Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Khama’s mankini saga about cyber-bullying and worse

Barrelfuls of ink and pixels have been spilled on the controversial picture depicting President Ian Khama but not enough of those raw materials have formed words and images that portray bigger-picture elements. The latter would be foundational to a more explicit recognition of the fact that ultimately, this story is about respect for the elderly, about human security, about cyber-bullying, about the vulgarisation of culture that is inspired by a declining empire. 

The culprit made an awful choice by making Khama his target because this is a man who is equipped with a lot built-in advantages: a cloud-clipping stature, a phalanx of arms-of-force agents who will ably rise to his defence on a moment’s notice and many more state resources at his disposal. Within days of the picture going online, the state’s super-sleuthing came down in flood and a short while later, a 33-year old Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) computer technician washed ashore at the mouth of the Okavango Delta, hands cuffed in a gleaming pair of prison bling as the catch wriggled inside a dragnet. Mission accomplished.

On a moment’s notice ÔÇô at least according to an account retailed by the press – a Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) plane winged its way to Maun for the express purpose of airlifting the suspect to Gaborone for what must have been an extraordinary interrogation session. Nothing that remotely suggests a happy ending is in sight and while a ‘keep-out-of-the-reach-of-idle-Third-World-technicians’ label may have been helpful, that thought has clearly not occurred to designers at IT companies that manufacture photoshop software.

To recap the sequence of events around this saga: someone either fearless or foolhardy used the new-age magic of photoshop to controversially reconstruct the president’s image and post it online. Naturally, the image and the dramatic arrest of the suspect hijacked an entire news cycle. In the past, photoshopped images of Khama (resplendence and dramatic pose in trendy hip-hop wear and a clean-shaven head) have been tolerated as a source of mild amusement. Not this time. The fearless/foolhardy photoshopper had stripped the president (and supreme traditional leader of a principal president-factory tribe) to a “mankini” ÔÇô the unimprovably disjointed word being a portmanteau of “man” and “bikini.” In a sense non-lexical, the mankini is a somewhat disquieting revelation about a certain type of cologne-sodden, Game City-shopping urban man being keen on lingerie fashion.

By odd coincidence, elderly Batswana who feel insulted by the young express their outrage with a head-shaking “Ngwana yo o ntsotse ditswalo” which translates as “this child has undressed me.” That is probably the Setswana that people who were shocked by the photoshopped picture would have used to describe this incident, naming the parties involved and noting the tragic irony of the figurative shading into the literal. In this regard, Mankini is an insult on two levels.

Culture is an important element of human security, a paradigm that recognises the individual – not the state – as the proper referent for security. As the United Nation’s Commission on Human Security says, this type of security “means creating political, social, environmental, economic, military and cultural systems that together give people the building blocks of survival, livelihood and dignity.” Anywhere in the world, the elderly have pride of place in the chain of cultural custody and in Setswana, there is a long-held cultural norm that imposes the greater burden of intergenerational respect on the young. Mankini inverts this norm in a brazen manner and in so doing, presents a present human security threat. Elderly people transmit culture to the young and for such transmission to occur, the young must respect the elderly. However, in situations where the young don’t respect the elderly, the transmission of culture is disrupted and over time, such culturedissipates to the four winds.

On account of having only tenuous attachment to Setswana culture as a just declassified CIA report from the late 1980s didn’t need to remind anyone, President Khama cannot realistically be cast in the role of a culture transmitter. Symbolically though, it can’t be other than true to assert that with Mankini, the culprit has telegraphed a sentiment that he doesn’t accord a whole lot of respect to elderly people. A young person with such mindset is substantially less likely to learn from people he doesn’t respect and a society that legitimises disrespect for the elderly threatens long-established norms of social organization. This disrespect virtually ensures that structures of community and kinship break down and, as a result, that cultural knowledge cannot be transmitted. When that young person sees an elderly man, he imagines how he would look like in a photoshopped mankini picture. This art naturally evolves to a point where that one garment comes off completely. Adopted on a wide scale, this art endangers social and cultural cohesion which are crucial supports of human security.

There is a very dark corner of social media that has co-opted the soul and psyche of netizens who spend a deplorable amount of their waking hours stirring a witch’s brew of vulgarity, lies, bile, hatred, bigotry and cyberbullying with rapacious vigour. The Manhattans were reflecting on a sub-cultural practice of a saner era when they sang “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” In 2017, there may not yet be a hit house song titled “All Your Nude Pictures on WhatsApp” but that’s what’s up. Netizens of the corner in question are the ones that United States’ mixed martial arts prize fighter, Ronda Rousey, would have had in mind when she said, “People on the Internet are mostly evil.” If God ever decides to flood earth again, chances are that social media (an odd name for a largely anti-social platform) would account for two thirds of the reason for such divine motivation on account of the negativity that this media continually projects.

While the offending picture has spotlighted Khama, the real issue is larger him. Keep all the other facts the same but suppose that the photoshopped image was of an ordinary person named, say, Ordinary Person. On account of his stature, Khama will make news any time he is shown wearing a mankini but many more people are depicted in a host of unflattering ways.

Admittedly, after this incident – and for all the reasons one can guess, Botswana-based photoshoppers know better than to do anything that might result in them wearing a series of mortified expressions inside the gloomy confines of either a land or aerial DIS vehicle. However, before and after this incident, Mr. or Ms. Ordinary Person was and is still being subjected to cyberbullying, DIS transportation the furthest thing in the minds of culprits. The Mankini incident and what followed should be an incentive to think about protection that should be extended to non-presidential targets on social media. By limiting its activities to protecting Khama, law enforcement is failing all other citizens who are cyberbullied on a daily basis.

Generally, Botswana (which according to Nielsen has the highest Internet penetration rate in Africa) doesn’t have institutional architecture for responding to cyber-bullying and circumstances don’t suggest that one has reason to be hopeful. Following the publication of the offending picture, the Office of the President (OP) released a statement that is remarkable for what, given developments around this case, it implicitly promises. According to OP, Botswana has sufficient laws to govern the use and abuse of social and other media and that those laws will be used to protect the presidency and society as a whole. The reality though is that only one citizen in a nation of over two million people (the president) can be sure of such protection. Outside law enforcement, schools as well as non-governmental organisations (even those with specific focus on human and child rights) don’t have anti-cyberbullying programmes. While it is important to protect the sanctity of the presidency, there is also desperate need to protect the dignity of ordinary people, especially children. The fact that no charges have been brought against the photoshopper after almost six months, can only mean one thing: there are no laws to protect citizens against cyberbullying.

General lack of punitive response to cyberbullying, which obviously emboldens culprits, has crucial real-world consequences. In some parts of the world, the cyber-bullied have committed suicide or turned the tables on their tormentors through criminal ways.

The digital breadcrumb trail for this anti-social digital conduct leads to the United States where not too long ago, an otherwise innocuously-named painting (“Thank You Obama”) showed that now jobless Kenyan within a heartbeat of performing cunnilingus on a naked young woman. However, the context is important and it is this: the American empire is in free fall. One very good sign of that descent is the recent ascent of an ethically (some fear mentally) challenged man who routinely fails the most basic tests of humanity to the helm of its administrative superstructure ÔÇô the White House. Indeed, in its final days, the Roman Empire was led by a parade of Trump-esque leaders. The lesson from history is that when empires crumble, the quality of entertainment is severely degraded. The gory spectacle at the Colosseum in Ancient Rome intensified towards the last days of empire.

The same thing is happening in the US. One of the latest additions to the reality TV fare is a pornography version of American Idol – which is replicated in Botswana as My Star. In this particular show, old hands swim through rivers of body sweat – and much worse – to show greenhorns the slippery ropes of this Sodom-and-Gomorrah trade. In 2015, a Hollywood actor called Shia La Beouf installed a cubicle in a busy street and asked passersby to do anything to him in the name of art. To borrow a brand new American metaphor from a late-night comedy show that is based on alleged sexcapades of the country’s new president at a Moscow hotel, all the while this actor just sat there “as helpless as a damp Russian mattress.”

La Beouf’s art project was imitated by an American woman who also commandeered attention on a whole street. This woman asked men to weave their hands through her layers of clothing and perform on her, an anatomically invasive act that the US president has bragged about routinely performing on beautiful young women. Only in her case she gave permission for the men to Trump her. The point here is that on account of said decline of empire, there is a growing oeuvre of vulgarity that is supposed to be art. A certain type of mind that evidently doesn’t maintain a healthy perspective on cultural sophistication sees this as progress that has to be imitated.

The examples given may be anecdotal but an astonishing amount of multi-disciplinary scholarship meet the empirical threshold. Drawing parallels in a different context, Niall Ferguson, an economic historian who teaches at Harvard University, proposes that much like the British Empire in its dying days, the US is on its last financial legs.

At some point a certain section of Third Worlders will have to grapple with the jolting reality that they are imitating the worst of culture that is on life support and in turn, knocking one they inherited from their forbears off its axis by continually devaluing and vulgarising it. Granted, the latter is itself decidedly less than wholesome but it has lots of compensating balances that make it worth retaining. Those who keep the memory of another Khama (Seretse) pristine will recall the counsel he gave less than a lifetime ago about the folly of a nation that fails to safeguard its culture.

While the photoshopper drew a storm of denunciation, he also has his defenders who, drawing parallels with the west, make the argument that as an artist (satirist) he was merely exercising his freedom of expression. So do all the netizens who inhabit the dark corner of social media who see the dignity of those they victimise as less important than their right to use unprincipled and undisciplined social media power. The question is, should freedom of expression insult human dignity? Typically, the right in question is exercised with not even the slightest pause at the fact that the inspiration for the manner in which this right is exercised is an empire that is being hollowed out.

The claim about the photoshopper being a satirist itself is not strong enough to withstand the most basic accuracy stress-test. In any guise ÔÇö written, visual, staged, filmed – the mechanism of satire does more than make the straight look crooked. Satire contemplates life’s profoundest questions, communicates profound wisdom at a deep level and, at a point where it intersects with symbolism, does what Thomas Carlyle calls “concealing and yet revealing.” In plainer language, you need more than photoshopping skill, an Internet connection, a dirty mind and mean spirit to do satire.

The photoshopper’s characterisation as a satirist seems to presume an elastic definition of that designation because even by the most generous assessment, the offending image doesn’t work superbly as satirical work. As a snap-off version of earlier more original works,Mankini has the literary effect of an average Facebook post, lacks technical precision, doesn’t extend the lineage of creativity, expands neither human knowledge nor artistic enterprise and is in miserable conflict with the conventions of political satire.  There is legitimate expectation that satiric artwork should be granular and have socially redeemable merit. It is reasonable to expect the photoshopped image to have been a valuable expansion upon public discourse on Khama’s leadership. However, it merely distracted public attention away from mulling over ESP, eulogising the 5Ds Roadmap (RIP), fretting over EVMs and expending collective mental energy on an alphabet-soup of other issues of national importance. On that basis, Mankini has no artistic merit.

Ultimately, the only object that has been spotlighted is the creator himself and with so much light falling on him, what do you see? An artistmanqu├® with legitimate interest in visual satire or a maximalist provocateur whose countercultural instincts prompted him to indulge an appetite for rule-breaking and prurient entertainment at the expense of somebody else’s dignity? Mankini made Khama its focus but to that dark corner of the Internet, everybody is fair game.


Read this week's paper