The Power Of Words: Eddie McGuire Is A Dinosaur, Not A Monster. There’s A Difference

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The apoplexy over the latest Eddie McGuire stupidity says more about a celebrity-obsessed media than anything else, writes Richard King.

Just when you thought it might finally be over – the demented accusations, the non-apology apologies, the corporate lemon-sucking/opportunistic advertising – two very different interventions served (briefly) to resuscitate the latest Eddie-centred shitstorm….

One came courtesy of The Footy Show’s Sam Newman. Looking, as he invariably does, like a man who’s been injected with Botox at precisely the moment he sticks his finger through the toilet paper, he let rip at journalist Caroline Wilson, the butt of McGuire’s original ‘banter’, accusing her of feigning indignation and of practising a double standard.

It was Newman’s final flourish, however, that really relaunched l’affaire McGuire, alluding as it did to the scenario entertained by Eddie and his pals.

“The jig’s up Caro,” Newman growled, “You’re becoming an embarrassment. And even if you were under water, you’d still be talking.”

The second intervention was rather more high-minded and appeared under the by-line of Nina Funnell, writing in The Daily Telegraph.

In an angry broadside, Funnell suggested the White Ribbon charity, which raises awareness about domestic violence, was not only simplistic in its approach to such violence, but also sucking up much needed funds that could be going to frontline services such as shelters for battered women.

White Ribbon, she asserted, is a feel-good operation that allows politicians and media identities to ‘accessorise’ their concern for women (Funnell, by the way, describes herself in her piece as a ‘public survivor of sexual violence’).

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Asked to comment on both of these stories on RN Drive on Thursday evening, the CEO of White Ribbon, Libby Davies expressed disgust at Newman’s remarks and noted in particular his failure to appreciate the destructive consequences words can have in the community.

As for Funnell, Davies rejected her arguments, adding that it was not White Ribbon’s brief to fund frontline shelters etc (precisely Funnell’s point) and that it always called for more funding when it could.

The remit of White Ribbon itself was set out in an open letter to the Tele published on its (WR’s) website:

Words have power and we need our media outlets to be leaders in promoting words that drive respect and gender equality. Understanding the power of words and their appropriate use in driving respect and gender equality is why White Ribbon is conducting training of Triple M on-air staff, including McGuire, in July. This training exemplifies the primary prevention work of White Ribbon. Nina misunderstands and inaccurately portrays the critical primary prevention role of White Ribbon … Our work is based on a sound research, best practice and independently evaluated approach.

That last bit is debateable. In Crikey, Guy Rundle has written at length about the assumptions underlying the research of domestic violence, and the ‘best practice’ flowing from that research, and the picture he paints is not encouraging. But leave that to one side for a moment and consider: What is the key word here?

The key word, of course, is ‘words’. Both Newman and Funnell have failed to appreciate the effect that words have on those who hear them. Words have ‘power’ – the power to ‘drive’ (and presumably to undermine) gender equality. And gender equality sits at the heart of the issue of domestic violence. Obviously.

In this regard, White Ribbon is a rather typical proponent of a certain set of cultural assumptions – assumptions that are now thoroughly mainstream in the media and policy-making class.

Footy Show commentator Sam Newman unleashes a broadside in defence of McGuire, and attacking Caroline Wilson.
Footy Show commentator Sam Newman unleashes a broadside in defence of McGuire, and attacking Caroline Wilson.

The DCA’s recent #WordsAtWork campaign, which came armed with the catchline ‘Building inclusion through the power of words’, and the suggestions that a debate on same-sex marriage could lead (will lead) to painful hate speech are just two manifestations of this ideology, the central (and highly questionable) assumption of which is not so much that words have power but that words are themselves a kind of power.

It follows that words don’t just lead to violence. They can be, and often are, a species of violence.

In the days when ‘political correctness’ actually meant something other than ‘stuff that gets on Andrew Bolt’s tits’ this was its defining characteristic. It was the fusion of identity politics with a philosophy that sees language as constitutive (rather than merely reflective) of reality.

We all know that words are not passive counters – windows onto reality – but many on the academic left went further.

Defeated in the economic sphere by a right emboldened by the collapse of communism, they retreated into the particular and the textual, arguing that issues of social justice could be pursued through the manipulation of language.

The right exaggerated the ludicrousness of this enterprise (Christ, they had a fucking field day!) but a ludicrous enterprise it often was. It didn’t lead to Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep – that was an invention of the British tabloids. But it did lead to Huckleberry Finn sans the n-word and trigger warnings on US campuses, which are scarcely less ridiculous.

As I say, the assumptions underlying this worldview – if not the worldview itself in its pure form – are now thoroughly mainstream among a certain group of largely middle class, urban people, many of whom express bafflement when those assumptions are challenged or transgressed.

The idea, for example, that there might be a constituency of people out there who quite like traditional gender roles, or who haven’t quite assimilated the fact (as I regard it) that these roles are largely cultural and not the unvarnished projection of nature, but who nevertheless despise the phenomenon of violence against women, is simply anathema – it does not compute.

Surely (surely!) these people can understand that making a sexist joke or comment puts the maker of that joke or comment in the violence-against-women-perpetuation business?

The idea that maybe it doesn’t – or that the relationship between respect, words, power and violence is a little more complicated than bodies like White Ribbon and the DCA are prepared to countenance – would undermine the very assumptions on which those bodies depend for their authority.

Nina Funnell’s piece – and in particular her assertion that ‘awareness raising’ can become a surrogate for real action – is thus a challenge not just to the White Ribbon foundation but to the ideology that underwrites it.

In effect she is suggesting that this ideology is now so powerful that it is detracting from the main issues – that awareness-raising has eclipsed the allocation of material resources as the principal objective.

There is more than one kind of cultural power being wielded in l’affaire McGuire, and the applause with which Newman’s snarling tirade was greeted in The Footy Show studio may be evidence that some sections of the community are beginning to resent the implication that bawdy humour and juvenile antics are sure-fire indicators of a latent wish to bash women, or may ignite such a wish in others.

There are tests being set for expression and behaviour that some people simply cannot pass, not because they’re stupid or hateful, but because they were never privy to the assumptions underlying their formulation.

The cultural right knows very well how to stoke their resentment further. Just watch.

McGuire’s comments were nasty and stupid. Possibly they were the unconscious projection of aggravated male pride and a deep anxiety that one of the last strongholds of male culture is being ‘feminised’.

If so, that makes him a dinosaur, not a monster.

An intelligent and progressive politics knows the difference between those two beasts and should know better than to go into meltdown every time a celebrity-obsessed media finds evidence that this or that ‘personality’ really is as dumb as they look.

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Richard King

I'm a journalist and author based in Fremantle and write for various rags and mags. I'm also the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation (Scribe). Visit me at http://bloodycrossroads.com/

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