The "yeah, but" speech

Gotta say I'm surprised that what may become the most memorable, if not the defining, speech of Julia Gillard's tenure as Prime Minister is still being met with the words "yeah, but" by many men (and women) in this country ...

By that, I mean too many people seem happy to concede the PM maybe, sorta, kinda has a point about all that misogyny and sexism stuff, then jump in with a "yeah but" to kinda, sorta, maybe defend the attitudes she was railing against.

A lot of it smells like the "I'm not racist" qualifier preceding 87 per cent of pub discussions about indigenous Australians or Muslims, wherein the speaker is quite happy to admit he went to school or played footie with a blackfella (family newspaper version of actual word used) or "Leb", then details "wots wrong wiv 'em" ... in general.

So in the past week, you get men nodding their heads in agreement with the idea women deserve to be treated as equals, then saying "yeah, but" when asked to examine behaviour, language or attitudes they indulge in that makes many women feel unequal.

And yes, there was a calculated political context to why Gillard launched into her speech, as has been discussed by many commentators, but let me ask you this.

If Gillard had stepped into Parliament and made the same speech for "all the right reasons", ie, just because she felt degraded by the Leader of the Opposition's attitudes, can you imagine the outcry?

"Thin-skinned", "mad-feminist agenda", "what's this got to do with governing the country?", "this is not a uni campus", "government derailed" - I can just imagine it.

Nothing in politics is done without context, so you could argue Gillard used a very canny "in" to broach a subject she obviously felt strongly about. I think it's the only good thing Peter Slipper will ever be remembered for.

On the other hand, I don't think Tony Abbott is a misogynist.


I'm no cleanskin when it comes to expressing sexist points of view, but I'll argue until the cows come home that I'm not a misogynist - which is why I felt some vague sense of compassion for Abbott when he was relentlessly accused of being one - ie of hating women.

Misogyny, like many other powerful and important words, is in dire risk of being diluted to the level of terms such as "genius", "tragedy", "horror", "exclusive" and "awesome" because so many clueless wombats misuse it or, barrow-pushers abuse it, to shut down criticism of women they find discomfiting or confronting.

The ABC reported Tuesday that thanks to the Gillard speech, the editor or the Macquarie Dictionary, Sue Butler, plans to broaden the definition of misogyny to include "entrenched prejudice against women", which I'm not sure is a good or bad thing.

Misogyny is an ugly word for good reason - so to broaden its definition seems destined to further dilute its meaning.

In my opinion, Abbott is a paternalist, with a dash of chauvinism, who has "undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which he belongs" or what author Michael Korda described as "blind allegiance and simple-minded devotion to one's maleness that is mixed with open or disguised belligerence towards women".

Others have argued passionately otherwise, such as Susan Mitchell, author of the book Tony Abbott: A Man's Man, on the website Women's Agenda, who last week compared misogyny with racism.

"When we judge a person simply on the basis of their race or suggest that their race makes them somehow lesser, the term 'racist' seems perfectly appropriate," Mitchell says.

"If someone believes that men and women are not equal in every respect, it is the same as believing that whites and blacks are not equal in every respect.

"So when Tony Abbott says that women are not as suited to powerful positions as men because of their physiology and their temperament, he is judging them to be lesser than men purely on the basis of their gender. Now while this may not be overt hatred of women, it is a form of irrational hatred," writes Mitchell.

The leap here is Mitchell conflates "judging a person on the basis of their race or gender" with "thinking someone's race or gender somehow makes them lesser".

And this is where we enter very murky waters.

I believe most people (un)consciously make judgments about others along a vast axis that includes attributes such as race, gender, age, height, weight, hair colour, attractiveness, diction, clothing, scent, posture, even teeth colour ... and the list goes on and on.

This does not mean they think the other person is lesser, or that they hate them - just that they have prejudged them.

This is what sexists do ... they think just because you're a man or woman, you will display systemic differentiations based on your sex.

I am sexist by this definition.

Paternalists like to smugly pat women on the head and tell them know what's best for them because they're a bit silly and don't understand the real world - kind of like what the Australian government does to PNG, Samoa and our indigenous population - so you can see why Gillard calling Abbott paternalistic wouldn't have flown.

Male chauvinists take this a step beyond and believe, because of the sexes' systemic differentiations, men are "better" than women, an unattractive characteristic also shared by many people who attended private schools, live in certain suburbs or refuse to eat meat.

Misogynists, finally, just hate women; they believe they are property, inferior, breakable, hysterical, vain or "just good for rooting".

Of course, many of these attitudes bleed into and inform the others, but I like to think the best of people and I don't believe Abbott hates women.

However, the strikingly obvious characteristic of this debate is that it is complex - and that what you or I consider to be misogyny, chauvinism, paternalism or sexism is open to different interpretations.

If you're new to this, it might also come as a surprise the debate has been going on for centuries and that even feminist academics cannot agree on some of the central tenets of the "gender debate", such as what equality actually means.

There's a vast difference between saying men and women should have equal rights and that we have absolutely equal capabilities in all things.

Equality also does not mean "sameness", because when you insist people of all sexes, races and backgrounds are the same, then you presume every person you meet is going to be the same and react the same on every issue ... you're measuring everyone by how you think, which is actually another form of prejudice.

So this is a complex issue, but one that has been firmly put on the national agenda by our PM, Julia Gillard.

Before last week, I bet there were millions of Australians who'd never even heard the word misogyny, let alone knew what it meant, but it was suddenly on the front page of newspapers and being mispronounced by TV hosts whose usual high-water mark is mastering the "gangnam style" dance.

This is a great thing, a great debate and one of the best things to come out of our Parliament in a long time.

I just hope it continues.


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