When human brands go wrong: The killing of Reeva Steenkamp and the trial of Oscar Pistorius

The killing of Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in Pretoria and the arrest, bail hearing and forthcoming trial for her murder of Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius hold some valuable lessons about emotions.

While this is but a hearing to determine bail and there is so much we do not know, romantic love, emotional deception, emotional branding come together here.

Simulating emotions is not pretending

If Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp he is engaged in a high stakes act of emotional deception. But let’s be clear about what this entails. He is not simply lying or dissimulating, rather he is simulating innocence and hurt indignation. There’s a big difference between dissimulation and simulation. Baudrillard puts it like this:

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending: “Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces “true” symptoms? ((Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation; my emphasis))

If Pistorius is simulating grief and hurt indignation at being accused of her murder the very difference between the real and the simulated becomes problematic because it’s quite likely that he’ll produce some of their symptoms. The symptoms—such as tearfully breaking-down—may be real, but the emotions behind them may not be authentic.

One needs to be there in person to distinguish between the real and the simulated in Pistorius’s testimony. The police can study his face and look for ’emotional leakage’ of his underlying emotions. Some things, however, are more visible from a distance and his affidavit to the court is one of them.

The Text Bridges of Pistorius’s Affidavit

Emotional deception, then, is not pretending. Nor is it simply lying.

Guilty defendants who protest their innocence seldom lie outright, because they know that false information can be found out. Instead they omit incriminating information from their statements. Their narrative will tell the truth up to the point where they want to conceal something, skip over the incriminating information and continue telling the truth until the next need to conceal. They use words and sentences—known as ‘text bridges’—to do this.

Words such as ‘then’, ‘after’, ‘although’, ‘because’, ‘before’, ‘while’ connect happenings but also create convenient time gaps.

We all use text bridges, usually to omit details that are not central to what we want to say; conversations would be very long otherwise. But the guilty use them to be ‘economical with the truth’.

Pistorius’s statement warrants careful reading for signs of text bridges. Consider this for example:

On the 13th of February 2013 Reeva would have gone out with her friends and I with my friends. Reeva then called me and asked that we rather spend the evening at home. I agreed and we were content to have a quiet dinner together at home. By about 10 p.m. we were in our bedroom. She was doing her yoga exercises and I was in bed watching television. My prosthetic legs were off. We were deeply in love and I could not be happier. I know she felt the same way. She had given me a present for Valentine’s Day but asked me only to open it the next day.

After Reeva finished her yoga exercises she got into bed and we both fell asleep.

It seems innocuous enough, but wait a moment.

Why did she want to see him that night, rather them both see their friends? All we have is a ‘Reeva then‘. But this ‘then’ doesn’t make sense.

‘By about’: what happened before 10 pm?

Why does he feel the need to say ‘My prosthetic legs were off’? This becomes evident later.

At the very point where we would expect more detail, after this detail about his legs, what we get is his statement of their love for each other and an appeal to the sentiment of Valentine’s Day.

This seems to be offered as an emotional get-out-of-jail card. ‘If I love her, how could I harm her?’ She even, he tells us, ‘died in my arms’. But many a woman has been harmed or killed by a man protesting his love for her. It’s practically obligatory. So this is hardly reassuring.

His feelings for her should be written on his face, not in his statement to the court.

Finally, ‘After Reeva finished her yoga exercises she got into bed and we both fell asleep’. One doesn’t have to be prurient to expect behaviour other than that in a couple madly in love.

Happy but scared

These details may be missing, but Pistorius does, however, go to great lengths to tell us of his emotional state. He may have been happy, but he was scared.

‘ I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.’ ‘ I was too scared to switch a light on.’ ‘It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet.’

‘As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger.’

Even with a gun in his hand, ‘I was still too scared to switch on a light.’

His statement and performance seem scripted

His declaration of love (and his presumptuousness in speaking of her love for him) points to another characteristic of the guilty: they seldom include negative details in their narrative of events. This is the case here. There is good and bad in all relationships, even young ones. But not this one, apparently. There is no mention of her mood, what she wore, what she said. In fact, there is no mention of any kind of interaction between them that night at all. It is as if they were two strangers, together.

If you are innocent you are confident enough to allow some potentially incriminating evidence into your statement. The truth, as they say, will set you free. But not here. His statement and his performance in court seem scripted. They are calculated to elicit a particular reaction in those who witness them, rather than an honest declaration confident of being judged.

Where have we experienced this sort of thing before? I will tell you: in the all-pervasive world of emotional branding.

The Pistorius Brand

It is well known that Pistorius features in emotional marketing campaigns by corporations such as M-Net Movies, Nike, BT, Thierry Mugler, Oakley, and Ossur, the Icelandic firm that makes the prosthetic carbon fibre blades he wears for races. For this, he is paid handsomely.

But Pistorius himself is a brand—just as Tom Cruise, Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey are brands. Like all human brands, he embodies an emotional persona sustained by a visual and literary narrative connecting him with consumers. Ironically, given his statement to the court, the Pistorius brand embodies courage and self-control in the face of adversity. It’s a rare enough attribute to have made him a rich man.

Though some are, you don’t have to be talented to make a good living as a human brand (Pistorius is, Kardashian is not). You just have to connect emotionally with consumers and, to preserve the illusion, never step out of ‘character’. What works on consumers may also work on judges and public opinion. This may explain his emotional demeanour before this court.

_65920546_pistoriusOn Pistorius’s back is tattooed his brand’s message:

Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

The words are from Corinthians (9: 26-27), written by Paul. The lesson is self-discipline. The model is Paul himself. The ‘race’ Paul means is the cause of Christ. He runs for an ‘imperishable crown’, a heavenly reward.

Self-discipline for Pistorius is the undoubted and enormous strength of will necessary to make himself a world class athlete in spite of his lack of legs beneath his knees. But athletics is commodified and the athletes are too. Once you take the money of the brands that becomes the prize and you tailor your emotions to that end. One wonders, to what effect?

The emotions one projects and the emotions one actually feels do not always coincide. How much and what kind of emotional labour did Pistorius have to perform to sustain his brand? Where does Pistorius the person end and Pistorius the brand begin? Is there a distinction between them any more?

Finally, watch Pistorius in this Nike ad, ‘‘My Body is My Weapon. This is How I Fight’.

It’s been withdrawn, that’s true. But it’s been withdrawn because it contains an uncomfortable truth.

Related links

SIMULATING IS NOT PRETENDING: OBSERVATIONS ON MAIREAD AND MICK PHILPOTT

HOW TO STOP RAPE: ‘JUSTICE IS A WOMAN WITH A SWORD’

WHAT WE CAN LEARN ABOUT EMOTIONAL DECEPTION FROM THE PHILPOTT CASE

READING FACES, INFERRING INTENT

4 thoughts on “When human brands go wrong: The killing of Reeva Steenkamp and the trial of Oscar Pistorius

  1. I have to say that, in reading the affidavit, it truly is those things that are left out that finger the guilt. Truly, someone who is in love to the extent that he professes does not simply go to sleep nor do you spend a Valentine’s evening apart (where the gf expressly states that she is looking forward to the evening). If there was something that happened that may have caused an issue should have been disclosed-why wasn’t it? What happened to bring them back together that night? What is missing? What is missing in the fact that he walked into the bathroom and fired through the toilet door-not the bathroom door, the toilet door. Not people actually know this-my husband didn’t and he has been following the case via twitter here in Canada since the beginning. It is a very sad case indeed where a celebrity can do something like this and instead of fessing up to the act of passion that drove him to perform such a horrible act, he has the opportunity to walk away from a horrible, horrible choice, or perhaps premediated act.

  2. There seems to be a default assumption of guilt when the perpetrator is a star. Is it fair to assume that branding, fame, glory, and privileged lifestyle confer automatic schadenfreude? It must be an exceptionally difficult task to wade through public scrutiny, biased fan support, and public cynicism to see a true verdict. He has been released on bail. That must at least speak to one judge’s uncertainty. I’m not ready to “go O.J.” on this athlete just yet.

  3. Brenda says:

    The man is the brand, but so was the woman. Part of human branding is believing you are what you project. They both project perfection so there can never be any disclosure of normal human trials and conflicts. He is living in an altered states of reality supported by agents, handlers and the public. I doubt he even knows what it feels like to be “off script”. “It’s a Barbie World”.

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