Sep 26, 2017

Razer: how mainstream media became a clearing house for simplistic opinions

The language of the era is strong and the tone uncompromised. To speak and, especially, to be heard in not only online forums but everyday exchange, we must increasingly trade in the coin of hyperbole.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

A while ago, I was asked to write paid opinion in support of more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The money was quite tempting, and the cause, I’m sure, is noble. However, I refused the work. I said that I did so on ethical grounds: a C-minus for maths in year 10; objections to championing improved labour conditions for the few, not the many, etc. These claims were true, but not nearly as true as my inability to give the shits required to produce such a work. I found myself vaguely supportive of lady engineers and scientists, etc, but largely unmoved. In other words, I did not have much of an opinion.

It can be inconvenient to lack strong opinions in the present. This is true not only for a person paid to have opinions, but anyone who now wishes to engage in what we call, ahem, “respectful debate”. The language of the era is strong and the tone uncompromised. To speak and, especially, to be heard in not only online forums but everyday exchange, we must increasingly trade in the coin of hyperbole.

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13 thoughts on “Razer: how mainstream media became a clearing house for simplistic opinions

  1. old greybearded one

    In terms of STEM, I sometimes wonder if commentators forget that it is not just physics maths and engineering. There are many areas of science where women are quite thick on the ground. And there are quite a lot of engineers, though some areas are less populated. There are certainly less role models in pure mathematics, but at the top level that is not many men either. I am not sure if there are huge numbers of either sex in the more obscure corners of physics, but it gets the sensational headlines and it is mostly men I grant you.

    1. lykurgus

      It’s not much of a problem in the life sciences (my background’s microbiology); but the physical sciences – especially chemistry – are still a cockforest. In the more exothermic fields, it’s a total dickskreig.
      And what exactly are “the more obscure corners of physics”? More obscure than “matter and energy are not different”? Because that’s the intro – to a field more penisey than SecondLife.

  2. Djbekka

    Ta Helen, the use of hypebole and confected outrage at tiny things gets my goat as well. We really do need a cranking back in language. My current ‘chief petty annoyance’ is the claim in memes posted by well meaning, educated and older friends in the US that everyone one meets will be/should be treated with, not only respect, but ‘unconditional love’. What an exhausting and impossible task! Simple excuse mes, pardons, sorrys and waiting our turns seems sufficient for strangers.
    P.S. Sorry your high school made the door to maths and science so hard to open, but thanks for not regurgitating the usual simlpistc arguments even for a good cause.

  3. Dog's Breakfast

    “I found myself vaguely supportive of lady engineers and scientists, etc, but largely unmoved.”

    I find myself both sympathetic, and similarly unmoved by efforts to have more female CEO’s and Board members, as though those with sufficient privilege to have got that close now need another leg-up because they have found a glass ceiling. I’d rather devote my energy to seeing the men in those positions paid much less than striving for equality for women already paid over $200K (or $400K, or $500K).

    I found Heritia Lumumba’s piece just outstanding, a piercing critique, and not having watched The Project, quite disappointed that Waleed was putting such effort into worrying about Sonia Kruger, and not every indigenous person since white man landed here.

    George Williams piece was also both obvious and clear, and the fact that we are so far away from ditching the Lord’s Prayer as a statement on how closed and slow moving we are as a nation. Even more tragic given how agile we were before the word gained its current meaning.

  4. Nicola Burgess

    Hi Helen, Ironically I have a simple quiet opinion of your article. I just love it. Touches me on so many levels and gently soothes me. There is hope for people when the media writes like this

  5. Pamela

    Thank you Helen for such an insightful piece on current communication twixt us all. So many words, so much hyperbole, so little editing seems like we are continually shouting at each other and no one is listening. How refreshing to hear someone like you confess to not having a passionate opinion on Everything- oops that shouting is contagious!
    Your piece among others is why I keep subscribing to Crikey- I need more thinking and less pontificating to keep sane.

    1. Helen Razer

      That’s a lovely compliment, Pamela. Although, I have rarely been charged with the preservation of sanity!

      1. Kate Gladman

        The only reason I subscribe is to read your stuff. I read other stuff too, while I’m here.

        1. Kate Gladman

          Oh crikey that was a naff comment. Can’t delete!

  6. AR

    I’d be happy to ditch prayer an have a Chisel verse opening Parliament – something like “sheep wine and a 3 bay boat” speaks to the Oz dream.

  7. John Hird

    A really good article but doesn’t meet the demands of, as it points out, the clickable requirements of our media or culture. Not that this is really the point of the article, but I wish there was an ear that could hear someone who knows, just how many Engineering graduates can’t find a job in this country – whether male or female.
    Now that education has been defined to be no more than a ticket to a job, it is doubly cruel to be encouraging girls and boys to throw away their (diminishing university based) chance for personal development on a ticket to nowhere.
    Agree re Heritier Lumumba, and like Pamela, I find Helen’s articles enough to keep on subscribing and reading.
    John H

    1. Helen Razer

      John H. I spent a few hours trying to dig down into the STEM figures, on which both the “more women in STEM” and “more education in STEM” campaigns are based. And then one more looking for those who are both STEM qualified and STEM employed. To answer your implicit question: It’s murky. It seems to me (although I’m no statistician) that the category is huge enough for me (based on the fact that I work largely in digital media) to qualify as a STEM worker. Which is to say, it’s one broad category, and seems to include financial services. And, of course, the extraction industry. (To the last, it’s not sexist to say that FIFO work is less tolerable for women than it is for men. Just a statement of fact. Women do much of the domestic labour necessary to the maintenance of workers and future workers. And tend to provide care to retired workers more often. Not saying they should. But, they do.)
      There are a few pieces from reputable press questioning the fact that STEM training is useful in Western nations. Much of the work (aside from financial services and mining, which will both be a bit stuffed in the case of another, and often predicted, recession) will be done in the Global South.
      So for both Australian men and women currently in STEM degrees at university, it may all be a bit of a crock.
      But, if you make this case in mainstream press, people will scoff at you for being anti-innovation. Because we have come to believe, of course, that “innovation”, which finds its clearest expression in STEM, will give us all jobs, rather than doing the precise opposite. (Innovation is one of the great gifts capitalism offers. It also undermines capitalism itself, making large numbers of workers unnecessary. Or, finding workers who are cheaper, offshore.)
      And because STEM is seen as this great thing, and science in particular is now seen by progressive press as the work of heroes (sure, it is, but I think this view is offered very uncritically. You know how scientists are seen as the antithesis of Trump?) there’s this whole “powerful lady scientists” role-model thing. Even though the jobs are diminishing.
      (FWIW, this Lady Power thing has been going on since I was a girl. I accidentally paid attention in physics in Year 8 and was sent off to a two day course for Girls in Maths and Science. ALL OF IT was about how we should be more empowered. It had not occurred to me at any point until then that I was not.)
      So what we get when we talk about a large and varied sector with an uncertain future is only the story that it’s future is uncertain for women. We get tales about “bros” who say “girls can’t code” etc Or pictures of physicists in sexist t-shirts. While I am positive these things are true, we are NOT talking about particularly big sectors, in these cases. It would be great if that sexism ended. But it doesn’t follow that more female grads will be STEM employed if/when workplace sexism it is ended. Or more (or fewer) male ones.
      It’s all stuff that does not really address the future of work. We have this endless conversation about less sexism and more training (and we uncap university places) and suppose that people educated as specialists will somehow create more jobs just by the fact of their qualified existence. This is utopian capitalism. Are we just hoping for a lady Elon Musk to be produced by the current student population? And when we get one, what will happen then? She may solve our national energy problem, sure. But she’s not going to provide any more jobs than Elon does. (A generous estimate is 30,000 in the US. Not all of these are full-time. Many of these will be innovated out of existence. Still, he’s doing a lot better than Facebook, which employs just 17,000. Again, not all full-time. And I don’t think all in the US. Treat yourself to a Google search for the work conditions of its contract employees in the Philippines.)
      I think a lot of our problems around the future and present of labour are discussed in terms of the problems women may face. I know people mean well by supporting my gender, and I know that sexism is a true problem. But I also think this Female Positive thing has an additional function: to mask questions about the future of work and training. And, of course, wages. (There are many ways we can look at the gender pay gap. You’ll find the further down the income distribution we get, the greater equality there is between male and female wages. It’s at the top where there is a problem. So, closing the gender pay gap will only reward our best paid workers. All well and good, until you start thinking about how the large and growing group down the bottom end of the income distribution have fewer and fewer dollars to do what they are supposed to: pay for goods and services in large number. Ergo, keep the economy whirring/pay for the salaries of fabulous glamorous people in STEM!)
      This was a very long reply. I am sorry. You got me thinking.

      1. Jack Robertson

        It was also a brilliant brilliant reply. Unpicking the way the ersatz-capitalism of the last three decades has served (will increasingly serve) to screw the majority of us can only be done by exactly such forensic, dogged, slightly-banal (in a good way), word-long, generously interactive. and resolutely unironic manner. There is no ‘good’ mass media way to unpack the world as it now festers. It can only be done in non MSN ways…what the interwebz is made for. To take the time to put it to work is the way fwd for words/debate/discourse.

        ‘Civilised measured etc’ debate is dandy but far too often now professional oped writers can’t (or refuse to) acknowledge the difference between ‘abuse’ and unapologetic disagreement expressed in concrete terms. ‘Your ideas are complete rubbish and here’s why’ isn’t hyperbolic or arrogant or (god help us) ‘abusive’ language. The ‘in my opinion’ rider is inherent in it and so is all the other free speech/Voltaire/empathy/human nicely-wicey stuff we waste so much and space earnestly ‘defending/defining’ in our tedious fetishising discussions about ‘free speech’ now when we should be just…exercising it. The very real risk of everyone demanding ‘civil’ debate is that a tiny cohort of mutually sustaining professional talkers end up hogging a very sterile, hermetic and totes useless ironic conversation, that kills (by euthenasia) language and the idea of ‘public debate’ itself.

        As for rudeness, hyperbole, swearing…it’s fun and it’s funny. Fuckety fuckety fuck. See? Personally I think serious writers should deliberately set out to be as unlikeable as possible (on the page). Dept of Nothing to Lose etc.

        Always acute, HR.

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