Alan Jones, hate speech and discord

Alan Jones has, as the police say, form: a long record of sexist bullying and race-baiting, memorably on display during his attempt to incite a pogrom on the beach at Cronulla some years back.

The slur on Julia Gillard’s father, delivered before an audience of sniggering Young Liberals and their adult enablers, follows a familiar pattern. Underlying the jibe is the assumption that, because she’s a woman, Gillard’s private life defines her. Male politicians, you see, naturally inhabit the public sphere, whereas the family remains the biologically determined domain of women. That, quite obviously, underpins the fixation on the PM’s personal choices – a sense that there’s something wrong with Gillard precisely because she eschewed a life of domesticity. For Jones, referencing John Gillard came so naturally because sexists always define women in terms of their men, whether husbands or fathers.

The outrage, then, is entirely justified, and there’s a definite pleasure in watching Jones retreat to the posture of maudlin self-pity that seems to come so naturally to conservative culture warriors as soon as anyone challenges them.

Yet, when responding to Jones and his ilk, there’s an important distinction the Left needs to make – between political hate speech, on the one hand, and incivility, on the other.

The first refers to a discourse of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry. This is, self-evidently, an innately right-wing mode that the Left should always eschew – not because it’s rude but because it’s reactionary. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Left needs to recognise the relationship between means and ends. If you’re trying to overcome oppression, you can’t do so through interventions that reinforce it.

That means collectively rejecting responses to the bigotry of Jones (and all the other Jones wannabes) that are, in and of themselves, sexist or homophobic. All the memes about him being a cunt, the snide insinuations about his sexuality: these are the stock-in-trade of the Right, and there’s nothing progressive about using them, even against a right-winger. It’s not a matter of avoiding hypocrisy, either. It’s a political issue. The problem with Sophie Mirabella is her politics, not her appearance or her personal life. Every time someone attacks her with a sexist jibe, they’re not only confusing the issue, they’re also reinforcing a right-wing culture of misogyny.

At the same time, a staunch opposition to hate speech should not be equated with the enforcement of political civility. The two are quite different – and it’s a real problem that some on the Left are confusing them.

To take an example more-or-less at random, even before the Jones incident erupted, Mary Crooks from the Victorian Women’s Trust wrote a piece for the Age decrying the tenor of public debate. It began:

Discord is created by a clashing of harsh sounds. Jarring and unpleasant, it jangles the nerves. Our reflex action is to shut our ears.

Our country has become mired in discordant voices of fury, sexism, hatred and disrespect – and many Australians are deeply uneasy. They know and understand intuitively that a destructive and violent political discourse squeezes out the possibilities of rational and civil disagreement. They recognise that strong traditions of respect, tolerance, fairness and democracy are under pressure.

The passage provides a good illustration of how two quite different issues are becoming conflated by some progressives. Denouncing sexism is entirely admirable. Denouncing discord is not. Indeed, it’s a right-wing argument that will inevitably rebound on anti-sexists themselves.

Look how the article continues:

Vast sections of the public are standing back and uneasily watching a trashing of respect. They want no involvement in the unedifying behaviour or discourse which is ”owned” and dominated by a privileged handful of media owners, radio presenters, sections of business and allied, oppositional commentators.

They are, however, hungry for opportunities to reclaim civility and respect in the way our politics is done; and to play a constructive part in redirecting negative, destructive undercurrents towards a more productive and civil political discourse. […] Discord contributes nothing positive to democratic culture.

The final sentence, in particularly, is flatly untrue. Actually, the entire history of Australia shows that almost anything that’s now identified with ‘democratic culture’ emerged precisely from ‘discord’. Struggles for universal manhood suffrage, for Indigenous rights, for votes for women, for the eight hour day – for just about everything now associated with the Left – involved a great deal of incivility and disrespect, as the conservatives of the day were only too happy to point out. That’s why the feminists of the seventies raised the slogan: ‘well-behaved women rarely make history’. It’s not just funny – it’s true.

Yet, increasingly, many on the liberal Left regard any expression of political passion with outright incomprehension. The problem with calls for ‘everyone to just calm down’ is that, in fact, they provide opportunities for right-wing populists like Jones to give voice to a widely held perception that, actually, things are not OK at all.

For we are no longer living in the stable landscape of the twentieth century. Ours is an era of economic collapse, environmental disaster and political radicalism. In Greece, for instance, we now learn that the Nazi party Golden Dawn is going from strength to strength, as an entire social order collapses under the stresses of austerity.

In the midst of such turmoil, the Left should not be telling people to calm down. In the context of the mess the planet is in, we don’t need more respect for those presiding over the chaos. We need, instead, to raise our voices, to become furious about sexism, racism and everything connected with them, and to work to solutions. For if we don’t, the purveyors of hate speech will simply become louder.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Excellent article. You make a very important and often missed point, and you make it very eloquently.


  2. Well said Jeff.

    Especially: ‘We need, instead, to raise our voices, to become furious about sexism, racism and everything connected with them, and to work to solutions.’ There’s a lot to be furious about.

  3. Great post Jeff.

    I’ve often thought what the Left needs is less high-falutin scholarly types and more left-wing versions of Andrew Bolt…

  4. A great line of argument, and in the interests of some discord, here’s a query, silly as it may be: I know the blog is more about left talk tactics in general rather than strategies to address what Jones actually stated and I haven’t followed the Jones thing closely, but from hearing of his words, his message (if I’m not attributing more guile to Jones than is his due) seems to be more one of tone rather than force: designed to suck us all into some binary moral harangue so that we follow his ball of words in our party colours rather than the party political chess game building up to a Federal election which is not going so well for the current Liberal Party leadership. If commenting in public on what Jones actually stated, how (other than simply ignoring it) to separate the moral fervour clouding a party political game from the outrage of a more expansive political discord which is in abhorrence of things greater than the narrow party political quest, when the two (if I’ve got it right here) are taken to be linked ineluctably in common discourse?

    1. To be honest, I’m doubtful very much will come of this. As Crikey explained somewhere, Jones owns a big chunk of his radio station and is its major source of profits. Yes, some advertisers are jumping ship but they did that with Kyle Sandilands as well, only to come scurrying back once the immediate outrage subsided. In any case, even if Jones resigned, there’s a legion of imitators willing to take his place.
      So I think we need a longterm focus. It’s only when we have a Left strong that ostentatious sexism (racism, etc) will become publicly unacceptable.

      1. I agree that the furore will be shortlived and was amazed that The Australian added 30 cents more balance to the argument in its feature spread yesterday.

  5. Very well written article, and thank you for pulling up all those who have been making “snide insinuations” against Jones himself.

    We do not need to stoop to his level in this fight, we can be civil and LOUD at the same time.

  6. Thanks for these thoughts, Jeff, which are as insightful as ever. I agree wholeheartedly with your point about discord and its utility and indeed necessity in social and political change, but I felt a little unclear about your comments around civility and respect.

    You point out that all social struggles ‘involved a great deal of incivility and disrespect’ – while I agree that this has been the case, I struggle with the idea that it has to be this way. Can’t we respectfully, civilly disagree, and isn’t it usually the most productive way to do so? We can’t control what others may contribute to the struggle, but can’t we stake out a position that is discordantly civil, civilly discordant? 🙂

    I don’t want to distract from your main point, which I took to be that discord is not remotely antithetical to democracy, and that there is a wide chasm between hate speech and political incivility. Perhaps it is merely that our definitions of civility and respect differ. Again, thanks for this piece, it’s a great contribution to what is too often a very flat ‘debate’.

    1. Thanks, Tammi.
      Couple of examples. When Germaine Greer toured The Female Eunuch in Australasia in 1972 she was charged with offensive language after an appearance in Wellington. In response, she led a huge crowd of women chanting obscene words to the nearest police station. The protest was entirely non-civil (that was its point) but it seems to me an unequivocally good thing.
      Going back further, the Industrial Workers of the World launched what may well have been the first ever protest against the Great War on the Sydney Domain, the weekend after war was declared. Very quickly, they distinguished themselves by their incivility: drowning out recruiting agents and Salvation Army speakers with rude songs, publishing mock ads supporting the war ostensibly on behalf of wooden leg manufacturers, publishing offensive poems about the politicians of the day. No-one could accuse the IWW of being civil, but IMO it’s the kind of incivility we could do with a lot more of today!

      1. Greer’s recent comments about Gillard were appalling, Jeff. Don’t ignore those in focussing on something that happened many years ago. She has indeed fallen into offensive language of late. She did the same sort of inexcusable fashion critique of Michelle Obama, too. And I even categorise the comments of those who ridicule Rinehart for being fat as indefensible. It’s like feminism never happened.

        I don’t want a violent revolution and I don’t want to read or hear moronically aggressive commentary from anyone. (I’m not meaning you there, incidentally. You write with a fair dose of civility.) Some of the least thoughtful, deliberately hurtful, most aggressive and irrational comments I have read recently on various blogs have been from atheists directed towards religion. It’s really just a form of bonding where the foulest vocabulary wins. A bit like those deer (antelope? moose? guinea pigs?) who lock horns, but here as a question of choice, not instinct.

        I think the tone of expression is, in a sense, what is being said. I love some sarcasm and parody, and intensely dislike unnecessary violence in language. Call me middle class. I prefer to think I’m not lazy.

        The IWW actions you mention sound very different from the aggressive tirades we see via Twitter, radio, TV, or on blogs, where left and right blend into a most unsavoury pudding. They sound intelligent.

        I don’t know if I’m fervently disagreeing with you or not. Sorry about that…

    2. It’s just that there are times when you have to rebel and cause a fuss Tammi. A lot of feminists went around with “curfew on men” signs.

      We’ve tried the political approach and it hasn’t worked, we still lock refugees up in centres for example, we still have a PM who opposes sexual equality and who scapegoats dolebludgers (the oldest conservative tactic in the book). Is there not a time when you have to rebel?

  7. Thanks, Jeff. Perhaps our definitions aren’t so different after all, and I’ve merely grown confused by those who would call themselves part of the Left engaging in what I would consider disrespectful or lacking civility – personal, sexist, classist, etc – attacks of the ad hominem or straw man genre. I like people to at very least stay on topic!

    1. Tammi you have to insult people like Mirabella a bit but yes you have to careful you arent mysogynist about it and remember that it’s about personality and politics not gender.

  8. Hey Anders, perhaps you misunderstood me – I support discord and rebellion & have a strong record of it personally. I also believe in civility, and civil disobedience. But yes, your second comment is what I was worrying at – how to rebel without resorting to the base tactics of those we are fighting.

    1. I’m thinking that the base tactics of the Alan Jones types come about as a natural expression of their reactionary politics.

  9. Rather, Dave, I would suggest, the aim of such base tactics is to naturalise a weird set of assumptions about what constitutes ‘natural’ behaviour to make such base expressions appear okay and acceptable in general usage.

  10. Rather, Dave, I would suggest, the aim is to naturalise a weird set of assumptions about what constitutes ‘natural’ behaviour to make such base expressions appear okay and acceptable in general usage.

  11. Jeff, firstly, I like a lot of what you say. I am a woman and feminist, and I do actually understand the diff between incivility and bigotry.

    But really, is it good enough for the left to just sit around and pontificate about how we should make a big noise when you all appear to have given up on the public debate and accepted that the mainstream media/culture is a circus you will have no part of?

    The Destroy the Joint movement is a genuine grassroots campaign. Most of the people contributing to the Facebook page are middle class, middle aged and probably white (like me). Most of them know nothing about feminism or the left (unlike me).

    However, some of us are Feminists and we do actually know our history. Many feminists do know how to engage and activate and subvert and have been doing it all this time. All kinds of discourse can be used to challenge the status quo, and all kinds of people and all kinds of activism. Why not take advantage of the current Alan Jones’ circus? Use it as a starting point. Jump onboard and join us!

  12. Last comment was meant to be a bit ‘offensive’, folks.
    I completely agree with Jeff.
    Greer continues to advocate women being ‘difficult’ and many do seem to have forgotten that this is the foundation of the feminist project. Arguably, a necessity for any equality movement.
    Predictably, the LNP and media are now deflecting the issue of misogyny by turning it into a stoush about civility.
    I’ll butt out now.

  13. On The Drum the other night, Anthony Lowenstein – whom I generally admire – made the point that the furore surrounding the Jones comments was a sign of a culture of outrage generated by sections of the left. I took that to mean those not part of the revolutionary left. He drew a line to the Tea Party style of outrage. Today on The Drum website Tim Dunlop argued that the outrage was misplaced and would be better directed towards substantive political issues.

    This thread of opinion seems to me to be symptomatic of a perennial problem with the revolutionary left – if indeed it exists as a cohesive entity. There’s a lot cynical muttering about “moral outrage” but we need to be careful not to overlook what actually resonates with the wider community. The Jones affair is a great example because large numbers of people were genuinely pissed off with the incivility of his remarks and they acted on their feelings. The actions produced immediate results, albeit results that may be short-lived but maybe not. We’ll see.

    The fact that advertisers were sensitive to the reaction is significant because although they acted solely out of commercial interest it was an indication of the impact activated citizens can have.

    Finally, we should not miss the political dimension in this. Jones is a deft political operative with a wide sphere of influence as an opinion leader and urger that extends beyond his listenership into the circles of influence in business, politics, charitable a d sports organisations and so on. His credibility in the wider community has been severely wounded by the visceral but largely civil public reaction to his nasty remarks. Remember, he chided the Young Lib audience for being “too weak” when some expressed shock at his comments about John Gillard. Too weak! This is an indication of an activist trajectory that I take very seriously. Jones is not joking. There is no irony in any of his commentary.

    So, the reaction of people not only of the left but many many more that don’t even think in those terms has succeeded in tearing down – at least momentarily – a nasty, determined and very clever player.
    This is a political action grounded in the moral dimension of civic discourse. Sometimes I think “some on the left” miss the simple human dimension of politics and, perhaps, that goes some way to explaining an inabiliity to gain traction outside intellectual circles.

  14. Thank you, everybody for a range of interesting comments around a number of issues. I write this as an openly gay man of many year’s duration. The ‘snide comments’ about Alan Jones’s sexuality ae interesting. Of course, he’s a closeted homosexual man (and I make deliberate distinctions between ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ which I won’t elaborate on here). But it’s the suppression of his sexuality which inmy opinion contributes to his nasty, poisonous comments. If he was open about his sexuality, I guess he’d still have conservative beliefs and attitudes. But it’s the suppression of his sexuality that I feel contributes to the ‘nasty’ aspect of his subjectivity. I realise this is a tricky theory and involves psychological and other domains which again I’m not elaborating on here. But, in my life as an open gay man, there is a personal/political connection between being closeted and the nastiness of individual subjects.

  15. I meant to say that ‘in my life as an openly gay man, I’ve met numbers of closeted homosexual men who are very nasty individuals and often wondered about the connections between these traits in individual subjects’.

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