Gareth Cliff at his final show for 5FM at the SABC studios in Auckland Park. 310314. Picture: Chris Collingridge 140

Why is there no public outcry when the likes of Gareth Cliff use the b-word and “bastard children” with impunity? asks Berenice Paulse.

Cape Town - Publishers of an e-newsletter for women last week revisited Gareth Cliff’s open letter to the ANC, “Seven ways to fix SA”, originally published in October 2010. The letter was offered as deserving of another read, given the political climate.

What stood out for me was how Cliff’s use of language denoted a level of discrimination and prejudice that has become almost accepted in our society.

When the letter was first published, the public’s immediate response was to the obvious, but the underlying message was overlooked – perhaps because South Africans have become adept at recognising racism, but not other types of discrimination. I do not necessarily agree with Cliff’s detractors that his comments were intended to be racist, but they were, in my view, certainly discriminatory, both in intent and consequence.

Derogatory labelling such as “bastard children” or claiming that the unions are making the government its “bitch” are essentially elements of discriminatory language. The term “bitch” is always used in relation to a woman (there is no other word in the English language that disparages men in the same context) – even if used to refer to a man, the intention is to belittle and demean.

It has become one of the most frequently used derogatory slurs applied to women, irrespective of class, race, culture or sexual identity. Its use has also become increasingly common to men and women alike, as well as in popular culture.

Its intention is to insult, alienate and denigrate, but where it differs from, for example, racist slurs, is that the latter is no longer openly tolerated or defended.

Equally, the label “bastard”, applied to children born outside of a civil ceremony, denotes prejudice. Historically, a woman who gave birth to a child from such a relationship and the child were shunned. “Bastard” is a particularly vicious and derogatory label to apply to a child. Thankfully, society’s attitude is changing, but this must be reflected in the words we choose to use.

There will be those who will argue that Cliff’s letter was an attempt to hold government accountable, or defend his right to freedom of expression. Yet, our society appears to have fewer reservations about defending misogynistic slurs than racist ones.

Imagine, for instance, if in addition to using the b-word, Cliff had included the k-word in making his point. Would the same media have happily circulated the letter and its content, or would Cliff have evaded condemnation?

It’s likely the media would have denounced the letter and distanced itself from what would probably have been labelled as hate-speech. There would have been a – justified – complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Yet, why do we not witness this type of public outcry when the likes of Cliff use the b-word and “bastard children” with impunity?

Women and children remain one of the most socially vulnerable groups, their marginalisation stemming precisely from discriminatory attitudes and practices. So why do we continue to tolerate language that denotes discrimination and intolerance not only against women and children, but against every individual?

Regardless of the noble intentions of the messenger, should we not remain vigilant about the language in which the message is packaged? Discriminatory language devalues individuals and groups, and it is essentially both a symptom of, and contributor to, prejudice and intolerance. It is through language that bigots and misogynists unwittingly betray their prejudice and ignorance.

When derogatory labels become commonplace and even tolerated in our society, it poses a threat to our hard-won democracy, as well as the spirit of equality and human dignity embodied in our constitution.

While not denying the challenges we face as a nation, by simply sweeping under the carpet the discriminatory language used to communicate these challenges, we are taking one step forward and five steps back.

Cliff’s letter rightly supports a free and vigilant press, and I agree the media has an important role in holding the government to account. But that also means the media should continually interrogate itself to assess whether it holds true to the values to which it aspires. Is the media’s role simply to report the news or must it also question the language in which the news is communicated? Beyond merely holding the government accountable, should the media not also hold private citizens to account?

My assumption that a publication catering for women and headed by a woman would understand my argument about the use of discriminatory language has since been seriously challenged; the editor defended the decision on the grounds that Cliff’s views were topical (which I don’t contest), but did not address the issue of his choice of language.

Since 1994, South Africa has made considerable progress in terms of women’s representation and decision-making, but to what extent have those changes translated into real gains for women and children or furthered the fight against prejudice and discrimination?

Any assumption that women’s presence and decision-making in the media would naturally translate into more gender-sensitive reporting or even the promotion of inclusive language does seem to be in doubt.

When we choose to look the other way we are sending out an unambiguous message that it is not only permitted, but encouraged.

Readers also have a responsibility to bring their influence to bear in purging discriminatory language from our public discourse, perhaps by showing they will not tolerate or support media that fail to subscribe to the ethos of human dignity and equality.

Social commentators like Cliff rely on the media to broadcast and disseminate their message (including the subliminal ones).

The media, therefore, cannot simply shrug and say that it does not necessarily support the views expressed by an author, when in fact it enables the dissemination of discriminatory language.

Derogatory labels reinforce stereotyping and are discriminatory – and we should not be afraid to say so.

* Berenice Paulse works as a researcher with an interest in social justice, reproductive rights and international migration.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus