Western mores regarding sexuality unmask deep hypocrisy in conservatism. Facebook – buttressed by these mores and reflected by some state laws – this week told many South Africans that their ancient traditions were wrong and had to be suppressed.
Instagram, Facebook, Google and YouTube recently all removed or covered with warnings photos of the Swazi “Reed Dance.”
The dance is annual, festive and ancient among the Swazi peoples of southern Africa. The protest against Facebook and Google’s actions went viral this week, and early today Google relented, although only specifically with regards to the “Reed Dance.” As this is published, however, Facebook, has not yet done so. If the picture I’ve attempted to publish with this blog remains unsuppressed, then they will effectively have relented as well.
The protest was managed by a Swazi women who gave a forceful interview about her feelings to one of South Africa’s leading newspapers, yesterday.
The Reed Dance is an ancient Zulu/Swazi ceremony intended to preserve the chastity of young girls just emerging from puberty. Annually they mass in the thousands on the grounds of their ancestral king, beautifully adorned and carrying tall reeds, but without any clothing from the waist up.
The Swazi ceremony has been performed annually for as long as anyone can remember, and continually into the most ancient Swazi oral histories. Neighboring South Africa is far more developed than the little mountain kingdom country of Swaziland, and the practice among South Africans died out more than a century ago. It was reintroduced in 1991 by the titular king of South Africa’s Zulus as a ceremony to promote HIV awareness and prevention.
The point that Nobukhosi Mtshali wanted to make, however, when she suddenly found herself a student at one of South Africa’s best universities in Johannesburg, was that nudity does not carry the sexual innuendoes in her culture that the modern world believes it does.
At numerous different traditional gatherings “at home I could walk around with my breasts uncovered. In Joburg, … we’ve been told that we have to cover up, that we are backward,” she told the Mail & Guardian.
Nudity has much less sexual meaning in primitive cultures than in modern ones, particularly in the tropical regions where people wear less clothes because it’s hot. Black skin — not linen shirts — protects people from skin cancer. Abercrombie ads in a global context are racist, and they are saturated in sexual innuendo yet were never suppressed by Google or Facebook.
Ms. Mtshali and her friends began a number of social media campaigns promoting their traditional practices. As soon as they started to gain considerable followings, Google and Facebook either blocked them or covered them with warnings about age appropriateness.
That, in turn, provoked a barrage of protests across the whole gamut of social media. Yesterday’s publication of Ms. Mtshali’s story appeared in practically every South African newspaper, and early this morning Google was the first to relent.
But Google’s reversal is specific to the Reed Dance. It’s not clear how much this will effect general policy.
The TV Yabantu YouTube channel was launched a year ago. Its backers describe their mission as “preserving cultural heritage”, a phrase that western social media platforms now use to trigger permission of content that they formally suppressed as lewd or inappropriate.
My survey of Yabantu this morning suggested that the many suppressions placed on it may now have been removed. But until very recently the channel was struggling against YouTube’s active and forceful suppression.
A week ago, Yabantu’s CEO Lazi Dlamini sent a letter to Google executives slamming them for “cultural chauvinism” and “eurocentric norms and practices”.
The protests going viral against Facebook and Google seem to be working. But these platforms’ reversals are likely to provoke an equal if not greater protest from the right and might even thrust these social media companies into the hands of aggressive state prosecutors.
This battle of freedom of expression is proof that conservative philosophy of “hands off” is hypocritical, because the suppression of these expressions comes entirely from the right. It’s the quintessential example of the right destroying itself with its own ideas.
I’d love to see a tweet from King Trump.