Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mirror, mirror in the chamber: a week is a long time…

In asking us to respect our political institutions, those within ought to respect them too

*   misogyny: n. hatred of women.
* misanthropy: n. hatred, dislike or distrust of mankind
*   sexist: adj. of an attitude which stereotypes a person according to gender, or sexual preference, rather than judging on individual merits.
*   context: n. the parts of a discourse or writing which precede or follow, and are directly connected with, a given passage or word.
*   adversarial: not what our politics should be…

Each time I sat down to write a post this week, so many other bloggists did the same thing: just faster and better than me. We’ve had an odd week in the political sphere, an awful one actually which does our polity no good. It revolved around those words at the top of this post, I include the simple definitions for your consideration.

The words ‘misogyny’ and ‘sexist’ have been thrown around liberally as one side of politics has sought to out-yell the other. There have been texts which probably shouldn’t have been written, let alone made public. There’s been a prime ministerial speech delivered from the dispatch box in our National Parliament but which has reverberated around the world… There’s just been a whole lot of wha? is going on out there.

One angle I’d like to add to the blogosphere however, that I don’t believe has been covered yet, is the impact this has on those who don’t like politics, those who study it and those who want to understand it but wonder why they should. These are the students I teach, the friends I talk to and the radio audience I engage with from time to time.

I’ve worked in the heart of Australian politics as it is played out in Canberra. It is contradictory, it is many-sided, it is hypocritical, it has been nasty. It also has a lot of people who mostly want to see good things done, who want to see a better society and want to do much good. Because I’ve witnessed the good that politics can be, my despair at the last week or so is greater but so too does my determination to work from my place now in the academy to make it work better.

The question for me is ‘how can we get our politics back on track?’ Why has it derailed so badly? While our Prime Minister’s most sharply delivered line might have directed the Opposition Leader to look in a mirror, I’d propose that our politics is our mirror on this society…and I think that mirror needs a little spray and wipe.

I was entranced by Prime Minister Gillard’s speech this week. As one who analyses speeches and their delivery, and as one who has written them, a political speech can convey so much. A speech can indeed have a significance beyond its intention and it can carry beyond its moment. I think PM Gillard’s speech will do that. There was evident in her every fibre, an anger and frustration that many of us have felt to some degree or another at one time or another. She did not scream, she did not yell. She asserted herself, she was passionate about what she was saying. She garnered the empathy of many because it was heartfelt.

And yet, it was not a speech that should have needed to be made in our 21st century parliament. I am concerned that what we have seen in the last few weeks is an amplification of a tangled web of anger and sexist behaviour. It permeates our society unfortunately, and I think it is getting worse, or I’m tolerating it less. I listened in despair as some radio talkback callers aired views about the prime minister … why do people ring up the radio to publicly declare on the prime minister’s body shape, why FCS? Kudos to Rebecca Levingston (@reblev on our @612brisbane) the presenter who handled the situation so well, live to air. She had earlier set up a thoughtful dialogue between academic Dr Bronwen Levy and Andrew Bartlett. They talked about the return to civility and politeness in our political discourse. It is so much easier really, to be civil, than to be rude.

All this in the week that Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl passionate in her belief in education for girls and women and her dreams of becoming a political leader, was shot by hostile members of the Taliban. As I write, she is still on ventilator, fighting for her life. She was front and centre of one of my lectures this week. I showed a short video of Malala talking to camera and speaking to us. Here was a 14 year old who believed passionately in the value of education, who wanted to pursue her education, who spoke highly of the importance of a strong polity and her desire that in order to do good, she must become a great political leader. I hope she does. I wonder what she would have thought if she’d watched our parliamentary example this past week.

It was one of those ‘special’ moments in class I’ve spoken of previously—those unplanned moments of learning for all of us—a thoughtful pause descended on the lecture theatre. I conveyed to students that moments like this challenge us all—can my belief in the transformative power of education sit alongside my preference that our soldiers be withdrawn from these regions? Sometimes, life and circumstance do a scornful and teasing dance upon our textbooks. I am fortunate to teach students prepared to come along for that ride.

Later that night, on my drive home, I tried a little time travel. I tried to imagine a 14-year-old Julia Gillard, 36 years ago giving a speech about her aspirations, her dream of education, her wish to become a leader. Then, I projected myself 100km down the highway and 36 years into the future when a 50-year-old Malala might be standing at the dispatch box of her parliament. I hope her speeches won't be about staring down sexist and unpleasant behaviour. I hope for her and the future, that anger which pervades now will have subsided, nay, diminished. I hope her speeches will not need to be analysed and parsed in a context of misogyny and adversarial politics.

We all need to look in that mirror held up in Canberra this week and ask ourselves, really, what do we have to be so angry about? Our polity is our social contract, and it takes all of us to make it work.

And my thanks too to Rebecca Levingston and Tony Johnston on @ABCGoldCoast for inviting me along to try and make sense of the week. We’ll just keep holding up that mirror.

All definitions at the top of this post are taken from the Macquarie Dictionary, just because.