The South African OJ

I awoke early this morning to a twitter stream full of live tweets from the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing (just a bail hearing, truly, not even a murder trial, what are we in for?), and one grumpy twitterer state-side complaining about it. Does every African correspondent have to live-tweet this trial?, he asked. One of those correspondents responded indignantly that the legions of new twitter followers disagreed with him, perfectly illustrating a collective action problem. Individually, each correspondent is likely to get more attention, more followers, more renown, by live-tweeting the case. Collectively, there’s a ton of overlap in what comes out of that courtroom via any number of news sources. Do we really need all of it? Or, a more pointed question, do we really need all of it when it clearly means neglecting the wealth of other news that is coming out of South Africa?

This whole ordeal reminds me of the trial OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. I remember the bustle around cameras in the courtroom. I have a distinct memory of Johnnie Cochran screaming in verse “The glove does not fit; you must acquit.” I don’t know if that memory comes from 1995—when I surely should have been in school—or if it was from later years of my brother practicing either his lawyering skills or his comedy routine. That trial was weirdly formative for both of us. I study intimate partner violence and he’s studying to practice criminal defense. But I digress.

The coverage of the Pistorius case is alarming and problematic for many of the same reasons the OJ SImpson case was. It’s about him; it’s never about her. In an early article on the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in the New York Times, her name didn’t appear until the 8th graf.

The eighth. Poor woman was murdered and she’s relegated to the sideshow. And so it is with the some 55,000 women who report rape every year in South Africa. With the approximately 2000 women who die every year at the hands of their partners, husbands, and boyfriends.

Meanwhile, Mr. Narcissistic showman will get to spend months telling the world what an upstanding guy he is and how much he loved his girlfriend.

I know the response to this will be the knee-jerk reaction of “surely more attention on the case will lead to more attention on this issue of domestic violence.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s the good kind of attention. It’s the kind of attention that leads people to talk in secret about their neighbors’ fights, but never call the police. It’s the kind of attention that makes a clearly dysfunctional relationship look run of the mill, happy, even, and thus perfectly normal. It’s the kind that glorifies the accomplishments of the accused in a fall-from-grace-surely-he-couldn’t-have scenario which minimizes the gravity and prevalence of violence and encourages the shaming of help-seekers. My research, and that of many others, shows that unless you normalize and encourage help-seeking, even reeling off all those stats that I did above only makes the behavior seem normal, even accepted, intensifying the shame and dangers associated with reporting.

As far as I can tell, this bail hearing is not about putting domestic violence on trial. The media coverage is not about exposing the total lack of response by authorities to a national problem. None of it is about normalizing help-seeking. It’s about a fallen hero (though whose hero, I’m not sure). It’s sensationalizing the story of a “wronged lover” when the true victim cannot tell her story. It is normalizing domestic violence, the idea that what happens in my home is none of the world’s business.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this trial will result in a national reawakening to the incredible problem that South Africa has with domestic violence, boasting some of the highest rates in the world of intimate partner injuries and killings. Maybe it will prompt more funding for programs and soap operas with a message like Soul City, or better yet, more evaluation, so we can figure out what they’re doing well and how to replicate them. Maybe we could use some of that redundant labor in the courtroom to do just that.

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