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.

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31 thoughts on “Lynch mobs need to get a larf

  1. What everyone appears to have forgotten, is that there is a cycle lane on NMR Avenue (old name) hardly a stone’s throw away. There is also the new parade track which runs from UShaka to Blue lagoon. If they had chosen their time better, and had been prepared to cover the same ground more than once, the club could have covered limitless ground on the far safer facilities provided.

  2. Dear Ben

    Thanx for many laughs over the years.

    The holier than thou’s from VW Umhlanga should also be charged as accomplices. After all, the dronkie was driving a fucking VW!

    Piet van Zyl

  3. Really fine piece. Straighter than usual because the issue is so central to a country that’s lost (if it ever had one) any understanding of irony, sarcasm or satire. Fuckers need attacking and this was high-class attack.

    R

  4. Bravo Ben! Exceptionally good points made – thinking out the box as usual and further than one’s nose. Nothing has ever been changed without a good fight. You deserve that beer!

  5. So Minter Brown inferred that any cyclist who chose that particular road (Mo’s comment noted) is risking their life and is foolhardy and he would be right but you could say that about any cyclist on almost any road in SA – is it their fault that you can meet a drunk, homicidal or reckless driver on virtually any road you might choose – it isn’t about their choice, it is about the carnage and mayhem caused by those who don’t give a toss for anyone else on the roads, are quite happy to risk homicidal mayhem (and presumably legally could be construed as murderers – and Minter-Brown is insensitive???) nor adherence to the rules.

    And when we start to attack each other rather than try and make something constructive come out of the tragedy of these and all the other deaths on our roads, then we are all just as guilty of insensitivity.

    I want to see ECR, Minter-Brown and McCarthy VW Umhlanga (here is an opportunity to show they deserve their reliable and good quality reputation), to get into a real round table dialogue and bring something better out of this. I dare them !! And Ben if ever your column and satire in general is sacrificed to the forms of humour that are fart or lavatorial jokes, or the cruder and insensitive forms of slapstick, then North Korea it is! Brilliant piece.

  6. Off you go to North Korea , that wasn’t satire that was a stupid attempt at making a point , however, I don’t think he should have been fired merely severely reprimanded .

  7. And what shall we do with all the carnage makers on the roads who make cycling an even higher risk sport than skydiving or downhill racing. If stupidity is a reason to be severely reprimanded than most of the human race should be in line for it. I just think all the parties involved could have come up with something better than lawsuits and claiming the moral high ground.

  8. I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Minter-Brown in Umdloti. He was charming and kind, intelligent and articulate, laced with a wicked sense of humor. He made me feel very very welcome and is obviously loved by his many friends. He spoke of his charity work with such love- I do hope some heads roll for such quick knee-jerk reactions to his comment.

  9. A brilliant article highlighting the rot that we have allowed to creep into SA society. Shame on you East Coast Radio and VW McCarthy.

  10. So what has been achieved :
    A good man vilified, a soft target who is expendable in this fight, who I hope is redeemed in some way – if indeed he wants this or needs any of our comments
    Heavy handed corporations who can pretend such self righteousness in bludgeoning this ‘disgraceful, insensitive’ person and showing him ‘who is in charge here’ and hide behind the company
    Two deceased cyclists and many more who appear to have been ignored/forgotten in this situation by self righteous paragons of virtue. If the Facebook gal mentioned used her obvious passion at the right target it might also make a difference
    Carnage makers – the real target – who continue to hold us all to ransom with their disregard of life and rights of all of us on our roads and who rarely, it seems, get to ‘pay back and make good’
    You could ‘make good’ here if all the parties would be ‘big’ enough.
    Come on guys – look at these responses !

  11. You have said it so well and are a master at your craft – drunk driving is the problem here and yet there is an arrogance amongst cyclists that cannot be denied although they will try… My heart is shattered for those who lost their lives, shattered completely, but I am annoyed that Kevin Minter-Brown said exactly what EVERYONE thought as they heard the news, even other cyclists and has now paid the price. Cyclists have perceived rights that overshadow common sense, safety and due caution and those who follow the “leader” are at risk and sadly now two have been killed. Kevin I am 100% confident that you were as distressed by this event as we all were and therefore really angry and made your point as strongly as you could. It had to be pointed out and you had the guts to do so and I do regret that ECR’s news reporting on the matter did not even highlight the scourge of drunk drivers on our roads – then again the reporter may have been a cyclist!

  12. Viva Ben Trovato! Viva! That pen of yours is mightier than all the King’s horses & all the King’s men gluing their honour tog ag.

  13. 1) I do think Minter-Brown was being insensitive … the overused phrase “Too Soon” refuses to leave my head when I think of this, BUT
    2) What a complete and utter over-reaction by organisations that are more concerned about their brand than the doing the right thing.

    As a cyclist I am not happy with Minter-Brown and believe he does not understand the basic fear we go through every time we go out for a ride, however, for him to be fired for expressing an (possibly ill-conceived) opinion is simply ludicrous. BTW, ironically that stretch of the M4 which is not designated for cycling, is relatively safe with a wide yellow line area which should keep law-abiding cars away from defenceless riders — hence the reason is is so widely used by cyclists.

  14. There is more to his dismissal than just his comment on FB. There are other incidents where he endangered lives while driving his branded ECR vehicle. But of course, only the incident on FB has been made public knowledge.

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