Australia’s enthusiastic community of political commentators (both amateur and professional) erupted tonight on Twitter, over the apparent mistreatment of MP Kate Ellis on the ABC’s panel discussion program Q&A. A majority of comments either directly alleged, or strongly implied, that sexism was motivating the panel’s three men to excessively interrupt Ellis because she is a woman. Host Tony Jones got dragged into the dock for apparently failing to moderate debate effectively, again with an implication of gender bias.
Commentary on the actual, substantive issues being discussed (however rudely or rowdily) was replaced by immediate accusations of misogyny. This linked conveniently with the recent downfall of right-wing shock-jock Alan Jones over his indisputably outrageous comments about Prime Minister Gillard’s father having “died of shame”. In a scintillating play on the irrelevant coincidence of their names, some on social media even suggested that Tony and Alan, our two Mr Joneses, were “beginning to fuse into the same … horrible little men”.
While I certainly agree that we could use far more civility and respect in public discourse, the question of what motivates rudeness or “buffoonery” (as Clementine Ford dubbed it) in any given case is much trickier. Words like “sexism” and “misogyny” are laden with implications and should not be used lightly. This isn’t to say we should abandon discussions about whether-or-not and to-what-extent sexism (and other forms of bigotry) still exist in our society. Of course they do, and not only in overt ways. There may very well have been elements of misogyny present on the Q&A panel – certainly Piers Ackerman has some very strange and badly argued views about a whole range of issues and individuals, so why should women be any different?
The problem, however, is that charges of misogyny are very difficult to substantiate when they relate to a person’s motivation for their behaviour, instead of the behaviour itself. The male panellists and host were not, it would seem, being criticised for their rudeness per se. Rather it was on the assumption that being rude, in this instance, was motivated by underlying gender bias. But interruption, obfuscation, and frustrating disregard for the factual basis of a discussion are part-and-parcel of most political discourse, including Q&A. How then do we distinguish the interruptions of Kate Ellis by two political opponents and one former colleague with an (admittedly convincing) grudge to bear against her current party – how do we distinguish between that allegedly misogynistic behaviour and the equally frustrating interruptions of Kelly O’Dwyer against Tanya Plibersek two weeks before on the very same program? Indeed, Plibersek herself interrupted O’Dwyer on more than a few occasions. However, my sympathies were most definitely with our Health Minister because the arguments she was listening to were so factually dubious and substantively baseless.
And there’s another thing. How do we decide when it’s proper to let the other person have their say, if they insist on manipulating the situation to steam roll over us with dubious rhetoric instead of engaging in clear, rational, point by point debate? I’m not suggesting this applies to what Kate Ellis was saying. Indeed, she appeared to be one of the more composed, cogent members of that panel. What I am saying is that questions of interruption, rudeness and civility in public debate are themselves not quite so clear as we might first assume – before we even reach the social and cultural minefield of labelling or defining internally held biases. Of course none of us (or at least, almost none of us) believe that women should be denied opportunities or treated in exclusionary ways simply because they are women. We all (or at least, most of us) oppose sexism and misogyny. But these words are too often deployed in cavalier fashion, without any regard or even awareness of the complex and contested meanings they represent.
The same can be said of that endlessly contested ideological and political framework, which underpins this entire discussion – “feminism”. How often have we heard debate about what it means to be a feminist; why men have no right to lecture on the meaning of feminism or why their inclusion within feminist causes is of the utmost importance; why this or that statement was anti-feminist, pro-feminist, offensive to feminists or an important rallying cry for them. In short, how often have we heard a multifaceted, ideologically loaded word like “feminism” deployed rhetorically as though it had some fixed, monolithic and self-evident meaning when the very multiplicity of its use proves that false? The various waves and schools of feminism have fought over control of the word for decades, if not centuries. But for too many women and men today, it seems to be something like a shortcut to ideological legitimacy and rhetorical victory, rather than part of any well-informed discussion about social or identity politics.
Spontaneous online reactions like the one that occurred after tonight’s Q&A all too often deploy just this kind of rhetorical approach in their use of emotive, ideologically charged words like “misogyny” without any qualifying statements or attempts to pin down just-what-they-mean-by-that. They come from people who are supposedly engaged with politics and concerned with promoting substantive, complex discussion of important social issues. What troubles me is that so little complexity seems to enter or inform their comments. Claiming to oppose the buffoonery of public discourse, they become merely another part of it.