Even before the body of South African model Reeva Steenkamp had been cremated, her killing - allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius - had been turned into an all-purpose symbol of moral and social rot. The speed, and in some instances glee, with which moral entrepreneurs have swarmed around this tragic event has been horrible. Before we know the full facts of the case, various campaigners are milking it for moral mileage, effectively building soapboxes for themselves on the rubble of Steenkamp's and Pistorius's ruined lives.
First out of the starting blocks to exploit Paralympian Pistorius’s predicament was the anti-domestic violence lobby. Not bothering to do anything so bourgeois and vulgar as to wait to find out why Pistorius shot Steenkamp - he says he mistook her for an intruder; others say he murdered her from jealousy - feminist writers have instead bundled the whole thing up as Yet More Male Violence. As a CNN headline put it: ‘The Pistorius case and the plague of violence against women.’ That is, this cannot be understood as an individual tragedy, a specific case of mistaken identity or crime of passion, but instead must be turned into a big, featureless moral drama designed to, in the words of CNN, ‘teach men from the earliest age that violence against women… is unacceptable’.
The cynical - and currently fact-lite - transformation of Pistorius into a symbol of male violence and Steenkamp into a symbol of female victimhood doesn’t only overlook the complexity of the case, and the fact that it hasn’t yet been proven one way or another; it also robs both Pistorius and Steenkamp of their humanity, reducing them instead to the level of ventriloquist’s dummies mouthing educational info about domestic violence. Observers tell us that the ‘overtones of domestic violence’ in this case speak to today’s ‘endemic disregard for women’, in South Africa and elsewhere. They tell us the case should help ‘raise awareness of violence against women’, and serve as a reminder that such violence is so widespread these days that ‘anyone, no matter what their appearance, achievements or disability, is capable of [it]’.
In short, all the specificity of the case, the individualism of both Pistorius and Steenkamp, must be flattened out, demolished effectively, in service of the greater cause of ‘raising awareness’ among dumb men, especially in SA but in other places too, that violence against women is bad. When the Sun used a picture of Steenkamp in a swimsuit to accompany its frontpage report about the killing, it was widely (and wildly) denounced for turning her into a sexual object. But is making her a political object, a cardboard cut-out victim, a poster girl for the patronising UN-sponsored anti-domestic violence initiative One Billion Rising, that much better? In both cases, her life gets reduced to one brutal thing - Sex or Violence - and the still unresolved question of what happened to her gets subordinated to various different kinds of titillation, whether of the tabloid or feminist campaigning variety.
The facts of the case - to the extent that we have any facts yet - contradict the opportunistic reduction of it to just another episode in today’s alleged epidemic of violence against women by culturally programmed brutal men. It would seem that either Pistorius was confused when he allegedly carried out the killing, or, perhaps more likely, he was briefly and fatally irate, in the grip of some overbearing emotion, and he bitterly regretted what he did almost straight away. If true, this speaks far more to those things most crimes of passion are made up of - human frailty and terrible error - rather than to Pistorius acting out the cultural role authored for him by today’s alleged ‘plague’ of anti-women sentiment. Do campaigners really believe that all human behaviour and action, as complex and unpredictable as they are, can be squeezed into a pre-written script about wicked men and weak women? It seems they do; it seems they think all crime is preordained, and all men and women mere actors in moral dramas, mouthing lines written for them by the cultural zeitgeist.