Rampaging Bob Ellis and the irrational left: why progressives need to sharpen their debating skills

There’s been a lot of talk recently about men and women, and the various ways in which the former may or may not be continuing to oppress the latter. The furore that erupted last week over a questionably provocative blog post by  Australian writer, journalist, commentator and sometime Labor Party supporter Bob Ellis was only one part of a larger, worrying trend in which many on the broad left-wing have become less and less likely to encourage, support or defend rational debate – at least when it comes to highly charged, emotional, often endlessly complex subjects like gender discrimination, feminism and all their associated issues.

From the large amount of support received by fanatics such as anti-porn campaigner Gail Dines, incapable of justifying her views with calm and fact-based arguments, to the scorn heaped on prominent atheist Richard Dawkins after he sarcastically compared the complaints of a woman who was asked to a man’s hotel room for coffee with violent female repression in other parts of the world, a large section of the left seems intent on shouting their opponents down instead of winning the good intellectual fight.

But first, a little background.

Because men have had it pretty good for the last few millennia. Aside from some notable exceptions, those of the XY chromosomes have managed to maintain a monopoly on political leadership, artistic creation, military exploits, sexual power and, well, basically all the fun stuff. Up until the last century or so, men’s social hegemony (look at my academic learningz!) was complete.

But then, gradually, human beings of all persuasions started catching on to the whole enlightenment deal. The emergence of our modern, interconnected world led to greater and greater numbers of people, including the previously oppressed, being exposed to ideas that suggested things should not have to stay as they were. Our entire history of accumulated knowledge and philosophical thought began to bank up like peak hour traffic. And people started to get pissed.

Often using the enlightenment’s rational language of point-by-point debate, logical argument and appeals to both intellectual and moral consistency, activists fought and succeeded in winning new (and long overdue) rights for women, racial and religious minorities, the working class and, eventually, homosexuals.

My point here is that, while discrimination against these and other groups hasn’t disappeared, it has been greatly diminished. Moreover, because our intellectual realm has continued to grow, becoming even more crowded with the advent of social media, the public sphere’s time is now taken up more often with debating the nature of discrimination – whether it has actually occurred in a given context – rather than whether or not it should occur. This is undoubtedly a good thing, in so far as it represents a decline of those blatantly prejudiced attitudes toward the Other that were held by most people, in most parts of the world, until a very short time ago.

But the explosion in our ability to communicate ideas (or rant them) has also meant that real-world events, opinions and politics are often discussed in less and less rational terms by the very people who should be most keen to promote careful discussion of an issue’s complexities. And so we return to Mr Bob Ellis.

Last week, Bob ignited a storm of righteous indignation among the largely progressive inhabitants of my twitter feed after penning a rambling, incoherent and, as it turns out, highly successful left-baiting piece that asked the question, has wowser feminism gone too far?

Acting Punch editor and Adelaide journalist Tory Shepherd’s response summed it up nicely: “Valid question, wrong context.”

Ellis, known for his frequently less-than-sombre political shit-stirring, spent a large portion of the piece recounting a list of prominent left wing or progressive men brought down by accusations of sexual misconduct, the most recent being Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As Bob’s detractors were quick to point out, many of the men listed were, in fact, guilty of quite serious crimes, many had been dead for centuries and, furthermore, many lacked any objective claim to being labelled “progressives.”

However, blogger Rachel Power – perhaps unknowingly – put her finger right on the problem. “It’s barely worthy of comment, really. Except I, along with hundred of others, can’t help myself.”

What almost nobody, it seems, bothered to acknowledge or even notice, was that Bob Ellis had either been engaging in rather tasteless satire, anarchistic devil’s advocacy for the sake of getting a response, or was simply off his head. As a piece of serious written argument, or even logical commentary, it was ludicrous.

Respected Australian writer and journalist John Birmingham, at least, alluded to this in his characteristically witty and full-bore riposte, highlighting the “irreducible absurdity at the heart of his meandering exercise” by asking, if Ellis wants to blame feminism for the demise of so many left-wing men, “which school of this fractured, contentious philosophy and movement does he wish to indict? Second Wave Essentialism? Rabid Dworkinism? Third wave backlash. Or Esquire magazine’s favourite female liberation theology ‘Do Me’ feminism?”

But even his well reasoned and intelligently written contribution, along with Tory Shepherd’s offering, both of which acknowledge the complex nature of the issues involved, seem to be taking Bob a little too seriously.

As the final, 344th contributor on The Drum’s website wrote, before the blog was closed for comment, “This article makes no sense whatsoever unless either the author is senile, or is just trolling for reaction.”

Was good old Bob just trolling for lefties? Maybe. But the chest-thumping crusaders who arrived to put Ellis back in his place made no mention of that possibility. They didn’t suggest it was tongue-in-cheek but then admonish him anyway for distastefully warping a serious topic and taunting the all-too-earnest left. They didn’t even raise (but then dismiss) the possibility it was satirical.

There were, certainly, plenty of bloggers and twitter commentators open to the idea that Ellis had finally lost it. But that was because of how much they hated what he wrote, taking it at face value.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the Ellis piece was puerile and unimaginative. I think it probably was meant as some form of satire. It just wasn’t very good. I certainly wouldn’t presume to give Bob Ellis credit for wanting to expose the lack of rational depth rampant within the current left-wing twitterverse and blogosphere.

(And society generally. But I still consider myself a member of the left and cleaning house should always begin, not unreasonably, at home.)

Because whatever his intentions, that’s exactly what it did. Instead of either dismissing the argument as incoherent and not worthy of comment, or even better, engaging in some more complex explorations of the possibilities I’ve listed, the vast majority of contributors to this debate-explosion chose to assault the Ellis argument head on, because that is how it served them best.

Taken at face value, it was the perfect straw target against which activists and commentators on the left, both amateur and professional, could flex their indignant muscles and demonstrate just how crazy and bigoted and outdated some people are when it comes to progressive issues like gender equality, or being opposed to abuse of power.

In itself this wouldn’t be so much of a problem. We all need to let off steam, right? The broad left-wing community is entitled to take a few moments and shoot down such a contentious, provocative and deliberately obtuse piece of writing. We’ll get on with addressing the serious issues of when, how and why people are oppressed across the world, in complex and nuanced ways, the next day.

Except there’s a pattern emerging of badly reasoned left-wing responses to conservative provocation.

“There’s more to these issues,” I hear you say. “They’re more complex.”Nonsense! Just look at Bob Ellis! We’re still fighting the same old fights. No need to ask questions here.

And don’t even think about mentioning Gail Dines.

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