There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.
I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.
I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.
While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.
The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.
Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.
Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.
Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.
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On two recent occasions I’ve actively supported the limitation of someone’s freedom of speech. I joined the campaign to shame advertisers on Alan Jones’ radio program to withdraw their support. And I rallied people on Twitter to lodge complaints against a pro-ana Facebook page.
Initially, neither action sat particularly comfortably with me. While I’m not libertarian, I’m not a fan of censorship either. I value my right to say pretty much whatever I want about whatever I choose. And I exercise that right on a regular basis.
But I’ve begun to wonder why most debate about freedom of expression pivots on an all-or-nothing basis? Why does the proscription of certain verbal behaviours always elicit cries of censorship rather than endorsement of protection? And why is it assumed that if we as a society insist that certain types of speech are unacceptable, we will revert overnight to a totalitarian state in which nobody has the freedom to say anything?
Surely there’s a balance between free and societally-acceptable speech? Shouldn’t this be the goal in a free and democratic nation: the right to speak, to be heard and to be protected from harm?
Why should the right to speak include the right to ridicule, humiliate, or offend? Or in the case of the pro-ana page, the right to promote self-harm?
Why is the libertarian ideal of unfettered free speech always proffered as defense against harmful language? Australians don’t actually have the same constitutional right to freedom of speech that Americans have. It is not spelt out in our constitution, although legal rulings have interpreted it to mean that Australians have a right to free political speech.
Even so, most public discourse in Australia operates as if we have, or should have, unfettered free speech.
We have defamation, racial vilification and cyber-bullying laws to protect people from the most harmful types of expression. These laws are legal manifestations of the boundaries considered particularly important by society; acceptability thresholds built on qualities that we value such as common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion.
There are regular instances of society’s willingness to patrol those boundaries, with recent notable examples including the community backlash against those who said they hoped a child would get laid at the Logies; that an alleged murder victim should have known better than to walk home drunk in the middle of the night; and that the Prime Minister’s father died in shame of her.
Clearly, the community sees a role for itself in policing free speech.
And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t it something that we do every day? Do we allow our teenage son the freedom to call his grandfather an old cunt? Do we respect the right of a team-mate to ridicule another’s mental health by calling them psycho? Do we celebrate democracy when our sister is called a slut for what she wears or our friend is told to hang himself because he’s gay?
No, we demand that free speech be exercised in a responsible manner.
Perhaps the notion of free speech is similar to that of a free market. It’s hardly a coincidence that both are celebrated libertarian ideals. While great in theory, a free market is Darwinian in nature – only the fittest, in terms of competitiveness, will survive. Those exercising their right to be competitive in an unfettered free market can be harmful to others – either through reduced wages and conditions, cutting corners on safety and quality considerations, or through price gouging or collusion when fierce competition produces monopolies or duopolies.
Because of this, governments put protections in place to prevent harm to the community from overzealous free market operations. Not only do we as society accept it, we demand such protection.
Perhaps we should look at unfettered free speech the same way: a potentially harmful ideal that needs protective mechanisms built in.
I’m not advocating more laws to provide this protection: more a broad public acceptance that free speech is not an unassailable right that must be defended at all costs. Political free speech is another matter altogether, and I agree it is one of democracy’s foundation stones.
However, despite what the libertarians say, Australia will not slip into a totalitarian regime if you tell your son to be polite to his grandfather, your team-mate that it’s cruel to mock mental health issues, or assertively explain that slut-shaming and bigotry are unacceptable.
Freedom of speech must go hand in hand with freedom from harm caused by speech.
I know this isn’t a clear-cut issue and I honestly don’t know where the boundaries are. There are times when I find profane language to be quite beautiful. There are other times when polite language can be utterly offensive.
Then again, it’s not really what is offensive or shocking that is the problem, in my view, but what is harmful. It would be a challenge nevertheless to draw a distinction between language that mocks or ridicules with that which denigrates or abuses.
For me, the measuring stick is nevertheless composed of the qualities that society values: common decency, tolerance, respect and compassion. Or perhaps more succinctly: by treating others as you would have your loved ones treated by them.
Women around the world are participating in #slutwalk to reclaim the “derogatory” word and the right to dress however they wish, whenever they wish.
These women are incensed by a Canadian policeman who candidly opined that women should not to dress like sluts if they want to avoid being the victims of sexual assault.
These women have accused the policeman of being a misogynist and a proponent of the victim-as-perpetrator excuse for rape.
Perhaps they are right on both counts. But in fabricating a mildly controversial PR stunt that advocates the celebration of being a “slut”, these women are grievously wrong in encouraging others to dress in a sexually provocative manner whenever they want.
To do so is a grave disservice to all women, particularly young women, who are striving to be seen and treated as equal and capable in relationships, social settings, learning places and the workforce.
Before I am misunderstood, let me say up front that there is no excuse for rape. Not ever. No woman or man, regardless of their dress, demeanour or behaviour, should be subjected to sexual activity against their will and there is no justification for doing so.
The rightful denial of “sluttishness” as an excuse for sexual assault (which more often than not is an act of dominance rather than sexuality) does not however shield a provocatively dressed woman from a litany of other negative responses from those who observe her.
Some will see her as sexually aggressive or promiscuous, while others will conclude she has no self-respect. The worst judgement of all will be that she is a bimbo with no capacity for rational or analytical thought. Perhaps these responses would be elicited regardless of the woman’s attire, but they undoubtedly would be amplified and reinforced by sexually suggestive clothing.
Is this prejudice acceptable? No of course it’s not. But it exists in pretty much every part of our society – the very places where our sisters, daughters and female friends live, learn and work.
But holding a public march to celebrate the very nature of sluttishness is simply counterproductive.
Pseudo shock tactics like this do nothing to promote an understanding and acceptance that women who choose to dress in a feminine and attractive manner are also smart and capable and must be treated with respect.
The sad truth is that a woman shouldn’t dress like a slut if she wants to be taken seriously or treated as an equal.
Protesting against unacceptable justifications for rape is one thing; teaching our daughters how to get respect in their relationships and workplaces is another thing altogether.
The #slutwalk may achieve the first but it will undermine the latter. Perhaps the sluts need to take a good long look at themselves.
If you’d like to hear a radio interview I did with @CarolDuncan on this post, just follow this link