Lynch mobs need to get a larf

This last Sunday morning, two cyclists riding in a group on the Ruth First Freeway (M4) near Durban North were killed when an allegedly drunk driver ploughed into them. The following afternoon, East Coast Radio senior producer Kevin Minter-Brown posted this on Facebook: “I’m thinking of starting a running club. I know there’s plenty of other roads, but I think if there’s an opportunity to put us directly in harm’s way, then why not?”

Minter-Brown was fired from his job within two days. His sponsors, McCarthy VW Umhlanga, dumped him moments after.

I’ve never met Minter-Brown. Barely know what he does, to be honest. I found out that he’s been at ECR for almost 15 years. Started a television studio at the station. Does a lot of charity work.

Minter-Brown took his Facebook post down an hour after he put it up and apologised for being insensitive. He explained that, while doing research for his monthly column at the Sunday Tribune, he discovered that eight cyclists had been killed on that stretch of road over the last six years. He said he couldn’t understand why they kept using that road despite its obvious dangers.

Minter-Brown chose to express his thoughts through satire. Well, more like sarcasm, which is a valid and handy weapon in any satirist’s arsenal. The sub-text of his post was clear. Cyclists should consider other options rather than keep using a potentially deadly stretch of the M4 – a stretch that the cyclists were, according to the city police, not legally allowed to be on in the first place.

If he had put it that way, he would still have a job. Instead, he chose to use satire and is unemployed as a result. Obviously I’m not saying the death of those two cyclists is in any way a laughing matter. And I doubt Minter-Brown was going after cheap laughs. I also doubt that he is a psychopath unable to feel empathy for others. Perhaps he is. It just seems unlikely.

He apologised and tried to explain what he had been trying to do. But it was too late. The lynch mob was gathering and the calls for his head grew louder.

East Coast Radio’s Facebook page was flooded with outrage. One woman wrote, “What action will be taken against Minter-Brown? His recent post on Facebook is both distasteful and disgusting! People should be held accountable for their social media remarks! He is a disgrace!”

It’s almost certain that this woman put less thought into her comment than Minter-Brown did in his. Outrage is easy. Especially in a country where everyone seems constantly pissed off about something or other. We are an angry nation and we lash out blindly at any target that comes within range.

I have said far more contentious things, couched in satire, over the 17 years I have written a weekly column for a number of publications. When I wrote my first column for the Cape Times in 2001, letters flooded in over the next few days. Readers demanded that I be fired. They demanded to know why the editor was giving me this space. They were Outraged. Editor Chris Whitfield was smart enough to understand that out of a circulation of tens of thousands, a few angry readers could be dealt with tactfully. He handled it by explaining, in a short piece on the front page, that the paper’s new columnist was, in fact, a satirist, and not really a racist, sexist, homophobic misogynist at all. Eventually they got it and calmed down.

In his career-ending post, Minter-Brown attempted to do what I have been doing for years – writing about serious subjects using humour. Satire is often more effective than bludgeoning. The danger is that not everyone will get it. Actually, the danger is far more insidious.

As I’ve already said, Whitfield and subsequent editors I have written for, including Tyrone August, Aakash Bramdeo and Mazwi Xaba, have defended me against the lynch mobs. They don’t stick around for long, these mobs. Once they see that their shrill cries are being ignored, or once they have been talked off the ledge, they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Or they move on to the next outrage.

In this case, Minter-Brown’s bosses caved in so fast that it makes the head spin. Within a couple of days he had been hauled before a disciplinary hearing and fired. There have been murmurings of outrage at the way he has been treated, but that’s all they are. Murmurings. People don’t want to get sucked in to the madness. They have jobs, families. They don’t want to be condemned by association. I, too, had second thoughts before writing this. Did I want to get involved? Will one of the editors I write for shut me down, too? I don’t know Minter-Brown. Why should I care? Let him fight his own battles. You know what that’s called? It’s called self-censorship. Once that takes hold, there will be no more healthy exchange of ideas. Minter-Brown’s post should have led to a debate of the issues. Should cyclists take more care on the roads? Are the bylaws banning cyclists from freeways unfair? What more can the police do to catch drunk drivers? That’s the kind of conversation Minter-Brown’s comment should have sparked. Not demands that he be fired. That only serves to scare people into silence. Self-censorship has no place in a free society. Freedom of speech is a principle worth fighting for. The government would love nothing more than to shut it down. Let’s not help them do it.

Minter-Brown’s bosses at the radio station are cowards. They reacted out of fear, not principle. And if they caved in because of pressure from advertisers, well, that’s even more despicable. Either way, it was classic knee-jerk fuckery. Besides anything else, they almost certainly did not act in accordance with the labour laws. I expect his lawyer will demonstrate this, just as Dali Mpofu demonstrated it in Gareth Cliff’s case. Insensitivity is not a fireable offence. But if it turns out that it is, I’m fucking off to North Korea.

Minter-Brown’s sponsors – McCarthy VW Umhlanga – are equally craven, because it’s highly unlikely they would have done anything at all had he not been fired. The company said in a statement that while it accepted his apology, it in no way endorses blah blah blah. How can you accept his apology and still dump him? The company also claimed to have acted “on the advice of its attorneys”. Bullshit. They acted on the advice of its PR rep. But they’re car dealers. We shouldn’t expect much honesty from them.

Here’s the thing. We have laws against libel, defamation, crimen injuria, hate speech and more. If Minter-Brown had violated any one of these, I would say charge him and, if convicted, fire his ass. But he hasn’t.

Did Minter-Brown’s two-sentence Facebook post add to the grief felt by the families of those two men killed on Sunday morning? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In the event that it did, he apologised profusely. Was it right that his career and quite possibly his reputation should be destroyed? Absolutely not.

Nobody has the right not to be offended. Try to remember that before you join the next lynch mob.

Anyway. That’s enough of that. Time for a beer.