Facing attacks, humanties academics should embrace a debate about the value of our work

The humanities in Australia seem to be under attack. Last week it was revealed that the former education Minister Simon Birmingham had blocked approximately $4 million dollars of funding for humanities projects that had been approved by the Australian Research Council (ARC). Defending his position on Twitter, Birmingham said:

“I‘m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.” Do you disagree, @SenKimCarr? Would Labor simply say yes to anything?”

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Mardi Gras and the politics of inclusion

Late last week I got a letter from a group of Mardi Gras volunteers titled “SYDNEY GAY AND LESBIAN MARDI GRAS IS UNDER THREAT AND NEEDS YOUR HELP”.

The letter refers to motions being put by the group Pride in Protest at the next general meeting. The motions are quite varied, but include statements that condemns police violence, calls on the Government to end all Aboriginal deaths in custody and calls on the Government to end the human rights abuses on Manus and Nauru. There has also been significant debate about moves to ban the police and the Liberal Party from the parade, acknowledging the violence both organisations continue to inflict on both queer, but also other minority communities. Pride in Protest also wants to limit the role of corporations in the parade.

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Trevor Noah, James Gunn, and the problem with outrage culture

The outrage cycle has struck again this week — this time targeting two big stars in Hollywood and the late night circuit. In Hollywood, the Director James Gunn was fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy series after a number of vulgar tweets he authored about ten years ago surfaced online. On the other side of the US, in the late night circuit, the host the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, came under fire after a video of a racist routine targeting Aboriginal women also appeared online. The video, which is four years old, has to some calling for Noah’s upcoming tour in Australia to be boycotted.

There are some big commonalities between these two events.

First, both were incidents that happened a number of years ago, but only surfaced in the last week. Both were instances of people trying to make jokes, even if vulgar, crude and racist. More important both have expressed remorse for their jokes, with Noah saying he dropped his joke after he realised it was offensive (but stopping short of apologising), and James Gunn showing immense regret for his comments. Both are also now facing serious consequenses for their words, with the action against Gunn (being immediately fired) in particular being quite severe.

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Why do men join far right groups, and how can we get them out?

Last night I went to an excellent lecture from Professor Michael Kimmel, hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Kimmel researches why men are attracted to far right groups and spoke about how to get them out in this talk. . There were a bunch of people who were interested in the lecture when I was tweeting about it, so I thought it would be worth noting down some of Kimmel’s ideas and some of my own reflections on them.

First! Please note, I’ve included some of the cartoons that Kimmel used in this lecture to illustrate his point (photos I’ve taken of his slides). These cartoons are extremely racist, homophobic and sexist. I am not using them as an endorsement of their message, but rather as a way to highlight the point Kimmel was making. But beware of their content!

Kimmel’s research is based on the acknowledgement that men are more likely to join and be active in far right groups than women (although not exclusively), and therefore to understand these groups we have to have a gendered analysis of them. Understanding gender alone, he argued, would not allow us to understand the extreme right. However, you also cannot understand the extreme right without understanding gender.

Kimmel went through a three stage process in how far right groups talk about and use gender in their materials, recruiting etc. I’m going to go through these stages and then provide some further reflections.

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The troubles with challenging identity

Last week I shared a very controversial article from Rebecca Reilly Cooper about gender identity. To summarise the article Reilly Cooper argues that making gender a ‘spectrum’ (with all the new identities that come with it) ends up just creating more restrictive gendered boxes, when what we need to be doing is tear down the idea of gender itself.

It’s not an understatement to say that the article was controversial and there was a particularly heated, but I think in many ways fruitful, conversation about it on the Queers Facebook page where we also shared it. There were plenty of critiques of the article, which is great, but I thought I wanted to focus on one. Many, I think rightfully, argued that Reilly Cooper took an extremely dismissive/snarky/aggressive tone toward trans and non-binary people, at times outright mocking them for their chosen identity and the politics that underpinned those identities.

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How the left has facilitated moral panic about Barnaby’s affair

Over the past couple of days the Barnaby Joyce affair-with-his-staffer saga has dramatically shifted. Most importantly the discussion has moved somewhat away from discourse about allegations of potential corruption, and well into the arena of a discourse about the character and judgement of a man who would cheat on his wife and family in this way.

Yesterday afternoon Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a new #bonkban in response to the “shocking error of judgement” from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Turnbull announced that he will change the Ministerial code of conduct to ban Ministers from having sex with staffers, although it is unclear both how this will be policed, and more importantly how it will be enforced.

Let us be clear. Banning consensual sex between two adults is never acceptable. While the Barnaby saga raises questions about conflicts of interest that occur when employers and employees have sex, bans will always have a detrimental impact. This ban can only lead to a few outcomes — (1) when Ministers and staffers do inevitably have sex it will go underground, likely leaving the staffer — the one with less power — to be pushed aside at the expense of the Minister who is harder to get rid of; and (2) it will turn the media into the police officers of consensual sex, leading to potentially frenzied sexual panics whenever someone is caught out. Potentially more importantly with no actual mechanisms for enforcement, when scandals do break (or are about to break), it will likely always be the staffer who bears the brunt of the attack, as it will be much easier to fire a staffer than to sack a Minister.

Bans on consensual sexual activity always hurt those in a less powerful, or more importantly, a less socially acceptable position in society. This ban will only increase a frenzied discussion about sexual activity in Parliament, one which will help facilitate and justify the sort of sordid and disgusting front pages of The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun we’ve seen in the recent week.

While it is no surprise that this ban has been implemented by Malcolm Turnbull, primarily as a way to deal with those forms of headlines, and to distract from the allegations of corruption that have been leveled at Barnaby Joyce, what is disappointing is that the left has in fact, even unwittlingly, facilitated the moral panic about Barnaby’s affair that has led us to this situation.

Yes, it is true that many on the left have insisted that it is not about the affair, it is about the corruption.  But intermingled with the attacks on Barnaby for his six months of free rent, and the way in which his partner, but not technically his partner, managed to receive a new high paying job, has been a carefully construed narrative from the left, which while not framed as moral panic, has in fact very much facilitated it.

Look for example at this article from leading feminist Clementine Ford. In the article Ford argues that Barnaby ‘does not understand’ marriage, pointing in particular to his hypocrisy regarding his position on same-sex unions. Yet, intermingled with this is this cracking quote:

This is where the cliche comes in. Because really, a 50-year-old man leaving his wife to start again with a 33-year-old isn’t a love story. It’s a midlife crisis.

In the name of feminism, Ford has decided which relationships are valid, and which are simply a ‘mid-life crises’, in turn deciding which deserve public judgement and which do not (hint: relationships that involve older men dating younger women deserve public judgement). I wonder if Ford has told Vickie Campion that Joyce clearly does not love her, given that the two seem to be continuing a happy relationship and look to be raising a child together?

These narratives have been strong in recent days, in particular intermingling attacks on the affair with the #metoo movement, despite there being no evidence that Barnaby sexually harassed his new partner (there are other allegations of lewd, drunken and sexually harassing behaviour at an event a number of years ago. This event should be interrogated, but as far as I am away do not seem to be related to Barnaby’s affair). While there is a genuine debate about the power dynamics that can be involved in these sorts of relationships, as well as the conflicts of interest that can occur, linking this directly with #metoo places a blanket judgement onto the relationship (and any other like it), an approach that in particular judges Campion’s very capacity to engage in it consensually without knowing the ins and outs of anything she thinks about it.

The stronger way in which the left has facilitated moral panic about the affair has been through claims of hypocrisy. Yes, it is true that Joyce’s affair seems to be deeply hypocritical — the man has previously attempted to block the HPV vaccine as it would lead to an increase in promiscuity amongst young women, and he has vehemently opposed same-sex marriage for his entire career. A man who is having a child out of wedlock now leads one of the most socially conservative parties in the country.

Yet many in the left have used Joyce’s hypocrisy not as a way to have a discussion about the role that conservative moral values play in our public policy, but instead as a way to justify judging and critique Barnaby’s character and private life. Leftists joyfully shared this cartoon from Pat Campbell, which argued that Barnaby made the bed he now lies in when it comes to the exposition of his affair, justifying, even unwittingly, an obsessive on the details of what occurred. This has opened up what Katherine Murphy calls a national debate on character, one which some in the left seem willing and excited to engage in.

Even the constant stream of jokes that run along the lines of “ewwwww I can’t believe Barnaby has sex” has helped feed the fires of this narrative. While at times hilarious, the jokes play into the mantra that some sex (in particular that which involves older people) is just simply too gross to think about, and therefore is something that is worthy of public derision, scorn, judgement, and eventually regulation.

Brought together these moments seem disparate, and certainly do not amount to the sort of moral panic that has been deliberately facilitated by the likes of The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun. But whether we like it or not, the left has certainly intermingled concerns about corruption, the use of public funds, and potential conflicts of interest, with public judgement about the type of sex that Barnaby was engaging in, and that future Ministers will inevitably engage in. Even if unintentionally this has helped Malcolm Turnbull use his #bonkban as a solution to the problem (although it doesn’t seem to be working), something that the left is helping even further with many supporting the idea as a policy that should be considered blindingly obvious.

Let’s reiterate: bans on consensual sex are never a good idea. They will always result in those in less powerful positions facing reprimands, and they will always result in increased policing of those who have sex that don’t fit standard social norms. This ban could lead to the Australian media policing the sexual activities of Ministers and their staffers, giving the likes of The Herald Sun and The Daily Telegraph permission to publish stories that more than anything else will attack women such as Vickie Campion. Whether we meant it or not, through intermingling concerns about corruption with talk about what this affair says about Barnaby’s character, the left has helped facilitate this policy.

You may not like Barnaby Joyce, and you may think what he has done is pretty shitty. But personal lives are often shitty, and people often get hurt. While it may be satisfying now, the public judgement of Barnaby has only helped facilitate a moral panic about marriage and sex, a panic that in the long run will hurt women, queers, and sexual deviants (of the legal kind) the most.

Three Billboards, I, Tonya, and the value of a complex narrative

In the past few weeks I saw two of the best movies I’ve probably seen in many years. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya (both movies with commas in their names) are both frontrunners for a number of Oscars and have been big hits this summer. 

Both have also been controversial! Three Billboards has been critiqued as being racist and portraying short statured people in a reductive way, while I, Tonya has been criticised for valourising a criminal at the expense of the real victim, Nancy Kerrigan.

In doing so I actually think these two films also have a lot in common. Dealing with issues of sexism, class and racism, the critiques of both films highlight some of the weaknesses of a purist form of identity politics, and in turn highlight the value of complex narratives when it comes to issues of identity and oppression.  

Before we go ahead beware that there are spoilers for both of these movies contained below, although for I, Tonya it is less relevant as I only write about historical facts that are already in the public domain. 

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Sport builds strong communities. Why therefore do so many on the left scoff at its importance?

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki celebrates after defeating Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro during their quarterfinal at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

The Summer of Tennis in Australia is once again over. This weekend brought us two epic grand finals – with Caroline Wozniacki taking out Simona Halep in a three set cliff hanger, while Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic in a surprisingly competitive five-setter.

I love tennis. Every year I spend weeks up late at night watching matches, and always get sad when it’s over. This year I went to the Australian Open for the first time, and felt chills run down my spine as the first balls were hit. It was great fun.

What has always interested me about the tennis is how so fleeting it is in the Australian conscious. Tennis is a sport that grips us for one month and then leaves us just as quickly – departing to foreign shores with coverage only occurring if there’s a scandal, or if an Australian manages to win a Grand Slam. This is the very nature of the structure of the sport. Of course we are more obsessed with the sport while it is on our shores, and it is certainly harder to follow when players take off overseas to compete in the myriad of tournaments across the corners of the globe.

But watching the Australian Open this week I also think there is something a little more to this.

Continue reading Sport builds strong communities. Why therefore do so many on the left scoff at its importance?

This is a huge win: let’s celebrate it

It’s official. Australians have voted in favour of marriage equality!

The yes campaign won a huge victory today, with Australians voting 61.6 – 38.4% in favour of passing legislation to legalise same-sex marriage. A total of 7,817,247 people voted yes.

There has been a lot of negative feelings about this process. Large marriage equality organisations and most prominent marriage advocates opposed to use of any form of public vote to help decide this issue. It has certainly been a tough process for many, and one that many do not want replicated ever again. It is one many would simply like to forget.

But as we come to the end of this process, it’s worth reflecting on this moment for exactly what it is: a huge victory.

Let us think about the significance of what just happened. Over seven million people voted in favour of equality for lesbian and gay Australians. That’s millions of people who ignored the fear mongering of conservatives, and took an active step to vote in favour of equality. People voted in favour across the country — from small towns to large cities, from poor areas to rich. Every state and territory voted yes, while 133 of Australia’s 150 electorates returned yes votes.

While in some ways this vote means very little in legal consequences, this is actually very important. This is a sign of huge changes that have occurred in our community. It’s easy to forget that it was only just over two decades ago that Tasmania became the last state in the country to decriminalise homosexual activity. Now, Tasmania voted in favour of marriage equality legislation 63.6 – 36.4%. I cannot think of any other social issue that has seen such a significant shift in such a short time.

For those of us who are concerned about the impacts this vote have had on vulnerable queer people this is especially important. Growing up queer can be an isolating thing, particularly for those in rural and remote communities. It can often feel like you have supporters nowhere. Now however we have the first ever real indication of the real level of support that queer people have in our community. Of course a vote for same-sex marriage does not mean someone is not a homophobe, but it is a strong start. Now through this campaign, and through this successful vote, we’ve seen millions of people publicly voice a growing acceptance of LGBTIQ people. In Ireland this resulted in a sharp spike in numbers of young people coming out, and we can expect such an outcome in Australia as well.

It is a real possibility, in fact almost a certain potential, that looking back on this campaign many will see it as a difficult moment we should all want to forget. This could easily be seen as something that above all else highlighted the intense bigotry queer people face. Of course that bigotry is still there, and we saw it sharply through this process. But what we also saw were acts of kindness, solidarity and justice — ones that clearly outweighed their counterpart.

It is these acts, and this vote, that we should remember. They are acts of a changing society — one that is clearly becoming more embracing of LGBTIQ people, and more willing to publicly voice that.

Yes this process was hard. But, change is hard. It requires struggle. When you get to the end of the struggle, and you win, you have to celebrate, not lament how hard it was to get here. Let’s do that today!

Growing up Queer

This is a talk I did as part of ACT Fair Day, in conjunction with Noted Festival. The topic from the event was ‘growing up queer’, and in doing so I spoke about the process of learning about what it’s like to be queer before coming out. Thanks to Noted Festival for organising the talks, and for the team at Canberra Spring Out for organising Fair Day.

 

Hi everyone and thank you for having me up on stage today.

The theme for today’s talks is simply ‘growing up queer’. When asked to talk about this my immediate thought was to go straight to my coming out experience. I came out, strangely enough, at the behest of Ian McKellan. I wish I could say he did so personally, but in reality it was much more boring than that. I watched an interview with him in which he talked about his coming out process, and somehow it pushed me to do it. I’d told my parents within a week.

Coming out is one thing that all queers having in common – it’s something we’ve all had to do, something we’ll all have to do again and again.

I was thinking about what it was like in those days as a teenager – the fear of rejection, the potential of bullying and taunting, and the feelings of vulnerability that I know many queers face. That’s again something we can all talk about.

Yet, after all the negativity of the past few months, I thought, why not do something different? Because while these things of course happen – while they still happen far too often – we are all here because managed to survive them.

We’re here because we managed to be queer kids, and queer teenagers, and queer young adults, and we were able to take those experience and not just survive, but also thrive, because of them. We did so through sheer resilience and immense creativity.

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