Julia Gillard’s recent speech poses important questions for the Left: about politics but also about media.
First, there’s the question of the address itself: a powerful riposte to a notorious sexist that went viral around the world, delivered by the leader of a government that was, at that very moment, cutting parenting payments to 90,000 single mothers by as much as $100 a week. How does one assess these simultaneous developments?
For some on the liberal Left, mentioning parenting payments seems a form of carping, a bitter attempt to rain on Gillard’s parade. For others (especially on the far Left), the speech itself represents pure chicanery, pure flim flammery that can and should be ignored.
Neither approach seems satisfactory.
Let’s go back to first principles.
The Left opposes sexism in any contexts, under any circumstances. Sexism remains equally pernicious no matter the politics of the person it targets. Or, to put it another way, sexism is inherently right-wing – and would remain so, even (or perhaps especially) if it came from those who identified with the Left.
That means you don’t need to agree with someone’s politics to defend them from sexist attacks. The Left must, after all, oppose sexism directed against Liberal MPs, just as much as slurs at those in the Labor Party. Whatever you think about Senator Milne, she’s entirely right to denounce sexist slurs from David Feeney. Likewise with Julia Gillard. Throughout her tenure, she has clearly been the target of vicious sexism from the media and the other politicians. Obviously, the Left should oppose this; obviously, the Left should endorse efforts to expose sexism, to render it unacceptable in any context.
That might seem self-evident, and perhaps it is. But if it’s possible (indeed necessary) for the Left to oppose sexist slurs directed at, say, Julie Bishop, then quite clearly opposition to sexism doesn’t necessarily entail political support. If, during the 1980s, the Left could denounce the prevalence of anti-Thatcher sexism without thereby becoming Thatcherites, it should be entirely possible to defend Gillard without that defence altering your analysis of a very right-wing Labor government.
Furthermore, it seems entirely evident that the overwhelming response to the speech stems from something quite different from an enthusiasm for parliamentary politics.
This was a speech that circulated to millions of people, and thus reached an audience way beyond the small coterie that follows Canberra shenanigans closely. The clip became a sensation in both the US and Britain, and the people there applauding Gillard’s words almost certainly knew nothing of Peter Slipper – or, indeed, the policies of the ALP.
Why such a reaction? As Sharon Smith said in a recent Overland article, the US is currently in the midst of a ‘misogyny emergency’: she cited both the ongoing wage discrepancy between men and women but also the prevalence of pernicious sexual and sexist slurs, from Republicans and Democrats alike (alongside Rush Limbaugh’s antics, she quoted Bill Maher’s attack on right-winger Sarah Palim as a ‘cunt’ and a ‘dumb twat’, an echo of the point made above). Something similar seems to be happening in Britain, where today’s Guardian carries an account of the normalised sexual harassment in television as well as a survey of the stereotypes that dominate the newspapers.
Gillard’s remarks resonated in those countries, one suspects, because so many women had similar experiences with sexist bullies and were overjoyed to hear someone taking a stand against the abuse they experience in their own workplaces or homes. The tremendous response in Australia should probably be understood on a similar basis.
The virality of the speech, then, suggests the existence, both here and abroad, of a huge constituency fed up with sexism and hungry for a fight back against it. To put it another way, the speech might have been made in parliament but its reception suggests the need for, and the possibility of, extra-parliamentary activism. That is, almost any grassroots fight against sexism in Australia would very quickly come into conflict with the policies of this government, both because of Gillard’s electoral orientation to social conservatism (manifested in her opposition to same-sex marriage, her assertion of the importance of ‘traditional values’, her general willingness to truck with the bigots of the ACL) and, more importantly, because of Labor’s internalisation of conservative economics. Today, for instance, Labor will apparently introduce reforms reducing the ‘burden’ of unfair dismissal laws upon employers, in accordance with the neoliberal mantra of workplace flexibility. Obviously, when sacking workers becomes easier, women will suffer disproportionately – merely one instance of how gender justice necessitates an opposition to the ‘economic reforms’ that remain a priority for Labor and Liberal alike.
Yet there’s another aspect of the story that complicates the analysis, and that’s the role of social media. It’s not just that the speech spread so quickly because of Twitter and Facebook, it’s probably also the case that, without digital technology allowing people to see the clip themselves, Gillard’s remarks would probably have disappeared into Hansard. It’s difficult, then, to talk about the prospects for giving the online opposition to sexism an ongoing real world focus without being reminded that the Left still lacks an adequate analysis of social media and its implications.
But maybe that’s an argument for another day.