Liberal feminism’s blind spot: material & structural oppression

“How would training women to ask for higher pay help her, as someone who earns a set award wage and has very little power to negotiate anything? How would professional mentoring empower her? How would her life be improved by quotas for women on boards?”

– Eleanor Robertson in her Meanjin essay ‘Get mad and get even’, talking about her sister, a part-time childcare worker.

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The week before last I read Eleanor Robertson’s critique of hyper-individualistic liberal feminism – and pop feminism – in the current edition Meanjin Quarterly. It is a thoughtful essay; you can read it HERE. Robertson challenges the popular discourse around empowering women in the workplace and society at large; “solutions” that focus on individual actions (of a particular class of women) that, she argues, only benefit the individuals themselves. Robertson asks: “Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women?”

For example, Robertson argues that Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help philosophy, ‘Lean In’, is the manifestation of liberal feminism’s Enlightenment values of individual choice, meritocracy, and “acceptance of the basic structures of capitalist social organisation.” She points out that Sandberg’s idea – and by extension, liberal feminism – completely fails to acknowledge or address an array of structural barriers that prevent many women from realising the liberal feminist dream. [This is a point I emphasised in section 3 of my post ‘Diversity Feminism’].

Robertson writes:

“This mythology is only available to women who share most of Sandberg’s own social positions: middle- or upper-class, white, educated, heterosexual, able, employed. It doesn’t really attempt to engage in analysis of material or structural factors that circumscribe women’s freedom. Few modern liberal feminists are pro-Sandberg, but her views are the logical distillation of liberalism applied to women. The concepts it excludes from its analysis—solidarity, collective action, bottom-up democracy—are the ones most essential to the project of emancipating women as a class.[emphasis mine]

A valid and sharply made point. Robertson’s critique of the pursuit of entertainment diversity, however, is less so. Whilst I do agree that equating diversity in marketing and entertainment products with broadscale empowerment is misguided and naive, the cultural products that surround us do shape (not merely mirror or distract) our consciousness; only someone who is accustomed to being in the historically oppressive ethnic majority (and educated, heterosexual, able bodied, employed, cisgender – as the author appears to be), or simply detached from society, would dimiss the idea that diversity in culture (including visual culture and storytelling) has value at all.

That being said, Robertson highlights the inefficacy of the so-called “offense model of feminism” in regards to protecting women’s human and civil rights, which in places like The United States are under persistant and increasing attack from reactionaries. Moreover, all this focus on individual action and choice, she argues, is funnelling time and resources away from “sites of real struggle” – and preventing us from seeing the need for collective action organised around a vision for a world that is fairer and healthier than the one we currently have.

A world where “being poor, being black, and being a woman didn’t mean being ground into the dirt by arbitrary power”.

You can have a read of the essay in full HERE. Though I am not 100% on board with all of Robertson’s assertions, there is a load of food for thought in this piece.

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Another recent essay that captured my attention (and a great many others) was Richard Cooke’s piece for the Monthly, ‘The Boomer Supremacy’; about the demographic hoarding political power, securing their own economic advantage, imposing their cultural dominance, and crapping on younger generations at every opportunity.

Highly recommend reading it HERE


’20 inspiring black women who have changed Australia’

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day (which is tomorrow), NITV has put together a list of 20 trailblazing Indigenous women who have changed Australia. I highly recommend having a look at the list HERE. The influence of these women extends from 1812 to today.

A warning that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should exercise caution when viewing the article, as it contains names and photographs of deceased persons.

The first woman on the list … every time I read about her story, it haunts me (her photograph reminds me of many relatives who have passed on – which only serves to strengthen that feeling). Good to see filmmaker Rachel Perkins on the list.


Stella Young.

If you didn’t know her in life… don’t waste any more time! Get acquainted with her right now.

Stella Young was a naturally gifted comedian, journalist, disability activist, educator, thinker, and all-around great human being. Her journey sadly ended on 6th December 2014. She was just 32. There are no words.

Stella had so many interests and passions, but she had a particular and remarkable gift for getting people to shift their perspectives about disability – in particular, for getting people to understand that:

  1. Having a disabled body is not a bad thing in and of itself – it can be a source of pride, rare insights, and community.
  2. There is virtually nothing different about the dreams and desires of disabled people compared to that of “able-bodied” people.
  3. What diminishes the quality of life of disabled people is not so much the physical or intellectual condition of disability itself. It is the ignorance of others, being shut out of over 80% of public spaces and social life due to inaccessibility, and the marginalization and endangerment that comes with living in a society that regards disabled people as unfortunate burdens, not the vital and valuable citizens they are.

She argued with focused and unwavering clarity that the autonomy, self-determination and basic human rights of disabled people matter, against the backdrop of a society in which the autonomy, self-determination and basic human rights of disabled people are still regularly violated.

Stella helped make disability, widely seen as a minority interest, a mainstream issue in many people’s minds. She did it by absolutely refusing to be marginalized herself – by being vocal about her needs and rights, and calling discrimination when she saw it. And she defied dodgy expectations through the sheer force of her personality and presence.

In the process, she created change. And changed countless lives. Mine was one of them.

I urge you to get acquainted with Stella through the body of work she has left behind – her comedy, her media work, her interviews, and her writing. Stella will be entertaining, educating, and creating change for years to come – this I am certain of.

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Stella Young’s life and activism will be honoured with a public memorial service at Melbourne Town Hall this coming Friday, from 11am.

The service will also be beamed out on Federation Square’s Big Screen and broadcast live on ABC News 24 and on 774 ABC Victoria.

The memorial dress code is “Fabulous” – bright colours and minimal black.


Follow up: basic research, & the art of the *indirect* strawman argument

I meant to post this ages ago but WordPress ‘schedule’ tech error, then life distractions, oh dear. A word of WARNING: this post discusses, and links to posts, about the crime of sexual assault.

So back on the 23/10 I took a spontaneous detour to write about how the OpEd Mia Freedman wrote (in which she argued in favour of advising young women to drink less in order to reduce their chances of being sexually assaulted) presented stats that pertain to the perpetrators of physical assault as if they were stats relating to victims of sexual assault (it’s all in that post – scroll down to “Inaccurate & Irresponsible Use Of Statistics”).

This was the biggest problem with the article. It is not unreasonable to expect editorial writers (and writers in general) to not misrepresent data in order to back up their opinions – no matter what the publication. Just because Mia will occasionally dedicate an OpEd to seriously attacking a Kim Kardashian ‘selfie’, doesn’t mean the public can’t expect some standards. Any media platform that reaches a lot of people can and should be called out if they peddle falsehoods – either deliberately or accidentally.

Following the “sexual assault and alcohol” topic, Mia wrote an editorial that insinuated the mainstream media, The Greens, and a number of diversity organisations were “silent” in the aftermath of an anti-Semetic attack in Bondi (which is inaccurate, and ironic, given the attack was not reported by MamaMia in their own round-up of Saturday news). She even suggested that if the victims were Muslim they would have received more coverage. Was this just click-bait or sincere(ly misguided)?

MamaMia had to publish a correction regarding the Greens, who in fact had spoken up about the attack, and many people pointed out that the story was prominent all over media. The site Jews Downunder documented some of this (the author of whom left a comment quite disgusted with Mia’s post/site and its moderation of comments). The Referral also documented some of this, and the diversity orgs that did speak up to condemn the attack. Clearly, a quick fact-checking exercise could have been helpful there.

As it would have with the alcohol and sexual assault piece. A quick google search could have helped locate a University of Wollongong study useful to Mia’s argument. I believe this study is the one Susie O’Brien was referring to in her OpEd on the same thing. The study’s focus is completely on sexually “risky” behaviour of a sample group of women under the influence of alcohol at an Australian University. Looking at gathering data to help inform women how they can use their agency to best protect their interests.

And the report says “This research is needed because public health intervention programs aimed at reducing alcohol consumption and associated risk behaviours generally focus on predominantly male oriented behaviours such as speeding and drink driving (Keane 2009).” (Perhaps they’ll be investigating the sexually risky behaviours of young males too, down the track? Assuming the women aren’t having sex only amongst themselves).

So. There really is no excuse for obfuscating data – I think it is widely understood now that binge drinking is a serious public health and safety issue for women and men (and minors), for numerous reasons. Everyone needs to wise up about it, and research is suggesting sexual health education too needs to address the role of alcohol in affecting choices that can be harmful to ones own health/well being.

The Opposing Arguments…

Mia did cite a US study that found alcohol to be present in a substantial number of sexual assaults of undergraduates in that country. But it is worth noting that another study, “The Role of Rape Myth Acceptance in the Social Norms Regarding Sexual Behavior Among College Students”, found that, in a sample group with a majority of females, 41% believed that a woman who was raped while drunk was responsible, whilst men had higher rape myth acceptance. The less sexual knowledge the men had, the more they accepted the rape myths.

This is one of the reasons the feminists Mia indirectly criticised in her piece want the focus of public discourse about sexual assault to be on the perpetrators of this crime and combating rape myths, as opposed to “female responsibility”. For despite efforts to reinforce the message that it is never the victims fault, some victim blaming persists. Which is why focusing predominantly on what potential victims should do to make themselves safer will continue to draw fierce criticism.

As for the response to the (needlessly personal) Twitter storm. I like to observe how public figures handle media stoushes and controversy in general, so it was interesting to see how Mia responded to the broad spectrum of critical responses she received over the piece. She wrote a follow up editorial, in which she asserts “I don’t want to make this about me”, but that is in fact a piece solely about the more insane things said about her on social media.

In it, she reproduces a series of the most inflammatory, unreasonable and outlandish statements (it is not stated precisely where these statements were made) and comprehensively responds to each of them – kicking their butts, so to speak. Which is, as it happens, a great way to make your own position seem sane and sensible in comparison. On many people, this is an effective method of persuasion. An ironic response to strawman arguments that is itself a kind of indirect strawman – pick out the stupidest arguments against your position, then rebut them (easily – and thus “win” the argument).

After the nasty Twitter hate-fest that occurred, I don’t fault her for doing this at all. When people talk shit at/about you, it is natural to want to serve it back to them. And Mia does have her share of “haters” (as does every opinionated person in the media, regardless of their politics). I just wish Mia had, instead, used her significant platform to respond to, and maybe even counter, some of the serious, civil and sensible critiques of – and concerns raised about – her OpEd.

But, unlike the obviously crazy statements she reproduced to rebut, she doesn’t mention what these critiques are. Here are just some of them:

1) Georgia Dent’s editorial, on Womens Agenda.

2) Maddy Grace’s feminist response addresses the Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien and Mia – ‘How to avoid rape according to Emily Yoffe, Mia Freedman, Susie O’Brien et al’. (Note: Susie defended Mia. Unlike Mia though, she has  made remarks about a 14 year-old victim to the effect of “she chose to be there”. This upset quite a few people, because the victim was denied justice due to her perceived culpability in the disgusting violation of her body).

3) This post claims to cover some of the anti-rape education campaigns that do work in making “our daughters” safer. Quote: “as campaigns in Canada and Scotland have shown in recent years, there are information campaigns that actually do make a difference in lowering the rate of sexual assault on people who are drunk, and they do it by using messages targeting potential rapists rather than potential victims”.

4) Karen Pickering tweeted this very personal 2012 post she wrote to explain her involvement in SlutWalk, which illustrates the emotional and psychological complexity of being a victim of this crime – particularly when the victim believes there are things they could have done to avoid it. Many of the emotional and angry responses to Mia’s piece relate to concerns about this complexity.

5) And THIS article from Amy Gray, about the Victorian Liberal Government’s proposed overhaul of rape law in the state,  touches on another reason some people were so against Mia’s argument. It has to do with concerns about how public conversations, and public approval of certain views, can potentially reinforce the prejudices of future jurors and law makers – as well as further discourage victims from reporting crimes.

The Australian Institute of Criminology paper “Juror attitudes and biases in sexual assault cases” articulates this difficulty:
“two recent studies […] show that juror judgements in rape trials are influenced more by the attitudes, beliefs and biases about rape which jurors bring with them into the courtroom than by the objective facts presented, and that stereotypical beliefs about rape and victims of it still exist within the community.”

Note that Table 1, “Community beliefs about rape (percent)”, suggests that a majority of both men and women do not think sexual assault can be excused if the victim is heavily affected by alcohol. Good. However, the paper also discusses how alcohol consumption by both alleged victim and perpetrator adds an extra dimension of ambiguity and difficulty in achieving anything resembling justice in the courts.

You can probably guess why that is.

All of the above are things Mia could have responded to, to advance the real, civil discussion she wanted to have about the topic she chose to raise on her very successful platform. Mia has the ability to guide that discussion by putting forth well researched, civil arguments and engaging/responding to other civil arguments (and flatly ignoring the purveyors of nutbag statements like “you’re a rapist sympathiser”).

It wouldn’t take that much longer to prepare, but given how serious the issue it, it’s probably worth taking some extra time anyway. If Mia decides to write about this again in future, doing so with a careful consideration of the context she is launching her opinion into (highlighted by all the pages I link to above), might help her make her argument. Or, she can write something else inflammatory, controversial, hastily put together, and still get heaps of traffic on site.

What approach one takes depends on what the real end goal is, I guess.


AN EXCHANGE OF UNPLEASANTRIES – Samantha Maiden vs David Donovan.

Let me preface what I am about to write with an assertion that I have respect and admiration for both DAVID DONOVAN [Journalist and managing editor of Independent Australia – a progressive journal I am thankful exists] and SAMANTHA MAIDEN [National Political Editor Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Herald Sun, Sunday Mail (Qld & SA), Sunday Times, Sunday Tasmanian & (a personal fave of hers) Sunday Territorian]. I also follow both on Twitter, and value their media contributions. The following is an analysis of how the bias of individuals can often stifle genuine communication – particularly when one, both (or all) parties go into a conversation with strong preconceptions about who the other party is. These two, evidently, have strong opinions about each other.

Yesterday evening, I was magazine reading after a lazy fish n’ chips dinner and intermittently checking twitter when I witnessed – in real time – an exchange between David and Samantha. It all started with this innocuous (I think) tweet from David:

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I think it’s safe to say David doesn’t like Abbott. Also true: writers and journalists ask questions. David was asking Twitter a question.  Nothing heinously untoward here. Samantha responded very quickly with an innocuous answer/correction (to both David and Van Badham – probably because Samantha saw David’s tweet via Van’s profile?):

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David responded:

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The link he tweeted was THIS transcript of a story by Sara Everingham for ABC Local Radio’s ‘PM’ program. It contains within it these words spoken by Sara: “He also promised that if the Coalition wins the election he’ll spend his first week as prime minister with the Yolngu people in north-east Arnhem Land.”

I don’t know the full story of the history of communication between these two, but I strongly suspect after that second tweet that Samantha got (understandably) irritated with the insinuation within it – although she kept a lid on it for a while longer. Her responses to those two tweets:

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Okay. Reasonable, right? David responded, by noting the lines within Sara’s report, which make the assertion that David’s original question was about:

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Having made the point that that was not a direct quote but the reporter’s assertion, Samantha is obviously talking about widely reported official campaign and policy promises. So she is correct in her assertion that Abbott’s widely reported official campaign promises included a promise to spend 1 week a year there. All the reports I recall hearing/reading reported this – I must have missed Sara’s PM report.

David responded:

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And after that, Samantha seemingly went a little cray, arguing that the ABC PM story itself did not state that Abbott would spend his first week as Prime Minister with that particular Arnhem Land community (even though it did – that may have been an error, but Sara did report that in the transcript. It is true though that a direct quote from Abbott is not played in the report – he is never heard saying “in my first week…”):

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Really, Samantha? All David asked was whether this was true or not. You provided him with some information. He responded by providing a link to an ABC radio report that states – erroneously or not – that Abbott said to the community that he would spend his first week there. You countered by reasserting this was false and that that particular “promise” was just speculative twitter hokum. The fact that it was reported by the national broadcaster once, is enough to warrant a simple informal question on Twitter though, surely?

David responded:

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The link he tweeted was to THIS. Turns out, David grew up alongside Indigenous Australians in Central Queensland during the 1970s and 1980s. The article is about his experiences growing up there.

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Independent Australia does campaign for Indigenous people.

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That is just plainly wrong. Obviously. I’ll chalk it down to Samantha (perhaps) being offended by David’s insinuation she leapt to the defence of Abbott. Or she doesn’t like/respect David and his work, and has a particular perception of who he is, and what motivated that initial question (she said as much – in an earlier tweet she suggested he was peddling an “urban myth”). Most likely, a combination.

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Samantha is a good journalist, but this is an unedifying spectacle now. For real. The conversation continued:

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The PM program should have corrected that record, if it was incorrect. PM Abbott probably doesn’t even know about it.

And then Samantha accused David of being a lazy journo.

I believe this is what is called “escalation”.

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I don’t recall ever hearing Abbott was going to spend the first week there – then again, I don’t think I listened to Sara’s report. Furthermore it is hard to say whether or not many votes cast in the election were influenced specifically by that “1 week a year” pledge – but, let us continue:

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Look. There is ALOT of poorly researched crackpot conspiracy shit being peddled across all social media, by the far left and far right. But this was not a conspiracy theory. It was a question. “Bungled sentence” in Sara’s report it may have been, but the best way to find out if it was, is to ask. Right?

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Then another lady named Heather provided another online document that mentions the ‘first week of Prime Ministership’ “promise” too:

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Samantha handled that with, er, coolheaded aplomb…

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She is a little ticked off, I think it’s fair to say. This is the document she was describing. It’s not a transcript, she’s right about that. It is a Garma Festival media release titled “Key Points of Tony Abbott’s Garma Speech on Indigenous Affairs”. But it contains the phrase: “…he undertook to spend the first week after he is elected in the Yolgnu community if that would be acceptable to the community.”

Heather then asked Samantha: “So you’re saying the #Garma Festival are publishing something that’s not true on their website?” Samantha:

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I thought that a condescending thing to assume, so offered another condescending assumption in the other direction:

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Because thanks to David’s tweet question, someone DID tweet a link to the video footage online! TWITTER CAN BE AWESOME THIS WAY! Ask, and you shall receive……

Before that happened though, someone else tweeted this to them both (Van Badham still being cc’d on all of this, LOL):

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Samantha still wasn’t having a bar of it:

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So then the online video footage surfaced, and was reviewed by both parties and everyone else watching this conversation. The video is HERE– relevant part, 21.20-21.50. Samantha’s response?

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What do you think about the video? Could what Abbott said about “first week” be construed as a promise? Or, as Samantha asserted afterwards on Twitter, a spur of the moment open question said to get a reaction from his audience?

Frankly I think that: 1) this was not an official campaign promise; and so 2) it is the opinion of the Yolgnu community itself that matters here. Were they expecting him there first week? If they were, breaking that “agreement” really does suck. But let us still remember that there are numerous other pressing issues to be criticising and scrutinising this government for already. And the most important thing will be whether or not he delivers the positive, “Real Change” he pledged to remote Indigenous communities – and how that change is delivered. Please media, investigate that. From all angles.

Getting back to my original assertion now. Samantha Maiden is a good journalist. But David’s initial question was fine, based on the fact that he had heard a report on the national broadcaster that stated Abbott had made some sort of promise to spend his first week as Prime Minister with the Yolngu people.

As you can imagine, things went nowhere after the post-video comments, but what both David and Samantha were tweeting to others – about each other – revealed more about how preconceptions and bias (which we all suffer from) were affecting their perception during (and probably just prior to) this exchange.

Samantha to other:

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 David to other:

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For the record, David Donovan is not an “inner city hipster” and nor were any of the people who joined in on the conversation and supported David’s POV. He is a passionate and engaged political observer, a journalist with strong convictions and a social conscience. 

And, for the record, yes, Samantha works for News Limited, owned by Lucifer Rupert Murdoch, but Samantha has already critiqued the dearth of females in Abbott’s ministry, has begun questioning aspects of “operation sovereign borders” and as a result has been told by some LNP trolls supporters that media #silence is quite appropriate right now: see evidence here (this is tremendous)

Also note there were many other tweets from both David and Samantha – essentially saying the same thing – as they responded to other people joining in the conversation. I’ve given you the gist of what was said to demonstrate a fairly common mistake we humans make in political conversations: letting our preconceptions and egos derail what could otherwise be civil exchanges.

We’re funny like that.

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Post script: My intent in writing this post is not to demonise anyone. Only to look at the way we communicate – and fail to communicate – when we are not aware of our biases.

Why is that important to be aware of? Because our biases will likely influence what questions we think are relevant to even ask and pursue answers to. All the more important to be aware of, when you are an investigative journalist.