OPINION: On Karima Brown, the EFF and the fallacy of a 'just-world'
On Wednesday, after Karima Brown received rape threats via WhatsApp when Julius Malema revealed her mobile number on Twitter, many EFF supporters called for her to provide screengrabs and reveal his number. And while we live in an era of name and shame – and rightly so - here’s why revealing his identity might have perpetuated the cycle of violence, the brunt of which would be faced by Karima - another woman at the mercy of a toxically masculine society sick with the disease of victim blaming in a culture rife with rape.
Last year we saw the rise of the #MeToo movement. Women worldwide rose from their seats of abuse empowered in numbers unmatched to name and shame their abusers. Their rapists. Their fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, boyfriends, friends and just about every Tom, Dick and nobody out there who breeds in the hot bed of rape culture, perpetuating a cycle of violence and hatred towards women.
Me Too is relevant. It is important.
Me Too was then and it is now and it will remain still long after the R. Kellys and Bill Cosbys rot from the inside from the fungus of their own conscience. But #MeToo doesn’t live in Hollywood, it lives right here. At home. It drinks and eats with leaders. It bubbles to the top of ideologies that brew statements on women’s rights and protections. It settles on the timelines of Twitter and Facebook the same way abuse has become so commonplace and settled in the history of women; and now, because of those timelines, it lives in the private, encrypted chats of WhatsApp messages. #MeToo has never meant #UsAll more than now.
Culturally, social media is an important agent of change and a valuable source of information. It educates and lends itself to critical engagement, social realities and theories, like feminism. But it also a double-edged sword. While one side is sharp with analysis, another lies sharper, ready to slay. It is meticulously polished with toxic masculinity, victim blaming and rape culture engagement. Studies in the US show that users who engage in victim blaming are more likely to get retweets and likes than those who tweet content to support victims. And yesterday was no different.
When Julius Malema failed to protect the contact details of Karima Brown, he opened her up to attack. Forget the politics. Forget that Malema is a leader, and a politician. Forget that Karima Brown is a journalist. And remember in that revealing anyone's contact details without their consent is plain playground tactics. Let’s get to the heart of the matter here. This is a woman. She is a woman, who exists in a society society poisoned by patriarchy. When you reveal her number, you threaten her. You threaten her with a public of toxic men on the edge of their seats, rearing to attack, penis in hand. You put her life at risk. Women already walk around with the constant fear of being attacked. Do we really need more of this as a country with some of the highest rape statistics in the world? Do we really need this as a country where those same statistics are almost impossible to verify because of all the incidents that go unreported because of that very same fear?
This incident is bigger than the EFF. It is bigger than Karima Brown and it is unfortunate that another woman, once again, has to bear the brunt of being another case study. This incident is bigger than politics and votes and leadership. This incident is bigger than the media telling you where and for whom to cast your vote and who is worthy or unworthy of being president and it is most definitely bigger than any journalist being targeted as a bloody agent or what ever.
I understand the name and shame portion of yesterday’s events. The need to want to make the world a fair place where wrongs are righted and the sinful are slighted. We all want to live in a society where good is rewarded and evil is punished. I understand calling for this man’s number. And I share the sentiment. He should be punished. I don’t care who he is. I don’t care if he is an EFF supporter, I don’t care if he is an ANC shit-stirrer.
If you can take a man for his word, you must also take a woman for hers and we must stop participating, regardless of gender (but especially in the case of women because this is the world we live in), in this perverse notion that the victim needs to explain themselves. Asking this of a woman is no different from a white person saying a black person doesn’t deserve land because they have not worked for it. Even though the reality is that hard work is not sitting on a board, hard work is going down – for example – into the belly of the earth every day and mining for someone else's wealth in order to support your own family. Can we victim blame in this instance? No. So how can we be selective elsewhere?
In 180 CE, the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus wrote about his scepticism towards the phenomenon that is the “Just-World”.
In the early 1960s Melvin Lerner proved the misgivings of the “Just-World Theory”. He took a group of women and asked them to observe what appeared to be a learning by punishment experiment. Think of it as “learning from your mistakes”. Think of it as “Karima Brown got what she deserves, this happened to Julius because someone revealed his number once, what goes around comes around”.
Anyway, Lerner took an actor – also a woman- and made the women observe a question and answer exchange. When the actor responded with an incorrect answer, she received a painful electric shock. Afterwards, he asked the observers if the victim was likeable or morally worthy. The women who saw the victim suffer repeated shocks leaned toward derogating her. No different from Twitter yesterday. That is: The more people tweeted “learning by punishment” content, the more Karima was seen as deserving of her fate, and the more society participated in victim blaming.
The Just-World Hypothesis speaks to the assumption that any consequences a person faces is morally fair and fitting with relation to the their actions.
In this instance, Karima Brown deserved to have her number revealed and the consequence of that was fair because of her actions. Noble behaviour gets rewarded. Evil is punished. And thus, facing and expecting consequences for perceived behaviour restore balance to a very imbalanced world. It’s an easy scapegoat way to rationalise someone’s misfortune on the ground that they “got what was coming to them because they deserve it and everything happens for a reason”. But it fails to acknowledge that this simplistic version of justice does not exist, and is in fact a harmful fallacy.
Transparency is NOT the name of the game here. It never has been. In fact, transparency is an idea so daunting that it’s the very cause of unreported cases. Transparency is the catalyst that often increases the rate of action and reaction. And in cases like these, transparency or rather the fear thereof, is the chronic symptom that make women ill with the thought of permanent damage. “If I say something, if I talk about this man, if I reveal him, it will only spur him on more. I will only suffer more”. In simple terms, you have to be an idiot to not understand this. And when you ask a woman to reveal a number, to screengrab a rape threat, to prove her abuse, you are opening her up to all of this. More than that, you are wildly participating in victim blaming. Bring the files or it didn’t happen, you’re saying.
And I repeat: This incident is bigger than the EFF. It is bigger than Karima Brown and it is unfortunate that another woman, once again has to bear the brunt of being another case study. This incident is bigger than politics and votes and leadership. This incident is bigger than the media telling you where and for whom to cast your vote and who is worthy or unworthy of being president. This incident is important, but it is also bigger and more complex than a journalist being targeted as a bloody agent or what ever.
If anything at all, this incident is the one thing that should bring us all together on the same side. Because there is only one side here. And it is literally screaming at you to do the right thing, for all women.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.