Speaking with one voice
Mark Latham left the opposition leadership with a damaged reputation. Following that, he sold his bitter political diaries in a publishers’ bidding war. He was then hired by 60 Minutes to cover the 2010 federal election, and advised the public to cast protest votes. He was a longstanding columnist for The Australian Financial Review, until resigning in the wake of revelations he had been using a disguised Twitter account to abuse prominent women. At the same time, he was being sued for defamation by a female Fairfax columnist – the case to be heard in April. For all this, he was awarded a spot on a TV panel discussion show, and a podcast on Triple M, which he used to attack Australian of the Year and anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty. The subsequent offer of a columnist’s job at The Age was withdrawn after staff protest – so instead, this week he started writing for The Daily Telegraph.
Welcome to Lathamland – Australia – the world of white, male heterosexual voices. For all his personal abuse and vitriol, Mark Latham is serially rewarded with new opportunities to vent his spleen. This, when media organisations blame the sidelining of marginalised voices on a lack of time and space. Yet the power to be heard – and the power to shape our society – continues to flow to the likes of Latham, at the expense of women, people of colour, the disabled and the LGBTI community.
Marginalised groups rally and protest at this situation. In response, paperwork gets shuffled around, pledges for more inclusion and diversity are marketed, tick boxes are created and are then ticked – all this to create the illusion of change. Power is drip-fed, and it doesn’t come freely. It is bureaucracy that gave birth to tokenism. Act like this, write like this, be like this, and we’ll provide a small space for you.
Consider Channel Nine’s upcoming comedy, Here Come the Habibs. It’s yet to air, but its promotional trailer reveals it to rely heavily on cultural stereotyping. Tahir Bilgiç – co-creator but not a writer – told Guardian Australia that Channel Nine employed a “vanilla milkshake writing team”. That is, when a major broadcaster sees fit to squeeze in a TV show with multicultural characters, it chooses one that lampoons people from ethnic backgrounds and has a team of white guys write it.
When the dominant power does occasionally cave in to protest, to placate growing dissent, it is seen as a magnanimous gesture. The marginalised are expected to be appreciative – and silent. Such space can actually feel repressive. With opportunities to break into cultural strongholds so limited, it is almost career suicide to cite tokenism, stereotyping or discrimination, or – heaven forbid – to complain that not enough power has been surrendered and that racism is still at play. Yet how different, for instance, might the white-male dominated Triple J’s Hottest 100 be if the radio station aired more music by women or people of colour? If we did a direct swap in the media – people of colour for white people – how very interesting it would be to see the television, the journalism, the cultural prizewinners that resulted.
I live and work as a writer, performer, activist. In the past, I have been a computer programmer and a repressed housewife with little worldly knowledge. As a woman of Greek-Cypriot descent, I was not raised with the privilege of being part of a group that had in its grip the power of the dominant narrative. And it took some years for me to discover how things operate, who holds the cards in Australian culture and politics. How many Lathams were automatically in line ahead of me.
I have been accused of playing the victim when speaking out in the arts world. White, male power not only doesn’t tolerate this kind of criticism, but enters into defence mode. You don’t have to work in politics to experience politics.
Every now and then, muscles are flexed, knuckles are cracked, and we are reminded of our place. How did Malcolm Knox, for example, get away with writing for Fairfax papers what might be one of the most blatantly racist articles I have ever come across? Written in a mock Jamaican argot as a means of demonstrating the unpleasantness of stereotyping to Jamaican cricketer Chris Gayle – who had inappropriately and unprofessionally propositioned Channel Ten presenter Mel McLaughlin – Knox’s words were horribly ill conceived. They would have come like a cricket bat to the gut for every other person of colour. One of The Sydney Morning Herald’s young novelists of the year, Maxine Beneba Clarke, who is of Jamaican descent, took to Twitter, demanding an apology. None came.
What did come, however, was a Fairfax op-ed by cultural critic Peter Craven defending Knox. Craven argued Knox was using the cod-Jamaican English as a tool to “send up” Gayle. Yes, precisely. Knox chose Gayle’s race as a tool to put him in his place. What tools would have been available to send up Gayle if he were a white man? Gayle deserved to be criticised, but blithely using his race to do so shows how blind to their privilege and power white men can be. Meanwhile, Peter Dutton, a minister of our federal parliament, called a female journalist a “mad fucking witch” and got a slap on the wrist.
Craven also stood up for Germaine Greer, after she was criticised for her suggestion that transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner is “a mutilated man, that’s all”. Craven used these examples and others under the banner “On guard against the tyranny of opinion”, to argue that as a society we are in danger of losing our freedom of speech because writers were being criticised for using it.
“Yes, freedom of speech will always be circumscribed by the laws of libel and various injunctions against incitement to hatred or violence,” he wrote, “but there’s still room to move: if someone happens to believe, let’s say, that multiculturalism creates ghettoism, and in extreme cases, produces terrorism; that strict discipline and a rigorous academic emphasis is the only way through in education; that the level of crime among immigrant groups – especially the Sudanese and Somalis – is intolerable; that abortion is gravely wrong. We should be able to live with the expression of opinions like this, however unpalatable we find them.”
Mark Latham similarly took to radio to exercise his “freedom of speech” by criticising the feminism movement and describing Rosie Batty’s observations about domestic violence as “nonsense”.
What Latham, Craven and Knox don’t appear to understand is that they get to throw their opinions around as members of the dominant power. The marginalised don’t have this freedom. When Craven and Latham have something to say, someone in the white boys’ club hands them a microphone. This ease of speech – freedom of speech – doesn’t exist for the marginalised. We have to protest and complain to get passed the microphone, and when we speak we have to watch what we say or that microphone will be quickly snatched back.
Craven might have a point in a world where representation and access to spaces for debate are fairly distributed across all groups in society, including minorities. But not when the dominant voice uses freedom of speech to repress marginalised groups.
Why is it like this? A little while ago I interviewed the chief executive of Safe Steps, Annette Gillespie, for an opinion piece on domestic violence within migrant communities. In the course of the conversation, we discussed why there is little to no representation of stories by women from migrant backgrounds on television. I didn’t use her response in my original piece, but it stuck with me. All we see are men, men, men, so there are no role models, I said to her. Do the men in charge think women are not interesting?
“Well, it’s not interesting and it’s not in their interests,” she said. “From their perspective they currently hold the power, they currently have the economic influence. What’s in it for them to promote women’s equality? … I’m just giving the reality that when people have power, they have to see the value of giving that power up to distribute it equally before they can shift towards that.”
I pondered Gillespie’s view on power. If I held as much power as a white, heterosexual male – power that allowed me to express whatever views I wanted, power that brought me recognition – would I be willing to part with it? Would I be happy to give up some of my power to people I didn’t really trust? Even if I acknowledged that it wasn’t fair I had all the power? It’s not hard to believe that holding on to power is a fundamental, self-protective urge, on at least an unconscious level. And that seems to guarantee the dominance of the white, mostly heterosexual male, at the expense of marginalised groups, pushed out of the conversation.
On its website hosting the weekly Lathamland podcast, Triple M says: “The controversial Mark Latham was chucked out of politics, never afraid to say what he thinks.”
No, he isn’t. Why would he be?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Speaking with one voice". Subscribe here.