‘Your hair looks cool today’ – That guy in your Monday tutorial. Very acceptable. ‘I like your dress’ – Tinder guy. Far subtler than ‘DTF?’. ‘You slay me’ – The cashier at Ikea. 10/10. You never forget your rst ‘slay.’ ‘It’s that time to hunt’ – One of your fellow students. A completely unacceptable, different type of ‘slay’ reference, of which Beyoncé would not approve.
Nevertheless, this is the kind of predatory comment to which students at the University of Melbourne (and a plethora of other Australian universities) were subject on the now infamous (and thankfully no longer existent) Hotties of Melbourne University Facebook page.
This article does not aim to be trite. Cogent analysis scrutinising the social norms which allow such a page to exist has been made. By the time this article is published, Pledge Week will be a month in the past. The furore of public anger about the page will have died down. But the ideas behind Hotties of Melbourne University will not have – that, at least, is reasonably foreseeable.
Beyond education, shutting down pages, and writing about these issues, what can we do to improve this situation? What legal solution may we have? What reform can we make? Embarrassingly, the answer is that we can look to two past societies that have already done things better: One where a father could kill his daughter as a punishment, and another where white masculinity was the ruling power. That is, Ancient Rome and Apartheid Era South Africa.
Ancient Rome gave us many things: The Roads of the First Century, toga parties and (bear with me, I’m an art history student) arches. But they also gave us another gift we have yet to accept: Dignitas. Broadly, dignitas referred to status, worthiness, and the general esteem borne towards a person by grace of their position, and, at a stretch, humanity. In civil law, dignity was protected by the actio ininuriarum. This tort provided a cause of action for those who believed that they had been misrepresented, or whose dignity had been impaired or injured by another. While I doubt that this law was ever employed to shut down a Hotties of Pompeii graffiti wall, the central idea holds. Separately from a tort of defamation, there should be, in a society that cherishes the inherent humanity of each person, hot or not, a cause of action to combat injuries to dignity and restore an individual after embarrassment.
Receiving Roman-Dutch law from the Netherlands, the action ininuriarum lives on in South African civil law. In a notorious case, Kidson v South African Associated Newspapers Ltd, impairment of dignity was held to fall under the law of delict (the Roman law equivalent of torts) in South African law. We distinguish this civil offence of ‘false light’ from defamation in that it bears more on the wellbeing of the person, rath- er than their reputation.
In Kidson, the photographs of three young nurses were shown on the front page of a newspaper under the headline ’97 Lonely Nurses Want Boyfriends.’ One of the nurses, engaged at the time, argued that this was a misrepresentation – she was engaged and therefore, she said, was neither lonely nor in want of a boyfriend. Bear in mind Kidson was decided in 1957, and it perhaps did not occur to the court that there may be other justi cations for insult to dignity than that you were engaged, rather than that you were happily single/too busy nursing/didn’t appreciate the unrequested old-timey Tinder profile.
Nevertheless, Kidson provided recourse for those whose dignity was insulted by the use of their identity or characteristics without permission, causing insult to the privacy of their personality.
This is something that Australian civil law fails utterly to protect. Now, this right is protected in the South African Bill of Rights entrenched in Part II of the Constitution. We rail against a bill of rights. In Cape Town, Hotties of Cape Town University Facebook Page accompanied by inappropriate comments encouraging sexual assault would give rise to innumerable suits. In Canberra, a similar page would give rise to a request to remove the page, but not tortious remedy would be available to victims, whose human essence, their dignity, has been injured.
The broader social forces that produce young men and women who create pages like Hotties of Melbourne University need to be addressed, but the reality is that this will take generations, and society will never be eradicated of pests such as these. The responsible thing to do is at least to supply a Band-Aid to ease the pain of harm done to human dignity, and to show our disdain for these attitudes. If a society that fed people to lions for fun, and another that oppressed approximately 91% of its population can do it, so can we.