On April 16, Sky Plus radio presenter Alari Kivisaar made off-color jokes about a rape case in Uganda, causing a public outcry. Public sensitivity was already running high: a week before that, Tallink group's human resources director Vahur Ausmees suggested women on the company's ferries should curb their drinking if they didn't want to be sexually assaulted. Focusing on the Kivisaar case, gender equality specialist Hille Hanso writes on controversial humor and being flippant about serious crimes.
On the morning program of an Estonian radio station, presenter Alari Kivisaar seemed to think it was all fine and well to joke about the female members of the Ugandan running team, whose coach is accused of abusing his position and raping the women. Kivisaar said that the coach could have been right in doing so: “if the private parts of the woman have expanded, their legs move faster.”
He said: “Maybe he [the coach] was right: maybe they [the victims] did start to run faster. When you're an athlete, sports is everything for you and you are willing to do anything for it, sacrifice anything and a small quickie is no big trouble at all [...] Athletes do all kinds of wonders, don't they, eat and inject, groom and rub [...]. Maybe it's much simpler! There's no need for dosing or God knows what... messing around with hormones – a little quickie before the competition, it opens up all the necessary bits and they go like greased lightning,” he said on the air, thinking he had made a good joke.
The statement quickly became a subject of discussions, with many people finding it offensive. The statements of the presenter were considered jarring and insensitive and a letter, which was signed by hundreds of people online, was sent to the management of the radio station. The signatories thought that rape is not a subject that can be made fun of in public. Violence against women is a serious problem in Uganda; however, this alone was not the reason for the outrage.
Rape is a serious crime in any context, it has grave consequences for the victim. Suicidal tendencies among rape victims increase, not to mention other long-term mental and physical problems. However, Kivisaar stood his ground: “We got a letter. We get letters all the time. There is always someone who doesn't like something. There is always someone who doesn't get a joke. It is a natural part of our job,” Kivisaar said in a telephone interview with the website Publik.
Is rape good "material"?
This case sparked discussions over what can be considered a good joke. Naturally, jokes that test boundaries and black humor are common in our cultural sphere. Kivisaar's defenders said that there have been jokes about deportations, and in the Tujurikkuja sketch show (link has English subtitles) on Estonian Public Broadcasting of all places. Why not one joke about rape then, the thinking goes, perhaps. Tsk tsk, everything can be joked about, no need to be so sensitive?
I doubt that the hundreds of people who voiced their outrage have no sense of humor. The letter was signed by many people linked to media, presenters and opinion leaders. The majority thought that it was a case of insensitive jeering and the presenter crossed the line, pulling a real life “Uncle Heino” (another skit from the same Tujurikkuja show) instead of a good joke. The bad joke is not the issue here, it is the promotion of the specific, rather widespread meme “I was only...” that justifies rape.
Besides, deportations are our collective history, a thing of the past. Yes, it is a bold move to make jokes about it and one cannot assume that it will not hurt anyone's feelings. However, rape could have well been experienced by a listener the very night before when Kivisaar thought it wise to joke about the “quickie” in the morning. Sexual violence is still a relevant and serious problem today.
Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to insult and spew all kinds of nonsense without giving it some thought. Statements that disparage, insult, violate human rights or justify criminal behavior are not freedom of speech and one must take responsibility one's statements. Why should anyone have the right to irresponsibly come up with humor that is intimidating, portrays violence as funny or justifies it? It is so repulsively callous.
Do you know anyone who has been raped? Have you been raped? Was it funny?
Advertising buyers should stop and think about where they take their advertising money. Advertisers also have a say in what fits into their ethics and what does not. If I were buying advertising time from Kivisaar's employers, I would give some serious thought to whether my product or service fits this kind of lowbrow world or whether my company wishes to set a social example.
With speaking in public comes great responsibility
It had probably slipped the presenter's mind at that moment that he has a large audience and many fans. Not all of them may have the same “good” sense of humor. On the contrary, many listeners may be encouraged by the star's words to act violently. Nothing wrong with a little “quickie," eh?
The presenter's reaction was also a surprise. From someone working in communications, one would have expected at least some kind of an apology following the letter, something in the lines of “yes, it did cross the line, maybe someone was hurt and actually, rape is obviously not justified in any context.” No. In the next program, it was noted ironically that “now we have to watch it for a while, who knows what groups will go on the offensive, whose brain will shut down.”
The management of the radio station has still not responded to the letter. Coarseness and vulgarity is legitimate and cool, doesn't even merit a response.
The letter was not an attack on the presenter, it was made with the aim to offer protection and security or at least moral support to those who have become victims of sexual violence or could potentially become victims. Is it so difficult to understand that rape should be condemned precisely to make people feel safer?
Hille Hanso is a gender equality specialist and women's rights activist. Translated from the Estonian-language original on uudised.err.ee