The argument over Tony Abbott’s alleged misogyny has been as spectacular as it has been worrying. Spectacular in the sense that it has had fireworks―Julia Gillard’s speech in parliament―and the ongoing circus of commentary and counter-commentary, by which I don’t mean it was unserious, but that it has provided fodder for the media for weeks, unlike so many other issues. People are incensed, in one direction or another: Margie Abbott, Amanda Vanstone; or, on the other hand, any number of women and men cheering from the sidelines who found Gillard’s speech a kick where it was deserved. Worrying, because despite the basic question that women’s position in society is, the debate has not only sidelined serious issues about Gillard’s political acumen (Peter Slipper) and her reputation (the AMW ‘slush fund’ scandal), but is just the sort of political concoction that draws attention away from issues of a non-identity related kind.
If people are incensed, rather than simply angry or challenged, it is because someone has been insulted. The response is visceral. Katharine Murphy put her finger on one fairly convincing reason for Gillard’s response: women are often put in no-win situations; insult and put-down, followed by either an incapacity or a judicious decision not to bite back, leaves the issue ‘broiling’ beneath the surface. Julia Gillard doesn’t seem to colour up in the face of insult―which is amazing, and a form of strength; but the bodily reaction to insult is usually something like that: that mark of shame so easily read and over which so many women have little control in difficult situations. Insult and humiliation is experienced at the level of the body, and the insult to self can be devastating (thus the ultimate power of misogyny, when you meet it, or rape, for instance).
Interestingly, Amanda Vanstone’s opening gambit in her Age article on the issue is about her relationship with Alan Jones. She seems not to be someone who colours up either, fighting Jones’ particular ‘dislike’ of her by fronting up to interviews on his program whenever she could―though the fact that she starts the piece with the anecdote of Jones telling John Howard to get rid of ‘that woman’ is an indication again of some personally felt unfairness at an unmistakably gendered comment. From a different angle, Margie Abbott must also feel an insult―not just to her husband, but to herself as a ‘strong’ woman, who presumably wouldn’t put up with sexism at home.
The point is that the economy of insult and derision of women is hard to chart, hard to analyse, and is slippery for all kinds of reasons: because men, or anyone holding more power, often give with one hand while taking with the other; because women respond to that in complex, sometimes self-defeating ways, certainly often confused by the passion behind sexist innuendo and belittling insult. Proof of insult, much less misogyny, can be hard to establish, yet the feeling of it is present, and is always potentially inflammatory.
Annabel Crabb was right to point out a difference between sexism and misogyny; a distinction many commentators ignored, allowing ‘sexism’ to be imbued with Gillard’s chosen attack word ‘misogyny’—carefully chosen, I would assume. When asked by the 7.30 Report’s Leigh Sales’ whether ‘Labor truly believes Tony Abbott hates women’, Penny Wong slid seamlessly into a discussion of sexism (pinning Abbott very successfully under this label); Lindy Edwards, intent on seeing Gillard’s speech as an utter triumph for her political fortunes generally, never once mentioned misogyny, though that was Gillard’s claim. Unfortunately perhaps, while sexism can more likely be proved―as discriminatory language or behaviour (‘You wouldn’t say that about a man’)―misogyny as a social force is a theory.
Beyond that, even if it is convincingly argued that misogyny structures some social contexts it is not to say that all men are imbued with it, or that misogynist inclinations or attitudes imbue everything about a particular individual or institution. Feminism’s point overall is that if sexism, patriarchy and misogyny exist at all, it is as social-cultural forces and structures that in large part shape us independently of our will, underpinning our thinking, relationships and identities. Different feminisms argue more or less how hard and fast those relative structures influence us. Beyond second wave feminism’s sometimes blanket descriptions of the effects of male power, it is easier today to see how, psychologically and individually, those influences may be relatively independent of elements of our ‘better selves’ and, even socially, that they come up against other traditions of thinking and being that may counter such assumptions of power. It is these gaps and contradictions that make it possible for us to venture past the terrible deformations of human possibility that sexism, and especially misogyny, are.
Fighting back is also proof that change is thought to be possible; why would you bother if it was an essential power? Yet, Gillard’s fight back has to be questioned―if not for inaccuracy, then for how it was tuned to a form of politics that is surely limited, and may be dangerous. Tony Abbott is accused of populism. In playing the misogyny card Gillard was counting on a response born of feminism, which makes it hardly populist but which, nevertheless, playing on insult and identity, is not wholly distant from what is often pulled from the right-wing populist box of tricks.
No doubt Anne Summers is right that the fine balance of minority government has led to the level of desperate politicking and vitriol in federal politics over the last two years, and especially the last few weeks. But it is not simply that Labor is on a knife edge and that Gillard is in trouble, nor is it Abbott’s negative populist campaigns, intended to tip the balance. Indeed these are political problems, but together they are born of a distinctive cultural-political moment, and are revealing of that moment: they go deeper than politics and go to the heart of contemporary change and fears for the future. It is a problem that neither of the two mainstream parties really seems to recognise that minority government has to do with a changed world in which third parties are more tapped into systemic problems and concerns emerging to the surface of a changed world. Of course the thing the major parties blame for their difficulties is a manifestation of their own basic incapacities to see where the land lies and the future points. If they were to face up to this their political style and substantive commitments would be different.
Many women may want to celebrate Gillard’s speech, but if she was forced into a corner over Peter Slipper’s own apparent sexism and had to come out fighting for her political life; if she is the target of a man in the mould of‘muscular Catholicism’, as David Marr has put it, then both these are facts that relate to the deteriorated parliamentary politics of the present period and the opening to populism and reaction they allow.
* * *
It is intriguing that in the midst of what is a widely recognised neoliberal consensus between the major parties on the basics of government and economy, a vicious politics of sentiment, identity and what seems pure division is being played out at the political level. Something really is at stake with Alan Jones’ campaigns and Abbott’s conservatism in relation to women; and the difference between major parties here is real. But it is not on most other counts: not on key issues of democratic practice, on productivist growth and consumption, on the future of the planet, not on refugees or escalating povertyand neoliberal welfare;not on war and peace even. In these vast areas of common causesuch issues are being fudged, ignored or even held from public scrutiny.
In these deteriorating circumstances the strategic assumptions that compose our approach to the global setting are shifting. Perhaps nothing is more shocking in the present than the suggestion raised in this magazine in an article by Richard Tanter on US bases in Australia (Arena Magazineno. 117) and in Malcolm Fraser’s article in this issue, that the present government and the previous Coalition one have been making decisions on dangerous matters without our knowledge regarding the US–China relationship and Australia’s role within it. That Malcolm Fraser might write in Arena Magazine, and that Arena might be pleased to publish his recent speech, is recognition that diverse groupings outside the neoliberal consensus might come together around key issues and rethink approaches to politics and government, at the least.
When people’s life circumstances and assumptions are under challenge as they increasingly are, and especially in the wake of the economic crisis of high-tech capitalism(see the articles in this issue by John Hinkson on printing money and Juljan Krause on the German situation), right-wing populism as tactic, and reaction as social substance,appear as an answer to some (see Arena Magazine no. 103 editorial). A tendency with a modern pedigree, it is indeed important that it be defeated at the ballot box; but such an outcome at our next federal election is no foregone conclusion. Far from it. Whether Julia Gillard’s remarkably successful appeal to women in recent times will carry her very far forward is a moot point; it does not represent sufficient bedrock for facing the gamut of complex issues mentioned above, nor may it weather the directly political storms ahead for Labor and for Gillard. We will need to look hard at Labor’s offerings and how the general population might be re-engaged around visions and programs that bind people rather than divide along shrill calls to camps of one side or another.