media

Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

web-tacugama-chimps-groom

Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

*

Published in The Times

Things fall apart. But they also fall in love.

black-mirror-rosling

You probably haven’t heard of Hans Rosling. That’s because he’s trying to cheer you up.

The retired Swedish professor calls himself an “edutainer”, a necessarily pandering label in our vigorously anti-intellectual age. If he introduced himself more accurately as someone who does interesting things with statistics about humanity, he — see, you’ve glazed over already. So “edutainer” it is.

Rosling’s visual representations of our progress as a species are the sort of things that used to make TED talks quietly engrossing. When he speaks, people chuckle and raise their eyebrows. As promised on the bill, they are educated and entertained.

But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.

These are hyperbolic times so I’m hesitant to exaggerate too much, but, increasingly, Rosling looks like a lifeboat: small and dry (sometimes very dry, those wry Swedes), bobbing brightly on a sea of heaving despair.

In graph after graph and tweet after tweet, Rosling’s message is clear: most things are getting better. Our crawl out of the muck continues. Sometimes there are setbacks, but they don’t mean we have reversed our climb or started subsiding back into barbarism and despair.

Most things are getting better.

And yet you probably haven’t heard of Rosling, or Max Roser, or any of the other statisticians quietly chipping away at our vastly misanthropic assumptions.

It’s all there, for free, online: consolation, information, perspective, all a few clicks away. And yet it is Naomi Klein and John Pilger and George Monbiot whose grim ruminations are celebrated as “on point” reflections of the world. It is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with its almost pathological bleakness, that is hailed as an accurate vision of how things will soon be.

The reason for this rush away from hope towards misery is plain and a little depressing and, like all things, rooted in our beautifully self-destructive psyches.

Simply put, we don’t want to hear good news. We think we do, and we claim we do, but we don’t. And that’s because good news doesn’t make us angry. Bad news makes us angry. And anger feels so damned good.

Again, the official line is that we don’t like feeling angry and we want to kick the habit. Get off Facebook. Mute Twitter. Stop shouting at other drivers. Count to ten. But those are an addict’s self-deluding lies.

We crave anger because the world is confusing and loud and being angry makes you feel like there’s a plan; that you’re taking charge, if only of your emotions for the next ten minutes. And that feeling is addictive.

I’ve seen the addicts because I’ve been a dealer.

When I’ve written a thing full of spite and judgment they’ve come sidling up to me, murmuring praise. And then they’ve asked for more. More anger. More spite. A bigger hit. “You should write a thing about Zuma where …” “The problem with affirmative action is …”

Sometimes I’ve refused, and they’ve turned away bitterly and told me that I’ve “gone soft”, “become a libtard”, and they’ve gone to find harder, more dangerous stuff in darker corners of the internet.

If you’re properly addicted to anger, good news feels lame. No matter how good it is, it just can’t compete with the deep-exhaling, eyes-rolling-back dark ecstasy of a report that makes you instantly, deliciously, angry.

I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be peachy. That’s not what the likes of Rosling and Roser and Stephen Pinker are saying. But I am going to remind you that doom-mongers also have to pay mortgages.

I’m also going to ask you to try a little experiment I did this week.

The idea came from relationship- and sex writer Dorothy Black. I was making some gloomy, hugely generalised pronouncement on geopolitics in 2017 when she asked me why I was winding myself up over bad things that might not happen. Wasn’t it more useful — or at least healthier — to think about the good things that would definitely happen?

My immediate response was Scrooge-like. What good things would definitely happen? Well, she said, the good things that happen every day, somewhere in the world.

And so we started listing them. Not dreams or wishes but the actual blessings, great and small, which occur all the time, lighting up the world like fireflies, here, then there. Statistically verifiable joy.

Which is how I know that in 2017, every day, millions of humans are going to fall in love for the first time; truly, madly and deeply.

Millions will find a treasure they’d lost; remember something lovely they’d forgotten; begin an adventure.

Every day of 2017, millions of people will hear words they’ve longed for: “You’re hired”. “I love you”. “Mamma”.

And I know that over the next few weeks, many millions will find the deep, consoling pleasure that comes from switching off the internet and rediscovering the world as it truly is.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

I’m stuffed

home_onaout

This week, a man logged onto Facebook in a state of existential dread and shyly asked the world to comfort him.

He had read a report, he explained, which revealed that Queen Elizabeth II was going to punish the US for electing Donald Trump by revoking its independence. He was alarmed about the consequences of this action. Could it mean nuclear war?

Someone tried to tell him that it was satire but he wasn’t reassured. What if it wasn’t satire?

I found myself surprisingly affected by him. His question had been asked with such polite fragility that I couldn’t bear to think badly of him. Instead, I saw an anxious human left exposed by his parents and the education system that failed to make him literate. I saw a frightened person asking for help because he’d been given substandard tools and they had broken.

I think I also saw myself. In the last week I’ve also asked questions that probably sounded naïve and uninformed to people who read events better than I do. I’ve also found myself struggling to form a coherent opinion. And at the end of it, I’ve had to admit that I know very little about the stuff that is alarming me.

I know that the queen isn’t about to march on Washington, but I don’t know anything about the people who are. I don’t know what to think about the rise of the white right when less than a third of Americans actually voted for Trump. I don’t know why they keep calling their country the “greatest democracy” when half of them didn’t vote and the electoral college decided it all anyway.

At the same time I feel mentally constipated, over-full of waste. Then again, given my diet over the last few months, I’ve got nobody to blame except me.

Opinion – written, spoken, Tweeted, sprayed on walls – is intellectual junk food. It contains very little information, and, as last week revealed, even less insight. It also doesn’t satisfy. It leaves one malnourished, wanting more; and so you go back to the familiar glow of the screen and the welcoming architecture of your favourite websites. The staff are friendly and affirming. Good choice! Welcome back! Can I supersize that think-piece for you? Have you tried our new combo deal, where you get two despairing polemicists for the price of one, that is, for free? And don’t forget: all columns come with a bottomless cup of beard-stroking!

I gorged, and now I feel sick

The 24-hour news cycle has been stuffing us for years, but last week the McMusing came off the production line faster than ever. I gorged, and now I feel sick. Maybe that’s why so many of us have turned into news anchors, endlessly leaning towards the camera of social media and announcing: “This just in!” Perhaps when there’s too much empty-calorie information going down, it can’t be processed and it has to come up.

Still, a few indigestible bits remain with me. They won’t come up or go down, because they’re not lubricated by creamy sophistry or sense.

Some of what I saw was simply bizarre, like a black South African feminist backing Trump because “that bitch” had “rigged the primaries” against Bernie Sanders. The rest, though less surreal, were no less confusing.

I saw Democrats getting furious that democracy had produced the wrong outcome, and I saw pro-lifers calling for Trump’s murder.

I saw the white right mock frightened minorities for being “delicate snowflakes”, the same white right that had just flocked to the polls in fear because it had convinced itself that the richest, whitest and most Christian country in the universe was becoming a poor, dusky caliphate.

Least palatable of all, I saw again how easily one becomes used to a post-Trump world. I saw my own surrender contrasted in the shocked faces of the Americans. It was still all so new to them. Nobody on the left had ever seen a proper Banana Republic El Presidente take power. Nobody on the right had ever seen their fantasy come true; a pouting Rambo taking a flame-thrower to common decency and the greater good.

South Africans acted out horror or triumph, but the newness wasn’t there. That’s because we’ve already had our Trump moment. We’ve got used to being ruled by a women-hating, insular cabal of dodgy businessmen who promise hugely and deliver nothing but division.

Right now, though, I don’t know a damned thing, except that it looks like literally anything can happen in this whacko universe. So I’m calling it right now. Trump gets bored and resigns in a year. Mike Pence appoints Sarah Palin as his Veep. He wants to watch a cowboy movie for foreign policy tips and accidentally rents Brokeback Mountain. He has a stroke, and, at long last, America gets its first woman president.

Lame satire, right? Couldn’t happen, right? Guys? Anyone?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

And now for the weather report

sabc-weather

My grandfather was a quiet man.

An old knee injury and worsening deafness had made him withdraw to an armchair where he would read the newspaper, and although he was always glad to see his grandchildren, we sensed that we should not be too boisterous around the silent, dim house.

Still, he didn’t impose on the people around him. If my wild-spirited grandmother had started a game that degenerated into giggles, my grandfather would simply retreat rather than be gruff. If he listened to the radio he would keep the volume low, pressing his good ear to it instead of turning it up. If he needed space, he got up slowly and found it.

And yet, we knew, there was a moment, once a day, when we should be absolutely silent, and when my grandfather was fully in command of the house.

It usually happened at the end of lunch, although it’s possible that lunch had been planned to end at this precise moment. As my grandmother herded uneaten peas off plates, my grandfather would reach for his radio. A hiss, resolving into silence — and then three pips: the news was beginning.

The newsreaders chopped and changed, but all had the clipped diction and politely interested tone of the prewar BBC, that distinctively theatrical voice that provides the soundtrack to most of Western 20th-century history.

These days, anchor-people are trained to emote. Their faces become stern as they break bad news, and then brighten and soften when they move on to an insert about a corgi that saved a squirrel from a drain.

No such human frailty was tolerated on the BBC, or on the old SABC. The tone remained resolutely uniform, whether reporting on the Nazi invasion of Poland or the winner of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Certain words linger from that time. In the mid-1980s, most bulletins featured euphemistic accounts of killing: “Swapo terrorists” were being “ambushed” in vast numbers. There was also the Inkatha Freedom Party’s leader, “Chief Mango-soothoo Boo-thill-easy”, who was regularly presented as proof that black people could be taught to behave. Every so often PW Botha would drop by, explaining why they would release “Nyalsin Mundeller” as soon as he renounced communism and promised not to seduce every white woman in the land with his killer dimples.

My grandfather would listen to all of this nonsense, eyes closed, impatient. And then, at last, he’d grab the radio and turn the volume all the way up. It was time. The moment he’d been waiting for all morning. The weather report.

A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows

It would boom through the house. Low-pressure cells resounded down the corridor. Patches of cloud howled above our heads. A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows. Nobody was allowed to speak. The weather, it turned out, was the most important news in the world.

I could never understand adults’ preoccupation with the weather. It seemed like a terrible waste of their freedoms. They were allowed to swear and talk about sex but instead they chatted about the impending cold front. They were allowed to watch whatever they wanted on TV but they chose to watch the weather forecast.

As I got older, it seemed increasingly bizarre. The news would sweep from geopolitics to new medical breakthroughs; plunge into human tragedies or soar alongside triumphs – and then it all ended with a short discussion of whether the wind was going to blow from the left or the right.

These days, however, I think I’m starting to feel the allure of the weather report. And I’m beginning to suspect that its appeal has almost nothing to do with the specifics of precipitation.

I don’t think my grandfather wanted to know that it was going to rain the day after tomorrow: he hardly ever left the house, and the suit and hat he wore most of the time suggested that he wasn’t planning to change his habits even if it did rain.

Rather, I think he was listening for the same reason that I like seeing a cold front sweep in a great arc towards Cape Town: to experience the gentle pleasure that comes from feeling very, very, small; of seeing yourself, clearly, as a glorified orangutan searching for a good banana leaf to crouch under until the rain passes.

You’ve probably felt it yourself: that almost sorrowful satisfaction that comes from standing in front of a vast landscape or seascape or skyscape; of being reminded that you’re a speck, and of understanding that that’s OK.

Because behind that 20% chance of showers is a 100% certainty that the sun will rise, the wind will blow, and yet another band of weather will roll in off the Atlantic. An average day, any time in the past hundred-million years. And that’s just fine.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

We’ve got a fake news problem

fake news

Screengrab from ‘Eyenews.co.za’

A man gets onto a bus, opens his coat, and reveals wires and blocks of putty-like material.

As passengers stare, unable to reconcile the banal reality of the afternoon with the impossible arrival of a suicide bomber, the man, grinning bizarrely, shouts, “I’m going to blow myself up!”

Some passengers scream. Some begin to cry. The man continues to threaten, still grinning.

Just then a police car arrives and armed officers pile out, yelling orders and pointing assault weapons at him. He stops smiling and hastily takes off the bomb rig.

Frightened, he starts yelling, “It’s satire! The bomb’s not real! I’m doing satire!”

He’s deranged, right? Nobody could believe that telling a lie, without irony, subtext or humour, to cause fear and potentially trigger a violent response, could ever qualify as satire.

And yet that’s what I’m seeing, almost every day, on the internet.

The fake news pandemic has started in South Africa, and instead of calling it what it is — shouting “Bomb!” on a crowded bus, deserving swift and merciless retribution from the legal system — it is being excused as “satire” by people who clearly believe that satire means “making up stuff” rather than using irony, mockery or humour to point out the vices or wickedness of the powerful.

I’m not going to name the sites at the vanguard of this onslaught because I believe they need to be starved of oxygen. Also, you already know them: your friends have been posting them onto your Facebook feed, reacting to the news that Jacob Zuma has collapsed or that the DA has vowed to fire all black employees in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Of course, wildly fictional drivel has been a hallmark of the internet since its inception. The lunatic fringe, managing to be both as pedantic and prescriptive as a teenaged collector of superhero figurines and as vague and contradictory as a drunk uncle presenting his world view, has always lurked just a few clicks away. And it’s had incredible stamina: there are web pages about lizard people with a longer and prouder history than the Huffington Post. Sometimes with better reporting, too.

The problem, though, is that that paranoid, endlessly creative creature has escaped from the zoo. It’s snuck into the suburbs and is breeding with your poodle. And the puppies are bouncing up everywhere.

For what it’s worth, I believe that South Africa’s current outbreak is more sinister than commercial click-baiting. I have a feeling that whoever is responsible is making a small fortune from clicks but a large fortune from powerful paymasters who have mandated them to muddy the waters with a campaign of intense, fairly co-ordinated disinformation.

a cacophony of competing whoops and screams

The timing of this upsurge might be coincidental, but I find it interesting that we’re starting to doubt everything we read online just as the ANC loses support by its largest margin ever. After all, if you can’t control the national conversation any more, surely second prize is to turn it into a cacophony of competing whoops and screams in which nobody can be right and, therefore, nobody can be wrong.

The media, too, must carry plenty of responsibility for the current crisis of authenticity. The whole thing was holed below the waterline the moment news organisations began reporting on celebrity gossip as information worth knowing. (The Kardashian-Industrial Complex is what happens when people who know better give people who don’t know better exactly what they think they want.) The moment you know your preferred news organisation is publishing “stories” cooked up by PR gurus, doled out to lackey publicists, and then “leaked” to completely undiscerning news wires, how can you fully believe its front-page exposé on some political scandal?

I don’t know how the South African media industry is going to put the fake news genie back in the bottle. Draconian laws around news production will inevitably be used against legitimate journalists by a government desperate for an excuse to gag independent voices.

But we do have a problem, and we need to be aware that if we don’t tackle it, we’re going to find ourselves in an appalling national crisis. With news even partially discredited, we’d never believe reports about the next Nkandla, or the next Marikana, or the results of the next election. We’d be lost, adrift in a typhoon of noise and contradiction and hearsay, without a clue where we were or which direction we needed to go to find salvation.

When you print fake banknotes you go to jail because you’ve undermined trust in your country’s currency, and without trust in its inherent value, money becomes worthless. Fake news should be treated exactly the same way. Counterfeit information undermines our faith in our institutions, in our news gatherers, even in each other. Worse, it undermines our faith in our own critical faculties. And once we lose that, we’re done.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

After the fact

Zuma condition

It’s been a hell of a year.

Not only has iconoclastic artist Ayanda Mabulu been shot to death for painting rude pictures and Malia Obama enrolled at a Limpopo university, but Julius Malema has vowed to kill gay people and Jacob Zuma has revealed that he has a powerful sexual appetite for young women caused by a medical condition.

None of it was true, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter to the thousands of South Africans who shared those stories online.

Journalists are warning that we have entered the “post-fact” era, and, tired of being left behind global trends, South Africans seem determined to be in the vanguard of the new wave of completely fabricated news.

I must admit that I’m slightly hesitant to announce the end of the factual era, mainly because I’m not sure it ever started. I like an empirical measurement now and then, and it’s pretty important that we know when to plant crops and how to ward off gangrene. But you’ve got to admit that the history of our species is one long, glorious fiction, punctuated with a few alarming discoveries.

Once you’ve made it past the fact of your birth, and figured out how to co-exist with the fact of being a social animal, you’re likely to encounter only one more fact: death. The rest is an almost miraculous negotiated fantasy.

For example, let’s consider an idealised newspaper, printed early one Sunday morning in the golden era of “factual”, pre-internet, pre-Trump reporting.

Casting your eyes over a mass of tiny black marks on a white page – each of which has been agreed to represent a certain sound, which itself has been agreed to convey a certain agreed-upon meaning, you encounter reports about national news.

This “nation”, is, of course, an invention — a large group of people corralled inside an imaginary line called “the border” — while “news” is carefully curated fiction, selected for its power to keep certain fictions spinning along.

Turning the page, you reach the financial section, discussing an invented store of value, a trading tool called “money”.

Finally, sport: an odd pastime in which arbitrary physical jerks are reinterpreted as hopeful or exciting or consoling fictions.

Once you’ve digested this set of “facts”, you go back to your day: living in denial about how much imaginary value-store you have left in the non-existent vault you call a “bank account”; believing that your invented deity is more powerful than other invented deities; being suspicious of people from outside the imaginary border because their agreed-upon daydreams are different to yours and they might force you to replace yours with theirs…

fertile soil for barbarism

Of course, this approach is fertile soil for barbarism. If human rights are invented fantasies (and they are), then who is to say that they are more important than a despot’s desire to slaughter his enemies? If politics are a fiction (and they are) why should Donald Trump’s version of reality be any less acceptable than that of Bernie Sanders?

Well, I’m not a philosopher so I don’t have a concise or logically sound answer to those questions, but I do suspect that if we’re going to get anywhere in this collective dream of ours, we need to try to pin down a few basic assumptions.

One of these might be that some events are more harmful to us than others. For example, I have a sense that genocide is generally worse for everyone than peace, and that insular, bigoted, reactionary politics are generally more harmful to the forward-movement of a country than a more liberal approach.

In short, some fantasies need to be given more weight than others, and some “facts” need to be held dearer than others.

Proper journalists — trained to get as close to our agreed-upon truth as possible, with a sharp eye for manipulative waffle — are the keepers of that faith. And at the moment they’re in trouble. And yet, wasn’t that inevitable?

Our shared beliefs might be almost universal but they’re also shockingly fragile. An international border is a complex legal, political and military construct, but all it takes to obliterate it is a single step.

Likewise, ideas of fair play, tolerance and human solidarity are entirely helpless against some charismatic git shouting, “It ain’t so!” At the moment we all agree that the sun rises in the east, but east and west are fictions. If enough people repeated it on Facebook, trust me: the sun would start rising in the west.

So what’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but for me a useful start is to figure out which fictions are the least harmful to me and to the people I live alongside.

And perhaps it’s also worth remembering that marks on a page are just marks on a page. What they represent, well, you’d be surprised by how much of that is up to you.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Picking a bone with Woolies

dead rat

A few days ago I found a small piece of bone in a Woolworths sausage roll and was immediately faced with two choices.

The first was that I could remind myself that sausage rolls, like pies, are objects of faith. I eat them knowing nothing about what they contain. All I have is a mystical text, glued onto the side of the packet, which makes claims about cows or chickens I’ve never seen, and a general consensus among fellow-believers that I’m probably eating what I think I’m eating.

In this context, I could choose to see the fragment of bone as an affirmation of my faith; a holy relic, if you will, like the toe-bone of an apostle, giving me tangible proof that my belief was founded on fact.

I had evidence that something once alive had been pitched headlong into my sausage roll and I could munch on, content in the knowledge that I was eating a beast of the field or a bird of the air, both fed on mashed-up fishes of the sea. In short, I could do nothing.

The second option was to alert the media.

In most countries, stories about pies are relegated to page 9 of the local parish newsletter, just below reports on cake sales and barn dances. But in South Africa, “I found a Thing in my Woolies whatsit and I have a blurry cellphone picture to prove it!” has become a respectable sub-genre of mainstream journalism. Interviews are conducted. Victims recount the moment they peeled back the plastic lid of the salad and saw the frog or the vole or the crocodile or the bear. And then, because South African media take their readers seriously and treat them like adults, the story is filed under “Eew Gross Look A Cootie!”.

Yes, ordinarily I could have expected a media storm to erupt around me, but this was no ordinary week. The nation was still gripped by the news that a woman had found a mouse in her Woolies pie. My bone could never measure up to a mouse. (Yes I know that kind of innuendo is beneath both of us but I’m hoping this column gets filed under “Sex Stuff!” as well as “Eew Gross Look A Cootie!”)

Woolies apologised to the customer, and suggested that the roasted rodent had got into the pie at a fairly late stage of production (corporate speak for “It wasn’t us”) and was generally trying to convince us that it wasn’t taking the mickey and baking him in an oven.

It didn’t crawl onto the conveyor belt to have a snooze

Nevertheless, the story had the desired response. Because, of course, that mouse was put there. It didn’t crawl onto the conveyor belt, looking for a nice warm, empty bowl of pastry to have a snooze in, only to startle awake as it was showered with gravy.

I don’t know who keeps putting critters in Woolies food. Perhaps it’s some disgruntled employees who are bitter that their idea for tiny, bite-sized mouse schnitzels was rejected by management. Perhaps there is a group of anti-Woolies activists labouring under the incredibly misguided belief that a few crunchy surprises in a few meals will deter regular customers. I can’t believe that, though: nobody could be that stupid. Surely they’ve seen the industrial amounts of meat piled up on creaking shopping trolleys? Don’t they understand that Woolies shoppers love nothing more than driving a spike through a lamb’s corpse and burning it over a fire? These people are the Murine Inquisition! They’re not going to be put off by a mouse.

Because let’s be honest: the “gross” things that saboteurs keep shoving into our nibbles aren’t really that gross. They’re just animals, like the animals we’re already eating. It’s not as if we’re discovering feta-like cubes of human pus in the Greek salad or the eyeballs of orphans floating in our Winter Warmer soup.

I don’t want to preach or poop the party, but if you think a dead mouse in your pie or a frog in your salad is disgusting, may Pan have mercy on you if you ever see what happens on commercial farms or in abattoirs. But that’s another story.

No, if you really want to hurt an expensive food retailer, just confront shoppers with the thing they fear most: work. After all, Woolies already sells pre-boiled rice at a premium – and people buy it.

Any day it’s going to launch its new range of premium water that pours itself using a trademarked scientific breakthrough called “Gravity”. Or pre-chewed food: just put it in your mouth, tilt your head back, say “Aaah” and let it all slide down your throat.

So, hackers, forget the frogs and the mice. Just sneak in with some stickers that say “Requires a double-boiler and 30 minutes of chopping” and they’ll be bankrupt in a year.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.