Piggybacking the Pistorius tragedy

Even before the body of Reeva Steenkamp had been cremated, various moral entrepreneurs were milking her killing for political ends.

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.

Coming up close behind the anti-domestic violence lobby in the race to exploit this sad case are the anti-gun activists. Never shy in exploiting tragic shootings as part of their campaign to outlaw all guns (except in the hands of the trustworthy police, of course), gun-hating commentators have cited the shooting in the Pistorius home as evidence that ‘guns have no real place in our homes’. The Pistorius case points to the problem of South Africa’s ‘gun culture’, we’re told. (There’s that idea again of an all-powerful ‘culture’, determining what people think and how they behave.) One observer says Pistorius’s ‘love of guns and fast cars [speaks to] South Africa’s macho culture’, to a ‘culture of masculinity’, and apparently this ‘gun culture’ must be urgently addressed.

Here, again, the specificity of the situation - in this case, the broader problem of crime and violence in South Africa - is flattened out and reduced to simply a ‘gun culture’. Guns are treated almost as sentient objects, the cause not only of what happened in Pistorius’s home but also of criminal antics across SA. This is a bizarrely asocial, ahistorical understanding of the problems facing that country. One in every 10 South Africans owns a firearm, and the murder rate in that country is a whopping 31.9 per 100,000 people per year. Yet in Switzerland, there is a far higher ratio of gun ownership - around 4.5million out of a population of 8million have access to a gun, or 1 in 2 of the populace - and yet the murder rate is tiny compared with South Africa’s: around 0.7 per 100,000 people per year. There is clearly something other than the availability of guns in South Africa, something other than the ‘gun culture’, which makes SA a crime hotspot. No doubt the facts of poverty, destitution, profound inequality and post-Apartheid tensions contribute to the violence in that nation. (For the record, even in SA the murder rate is falling – by 40 per cent between 1996 and 2011.)

There is also more to what allegedly unfolded in the Pistorius home than the fact there were guns there. The much-discussed bloodied cricket bat allegedly found at the scene should serve at least as a reminder that there are many everyday objects that can be turned murderous by those in the right (or rather wrong) frame of mind: bats, pokers, hammers, spanners, knives. Banning guns would no more make private homes murder-free than it would make modern South Africa crime-free. Yet the anti-gun campaigners piggybacking Pistorius’s misfortunes care little for facts, or for rational debate, and instead marshall emotionalism and moral blackmail to their cause of disarming ordinary people everywhere. If campaigning for the banning of everyday gun ownership and for the concentration of guns in the hands of the state is illiberal here in Europe, then in South Africa, where just last year the police shot dead 34 striking miners, it is positively crazy.

And finally in this grotesque competition to milk the Steenkamp killing, there is the anti-hero lobby, the noisy sports-sceptical brigade that is concerned about the way modern society worships Olympians and, more recently, Paralympians. These downbeat people tell us that the Pistorius case ‘proves’ - proves! - that it is wrong to ‘put athletes on pedestals’. It is mad, we’re told, to ‘exalt’ these people just because they ‘jump higher or play through more pain or run faster than us’. And it is mad not only because these so-called heroes often prove disappointing, often prove to have the ‘same failure and flaws as the rest of us’, but also because in creating gods we also create monsters; we risk nurturing arrogant ‘madmen and violent idiots’. That is, Steenkamp might be a direct victim of today’s blind hero worship of great sportsmen, of the Olympian culture itself, which may have made Pistorius deluded and dangerously cocky.

In truth, the problem today is not the existence of heroes or hero worship - we could do with more of those two things - but rather the expectation that sportsmen should be role models. As a result of the Pistorius scandal, we have ‘lost a role model’, says one observer. But if you need an athlete, a man who simply and amazingly runs very fast, to provide you with a model for how to live, to give you a ‘role’ to copy, then you are very sad indeed. Athletes have only one responsibility to the public: to inspire us through their physical feats. For those people (which includes me) who considered Pistorius heroic, it wasn’t because we thought he was a nice guy, a morally upstanding citizen, someone whose attitude we should ape in our own lives; it was because he overcame severe physical limitations to do something that even most able-bodied people cannot do - run extremely fast. That’s all, and it is more than enough. Treating athletes as heroes is a fine pursuit; expecting them to educate us about how to live (and now how not to live) is a mug’s game.

And here’s the (potentially controversial) thing: it is still possible to consider Pistorius a hero. A bad man, potentially, but still an heroic figure. Just as it is possible to be gobsmacked by footage of a 21-year-old Mike Tyson knocking out Michael Spinks in 1988, despite Tyson’s later conviction for rape, so it is possible to be awed by what Pistorius achieved at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games despite what has unfolded in recent days. And just as we can rock to Ike Turner’s music despite his woman-beating, or listen to Wagner despite his Jew-hating, so we can still admire Pistorius’s achievements at London 2012 despite his alleged crime. The key is to separate our heroes’ extraordinary endeavours from their frequently mundane or messed-up (that is, human) lives. We should expect everything of our heroes, except that they be model citizens, good blokes, permanently decent role models for an at-sea society. If you want a role model, sign up for a mentoring scheme; if you want a hero, watch the Olympics.

The Steenkamp killing is a triple tragedy: most immediately it’s a tragedy for the Steenkamp family; secondly, it is a tragedy for Pistorius himself, whose life is in tatters; and finally, it is also tragic that our society is one that is happy to exploit an isolated if high-profile killing in order to depict all men as violent, all guns as evil, and all heroes as massive let-downs for humankind.

Photograph: AP/Press Association Images

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