In news that will surprise nobody with a taste for Rupert, Political Correctness Has Gone Mad! It has gone not only mad, per the view of two News Corp publications yesterday, but power mad in its efforts to “ban” particular phrases from everyday speech. In news that will surprise nobody with a distaste for Rupert, there was no “ban” proposed. A recent publication prepared by Stop It At The Start, the federal government campaign that seeks to end family violence, had simply offered educators and others who work with young people a list of terms, including “Boys will be boys”, that may serve to normalise or endorse future acts of abuse.

This is a pamphlet. It is not a suite of regulations that make thought-crime punishable by Ingsoc. In fact, its cultural reach will be so modest and its budget — especially relative to that of the frontline legal services for those facing family violence now defunded by the Coalition — so slim, News Corp ought to be celebrating. If there is a way to cut both state spending and state “interference” in the lives of men who abuse their partners, you could probably do no better than to produce an awareness PDF.

There’s a long argument had between the libertarian press and certain advocates for social justice that is not really any sort of effective argument at all. The former side demands small government and limited state intrusion, while the latter inadvertently makes such retreat possible. If one believes ardently, and many do, that awareness raising is key to ending most forms of violence and injustice, then what you end up with is a lot of pamphlets.

There are, of course, many working to end family violence who insist that both things ought to be done at once. It would be ideal, they say, to have programs of education and adequately funded frontline services to transform the patterns of family abuse we now recognise as so dreadfully routine. The funded reality, however, tends toward programs of education only.

Even setting aside the persuasive arguments against the decades-old “Duluth Model” understanding of family violence — briefly, the proposition that cultural sexism is its chief cause — there is some value in considering how policymakers are so easily able to swap true social interventions for the promotional sort. Both things do not happen at once.

The Turnbull government’s approach to family violence is one such clear example of talk occluding action. When the Prime Minister spoke powerfully of the pain of women, many, quite reasonably, were moved by his account. His policy approach, however, has followed the usual mode of GetUp. The logic goes that one should change hearts and minds through communication, and that social practice will follow. If only we care enough. If only we can recognise the true pain.

[Rundle: the ruling myths of our domestic violence debate]

There is nothing — to be gracelessly clear — wrong with caring. Actually, there’s something very wrong with giving no sort of shit at all. On one of my unambitious jogs last month, I passed a group of women who had convened in the park to plan the escape from violence by one of their number. As these gals strategised, taking care to delegate those little but urgent tasks, like snacks for the kids in the car, my heart broke. As any functioning human organ would. My compassion was normal and easy. The woman’s escape demanded extraordinary effort.

It’s nice that I care. It’s nice that Turnbull cares. It’s nice that we can each publicly decry acts of violence as unacceptable. It absolves us from meaningful action.

Turnbull has taken the “innovation” approach he loves so well to family violence. Rather than fight for the ongoing funding of refuges founded by feminists in the 1970s, largely with no sort of state endorsement or funding at all, he argues for the use of GPS devices to track perpetrators. Rather than ensure continued funding to legal services, he will endorse the production of pamphlets that rest on the dubious claims of ‘90s academics, i.e. we make terrible reality with terrible ideas and better reality with better ones. His belief seems to be that one can simply hack one’s way out of an ongoing problem. And the great misfortune here is, especially in the case of awareness raising, many people outside News Corp largely agree with this model of social change.

We have seen this promotions-positive take on the politician’s syllogism — Something Must Be Done. This is Something. Let’s Do This — play out in a range of portfolios. The way to solve mental health is to “end the stigma”. The way to combat racism is by programs, such as that introduced by the Howard government, like Harmony Day. The way to end the gender pay gap is to make girls feel more “empowered”.

[Razer: Barbie dolls don’t cause domestic violence]

Certainly, these moves may not all have a cynical basis — although it is hard to cop in the case of John Howard. That they have a limited effectiveness, perhaps even an unintended failure built in, is beyond doubt. When communications, or public acts of compassion or contrition, become not just one defence among many but a primary defence, News Corp really should applaud. It’s cheap to raise awareness. It’s conveniently neoliberal to make individuals the source of social problems.

The youth housing problem is the result of smashed av sandwiches. The NT Intervention is the product of our personal racism. The reason that women must increasingly rely on the generosity of friends instead of the provision of services in their flight from family violence is sexism in society.

It is not as though there is no value in the dominant school of academic thought — roughly known as social constructionism — that bad ideas make for bad social practice. The way we represent and communicate, perhaps even in pamphlets, is likely to make some kind of hard-to-measure difference. But, increasingly, this is the only sort of difference we demand.

To argue against the effectiveness of pamphlets of the type is not to argue along with News Corp that ours is a society dominated by statist solutions. Rather, it is to say that our statist solutions have all but disappeared, and have been replaced with the appearance of concern.

Peter Fray

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