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.