Walking and chewing gum

misogynyI’m choosing shut up and listen when it comes to the debate as to what qualifies as misogyny or sexism in our public speech and behaviour in Australia. I assume that my women friends, colleagues and comrades will have far more enlightening things to say on that score then me. If this is a teaching moment, the place for men is not at the lectern.

There is one thing that I feel the need to jump in on, though, and that’s the odd “debate” about the sincerity or otherwise of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary attack on Tony Abbott.

There’s a notion that these remarks were simply intended to defuse a political attack on the government via the speaker, and that they can therefore be dismissed as insincere, even cynical. This idea has been prevalent in the Press Gallery’s coverage of Tuesday’s events, but we can find it elsewhere.

The people who say this tend to be ostentatiously performing their own political savviness. But that performance is rather undone by the rather naive underlying assumption that a piece of political rhetoric can’t function in a number of different ways.

There’s no doubt that this was intended to rob the Coalition’s parliamentary attack on the Speaker of some momentum. Equally, I don’t think it’s possible to watch the speech and not see that Gillard’s remarks are deeply felt, and that what she sees as Tony Abbott’s sexism really does bother her. As a lifelong political feminist, why wouldn’t it?

So the speech has value as a parliamentary tactic, and possibly also some strategic value: it’s part of an effort to frame Abbott as a misogynist, and you never know, it might get him to modify the tone of the personal attacks he makes on the Prime Minister. But I imagine it made her feel pretty good to get it off her chest at the same time. Again, why wouldn’t it?

Political scientist Susan Herbst’s excellent book Rude Democracy shows how incivility and calls for civility can both be “strategic assets” to be used in political talk. She analyses speeches by Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to show how if we cease viewing civility and incivility in a purely normative manner, we can can see the part they play in the political cut and thrust. But work like Herbst’s is not the kind of easy cynicism we’ve seen in recent days – it enriches our view of the nature of political speech. Rather than insisting that the essence of politics is deception, it shows that, like most human activities, political communication is complicated and multidimensional. Speeches like Gillard’s have tactical and strategic dimensions, but at the same time they seek to establish or reinforce norms. They can also carry a significant affective charge for a broader audience. That Gillard’s did is evidenced by the response to it.

All political communication has multiple audiences, and good communicators will be able to address several at once. Gillard made the coalition look pretty sheepish, probably put some fire in the belly of her colleagues, and for a while it looked like she might have contributed to Peter Slipper keeping his job. But this particular speech had qualities that have found a global audience, and one of those qualities was its obviously sincere anger about the constant drip of gendered insults flowing the Prime Minister’s way. Women everywhere, and not just women, could relate to Gillard’s anger.

Politics has an affective dimension. The really naive view is the one that says that political speech never draws on genuine emotions, and is only ever a move in the game. Unlike some journalists, politicians like Julia Gillard can often walk and chew gum at the same time.