The Table of Offense: Munch on and Insult

2012-11-28 07:24

Take a seat. There’s plenty of space on this table.

Your hosts: Jimi Matthews, Blade Nzimande, and Mac Maharaj. They will serve you the best sour treats on this table.  From inane ideas on what is offensive or not, to the absurd practice of banning words. Alternatively, you may want to visit Nkandla for a treat of Fish ‘n Chips. In this far away land, the Yes-Men have put a Fish ‘n Chips ad on the Table of Offense.

Have your treat, munch on.

The past three weeks have left us stunned as the Yes-Men came out with guns blazing for the protection of ‘dignity’, ‘stature’ and ‘respect’ of the President.  With The Blade calling for laws against insults, we’ve had an unpleasant feast at the Table of Offense. Yet, while we sit uncomfortably at the Table of Offense (served by our three earnest hosts and others) we have not asked a crucial question. What use is an insult in a functional democracy?

More importantly, should we as citizens refrain from calling politicians and government officials like the President names?

Insult as an act of Public Protest

Much has been written about the absurdity of the Minister of Higher Education’s suggestion to introduce insult laws (or at least start a debate on this, as he later recanted). The focus of course, was on how such laws would be detrimental to all the things we hold dear - freedom of expression and media freedom. Very few people actually realize that within limits, the idea of insulting an individual like the President or any other public figure is a legitimate form of public protest.

What do I mean?

Social media is littered with epithets (some are really funny) directed at the President. Trail through Twitter timelines and you will see President Zuma is called (amongst many others): The Giggling Casanova of Nkandla, Shower Man, and most recently, Jacob Bond. The prevailing context is simple.  We have a President who commands very little public admiration (for reasons known to us all, hopefully) and we also have a relatively annoyed and disenchanted citizenry.

This context breeds ground for objection and the possibility of influencing the course of things; this is exactly what protest is about. A deliberate act expressing disdain with the state of affairs and with it comes with the possibility of things changing. You will find a range of comments during personal exchanges with people on the state of the country. For the most part of it, these are people with legitimate concerns; they care about our country’s prosperity.

We insult not only because we think it’s a nippy thing to do, but we do so to indicate our own disgruntlement. This is an act of public protest. It may not be common, but it packages the issues of the day in a cheeky (and often witty way) in the attempt for us as citizens to grapple with the challenges we face. More importantly, insults are an ingenious tool to sharpen public discourse on most issues. Through an insult, we confront the issues with a candid approach and venture into the limitless field of the absurd yet; we’re still able to make an important point.

What our Hosts at the Table of Offense miss is that insults leveled to President Zuma or any public figures for that matter do not amount to banal commentary.

It suggests that he is not worth the respect we would afford him in normal circumstances. It allows us to throw a rattle his cage with the blind hope that he takes heed these insults and mends his ways (unlikely).

Calling him names is an act of public protest. Cheeky, may be silly but  this still counts as disapproval.

Is Offense Sweet or Sour?

Our Hosts also seem to be confused by the striking difference of an insult and offense. We insult through a slur that is witty, absurd, funny and sometimes crude. An individual chooses to insult another for different reasons.  An insult directed at anyone does not necessarily offend such a person. The person at which the insult is leveled against assesses the insult, and then decides if he or she finds it offensive or not.

So, insult does not equate to offense.

How we choose what offends us is important. For the most part of it, there is a general consensus on the type of insults that would be unacceptable due to public morality and in some instances our own convictions. Slurs that position race and sexuality at the center of the insult would be publicly rejected. That’s the objective moral position society has placed on itself, that’s our public standard. On the other hand, our public standard is not (and shouldn’t) be one that keeps quiet when the President fails to lead the country. We’re not bound by any yardstick to tolerate this.

A sharp insult leveled to me based on my reprehensible actions and daft behavior is in no way offensive. The same applies to the President. Utterances that suggest that he’s ‘Jacob Bond’ for example, aren’t objectively offensive.  This particular epithet deals with the serious assertion that the bond on his Nkandla Complex (or Compound if you’re Mac Maharaj) might be non-existent. In insult lies not only niggling frustration but an element of the truth too. We may not agree with the packaging, but the insults ring a tune we can sing along to.

There is no reason why we should stop calling President Zuma names for the sake of his dignity and affording him respect that he seemingly doesn’t deserve. Our insults to him, his government or any other public figure who has failed us are not disrespectful but rather an act of legitimate protest.

We protest because the standard we have for them is higher and we protest because their conduct as public servants is damning.

More food fights while ensue on the Table of Offense. We will chuck back the sour treats given by our Hosts. We will defy them and insult with gay abandon.  We insult because we care.

Follow Sibusiso on Twitter @SbuTshabs

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