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Australia

Nov 19, 2015

Sorry Telstra, individual excellence, noble though it may be, does not help us all

The participation of women and of other “minorities” in military action neutralises the nature of the participation itself.

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Captain Mona Shindy accepts her award (Source)

When Captain Mona Shindy, a distinguished 26-year veteran of the Royal Australian Navy, was named Telstra Business Woman of the Year in Melbourne last night, guests lost little time in standing to cheer the director of littoral warfare and maritime support.

Shindy is difficult not to applaud. As she did to the judges of the prestigious award, she stands out in this crowd. She walks tall in mess attire while the rest of us lope in heels. She instructs on billion-dollar budgets while most winners toy with millions. She commands difficult ideas like “ambiguity” in her acceptance speech while others defer softly to “empowerment” or “hope”. In this joyous moment, I would follow her into the middle of the ocean. She is gifted of such powerful elegance, she would shame a Chanel suit.

In Docklands last night, 1000 well-dressed people gave a driven, clearly brilliant sailor a heartfelt standing O. But they also happened to be applauding military purchase, for which Shindy is a key adviser. And it is a strange week to toast the national acquisition of frontline maritime hardware. As Shindy accepted the award and the room, quite audibly, accepted this as hard evidence that the world had quickly come so very far — “She’s a woman! And a Muslim! In a hijab in the navy!” — another woman in Canberra deliberated on acceptance of an appeal. Defence Minister Marise Payne is considering a request for the support by an Australian frigate to a French aircraft carrier as President Francois Hollande calls openly for “merciless” asymmetry.

There’s loud applause. There are some tears at neighbouring tables, and a woman who knows my spoilsport nature a little challenges me in the moment and says, “Even you have to admit that this is pretty great”. And, of course, it is pretty great that the Egyptian-born daughter of hardworking parents became a decorated sailor charged with lethal responsibility. To think of the war in Syria and Iraq — which is not, as Hollande’s “act of war” pronouncement strategically suggests, something that began unprompted by the West last Friday night but is the result of years of conflict — is not to think less of the impressive Business Woman of the Year.

But it is to think about the mystifying properties of the suffix “woman”, which seems able to soften even the hardest political reality.

To be clear: Captain Shindy and all honorees — my sentimental favourite was mango-grower Marie Piccone, who was every bit as sweet and vibrant as the fruit she cultivates — are exceptional persons. They have earned their applause and Telstra its brand approbation. Considered in its own terms, this is a productive event that looks beyond the usual dull terms of profit and pizzazz and shows deference to women in a range of sectors and styles not necessarily informed by Sheryl Sandberg’s lean thinking. Personally, I could have done without hearing three versions of ‘80s hymn  Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, but this is the quibble of a music snob. On a relative feminine scale, the Business Woman of the Year Award, now in its 20th year, is not a frivolous, Oprahfied event. It ain’t the worst thing Telstra has ever done.

But the worst thing modern feminism has ever done is to claim for a gender a place beyond reproach and to allow the word “woman” to offset critical thinking. Here we are, in the days before unimaginable slaughter in which our military will likely participate begins, and we take no pause before celebrating the military.

The participation of women and of other “minorities” in military action neutralises the nature of the participation itself. Well-to-do women on boards, female clergy or actresses who earn eight-figure sums to make awful films are celebrated as trailblazers and not as individuals following a well-worn path to Shitsville. In a “woman” reading, the only problem with this brutal, tasteless world is that women don’t have their share. We want equal opportunity to create inequality in wealth and uphold asymmetry in war and preserve the fiction that an inspiring individual can spark a world of change.

It’s not Shindy’s, nor is it Telstra’s, fault that individual excellence is now mistakenly seen as the precondition for social excellence. It’s not, to be honest, even modern feminism’s fault. Since Magna Carta, the Anglophone West has been fairly in love with the idea that equal opportunity to seize power is as close to equality as we ever care to get. If you just permit free men, women, people of colour or whomever the chance to excel, then all will fall into a more “natural” hierarchical order.

In her keynote address, Jetstar CEO Jayne Hrdlicka made the claim, as many did, that diversity was good for business. Shindy said it was good for the military. Diverse participation, so the popular story goes, has better outcomes.

What these better outcomes might be is the matter of blurry debate. More women in full-time, prestigious jobs doesn’t alter the broad fact of joyless under-employment, and more women military officers is very unlikely to meaningfully alter the body count in the Middle East or the future of Australian foreign policy.

It is pleasant and it is decent to honour exceptional individuals. It is deluded and it is indecent to suppose, as many do, that exceptional individuals will give us mediocre people a better stab at life. The neoliberal storybook has a new chapter. Sisters are writin’ it for themselves.

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8 comments

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8 thoughts on “Sorry Telstra, individual excellence, noble though it may be, does not help us all

  1. Michael James

    Jesus Razer, you’re a joyless misery.

    I worked in the military for 12 years, saw the attitudes that were there when I started in the late 80s slowly, so damned slowly change.

    The sexist, the misogynist, the homophobic, the racist attitudes changed, slowly yes but they changed, I watched them change over the 12 years I was there.
    Since then I have followed what’s gone on as people like Morrison and others have tackled those attitudes head on. The fact that an accomplished woman has fought her way to her rank on sheer ability and been rewarded for that ability, is a sig of how much those attitudes have changed.

    Too bad you couldn’t celebrate that though, too busy pushing your own barrow of ideological baggage to truly, honestly admire the successes of someone who has achieved success in a profession you abhor, the military.

    Stick to polemics and triteness Helen, let the rest of us admire someone who has worked hard to achieve success and the admiration and respect of her peers.

    God knows she’s achieved a hell of a lot more in her life than you have in yours.

  2. mikeb

    I had to read this piece twice. I believe the intent was not to denigrate the achievement of Shindy but to denigrate the occupation? Please correct me if I’m wrong. Yeah – well it would be nice to not need a military but we don’t live in such a world. Participation in the ME stuff-up is another question, but hopefully more people like Shindy in places of power will shift the thinking’s of the past. BTW – why is this the first time I’m heard of her? Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

  3. Dogs breakfast

    “Personally, I could have done without hearing three versions of ‘80s hymn Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, but this is the quibble of a music snob.”

    Nobody, but nobody, should have to sit through three versions of that terrible dirge. You should hit them up for cruel and unusual punishment.

    ” More women in full-time, prestigious jobs doesn’t alter the broad fact of joyless under-employment”

    Nor will it correct the miserable lives of the over-employed. The current race to the bottom, and the ideal that a meritorious life is measured by how far up the ladder you got, is, I hope, a race that we will come to realise that only losers enter.

    I hope that women find equality at the top ranks, and maybe when they do they can set about changing the rules so people can have a life rather than just a career.

    Good luck to Shindy though, and the military. It has come far no doubt.

    Nothing wrong with under-employment, just lack of sufficient wealth that often comes with it, and the meaningless lives of so many that they have nothing to do if their hours aren’t filled with work.

  4. Kieran Fitzgerald

    An astute artical, nuanced and balanced. There will be many who will attack the messenger, where the criticism with pride
    “Nailed it”
    Kieran

  5. ken svay

    If only these bloody moslems would assimilate. I had never heard of this powerful woman showing us all that is good about his country. Could we see a debate between her and Pauline Hanson or Jacqie Lambie or that vile Vundy thing from Townsville?
    All I can say is Hurrah!

  6. Kfix

    “In this joyous moment, I would follow her into the middle of the ocean.”

    How much more celebration will you demand? How much admiration do you require?

    Does Helen need to go grab a rifle herself and shoot someone as an offering, or will uncritical acceptance of our foreign policy and our military’s role in it be sufficient to satisfy you?

  7. Itsarort

    Just another Officer talking shit really. These high ranking positions are the best place for this type of person. While they make broad operational decisions, they’re also so far removed from the front line, they can’t actually cause direct harm to the average digger. Win, win…

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