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November 27, 2012

Those familiar with the work of Douglas Adams (and if you’re not I highly recommend you remedy the situation forthwith, if not fifthwith) will know what a babel fish does. Basically, it translates. I’m not a linguistic translation engine, though you will find some of those with similar names. Not only those who speak different languages require translation services however. Sometimes, for instance in Australia in recent weeks, people who ostensibly all speak the same language can fail utterly to understand each other. I have been listening to, now and again participating in, a national argument, sorry, conversation, taking place in both the mainstream and the new, or ‘social,’ media. It has become increasingly clear, in what is fast becoming ‘misogynygate,’ that those on the defensive, Tony Abbott and his party, Alan Jones and his employer, genuinely don’t understand what they are being accused of, for a host of reasons. I’m here to help.

Let’s start with a brief recap. It all began, so far as that term can be applied to any particular slice of political life, but let’s say this chapter began, with a very bad week for Tony Abbott. That bad week stemmed from two main factors, his long acknowleged polling and focus group deficit with female voters, and his chosen highly aggressive strategy for this parliament. We’ve heard plenty of explanations for the first factor. The thing about the second is that it’s a strategy aimed at destabilising a minority government, and predicated on that government not running its full term, which, as an early election looks increasingly unlikely, is fostering a certain air of desperation in opposition ranks. So after several particularly hostile days in the House of Reps, in which Abbott came off as being particularly nasty to Julia Gillard, he clashed with the (then Deputy) Speaker Anna Burke and got himself thrown out. He completed the trifecta by melting down in an interview with the 7.30 Report’s Leigh Sales.

Now some will say well, we know he’s a pugnacious politician and we know he’s been known to make the odd gaffe before. How exactly is any of this sexist? With Julia Gillard the history is well-known. You’ve probably made your mind up by now. What is hard to deny is that he has consistently failed to run what he says through the, “would I say this to a man?” filter. It certainly appeared that he had difficulty respecting the authority of the female Deputy Speaker, which might have passed off as coincidence if it hadn’t been for that interview. There was a lot of noise about it. Many ALP supporters happily crowed over it, he’s getting his comeuppance at last they thought, and his supporters were fulminating about how rude and aggressive Sales was. Oddly enough, these two groups neatly flipped positions when she applied similar heat to Labour politicians.

I took something different from the interview. I don’t think Leigh Sales is rude and aggressive. Having been brought up in Scotland, on the BBC and the likes of Robin Day, I find her quite mild really. Australian politicians simply don’t know how good they’ve got it with their media. There is no Australian counterpart to Jeremy Paxman. What happened, Tony Abbott brought entirely on himself. He came completely unprepared for what was a pretty obvious question. All he’d have had to do was read a one page statement (by the CEO of BHP Billiton), but he apparently thought he could wing it. Perhaps his own preoccupation with the carbon tax led him to presume that it would be cited in the statement as a contributory factor in the suspension of a large project in South Australia. It wasn’t. Now if I was the interviewer, I think I might find that a bit insulting. I might feel he was showing a distinct lack of respect for my professional skill. Would he have been better prepped if he’d been facing Kerry O’Brien or Tony Jones? Well we don’t really know, it’s been a long time since he did that. Perhaps it’s a case of, “there’s your answer.” In any case, Sales questioned him three times about the matter. Each time Abbott ignored the question and said, “Carbon tax, carbon tax, carbon tax, carbon tax, carbon tax.” Or words to that effect. In the end, in some frustration, Sales asked him if he had actually read the statment. He tried to dodge a fourth time, but she pressed the question, forcing him to admit that he had not. This, of course, made him look pretty stupid. His denial, the following day, that he had really meant no when he said no, only compounded the impression. Meanwhile, offstage, Abbott’s chief advisor called Leigh Sales, “a bit of a cow,” which hardly defused the situation.

Then Alan Jones blundered into the controversy, having already prepared the ground by effectively starting an outspoken women’s movement with his on air claim that, “Women are destroying the joint,” which was immediately picked up by many women as a badge of honour and which started spontaneously trending on Twitter, then became a Facebook page. It is obvious that many women were offended by his remarks. It’s equally obvious that many women are offended by Tony Abbott’s behaviour, the polls have been in ever since he took the Liberal leadership. But it seems these men have tapped into something more. The phrase ‘deep well of resentment’ springs to mind, but I immediately reject it as far too much of a cliche. We’ll come back to this, because interestingly fifteen minutes of withering invective directed at Abbott by Gillard then went ‘viral’ on Youtube and has self-evidently struck a chord in many countries. It may well be the first time Australian domestic politics has played even a bit-part in a US election campaign.

It even made news back in Scotland, which is no mean feat, as I can tell you from experience that growing up there Australia seems an incredibly remote place. To complicate matters, we’re having an independence debate at the moment (I say ‘we’ because I’m involved in that debate), so we’re a bit distracted. Nonetheless, there was this:

When Jones’ comments at the Sydney Uni Young Libs dinner emerged, it was into an already charged atmosphere. I’ll have to deal in more detail with the matter of the meaning of misogyny, but for now suffice to say that Jones is clearly a misogynist, his every utterance betrays him as a man who consciously hates women. They have nothing to offer him, nothing he wants anyway. Although, to be fair, he hates lots of people, from Lebanese people to climate scientists. He spreads it around. He could well be described as a misanthropist as well as a misogynist. However his Sydney Uni comments were not in themselves misogynistic (unlike his ‘destroying the joint’ comments, which were). They simply offended mainstream standards of common decency. Jones and MRN (Macquarie Radio Network, owners of 2GB) seem to think they are the victims of some kind of conspiracy, feminist, communist, ‘cyber’ this and ‘cyber’ that. This is going not only on what Jones has been saying on his radio show, but also CEO Russell Tate’s statement for MRN when they announced the suspension of advertising on Jones’ program.

See Russell Tate’s statement here.
There’s a longer article on the subject, courtesy of the ABC, and including a couple of videos; Jones’ comments on his first show following the controversy (it was everybody’s fault but his) and also an interview with Jane Caro about it, here:

But what has really happened here? Was there a feminist conspiracy? Well, as I mentioned, Jones had already galvanised a body of female opinion against himself, so when he offended again it isn’t surprising that the ‘Destroy The Joint’ people were quick to condemn him. But others independently started Facebook pages, online petitions, etc., with aims such as the sacking of Jones and application of pressure on advertisers to withdraw their business in protest. So far, nothing has happened that hasn’t happened many times before, for many years. Essentially people have signed petitions and written letters and sent messages of protest. We’ve always done those things, indeed the right to do so is one most of us are pretty fond of. The internet, the ‘social meeja,’ have simply made these traditional forms of protest much, much easier to organise. Conspiracy? Cyber-bullying? The ALP? The ALP were following on, scarcely able to believe their luck. No, it was just a spontaneous outpouring of disgust at the idea of making an intentionally hurtful joke about someone’s recently deceased father. Jones shows no sign that he truly appreciates how far beyond the pale that is. There is no imaginable context in which, for the vast majority of Australians, that would be acceptable.

Now that the new media has facilitated the unprecedented ease with which these protests took off, we have to ask: are more people getting involved because it’s much easier to send a tweet, or even an e-mail, than to get the writing paper out, write out your complaint in longhand, search the house for half an hour for an envelope, then go to the Post Office to buy a stamp and post the thing? Of course they are! But consider this – businesses, like politicians, have always taken those painstakingly written and posted letters very seriously. It takes a surprising amount of commitment to do all that. But nobody uses snail mail anymore, and the marketing and PR people love the new paradigm. Things are much easier with the internet, they get to collect lots more lovely data which they use to devise strategies for how to position their product in the marketplace (yes, this still includes politicians as well as businesses). So were advertisers being bullied, as Jones and Tate assert? Did anyone threaten to assasinate their CEOs or torch their head offices? No. They just got a bunch of tweets and e-mails asking them to withdraw their support for this offensive man, and they saw the petition asking for the same become the fastest growing petition ever in Australia. They then made a commercial decision, one they make every time they place an ad: do the positives of the association outweigh the negatives? Will it help or harm our business. Will it build or damage our brand? We have recently seen this process played out with regards to Lance Armstrong. On this occasion, over seventy advertisers decided the balance had changed, and withdrew their business. There is no mystery here, no conspiracy, just capitalism and the free market in action. How many Mercedes Benz (one advertiser which withdrew) customers, do you suppose, are Alan Jones listeners? And how many are educated urban professionals who despise Jones and his ilk? It’s a no-brainer really.

Now, I’m going to do, briefly, what writers aren’t supposed to do and break the spell. All of the above was written over a month ago, shortly after the events described. I mentioned the need to attempt a definition of misogyny. Ever since, I’ve been told (not me personally, but men in general) not to lecture women about misogyny. I hear you. I’ll try not to lecture, but I must attempt to define. It’s relevant. I recently attended my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, which gave me the opportunity to consult some women, feminists, I’ve known for years and whose opinions on the subject I value (thanks Carmel, Merran & Christine). I also need to acknowledge the contribution of my late spouse Gayle Lynne Richard. It was she who was largely responsible for my education in feminism and feminist theory (amongst many other things). So, for her, I shall press on and make the attempt.

Firstly, it should be said, it’s not really women I’m trying to explain this to. It’s men, and perhaps specifically those in the mainstream media, some of whom should know better. For instance, we’ve heard Tony Jones on the edition of Q & A which followed the Gillard speech, insisting on his simplistic definition of the word, and telling off Bill Shorten for trying to educate him. He’d looked it up in a dictionary it seems. Well Tony, I’m afraid it is you who have it wrong and your dictionary has led you astray. Indeed, the (literally) hidebound Macquarie Dictionary has since changed its definition, broadening it. As a concept, misogyny is far more than the sum of its Greek/Latin roots. This is quite normal. In English we often use words we invent using Greek or Latin roots. Look at Tony’s own medium, television. That’s a made-up English word (the Romans were very clever, but they didn’t have TV) using the Latin ‘tele’ meaning far. But the concept of television is now vast and complicated. It is so much more to our society than a simple remote seeing device (I could easily give you 5000 words on the ‘meaning’ of ‘television,’ but I’ll refrain). Now, when people write political theory, when they think new thoughts, they need new terminology to express them. Marx gave us a whole dictionary of terminology which you had to know in order to understand what he was on about. Some terms he made up, and some were words already in use, to which he added new layers of nuance and meaning. So if you want to know the definition of misogyny, the dictionary really isn’t going to help you all that much. You need to know what it means in feminist theory. Because that is the way it is being used, by Julia Gillard and by many female commentators.

So, let’s start with that dictionary definition, hatred of women and girls. That’s all it says (or said, before it was changed, a change that will undoubtedly be seen by some as a capitulation to political pressure). That definition seems to me (and to Tony Jones) to imply a conscious hatred, of all women, at all times, in all circumstances. But that’s not what it means. Put it right out of your head. That is not what any feminist understands by the term. I could give you a reading list, but the simplest way I can explain it, and this got a ‘yes’ vote from all of my impromptu focus group, is that it isn’t sexism, it is the underlying cause of sexism. Misogyny isn’t superficial like racism, which is to say a misogynist does not have to consciously hate any particular woman, or women in general, as a racist hates. Mysogyny is a deep-seated, unconscious, pathological, Freudian, hatred/fear of the female (the animus), possibly regarding the mother, or one’s own female side. It doesn’t mean that Tony (Abbott) hates his wife, but it probably does affect his subconscious attitudes to her & to all women, attitudes which come across clearly in his public utterances and behaviour. If you want a parallel, misogyny is more akin to unconscious xenophobia than to conscious racism. It is what lies beneath. And as with xenophobia, and other underlying causes of deviant behaviour, it is, as I mentioned, generally unconscious. Not always of course. In the case of Alan Jones, he does fit the simplistic dictionary definition. He clearly does consciously hate women. But he is the exception, not the rule. My guess in his case would be those pesky mother issues, but who knows? Usually, men who are sexually attracted to women cannot reconcile that with a conscious, active hatred. For men who have daughters, like Tony Abbott, this is doubly true. Does this mean they can’t be misogynists? No, I’m afraid it does not. It just means they don’t know they are misogynists, hence their confusion. Since I came up with the above definition, I have discovered an illustrative quote which I think is simpler and more elegant, and from one of my favourite authors.

“The misogyny that shapes every aspect of our civilization* is the institutionalized form of male fear and hatred of what they have denied and therefore cannot know, cannot share: that wild country, the being of women.” Ursula Le Guin.

(*I have almost completed and will shortly publish a background article to this one, in the form of a brief history of civilization, religion and patriarchy)

Let’s leave to one side for the moment the literary merits of so-called ‘genre’ fiction. That is another, completely different debate. Suffice to say that it is my contention that Le Guin writes science fiction and fantasy, and that she also writes beautifully. Her Wikipedia entry states,
“First published in the 1960s, her work has often depicted futuristic or imaginary worlds alternative to our own in politics, natural environment, gender, religion, sexuality and ethnography (my emphasis). She has been influenced by fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, by science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick, by central figures of Western literature like Leo Tolstoy, Virgil and The Brontë sisters, and including feminist writers like Virginia Woolf, by children’s literature like Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and The Jungle Book, by Norse mythology, and by books from the Eastern tradition such as the Tao Te Ching. In turn, she has influenced Booker prize winners and other writers, such as Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell— and notable futurism and fantasy writers like Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks. She has won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award several times each.”.
She belongs to what we Australians might think of as the Germaine Greer generation, and clearly understands feminism and what feminists mean by the word misogyny. She ought to. The science fiction world remains to this day a somewhat male-dominated one, and when she first published she was obliged to do so as ‘U.K.Le Guin,’ so that her gender would not diminish her potential readership.

But what if she’s right? “The misogyny that shapes every aspect of our civilization…” Does that make all men misogynists? Some feminist theorists have argued so (read some Andrea Dworkin sometime, when you feel like being challenged to your very core), but I would contend otherwise. Becoming conscious of it is the key. Once you know it’s there, you can begin to question your own preconceptions, and choose which, if any, you wish to retain, and which to discard. This kind of self-examination was considered necessary, even routine, amongst politically aware members of my generation (late boomer – early Gen X), but seems to me to be rarely undertaken these days. Even amongst members of the Canberra press gallery. Almost all of them badly misjudged the reaction to that speech. The social media reaction was particularly enthusiastic about it, but the gallery, almost universally, saw it as a negative. They thought it smacked of desperation, playing the ‘victim card,’ and that it would damage the standing of both government and Prime Minister. Mention was made of the fact that only around 2% of the Australian population use Twitter, with the implication that this was therefore an unrepresentative sample of public opinion. I myself had a brief twitter conversation with Peter van Onselen, who declared that he was not prepared to accept that he and the gallery had got it wrong until he saw evidence of it in the opinion polls, which would be a more reliable guide to the mood of the nation (regardless of the fact that for opinion pollsters, 1,000 respondents is considered an acceptably representative sample, or approximately 0.0045% of the Australian population). I advised him that I am a reliable guide to the mood of the nation (I am, after all, The Babel Fish, clue’s in the name), and that I would be more than happy to discuss it again once that weekend’s polls had been released, proving my analysis to be the correct one. They did exactly that, even more emphatically than I had expected. In the most recent set of polls the turnaround seems to have continued, with the additional insight that the ALP has opened up a ten point 2PP lead amongst female voters, a figure almost exactly reversed amongst male voters. Clearly there are still many men out there who don’t ‘get it.’ The difference is so stark that the issue can hardly fail to be significant at election time. We have, after all, just seen a US Presidential candidate get two thirds of the white, male vote and still lose the election, because too many female voters heard what he and his party had to say, and judged it to be misogynist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peter is yet to get back to me to concede that I was right and he was wrong. I’m not holding my breath.

So, to the $64,000 question – is Tony Abbott a misogynist? Yes, he is, but not a conscious one like Jones, so he doesn’t know it. He is steeped in the deeply misogynistic culture of the Roman Catholic church. He had a Jesuit education and once aspired to the priesthood. His underlying assumptions and preconceptions about women are rooted in another era. All this leads to the inevitable conclusion. The unprecedented disparity along gender lines in the polls confirm it. Sorry Tony, but in the words of Anna Burke, you just can’t help yourself. And nor can your mates.
And here we go again:

  1. I couldn’t wait to lunch time!

    Absolutely brilliant! I love it. I will come back later, and read again, but I wanted to applaud now!

  2. Parhwy permalink

    I like your sentences and thinking, as well as your references. I particularly enjoyed your confidence with the mood of twitter as predicting the results of a poll.

    • Thank you! I’m looking forward to testing my predictive abilities here. I’ve always done it, but now it’s in print it’s verifiable. I remember after the ’91 gulf war I predicted the Americans would be back there in a decade and get stuck there. I was only about 18 months off. I told all my friends at the time, “Remember I said this!” This should be a much more reliable method. 🙂

  3. Brilliant
    No argument from me on this one.. There is always hope for future disagreement, just don’t old your breath 🙂
    Rick A

  4. Julie Davies permalink

    Looking forward to future blogs. You have treated this topic with both insight and compassion, as well as a world view. And thanks for the lead to Ursula le Guin – I’ve never heard of her. My favourites are the boys’ four ”b’s”, Brin, Benford, Baxter and Beer and I’ve already cleared the library’s shelves. But I wouldn’t recommend Dworkin – way too confronting and extreme , even for this mohair-armpitted old feminist. It would definitely scare the horses!

    • Thanks Julie, yes my ‘read Dworkin’ comment was slightly flippant. She’s not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. My Dad introduced me to Ursula Le Guin. He wasn’t fussy about the gender of his authors, but he was extremely fussy about his sci-fi. All those Hugo and Nebula awards probably caught his attention, and he passed me a copy of “The Lathe Of Heaven,” and said, “You’ll like this.” I did.

  5. Derek, I agree that if I were the interviewer, I would have felt insulted. I certainly didn’t think Leigh was rude or aggressive. I watched the interview. She simply tried to do her job. I say tried, because Abbott was certainly not a professional interviewee.

    Why describe her as a cow? Because she didn’t pander to the MAN? Ridiculous.

    Congratulations on your first article and let’s see many more – I am looking forward particularly to the forthcoming article on a “brief history of civilization, religion and patriarchy”, for I do believe we are in the situation we are in due to that history,

    Love Le Guin, by the way – was not aware of that quote or that she initially published as a man. Interesting.

    • Hi Robyn, I have this dream that one day some really incompetent Abbott staffer will advise him to justify his position on climate change (or some other internationally relevant subject) by agreeing to a BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman. It’ll never happen, but I’d pay to see the look on his face, if he had to face a REALLY tough, no holds barred interview.

      I think calling Leigh Sales ‘a bit of a cow,’ is another example of the missing, “Would I say this to a man?” filter. I’m sure Morris would have been just as annoyed if the interviewer had been male, but he probably wouldn’t have used a gender-specific, hence sexist, term to describe him.

      I’ve loved Le Guin since my teens, but I only found that quote the other day, just as I was finishing the article, which was a stroke of luck. I don’t think she actually published as a man, but went by her initials ‘U.K.’ so her gender went unstated, which is a bit of a literary tradition from a slightly earlier era.

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  7. I didnt look for this, but I like this, found it entertaining! Keep up the excellent work!

  8. Reblogged this on Betty's Blog and commented:
    Recommended reading

  9. Hi there terrific website! Does running a blog like this take a massive amount work?
    I’ve very little understanding of computer programming however I was hoping to start my own blog soon.
    Anyways, should you have any suggestions or techniques for new
    blog owners please share. I understand this is off topic
    however I simply needed to ask. Thanks a lot!

    • Hi, sorry for the slow reply, the host website, WordPress, decided your comment might be spam and put it in the spam folder, so I only saw it when I noticed a few things in that folder tonight.

      I’m not a computer expert at all, and I have had a little help and advice in setting up this blog, particularly from Robyn (Team Oyeniyi, first comment on this post). It’s not really too much work to create a blog like this one though, and you have done the first part already. In order to post a comment you have registered with wordpress and chosen a screen name. You will see your screen name at the top left of the page. Run you cursor over it and you will see a menu. Click on ‘dashboard’ and have a look around, that controls everything and allows you to create a post.

      Once you’ve done that, if you have more questions leave me another message, here or via my twitter account (@TheBabelFishDSM) and I will help if I can. 🙂

  10. I visited various sites however the audio feature for audio songs current at this site is in fact wonderful.

  11. I was directed to your blog via Bettsie. I’m glad I arrived.
    I did not look at ‘who’ is the blogger so just started reading and ( silly me) did not know what sex you were until I hit the “my late spouse”.
    It was then that I even considered who or what you were.

    Thank you for this fabulous piece of writing and explanation and expose. The work you must put into this is very much appreciated.

    I shall bookmark you for future trawls of your work. Thank you.

    • I’m glad you found your way here. Welcome!

      Thank you for your kind words, I look forward to future conversation.

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