Peter Dutton, a minister of the Crown, accidentally sent a text message to senior Australian journalist Samantha Maiden. The text message referred to Ms Maiden as a ‘mad fucking witch’ for having written an article critical of the behaviour of former minister Jamie Briggs. Mr Dutton publicly owned up to the text. Ms Maiden, while recognising that some would take offence, has graciously indicated that she herself is not offended by the remark. She has accepted Mr Dutton’s apology.
Others maintain that the slur is deeply sexist. So. Is the comment sexist? Or not? At the risk of fence-sitting, I think it’s both. More importantly however, it reveals the hypermasculine, combative mode of parliamentary conduct that is now well past its use-by date.
The yes case
‘Witch’ is a term used to denigrate women. It represents a woman who has outgrown her sexual utility, often imagined as a toothless old crone. It might also represent the threat women pose to patriarchy – through the magicke of their sexual wiles and fertility, the witch stands ready to trap unwary men. The vast majority of those burned as witches were women. That is no accident. It was an effective means of keeping women in their place.
Today, ‘witch’ carries its anti-women history even though many who use the term may not be conscious of it. As a word not used against men, and in light of the negative connotations it carries, use of ‘witch’ is sexist.
Advice to parliamentarians: find a different word without the sexist baggage.
The no case
On the other hand, when I ask myself ‘the woman question’ about Mr Dutton’s response, I ponder if Mr Dutton might have been critical (indeed hostile) towards a man who had written Ms Maiden’s article. I think he would have. He would not have used the word ‘witch’, but a different word that would apply to men.
If we set aside the particular word used, the fact that an insult would likely be leveled equally at a man or woman indicates that the leveling of the insult per se is arguably not sexist.
Advice: refer above.
But that’s not all: The vibe
The words though, occur in a context. And this is what is the underlying or structural problem, beyond the language itself.
Mr Dutton – a party to the cabinet decision to ask Mr Briggs to stand down – made the insult (intending it to go to Mr Briggs) ostensibly in defence Mr Briggs’ behaviour. This is a double standard. On the one hand, as a public official, Mr Dutton was seen to uphold ministerial standards of behaviour that precluded sexual harassment. But behind the scenes, he has condoned a breach of those standards. I don’t even think that it is relevant that the text was intended to be private – the fact is, his behaviour demonstrates a lack of leadership on this issue and a double standard.
Mr Dutton’s actions also point to the combative nature of contemporary politics. I suspect that for many, it is the default hypermasculine response of his personal attack that is so disappointing. The support for Mr Briggs by his confreres as a ‘decent bloke’ similarly reflects the norms of male bonding right at the time parliamentarians are ostensibly (and finally) targeting violence against women. Mr Briggs himself is a White Ribbon Ambassador, whose role includes ‘actively practising and promoting gender equity‘.
Seen as a whole, Mr Briggs’ initial actions, support expressed by his parliamentary colleagues (and in some quarters of the press), Mr Dutton’s framing of his own support, the tenor of public discourse, and the practice of those in power, is a particularly blokey way of doing things.
Advice: Look beyond the platitudes about equality, and respect for women and take a stand. This old-skool behaviour (including the language) has to go.