ONTD Political

Sisterhood beware - silencing ideas stymies progress

10:46 am - 01/25/2012
When debate is marked by personal vitriol, people opt out and keep quiet.

I have long considered myself a feminist and been disturbed by the parts of the sisterhood who operate like the nasty in-group in primary school. You can't be our friend because you don't wear the right pink dress. You can't be our friend unless you toe the approved party-line on abortion, childcare or sexual clothing. It is astounding to watch grown women engage in exclusionary behaviour that most of us outgrew by age 10.

But they have been at it again in the debate over the feminist credentials of Melinda Tankard Reist.



Anne Summers wrote in The Sunday Age that Tankard Reist can't be in the feminist club because she is pro-life. Summers said the core principle of feminism is women's independence, financial and reproductive. That might be Summers' definition, but it's not mine, nor would it be many other women's. Definitions aside, why can't Summers just reiterate the arguments in favour of free, legal and safe abortion, instead of seeking to ostracise someone with whom she disagrees? "You're not my friend" does not counter any anti-abortion argument. It is a non-sequitur.

Kate Gleeson, an Australian Research Council Fellow in politics at Macquarie University, then called for Tankard Reist to explain herself in The Age - in particular her work for former senator Brian Harradine.

Gleeson said that many feminists were "suspicious" of Tankard Reist because she "identifies as a pro-life feminist". Lots of people have advised politicians with whose policies many of us disagree. Why Tankard Reist has to explain herself any more than any other adviser is beyond me. And why any of us should be "suspicious" of her just because she thinks differently from us beggars belief. I don't believe in god but I feel no need to be suspicious of those who do.

Like Tankard Reist, I have been on the receiving end of the self-appointed sisterhood's ire. I used to write about motherhood and childcare; about the importance of women having time away from work to care for their own children; about the need for child-friendly work practices, as opposed to employer-friendly long hours of care and short periods of leave. Ideas that are commonplace now, but 15 years ago, fresh out of '80s feminism, were rare, if not among mothers, at least in public forums.

I used to write about that, but not now. I stopped because along with other academics I know, I couldn't be bothered dealing with the vitriol, as opposed to refutation of ideas. The insistence on playing the player, not the ball. I stick to property law these days. My ideas on strata schemes don't seem to leave anyone reaching for their garlic and crucifix.

The problem with exclusionary vitriol is that it lowers the level of public debate.

First, many people, much smarter and more insightful than me, step out of the arena. Public debate is carried on by the small pool of people thick-skinned enough to weather, or perverse enough to like, the nastiness. Now that unaccountable bloggers, sneering and abusing from the safety of their bedrooms, have entered the fray, the pool of contributors to civil public debate is even smaller.

Second, shooting the messenger fails to engage with the question at hand. "You're wrong because you don't think like us" only convinces the converted.

Finally, silencing ideas stymies progress. The essence of any functioning democracy is the ability to get as many ideas on the table as possible and then thrash them out without fear or favour. The humility to admit that you might be wrong, that someone might be able to change your mind by presenting you with a new idea, is the hallmark of a healthy intellect.

The alternatives to democratic debate are cults or repressive religions. Devotees want to be told what to think and tenets of faith must not be questioned, on threat of excommunication. I have often thought this is what some women want from feminism.

I do not know Tankard Reist and I am not pro-life, but I defend her right to express her opinions, call herself a feminist and prosecute her beliefs. That includes her right to advise senators with whom I might also disagree.

The real test of tolerance is tolerating those with whom we strongly disagree. And we will never have a right to express our own contested ideas if we do not defend others' rights to do the same.

Cathy Sherry is a senior lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of New South Wales.


Source

I do disagree with a lot of what is written in the piece. I really don't think you can be feminist and pro-life, myself.
ms_maree 25th-Jan-2012 05:41 am (UTC)
I'm trying to forget that there is an Australia Day. Yesterday I saw two cars with large flags on the back and I was like 'wankers'.

I'm pretty judgy that way.
sarahofcroydon 25th-Jan-2012 05:45 am (UTC)
I think you're justified in judging. (Don't even bother with the comments) I was judging my local Coles not only for that travesty of an ad but for going too far selling green and gold donuts. At first glance I thought they were moldy.
ms_maree 25th-Jan-2012 05:51 am (UTC)
I can just tell that they are racist. Or should I say, more racist than the average. I feel the same way about anyone who has it on their lawn, on their tshirt, or if they have a tattoo of the southern cross.

I just hate the whole day. I old enough to remember when Australians were shamed by obvious patriotism. What is happening now? What is this patriotism, what is this flag waving, what the hell is this country doing?
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