you like. If someone doesn't like what you say, they don't have to read it, or buy the publication it appears in, or (the preferred option) they can engage in debate with the writer about what a tosser he or she was in the first place for having written such stuff.

Anyway, how do we know controversial columnists don't all have some complex form of Tourette syndrome, which manifests in their fingers spewing out unspeakable words? All those editors who somehow missed reading the offensive columns probably look out for this characteristic during job interviews.

Editor: "So you want to write an irreverent and controversial column for this publication? What are you writing on your notepad?"

Columnist shows notepad to editor, which says: "I'd rather roll naked on broken glass than work for this idiot, but it might pay for a couple of packets of cigarettes every month."

With Fitzgerald, I'd argue that generally columnists don't write because they want to say something, but write because they have something to say. William Gass said: "I write because I hate. A lot. Hard." Could be that Miyeni was working for Juju, who definitely would have paid him more than the average South African newspaper, or was touting for Juju work. Could be he just had a Haffabee in his bonnet. Who cares?

Trevor Noah and Michael Naicker offend people continuously, using humour and satire. Satire tends by definition to be offensive. I guess because you simply listen to comedians, you aren't left with any pieces of paper to hold in your clammy hands, mull over and desecrate with a selection of brightly hued highlighters.

Personally, I've always thought Miyeni comes across as pretty fed up that he isn't a token darkie anymore and a lot of what he writes is underlined by this. I found his column pretty offensive and racist towards white people. But he is entitled to his opinion and, by expressing his thoughts, offers an opportunity for other people to debate about it.

The truth of the matter is that any debate entered into in which parties are constrained in what they may or may not say is redundant as a form of intellectual discourse. It's about as meaningless as some of the utterances of Julius Malema (which, arguably, provide really good grounds for debate). Should we draft a whole new clause in our Constitution which defines what going "too far" really means?

I may not agree with the writers who write edgy columns, but at least I'm entertained and stimulated by what they write. If I wanted bland, homogenous and packaged for mass consumption "safe" drivel, I'd read newspapers with no editorial and opinion columns. It would be pretty good to know that someone I follow isn't going to be fired in the near future for going "too far".

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