My unhappy inner feminist

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford

I am a man, and I am a feminist.

‘Feminism’ is not a dirty word. Until equal protections and rights are achieved for all women, who make up half of the world’s population, ‘feminism’ is a human rights and social justice imperative.

If you feel ’emasculated’ by the equality of women, your ‘masculinity’ is but a mere mirage.

If your ‘masculinity’ is built on the need to subjugate women in any way, your masculinity is a worthless construct.

If allowing women to enjoy the same protections and rights that men have is offensive to your culture, your culture needs to evolve.

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I am proud of being a feminist, simply because I am proud of being a person who believes in equality, regardless of one’s gender, gender identity, age, race or sexual orientation.

At the outset I should make it clear that I would never presume to speak for women. First, because I am not a woman and while I can empathise with the issues faced by women, I can never truly know what it’s like to be a woman. Second, and perhaps more obviously, women don’t need men to speak for them, however this doesn’t prevent men from expressing solidarity and support.

Perhaps being a gay man, who has walked a fair few miles in the shoes of one who’s often vilified, makes me more aware and sensitive of the plight of others, including women, being subjected to the same.

Perhaps I feel solidarity with women, because I feel their fight is my fight, given the sources of discrimination against women and the LGBTI community are often the one and the same.

Over the past few of days, I watched Clementine Ford battling online abuse, sexism, and misogyny, some of which verged on the criminal, and my inner feminist and humanist are repulsed.

Ford is a broadcaster, columnist, freelance writer, public speaker, and an unapologetic feminist. This is not the first run in Ford had with bigoted, sexist and misogynistic trolls on social media, but this latest incident certainly exploded into some large fireworks. Mon dieu, Ford doesn’t preserve her well-deserved intellectual wrath for sexist and misogynistic men – she will also unleash on clueless breakfast shows on major TV networks.

This latest saga started on White Ribbon Day, a national community event designed to prevent violence against women, when Ford made a number of posts on her Facebook page in which she highlighted recent examples of social media abuse she had received. Ford included screenshots of a number of such messages.

A ‘gentleman’ by the name of Michael Nolan, thought it proper to comment on the post by writing ‘Slut’, in reference to Ford.

Michael Nolan

Ford was understandably not amused. The comment was utterly inappropriate, but was arguably made worse in the context in which it was made, in response to Ford highlighting social media abuse against women on … White Ribbon Day.

Soon it became clear Mr Nolan’s idea of what’s appropriate on social media is not limited to sexism, as Ford highlighted some earlier, arguably racist social media posts by him, and noted Mr Nolan was proudly displaying his employer on his Facebook page, Meriton Serviced Apartments.

Michael Nolan

A few days later Mr Nolan was fired by Meriton.

“To anyone who suggests I have caused a man to lose his job, I’d like to say this: No. He is responsible for his actions. He is responsible for the things he writes and the attitudes he holds.

I’d also like to say that consequences for online behaviour are nothing new. Typically though, it’s girls and women who are expected to ‘know better’ when it comes to posting things online. Tables are turning, boys.”
Clementine Ford

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the matter. Since then Ford had posted further images of abuse that’s still being directed at her on social media, now over the firing of Mr Nolan.

The content and tone of many of those comments are an embarrassment to Australia, men and humanity generally.

The online abuse aimed at Ford is utterly unacceptable. Imagine such things being said out loud, aimed at a guest at a dinner party, or a colleague in the office kitchen, or a stranger in the street. Saying it on social media, sometimes anonymously, doesn’t make it any more acceptable or tolerable.

It was entirely unnecessary for Ford to explain why she decided to report Mr Nolan to his employer, nevertheless she did:

Being called a slut on Facebook is certainly not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s definitely not the worst thing that’s ever been said to me (a contender for which would be the email this morning which told me, “You deserve to be gangraped by a pack of aids infested n—–s. Die, f–king bitch.”) So why did I decide to pursue retaliation against the man who said what so many others say to me every day?

Well, I did it because I’m sick and tired of men abusing women online and continually getting away with it. I can bear the brunt of this behaviour, but I’m angry about the number of women who tell me they can’t. Too many women are harassed into silence by men who flounce about the place doing and saying whatever they like. When we complain, we’re told to ‘get over it’ or ‘harden up’, two retorts that completely miss the irony of the fact that the most thin skinned, sensitive and retaliatory people online are white men aged between 15 and 35.

Clementine Ford: Why I reported hotel supervisor Michael Nolan’s abusive comment to his employer, Daily Life (1 December 2015)

As for those men who don’t engage in such abuse, but feel entitled to lecture women on how they should feel about, or react and respond to, sexist and misogynistic abuse – don’t. It’s simply not your place to do so. If you feel compelled to offer advice in such situations, the focus of your attention should be the abusive men, and the unacceptability of their Neanderthal conduct.

Of course women are not the only ones to experience this type of affront: people of colour are often advised by some white people on how they should respond to racism; and the LGBTI community is continuously lectured by some straight people on how they should handle bigotry and homophobia thrown at them.

Whether we like it or not, social media is not a ‘private’ forum. It is very much a public forum … on steroids. Making socially unacceptable comments on social media goes beyond your accidental faux pas at the pub, or a dinner party, because social media is a global and viral broadcast medium.

We often talk about the need for personal responsibility in a wide range of contexts when it comes to our personal, even private, conduct. To expect social media to be exempt from that scope of personal responsibility is not just unrealistic, but utterly untenable.

When it comes to abusive conduct on social media, that personal responsibility cannot be shrugged off, and that includes sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia. You can safely presume that if something would be unacceptable in the public space or in the workplace, it’s not acceptable on social media either.

Many people have lost their jobs worldwide due to their activities on social media – there is nothing new about employers taking a hard line on serious misconduct online.

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The concepts of freedom of speech and thought are often raised in defence of such online behaviours. That’s well and good. Freedom of speech and thought are fundamental cornerstones of a liberal, secular democracy.

However, we shouldn’t confuse ‘freedom’ nor ‘thought’ with sexism, racism, misogyny or homophobia. Those types of behaviours arguably represent the very void of ‘thought’, and the denial of freedoms to live free from abuse and discrimination by those subjected to such vile conduct.

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Sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia are symptoms of bigoted, insular minds. To call them ‘values’ worthy of legal protection is an affront to common sense and a civil 21st century society.

Make no mistake, both as a lawyer and human rights activist, I consider freedom of speech fundamental to a healthy liberal democracy.

But, while there are so-called ‘absolute rights’, freedom of speech is a right that must have some ‘limitations,’ or responsibilities attached, even if some see such a position hypocritical and intellectually flawed, and question where such a line could be drawn.

The ‘limitations’ are necessitated by human nature itself, to protect the exercise of the freedom, and to protect it from being co-opted by hate.

Informed debate, the discussion of ideas and concepts and challenging the status quo without fear, are indispensable to the human intellect and progress.

However, any speech that calls for, incites, or supports physical violence, or reasonable fear of physical violence, especially in response to someone else exercising their right of free speech, is unacceptable. Such speech is inherently antithetical to the very concept of freedom of speech.

Whether speech calling for discrimination or exclusion, infused with bigotry, hatred and prejudice, such as homophobia, misogyny, sexism or racism (but falling short of calling for, inciting, or supporting physical violence, or reasonable fear of physical violence), should be allowed is a vexed issue.

I stand firm for informed debates on issues, but would submit that bigotry, hatred and prejudice by their nature lack the ‘informed’ component. An ‘opinion’ in the absence of evidence and facts to support it is usually nothing more than bigotry, hatred and prejudice and so it is arguable that no one is simply entitled to an opinion – you are only ‘entitled’ to what you can coherently argue and factually support. Name-calling, abuse and threats are unlikely to qualify.

Of course, we should always be overly cautious as to what types of behaviours or views we declare ‘socially unacceptable,’ because there is no tyranny like the tyranny of the majority. But I would venture to suggest that no intellectually sound argument can be made in support of sexism, racism, misogyny or homophobia.

While we must not allow such views to limit, or hold back, social progress, the preferred methods of dealing with people holding such socially unacceptable views should be education and persuasion where appropriate, because no one is born a bigot, a homophobe, a misogynist, a racist or a sexist – they are all learned cultural and societal behaviours. Hopefully Mr Nolan learned something from the events of the past week.

When it comes to illegal behaviour, such as threatening physical violence or rape, criminal conduct remains criminal conduct online. Engaging in such conduct on social media, does not offer an exemption from the legal consequences that flow from such behaviours. In Australia, using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence (s474.17), or to make a threat (s474.15) are criminal offences under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, and the internet is a carriage service for the purposes of the Code.

A ‘Support for Michael Nolan‘ page was initially set up on Facebook, but now appears to have been removed.

Ford’s experience doesn’t just make my inner feminist unhappy, but also really sad that we still have to have these kind of conversations in 2015.

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