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Oct 18, 2012

Keane: defining terms in the great misogyny conspiracy

Debating the meaning of misogyny is a distraction from the importance of how political debate has been altered.

As conspiracy theories go, it was one of the more amusing, if not exactly one of the grandest, not really up there with the Illuminati secretly controlling the world, or the shopping list of people who killed JFK: Julia Gillard had somehow engineered Macquarie Dictionary into changing the meaning of “misogyny”.

“Mate, just a heads up, I did that dictionary thing in England too,” Gillard’s communications chief John McTernan wickedly tweeted at Chris Kenny, former Liberal staffer, failed Liberal candidate and now one of The Australian’s, ahem, stable of old white reactionary men (News Ltd’s “become your readers” strategy in action).

If only talkback listeners hadn’t spent their fury on Tuesday railing about awarding Sachin Tendulkar an OAM, it could have blown up into a real storm: Convoys of No Confidence out to Macquarie’s offices at Sydney Uni, trucks stopped on Parramatta Road by the police, Tony Abbott speaking in front of “Ditch the Dict” placards, Sophie Mirabella leading an angry mob of OED-clutching seniors to Albo’s office again, the lot.

Word inflation is actually a thing, and not just in the sense that the few of us who know what decimate actually means have lost the struggle to prevent it meaning something more akin to annihilation. The worst example is genocide, a word that has been systematically devalued as a consequence of persistent rhetorical overreach by those eager to exploit the opprobrium that it brings, such that what should be the most extreme crime imaginable now means little more than casual racism or ethnocentrism.

So yes, words have meaning, and attempts to exploit that meaning for political ends should be guarded against. And yes, perhaps because s-xism doesn’t have quite the authoritative, almost sociological ring of misogyny, some have preferred to use the latter.

But what’s confusing is why Macquarie feels compelled to adjust the meaning when the chief figure in this debate, the Prime Minister, used the term accurately. First a start, there can be no doubt that calling her “Bob Brown’s Bitch” as carbon price protesters did, or drawing her as a grotesque dildo-wearing rapist as Larry Pickering did, is misogynist: it betrays a hatred not merely of Gillard herself, but of her gender. This isn’t casual s-xism that women in politics on all sides have long encountered, and still encounter.

But Gillard also directed her comments at Tony Abbott, and to reinforce them recited a number of quotes from Abbott over the years centring on reproductive choice and the role of women in politics.

These, again, reflect misogyny, not casual s-xism. To demonise women who choose to have abortions as “taking the easy way out” is misogynist, reflecting a mindset that automatically dismisses their right to make choices about their own bodies, choices that men of course never have to make, with consequences men never have to live with. And to suggest that women have less right to, and less capacity for, exercising political power (and more capacity for, say, doing the ironing) is, surely, the ultimate misogyny, suggesting the legitimacy of a systematic exclusion of women from government, a perpetuation of the millennia-old patriarchal political and economic structure under which women have been dictated to by men.

The real issue is whether Tony Abbott still holds such views, or would give effect to them if he became prime minister. I don’t think he does, at least in regard to the role of women in politics, and I don’t think an Abbott government would touch the issue of reproductive rights; in short, Abbott may have been a misogynist a decade ago, but he no longer is. Like all of us, or at least those of us with a functioning brain, he’s matured as an individual and a politician, even if he might still hold s-xist views on domestic labour.

But that’s more about the crafting and fairness of Gillard’s rhetoric than about the accuracy of her terminology.

And it’s all a distraction from the fact that, in giving voice to these issues so publicly and directly, Julia Gillard has taken political debate to a place in Australia to where it’s never gone before. That’s why the application of the term “gender wars” to this debate is so offensive. For a start, you only need to look at the experience of Malala Yousufzai to see what a real gender war looks like, and it ain’t that (word inflation, again). And it’s hardly a “war” to accurately point out the nature of the abuse to which the PM has been subjected, or the logic behind the comments of a politician.

Indeed, if there’s any “war”, to use the term in the silly sense that some are using it, it’s one that men have been waging, against women, successfully, for most of history.

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33 thoughts on “Keane: defining terms in the great misogyny conspiracy

  1. tinman_au

    I’m starting to get the feeling that there may be the beginning of a “Get the personal out of politics” type vibe in Australia (and even the US). I’ve seen a lot of posts/articles popping up all over the Internet recently with that as a theme ( heck, even Kevin Rudd seems to be on-board ).

    Can’t wait personally, we may even end up with some good policy coming from both parties for a change!

  2. zut alors

    A valid argument, Bernard – I now feel slightly less annoyed about the word being re-defined.

    Sport journalists are primarily responsible for undermining and abusing the English language with their exaggerated terminology – frequently using nouns and verbs of war or violence to describe what is, after all, merely a game.

  3. elknwit

    Fair dinkum Bernard to seriously argue that Abbott is or was a misogynist because of his views on abortion is not just offensive to him but grossly offensive to many women and self evidently absurd. By that measure all those women – and there are plenty whether we like it or not – who oppose abortion as the “easy way out” are misogynists – -ie., they hate their own gender and themselves! Beyond that absurdity that is a discgraceful insult to a very considerable body of WOMEN and their opinions (not mine, I hasten to add, but that’s not the point). Abbott probably was and still is an old style sexist but to infer a hatred of women from the examples you cite is a grossly offensive and unwarranted slur on him and many women which you should withdraw for the sake of your credibility, if nothing else.

  4. paddy

    To Decimate: Condemned to lose one’s shoe on every tenth photo opportunity.

  5. klewso

    We could boycott the Maquarie River too?

  6. klewso

    Abbott continues to mature as a politician – till his next faux pas.

  7. drmick

    She nailed him for what he was, and for what he is, whatever word you or anyone else like to use; The “press”, for want of a better term, is still trying to justify missing the point that the rest of Australia and the world picked up; the fact that he and the “press” have a lot of trouble coping with a woman in power; (for want of a better term), and are incapable of separating her gender from everything they attempt to distort, sorry, report. (Distort was the appropriate term). The Australian press remains the biggest joke the world has had since the AAA crdit rating all the credit ratings agencies were giving junk bonds.

  8. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    A very f̶u̶l̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶, ah, full throated defence of the PM and women Mr Keane.

    Well done.

  9. Liz45

    Funny how the argument was changed from the disgraceful treatment Julia Gillard has had to cop; her absolute patience in remaining silent for at least two years, and how she had the gall to even put a name or names to the treatment? This is only reinforcing misogynist attitudes! Even now she’s being denied the right to an opinon. Even now she’s being criticised for not ‘sucking it up’ ‘getting over it’ ‘taking the argument off the economy – or cost of living or the weather….?’

    Why don’t the critics really let it all hang out. Why don’t they tell her she’s ‘a naughty girl’ and to go and get a hankie! Honestly, I’m getting sick to death of this!

    IF Abbott sits across the table from her and tells her to ‘shut up’? If he catcalls across the table, he’s not only being damned rude, he’s just confirming what the PM accused him of! Then, it was only a few years ago where he spoke in an abusive manner to Nicola Roxon at the Nat.Press Club. He didn’t apologise to her for his 30+ minutes lateness, he abused her for having the damned cheek to feel slighted?

    He’s made the comments as accused – I’ve heard them. I’ve listened to his speeches about RU486; the right of women to decide what they’ll do with their own bodies; his voting against foreign aid for impoverished women and contraception education and abortion advise etc. He sums up the voting women of Australia via their ironing abilities. He patronises women. He calls them ‘dear’? Yuk! He’s gross! He made mileage out of the ‘son’ he thought he’d found – used him and his own weak and selfish stance as a tool to further his anti choice campaign? Then he fell right in it when he was found out to not having fathered that young man! How gross! He showed no concern for that young man, and even less for his mother! How gross indeed! the man has the sensitivity of an ant. He lashes out against anyone who stands in his way (now it’s JG) and shows a lack of respect, dislike even for women. Just because he’s married and has daughters means not a thing! The very fact that a 50 yr old man needs his ‘wifey’ to take up his appeal is so revealing, and it’s not good! Where were the younger members of his family? His daughters? Ahem! Interesting, don’t you think!

    The women in the Opposition have shown their own despicable attitude to their own sex. Sophie Mirabella and Bronwyn Bishop stood beside, in front of those disgusting placards, with gleeful grins on their faces. Where were all the decent men and women when they received those disgusting emails of Larry Pickering’s? Not one word? And, they didn’t take advantage of JG’s speech to mention them either? They’re just as bad!

    The fact is – that over the years there have been some pretty ugly slanging matches in the Parlt, but not in relation to a person’s gender.

    AND, why haven’t journalists made the observation, that IF Abbott behaved in the manner JG described, he should’ve made a public apology – there and then! THEN I might agree with you Bernard, that he’s mended his ways! He hasn’t! He just went home to ‘mummy’ (his female colleagues) and got them to come out swinging! Hiding behind their ‘skirts’? Some man! NOT!

    Not ONE person in the Parlt has come out and said that the PM was lying about the ‘cat calling’ and being told to ‘shut up’? Is that not ingrained sexism? Doesn’t that alone not only show his misogynist attitude (entrenched bias against women) to the PM, but his lack of respect for the Parliament? When he sees fit, he uses the reputation, dignity of the parliamentary process, and then trashes it if it suits his purpose – lust for power, regardless of how he achieves it!

    @elknwit – The real issue with Abbott and abortion, is like most male religious zealots? Particularly catholic ones- They DO hate women, and believe that they should be controlled by men. IF you can’t see this, you need to read some more, or at least ask some women who were raised a catholic – such as myself? Abbott and the church do NOT believe that women, any women have the right to decide for themselves when or if they wish to be or stay pregnant. The whole dogma is misogynist. Why some think that women should die and the foetus live, probably die too in many cases, but that’s not their point? The fact that all these laws are designed by men without concern or compassion shows their ingrained prejudice to women. I say hatred for – women! Abbott hasn’t disassociated himself from these views – not one bit! Nor will he I suggest!

    Bernard has no need to withdraw his statement re Abbott’s behaviour. As a journalist, he’s shown more dignity and respect, not only for women, but for his profession. The others who criticised the PM are just as bad as Abbott – the majority of whom are men. I’d like to know what they’re like to live with?

    How many (mostly male)journalists criticised the PM for having the audacity to use the Parlt to take a stand on behalf of the majority of Australians? Women still are in a majority aren’t we? Not that you’d know it! If there were 8 of them, then going by the stats, at least two of them abuse their wives/partners? When that stat is at least lowered, let alone removed, then men can take umbrage at women’s standing up against them, and calling abuse sexist and or misogynist behaviour. Misogynist language is a precursor to violence against women – as can be seen on the news every day!

    Finally, children learn what they live. What is the point of teaching kids about respectful relationships, when a man who aspires to be the Leader of this country can use such disgraceful behaviour against a female opponent, just because he can’t cope with a woman beating him for the top job! And I don’t give a hoot if he brings the virgin mary into the argument – he’s still a sexist s**t who isn’t one bit ashamed of himself! If anyone can disagree with this, please let me know! I wait with bated breath!

    @drmick – Thank you! I recall a mate of mine telling me some years ago, that the Australian msm was about 65 or more on a list of 100 countries with ‘free and fair’ reporting (1 being the best). I reckon, that with the growth of the Murdoch empire, that is probably not accurate today. When you put in the crap from TT and ACA for instance, we’d be up in the 80’s at least by now!

  10. michael r james

    “I don’t think an Abbott government would touch the issue of reproductive rights”

    I seriously doubt Abbott has changed that much. He may have managed to exercise more PR discipline –it is both wearisome and scary to observe that serious moderate journos keep trying to tell us how Abbott is such a nice bloke in person. That is just the talent of a snake charmer.

    But when he is in a position of power over women his true self emerges. It is all through David Marr’s essay over every stage of his life and career. It is profoundly a part of his makeup–a regressive Jesuitical Papist philosophy that belongs, not so much to the 19th century as KRudd wittily suggested on Lateline last night, but several centuries earlier still. Not just on women, he is totally conflicted on gay rights. And many other minority opinions.

    Abbott’s personal decision as Minister to veto U486 is a near-perfect example. It took a cross-party collection of female MPs to stage a rebellion to get John Howard to over-rule Abbott on that. A clear abuse of power—one shudders to think what other things he may do if given the opportunity (this may be opportunitstic rather than planned policy but that won’t make it any better for the country). I cannot see any wriggle room out of this one; it is not distant history. Not some personal peccadillo, but public policy that would have affected millions of Australian women. I’m not suggesting he will revisit abortion rights but it is clear enough that in all kinds of ways he will influence policy in a negative sense for women and other minorities for whom he sincerely believes “his” god knows best. And don’t even think of bringing up his supposed 180 flip on childcare policy because that is bound to be a non-core promise if ever there was one (business interests and Joe Hockey will kill it, not to mention its grotesque social inequality).

    And still he hasn’t the courage to appear on Lateline, Q&A or rarely on 7.30. Why? Because, as we all know, he too often reveals a tiny sliver of his true self.

    And Bernard appears to want to give him the benefit of the doubt! No thanks.

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