Markers of Change

26 April 2013

Progressives are always on the lookout for signs of change. Activists, feminists, reformers; we watch in hope for indicators that things have improved.
Unfortunately, for those of us who are impatient, this process is a little like watching the tide change. We watch, look away and only observe the difference the next time. And change often requires a reference point to be discernible: an event, a moment or a response from which to invite comparison in much the same way as landmarks enable us to perceive the changing of the tide. These are the markers of change.
The destroying the joint discussion, which became a movement of sorts, was one such marker. Not the comment, because in many ways it was unremarkable; a throwaway putdown like weve heard before, enhanced in its notoriety due only to the profile of the speaker. It was the response engendered that was remarkable.
When I first heard of the comment, I thought same old, same old. A repetition of what our society had sadly begun to become inured to: a backdrop of ongoing personal and gendered vitriol directed towards the nations prime minister, sending a message that it was once again acceptable to speak of women in this way.
Mad Men had come to Australian politics.
In fact, the nature of contemporary public debate to that point had itself been a marker. The boundaries of what was acceptable to say or to condone had been shifted and shifted again; where a senior political leader could speak of making an honest woman of their opponent with little controversy, and tastelessly use an anti-rape slogan without embarrassment. These were warnings then that we had achieved far less than we had thought or hoped.
But as the Twitterverse took off following the now infamous statement, and word spread via Facebook and on blogs and more, the hashtag destroythejoint signalled enough.
It was a spontaneous outburst, a declaration that multiplied in minutes and grew over days and weeks in myriad different voices. Some humorous, some serious, some satirical; many different strategies all highlighting the absurdity of the assertion and coming together with little practical coordination but a great deal of shared principle. Many contributions also demonstrated aspects of the Australian character that we so value: a feistiness, an irreverence and an overriding belief in a fair go.
This was the sort of citizen power that social media potentially enables but which usually dissipates through fragmentation. Here, we saw a version of online collectivism.
And, for many, it was more: an underlying frustration with our societys dominant voices that erupted in an online roar of You dont speak for me! Because, for many of the advocates of the #destroythejoint message, these voices (whether of politician or talkback host) are disconnected from the experiences and beliefs of so many Australians.
In the ensuing days and weeks the power of the #destroythejoint trend or movement, howsoever described, surprised many. It upset the status quo and modelled a spontaneous activism that variously inspired or irritated. It was a change marker. It was a declaration that many Australians had had enough. Enough not just of acts of sexism, but of their acceptability. It was a declaration that offensive statements against women should not and would not continue to go unremarked, and it demonstrated the capacity of a social media campaign to disrupt the dominant paradigm.
But while the experience was so inspirational in many ways, it was for me also bookmarked by realisation. This episode for me ends in the aftermath of the now famous speech by the prime minister and my realisation yet again that we still have so much more to do.
Just as markers can demonstrate progress, so too they lay bare the status quo.
When Prime Minister Julia Gillard rose to her feet on the floor of the House of Representatives that day, few would have expected the speech that followed. A speech that was itself powerful, but vastly magnified by its resonance. It was heard by many women not as a speech about the prime minister, but as a speech about them. These were words that reflected their own experiences: a comment ignored, a snub disregarded, a cheek turned.
In the ensuing days, the prime ministers speech was not only viewed by women and men all over the world, it became a point of engagement for many Australians, and particularly young women, for whom politics often holds little relevance.
For many, it was a parliamentary articulation of the values that motivate them and, landing as it did in the context of an online campaign, gave the speech a significance of even greater intensity.
In a year that had been mired in conflict and negativity and division, both this speech and the #destroythejoint campaign spoke to a hope of something more of a nation defined by both equality and opportunity, in which difference did not lead to belittlement.
It was a speech that also sparked furious debate. Interestingly, one of the themes in the discussion was reprised with much criticism of the mainstream media for missing its significance. This exemplified once again a disconnect between parts of our community and our institutional voices, a disconnect that can no longer be airily dismissed by references to a Twitter echo chamber because the echo can now be heard in too many places.
Its also a disconnect which derives from perceptions of relevance. Because while, for the Parliament House Press Gallery, the speech was primarily assessed in terms of political tactics and strategy, to many others, this frame was not relevant. This wasnt about day-to-day politicking but a deeper resonance in Prime Minister Gillards words, words that gave voice to womens experience. For so many Australians men and women this was its significance.
Perhaps even more noteworthy was the divergence that became increasingly apparent in the publics response. As commentator Susie OBrien wrote: While men wondered what all the fuss was about, many women around the nation cheered.
Some of this could be observed in the partisan sphere, with predictable responses accusing the prime minister of playing the victim, unable to stand the heat and using gender as a shield against criticism.
But the more important response was not from political players but from the community, and increasingly it was apparent to me that both men and women did indeed wonder what all the fuss was about. Leaving aside the small minority whose views were clouded by their own prejudice, others were simply puzzled by the response. This spoke to me of the divergent experiences that so influence our understanding of the world; that even when we try, it is often a stretch for us to understand the experience of others.
Perhaps the men, and some women, who made clear that they didnt understand what the fuss was about had not experienced or observed the sort of behaviour the prime ministers speech spoke to. Or, if they had witnessed sexism and misogyny, it did not carry the same emotional weight for them.
This serves as a reminder of the divergent realities that co-exist within our community; that we still often cannot see how different things are for another.
The most powerful descriptor of this I know was in an Eva Sallis lecture during which she said: The Aboriginal Australians I know live in a different Australia from the one I live in. While the distinction she speaks of is race rather than gender, it remains apposite. We live in the same Australia, we share many values, but our experiences and therefore our perceptions of reality can be so different. If we are to understand across these differences, we have to be capable of more than tolerance. We have to try to imagine anothers experience and to do so with imagination, compassion and respect.
And we have to counter those voices whose intent is to divide. The retrograde trend which culminated in these events was enabled and permitted by our silence and by our acceptance of sexism and misogyny.
If we aspire to a national unity built on bringing people together, we must remember the importance of giving voice to these different realities.
And that complacency can become complicity if we do not speak out.