Has anyone else been feeling insultingly patronised by the MSM this past week? The embarrassment of completely misreading the wider impact of the Prime Minister’s speech (you know, that one) was such that most high-profile newspaper columnists spent the rest of the week explaining to readers exactly why we were the ones who didn’t get it, not them. They understood better than us because they were thinking about – Context!
However, context is never one piece of information. In this instance it is best thought of as a series of concentric circles. The Canberra press gallery saw context as extending only as far as that day, in that room. Most did not try to stretch beyond assuming that Gillard’s argument against the proposed motion was an attempt to keep the voting numbers stable by hanging on to Slipper as Speaker. That would suggest a government more hopelessly naive than grossly cynical. It was obvious by then that Slipper was going down, the tactical move was in making sure that Abbott did not go on record as having proposed a successful motion emanating from a newly discovered objection to sexism. Lenore Taylor calls this Labor spin, part of the context that is supposed to help us see the tawdriness of the whole event. But expand the context by one level, to the point of thinking about the parliamentary record as a permanent historic document, not just something that exists on that day, and denying Abbott the chance to score such a deeply undeserved point looks not just legitimate, but imperative. Gillard’s decision to respond as she did means that instead of Abbott forever after being able to refer that that time he struck a blow for the dignity of women, what will be found in Hansard is a conveniently collated list of many of the more appalling things the Opposition Leader has said and done.
The next step out in the circle of context is that Australia has an extraordinarily powerful anti-whinging culture. At all costs don’t dob, don’t whine, suck it up and show you’re tough enough to take it. There’s no other way to be respected. No attitude could be better arranged to serve bullies. It’s perfect for them. In fact, it requires them, to facilitate the test of someone’s mettle. In further context, both the no-whingers attitude and the bullies are perfect servants of the status quo. This speech was a direct challenge to that shameful and damaging aspect of our culture. That is context, too, and just as relevant.
I’ve got more context for you: the historic kind. The discussion of Gillard’s speech as being no more than a building block in a Labor strategy to put female voters off Abbott pinions the columnists so far within the central circle as to make the idea of context a joke. Framing the pointing out of his sexism as merely an attempt to make Abbott appear less personally appealing neglects the realities of the power of the role he aspires to. You know what the actual context of that is? That having a sexist PM will have a tangible effect on the ability of the female half of the electorate to live their lives. That reminding people of that is not only legitimate, but responsible. When a man is in charge who believes that men are better physiologically and temperamentally suited to command, we know from history that what follows is a self-fulfilling prophesy of fewer women being appointed to positions of authority. Remember what happened to women employed by Harvard when Larry Summers was President? The number making tenure dropped further each year that he held the post. In Australia, we have already felt the real-world consequences of a Prime Minister who believed women had a place they should stay in. To refuse to acknowledge this as a legitimate concern that the public might have is to ignore history still vividly recalled by the majority of voters.
The blitheness with which columnists have scoffed at the idea that Abbott might even be sexist, let alone misogynist is such that I am seriously beginning to doubt their ability to cognitively process proffered evidence. Were they so busy taking shorthand in their stenographers’ notebooks that they didn’t actually hear the list of his past actions that Gillard recited? Have they not been doing their background reading, to be aware of the ones she left out? If there is anyone who should not be giving lectures on the influence of context on the meaning extracted from statements made, it is people whose entire livelihood is based on immersing themselves in the briny waters of sociopolitical discourse, and yet have not absorbed how routine it is to respond to a criticism of sexist behaviour with mutterings about the “gender card”. It’s not only a sign that you don’t have an argument, it’s a cliché. If they aren’t familiar enough with the context provided by the entire history of talking about sexism, they need to spend some more time online.
You know what goes nicely with context? Perspective. In one of the more ridiculous columns immediately after the speech, Peter Hartcher claimed that the Prime Minister, in choosing to speak as she did, “gained nothing and lost a great deal.” Trapped in his tiny, central circle, he could only see that the speaker would be gone by the end of the day, anyway. Stepping outside that circle, a politician might be thinking about what they will have to look back on. A legacy might at times be less tangible than legislation passed, or roads and schools built. As Jane Caro pointed out (on Channel 9’s Mornings, link is to the Media Watch segment that includes the clip), people will be quoting this speech for decades, long after nobody remembers who Peter Slipper is.
Ultimately, Julia Baird located the incident where it belongs when she spoke of how Gillard “made a speech millions of women have rehearsed in their heads for years – against a colleague, boss or opponent they consider to be obnoxious or sexist – but never made.” As a result, the verb “to Gillard” is now in circulation, meaning to verbally eviscerate someone in sore need of it. Now that, my friends, is context.