Game Changer: Observations on the Oscar Pistorius Murder Case

A South African hero.
A South African hero.

Like many South Africans and other aliens, I am inspired by Oscar Pistorious. As a double amputee, he has overcome the odds, challenged the establishment and carved a spectacular career and name for himself. His story is legend.

When the news broke that he had shot to death Reeva Steenkamp, it hit me hard: it couldn’t be true – it had to be wrong – he must have mistaken her for an intruder, surely? Emphatic reactions because Oscar is a national hero, not a murderer. Isn’t he? Well, of course the social media sites have dispensed with due legal process and little else has been talked about, for the past three days. Everyone has an opinion, a judgement and a connection to both Oscar and Reeva.

A fellow Boys High boy...
A fellow Boys High boy…

Oscar went to my old high school, Pretoria Boys High, but we were years apart, and that is my most tenuous link to him – but it felt strong enough a link to drive me to defend the man, to believe firmly that the unfolding story must be wrong, that at the heart of it, Oscar is an innocent man, deserving of sympathy, and of protection and defense…

Especially when the jokes started. As with any tragedy, scandal or major event, the headlines were soon followed by a string of puns, humourous comments and judgement calls. Over the last three days, the flood of jokes and the counter-attack by loyal friends and fans alike has threatened to be bigger than the story itself.

Nick Frost
Nick Frost

Early on Thursday, Nick Frost, a Facebook and Twitter contact, tweeted “Jokes about the Oscar Pistorius situation = immediate unfollow. It’s not fucking funny people.”

This gave me pause for thought. I am an avid follower of Nick’s, and together with him, a colleague of mine, Dax and my brother, George, we are often the first off the mark with the situational jokes, puns and commentary. If a plane goes down, a celebrity scandal erupts or the Springboks get their heads handed to them in a match, you can count on us four to deliver the most foul, insensitive but oh-so-deliciously-punny, irreverent and tasteless jokes, way before anyone else does. For my brother and I it’s a bit of a family pride thing, that we’ll be seeding the humour that will be emailed to us in countless variations in the subsequent weeks after a joke-spawning event. But I felt too sickened by this story to tweet the jokes I was hearing.

Or did I? In conversation with colleagues we swapped a few, with guilty smiles, quickly dismissed. But we did not feed this through to Twitter or Facebook. No, this seemed a step too far, a comment too public for the very private pain that the Pistorius and Steenkamp families are enduring, and being forced to live out in the media spotlight. Is telling a joke about this to another person OK, but tweeting about it not?

The continuing stream of bad jokes and the vociferous reaction to them prompted Meropa Communications CEO Peter Mann to write a lengthy piece, entitled ‘Pissed off by Pistorius tweets‘.  He holds forth on the legal risks and moral self-degradation of thoughtless commentary in unmediated social media. I posted the article to Facebook, with the comment “Read this before delivering your verdict.”

In response to the article, two friends responded with these comments:

  • “All true, but there can be no doubt that he did kill her and that it was no accident. No-one else was in the house and she was shot multiple times. Even if it was an accident (which is impossible imho) he is still guilty of causing someeone’s death. It is high time we stopped making allowances for people who kill others whether with guns, cars or whatever… He may yet be found not guilty (our law does let guilty people off) but that does not mean he is innocent or not responsible for the death. Who cares his reasons, who cares if it was in the heat of passion, he KILLED her and took her away from those who loved her.”

And,

  • “Somebody has already been successfully sued for posts on facebook in this country… facts – he took a life, neighbours heard a commotion at the time of the shooting,previous police calls out for domestic violence, an ex laid charges of assault against him. But it is a possibility that he may very well be found innocent on self-defense grounds. Tis let the court decide that indeed.”

They both have valid points, though the latter proclaims a string of facts which lead us to a contrived assumption that Oscar MUST therefore be guilty – these facts neatly lead one to make this conclusion, but these are not the only facts, and so we are obliged to make no judgement, yet!

Reeva with Oscar, in happier times.
Reeva with Oscar, in happier times.

Peter Mann’s argument, I believe, does not intend to halt the commentary, it intends to stem the vicious attack on both Oscar and Reeva’s character. It’s certainly made me think a lot more about what we feed out via SM through our tweets, updates and blogs.

Nick was MOST clear on this on Thursday morning: jokes = unfollow, and I absolutely got what he was saying. I assume he knew either Oscar or Reeva personally, as his tweets and castigation of tasteless tweets that followed through the course of the day made it clear this was a deeply personal thing for him.

Oscar 2402d8d5af82bafb3013007d_Oscar Pistorius
Breaking down in court…

On Facebook, Tracey-Lee Cohen was also MOST firm on this matter, announcing that she had already unfriended a string of contacts in the wake of their tasteless jokes. She went on to post:

  • “Today we have been shocked by the tragedy of oscar pistorious and his girlfriend. whatever, the outcome, it is a true tragedy. and both families feel loss beyond belief. so instead of us making sick jokes, and imagining what happened for our own entertainment. lets wait. and hold both families in our thoughts and prayers. IMAGINE FOR ONE MINUTE IT WAS YOU, OR YOUR LOVED ONES INVOLVED on both sides. we have become a sick nation and i am not proud today to be South African. grow up people.”

I went to the same school as Oscar, but never met him. I found him inspirational and accessible as a human. Sorry, not “found” – I FIND him inspirational and accessible. And like many heroes that become manufactured celebrities – manufactured by OUR own desire to hold them up as heroes –  this legless hero, ironically, has feet of clay; and he is VERY human, and fallible like all of us.

But here’s the thing – until this point, I have never had any sacred cows in my sense of humour. Yet here I stand, unable and unwilling to feed the steady stream of tasteless jokes and moral aspersions in social media. In conversation, I have crossed the line, and enjoyed the word play being thrown about, but I haven’t fed it onto the public sites. Is there a difference between the two? And I don’t actually know Oscar, so why am I so defensive on his behalf?

I am a hypocrite, with double standards. Just like you, and everybody else who engages in any sort of gallows humour. Usually, cries of “Too soon!” are pure currency, for me, yet in this situation, I’m not willing to cross that line, online.

When the jokes are about people we don’t know or don’t feel any particular affinity for, then it is a case of all’s fair in love and war. On Thursday, the world changed. I don’t want to create some dire puritanical state where discussion and humour that desensitises and brings levity to the brevity (if you’ll pardon the shocking rhyme) is pariah. I usually mock those who deliver scorn for these jokes as ‘over-sensitive’ and ‘so far up their own ass…’ etc. but now I stand on their side of the fence. Why am I so conflicted? So certain the jokes are tasteless and uncalled for, when in other, similar situations I didn’t give a damn who I offended?

Before this tragedy, my sentiments echoed Fry's.
Before today, my sentiments echoed Fry’s.

I don’t have the answers, but all this HAS made me reevaluate my own sense of values in this regard. I used to be a firm proponent of “no sacred cows – the only rule is that word play comes first, sensitivities come second.” This tragedy is a game changer, for me.

Peter Mann’s article pushes beyond personal boundaries, and good taste. It speaks about the defamation inherent in the presumption of intent; and the defamation of character when these tasteless jokes are thrown about so readily on social media sites. It speaks to us being better than that, and then questions the truth of that: are we really better than that? Respectability and decency are not absolutes; they are, instead, subjective values dictated by the governing popular culture, and hotly debated. I am doing just that, here.

So I ask you, before you judge him a murderer – before you post that joke you find so funny – can you look yourself in the eye, in the mirror, and confidently say you know he intended murder; and therefore that your judgement and subsequent joke-telling is fine? Do you not know deep in your soul it is as morally reprehensible as the act itself?

A very human hero, fallen.
A very human hero, fallen.

Oscar may WELL be guilty of murder – or beyond that, premeditated murder, and if that is the case, it is right that he faces the appropriate sanction. There is a still a human being, at the core of this, and human beings who were touched so irrevocably by this tragedy, and there is a story which touches us all, irrevocably.

Too many of these stories, or too much time spent in emotional bondage to this particular story desensitises us: it is too much horror for our very human selves to deal with. That’s where the humour comes in – to act as a coping mechanism. When that black humour goes out into the public sphere, it calls the character of those involved into question beyond the accusation of simple murder.

We live out our roles as judge and jury without any fear of reprisal, or concern for the emotional damage this does, and how it diminishes our own character.

© Dave Luis 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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