The opinion media in Australia is still abuzz over our Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s impassioned speech against the alleged misogyny of the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. So powerful was the Prime Minister’s speech that her popularity soon increased to its highest point in over a year, and even the English language seemed to shift a little in its otherwise glacial progression, as Macquarie decided to amend its dictionary’s definition of the relevant term: augmenting ‘hatred of women’ with ‘entrenched prejudice of women’.
Long term readers will know that if there were a term for ‘hatred of linguistic innovations’, I would own it, use it, perhaps name my first born child after it. Hearing people use words in ambiguous ways makes me very uncomfortable, and I counter this discomfort by going to my ‘happy place’ which is, according to urbandictionary, “a psychologically-induced trance-like state, where a person may regress from a stressful situation”, but is, according to me, the Online Etymology Dictionary: www.etymonline.com.
There we find that ‘misogyny’ entered English in the early 17th Century, and has a reliable Greek pedigree. It means ‘hatred of women’, but comes from a time and place in which even a neutral attitude to women might seem pretty hateful by modern standards.
Sadly the etymology is of little use to us in this instance. While we could start investigating whether Abbott truly hates women, those who have raised and sustained the ‘misogyny’ charge have already admitted that they don’t really mean what the word really means. The only good thing to come out of this whole fiasco is the realisation that ‘prejudice of’ is more correct than ‘prejudice against’, even though it sounds completely wrong.
The use of ‘misogyny’ in this context is very similar to the use of ‘homophobia’. The word is applied loosely, yet in the popular imagination it conjures up the very worst possibilities. The Prime Minister quoted some of Abbott’s more grievous instances of woman-hating:
“If it’s true… that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”
And then a discussion ensues, and another person says “I want my daughter to have as much opportunity as my son.” To which the Leader of the Opposition says “Yeah, I completely agree, but what if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”
Does this statement denote misogyny? As a philosopher, it is hard to say. The statement could denote a range of things, and it is only really by knowing the person that we can hope to discern the intent behind the words. It could, for example, constitute a disinterested speculation about the evolutionary development of the sexes, as a possible explanation for the disproportional representation of the sexes in parliament. On the other hand, it could constitute a weak empirical claim, designed to legitimise various generalisations about the roles women ought to play in public life. The fact that it is almost a taboo subject in polite company does not render the comment misogynist by default.
Yet sexual prejudice is a real problem. Gillard’s speech captured an international audience, ignorant of the political context, but moved by the content of the speech itself. Women (I am told) identified with the spirit of the speech, as it substantiated the numerous occasions on which many women have remained silent in the face of insidious, pervasive prejudice of their sex.
The hidden political context is that Australia is more than two years into the longest, most bitter election campaign in our history. When the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, we were told again and again that another election could be called at any time. Though the political tension has become somewhat familiar, for all intents and purposes we are still stuck in the early days of that awkward result. Both parties are equally savage in their determination to maintain supremacy for an election that could be called at any moment. Unfortunately the political high ground and the moral high ground are very far apart.
The opposition took advantage of sexist text messages sent by the Speaker of the House to push for his removal. Gillard’s now famous speech was interpreted locally as merely an animated attempt to turn the ‘sexism’ charge back on the Opposition Leader. It was a charge of hypocrisy, a ‘tu quoque’ argument given almost transcendent power by a collective sense of grievance over genuine instances of misogyny and sexism.
But in the end, anything we might learn from this saga is tainted unless we remember the ignoble political motivations behind both sides of the debate. There is no part of this farce that cannot be attributed to the hung parliament we have endured for over two years. The real lesson is that desperate politics poisons reasoned debate. Our best hope may be just to switch off until it’s all over.
Zac Alstin is a free lance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.