Friday, August 8, 2014

Words. They've got power. Use them well.

Every now and then, the Prime Minister does or says something that's recognizably a bit stupid .. a bit offensive .. but which for some ineluctable reason, gets perceived by some out in the electorate as only adding to his charms.

The most prominent incidence of this I can think of was the "Gay Red Shirt" incident. Now, while I appreciate that for many out there in the electorate, "gay" has a dual meaning; and that the Prime Minister has a semi-official obligation to be a bit of a dick about the main opposition party and its colour scheme ... none of this justifies one of the highest figures in the land lending the legitimacy of his position to the use of the word "gay" as a pejorative.

If you're having trouble grasping this concept (and going off the surge of annoyance from WhiteManistan on social media in the wake of reaction to the "Sugar Daddy" comment, there's quite a few out there who will) ... think of it this way. A core and intrinsic element of your being has just been used as an insult - to mark out something that is inferior, or wrong, or aberrant, or defective. You're demeaning somebody and marking them out as a lesser actor incapable of engaging on the regular playing field with the rest of us due to an aspect of who they are that probably isn't even directly relevant to the discourse in question. Hear that enough times, and cognizant of the fact that it's many of the other 'normal' people saying and thinking it about you ... and you've got yourself a highly intrusive and reified example of a power imbalance that personally victimizes you through careless (or malicious) use of language. If you're still experiencing difficulty understanding why words like these ought not form part of our political discourse because they turn somebody from a marginalized group into an insult, then that much-vaunted phrase "check your privilege" is assumedly winging its way toward you. Mine's in perfect working order :)

Now this really is my core point. We already implicitly recognize within our political culture that some slurs are unacceptable. Just look at the (justified) uproar over the Prime Minister's "gay red shirt" comment. There's even an entire list of "Unparliamentary Language", for instance; which exists in part because the spectacle of our elected representatives flinging absolutely playground-level invective at one another is considered demeaning not only to the reps being flung at, but also to the nature and substance of our democracy, itself. I respectfully contend that some of the insults and barbs we've seen over the course of this campaign thus far fall into exactly same category.

Unfortunately, Exhibits A, B, and C, don't all come to us from the National Party. While theirs is indeed a political culture that implicitly prioritizes style over substance, and cheap rhetorical barbs over actual policy battle ... the first instance that actually sprang to mind of MPs behaving badly and using lazy/offensive rhetoric they really shouldn't be, actually comes to us from the Labour Party. In 2009, both Trevor Mallard and Clayton Cosgrove deigned to refer to National MP Chris Finlayson as "Tinkerbell".

I hardly need to overtly state that it's a pretty sad day for the Labour Party and its values when nominally progressive politicians decide the most productive use of their time and intellect is to try and score a rise out of a non-hetero opponent by calling them a "fairy"; although I would like to register my perplexity as to what either of Mallard or Cosgrove sought to gain from the barb.

In any case, the line that sparked this particular blog was John Key earlier this week referring to Lailla Harre's political aspirations as being driven by the ambitions of a "Sugar Daddy", in the person of Kim DotCom.

Now, quite apart from the blindingly obvious fact that if "Sugar Daddy" means "wealthy person attempting to buy politics", as the Prime Minister seems to think it does, this makes National a party so amazingly sugar-daddied up that it'd piss diabetes-cola if asked to undertake a paternity test ... there's the highly problematic nature of what the term actually represents.

Urban Dictionary (because really, who uses the Oxford one any more?) defines a "Sugar Daddy" as "like a genie - he may be a little old, but if a girl rubs his lamp, he'll grant her wishes", and lists an example of "She uses her sugar daddy for his money, but he sure gets some service in return!"

The dripping innuendo here ought to make fairly plainly apparent why this was *not* an appropriate term of reference to describe the political relationship between The Internet Party's Leader, and The Internet Party's Party Visionary, purely for that reason alone. Harre's right on the money when she points out that this is Key attempting to make her "integrity look compromised".

But there's actually a more insidious meaning coiled within the Prime Minister's words.

Look at how the agency in this situation is being construed. What Key has fairly explicitly said is that Harre is nothing more than an adjunct and a vehicle for DotCom's political desires. That she's only in it for the money. Hell, if we really want to push the outrage points, that she's a certain sort of woman who will perform a certain sort of services for a certain sort of very wealthy man for a certain level of financial recompense - bearing in mind that to those not in acoustic range of the dog-whistle, "certain sort of" is swapped out for "political".

I hope I'm not alone in thinking that this is a pretty horrendous charge to level at a fellow party leader, regardless of how much "abjuration of agency", "agent of an insidious foreign power", and "sexualized connotation" the Prime Minister meant to inject into his remark.

(as an aside, this is one of the many reasons I've traditionally had a problem with paying persons seeking political office to seek political office. You wind up with exactly these sorts of questions about whose motivations are really prime and how much of a given candidate's publicly announced beliefs and persona is actually theirs, versus the donor's)

Regardless of the relative merits of paying political candidates, I can only agree incredibly strongly with Harre's subsequent reaction to Key's barb - pointing out that this sort of tired canard has been a feature of our politics for far too long (although with Collins and Tolley on Turei foremost in mind, it ain't just the menfolk in politics who set out to police female political action); that calling it out demands no apology; and suggesting that it's pretty important, if we wish to foster more young women into politics, that this kind of conduct not be allowed to continue within it.

Which brings us back to the Prime Minister and his questionable use of language. A cynical watcher of politics (such as those guys over at CrosbyTextor) might very well conclude that the Prime Minister has devoted quite some considerable time, energy, and effort into transforming the PM's image from a pretty dorky-looking (up until he flashes his chequebook) financial trader with a head full of numbers and a trouser-leg full of urine-tube ... into a blokey-jokey (there's another name for him - JoKey) figure the average Kiwi male would stereotypically enjoy having a beer and a barbie with.

The fact they've managed to make a palatable-to-working-class-male figure out of what genuinely appears to be one of the slickest political operations in New Zealand political history is nothing short of remarkable; and it's my belief that this impression and image is sustained in large measure through semi-strategic (albiet not necessarily deliberate) gaffes and slip-ups. If you're interested in a deeper exploration as to why this might be the case than I have the space to go into in this blog, I'd strongly recommend that you check out a book called The Political Brain - and in specia, the bits talking about why George W Bush was perceived as more relatable to the average American voter than either of Al Gore or John Kerry. It was therefore in large measure precisely because of things like these gaffes and Bush's "aw shucks" eschew-the-big-words presentation that he was able to resonate so successfully with middle American voters. Key does exactly the same thing, right down to having a hammy accent that's made "akshully" a household word.

The problem with this, then, is every time ivory tower'd quasi-intellectual leftish types such as myself decide to publicly castigate Key for his latest inane outburst ... a small (but important) segment of the electorate listens and agrees with us, a rather larger part of the electorate shrugs its shoulders and isn't fussed either way; while a third group actively takes it as a sign that the Prime Minister is correct and legitimate in all his dealings and utterances by the very fact that persons like me are calling him out for it, assumedly because insisting on not being a dick with language directly infringes upon their values. You might otherwise know these guys as the "PC gone mad!" brigade.

I've basically given up attempting to directly engage with these types (after banging my head against a brick wall for six months straight with a gentleman who was adamantly convinced NZ First was "the new Maori Party", full of "bone-wearing Treatyist fellow travellers"), and watching persons like fellow The Daily Blog contributor Chloe Ann King continually dialoging with people like Aaron James Goodwin of that idiotic page about the Labour Party's alleged "war on women" is an exercise in excruciation.

So here's a new plan. Instead of just engaging with linguistic bigots, and attempting to convince them of the error of their ways, we work around them by borrowing a leaf from 1984 slash the gay community, and we reclaim ourselves some terminology.

Consider this: when a close mate of mine found out about Key's "sugar daddy" controversy, his instantaneous reaction was to suggest that this was bloody hypocritical coming from "the same guy who's been whoring out the whole bloody country for the last five years".

While my associate is not, technically, wrong in his application of the strict connotations of the word "whoring" (even to the point that the supposed "Nationalism" of National is very, very much a negotiable and put on virtue), it does also occur that i) sex workers are people (and workers) too; while ii) prostitution has been decriminalized for about a decade now here in NZ. So if we are to criticize the Prime Minister for turning "gay" into a verbal missile, there seems no real justification for attempting to lob "whore" as an RPG.

Instead, let us make use of a word that already exists within the Kiwi vernacular, and which already definitely and discernibly means "person who shamelessly offers up something precious to the highest bidder, motivated by money and apparently heedless of public decency", with a side order of "works to satisfy the desires of rich men". That word is, of course, "Nat"; and the act is one of "privatization" and "selling off offshore".

Please adjust your invective-directories accordingly :D

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