Sound and Fury

In the last week, a bit of a controversial bombshell was dropped. Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) formally used the slogan of “Fuck Tony Abbott” as their byline. This has triggered a number of responses and all of them vitriolic. A lot of the controversy focuses on whether the message is appropriate, how the decision was made, and a raft of other issues. What seems to be emerging from this discourse is the more mainstream LGBTI communities express disaffection by the radical protest voice. The response from the radical queer groups is a complaint towards the mainstream saying they have become complicit with an oppressive regime.

I think this signals the start of a fight over which message is put into the public sphere, and who controls the message.

On Sense and Sensibility

I think it’s necessary to highlight some of these positions in order to get a full perspective. The opening salvo was fired by none other than Bryn Hutchinson, a former convener of CAAH, who attacked the by-line for being divisive and pointless. Rodney Croome added his voice, from his position in the Australian Marriage Equality (AME), saying that such dissidence will only serve to alienate any chance to communicate with the Coalition that now form the Government in seeking to persuade them in changing their minds.

In contrast, we have an interview with Cat Rose, one of the current co-convenors of CAAH, who proclaims the necessity of vigilantly opposing the government, by claiming they will inevitably be hostile to minority groups. Her position is to hold the government to account with a repertoire of contention. Another voice I would recommend on this comes from Tim Scriven, who deconstructs some these accusations, but ultimately refers to the need to agitate in a manner that is not complicit so as to effect change.

Knowing a number of people on both sides of this debate, I have heard a large range of opinions. The one thing I have observed as being consistent is the tendency for all arguments refer to a base claim on how best to achieve change. Inevitably, such arguments fall back on radical or mainstream positions, and whether to effect change through the parliamentary system, or whether change can only be achieved by imposing upon it from without. This is reflected in the articles above: both Hutchinson and Croome argue for a parliamentary method, while Rose and Scriven express suspicion of that process. From my observations there is a near-universal tendency of those taking a strong position to fall down on one side of the camp or the other (I found in critical reflection of my own position, that I am/was as much a subject of those proclivities). So I think what we are seeing here is an age-old Establishment vs counter-culture discourse.

Fundamentally, I think people’s opinions on this matter play so significantly into their political ideology that I am unconvinced that a rational approach will resolve the dispute.

Fundamentally, I think people’s opinions on this matter play so significantly into their political ideology that I am unconvinced that a rational debate will resolve the dispute. The slogan itself is merely a symptom of a deep divide between the main-streamers that have found some accommodation within the norm, and are now angry at being tarred with a radical voice, and those who have never been able to main-stream (whether by choice or capacity), and are demanding that their difference be accommodated all the same. Both sides are effectively coloured by a deep suspicion of a process that excludes them.

Having been on both sides of the fence at one point or another, I can sympathise with both sides, even while I don’t agree with every position argued. Both side make claims that either demonstrations or lobbying have been key or to shifting social attitudes on marriage equality in Australia. My issue with these claims is that they are almost universally anecdotal, and lack evidentiary rigour; and all those claims are incredibly self-justifying. I reject the notion that either group can lay claim to being the principle agent for raising consciousness on marriage equality in the Australian public.

Repertoires of Contention

This dichotomy correlates strongly with a growing body of research that has begun to identify some significant correlations to neurological states in relation to whether one elects a conservative or (little-l) liberal position. In brief, there seem to be a number of neurological conditions that predispose individuals towards either conservatism or liberalism, and this probably would carry over to the distinction between mainstream and radicalism, which are roughly similar dichotomies. Part of that research also seems to suggest that some of our predispositions become locked in based on our experiences during the formative years of early adulthood and late adolescence. For these reasons, I think that any message that seeks to bring in more people into its coalition must accommodate a plurality of predilections. This evidence shows that the Left is more successful when rallying support through positive and hopeful messages, while the Right is more effective at capitalising on messages of fear and anger.

This evidence shows that the Left is more successful when rallying support through positive and hopeful messages, while the Right is more effective at capitalising on messages of fear and anger.

There are also a number of individuals who just don’t understand the significance of the controversy, which see the attempts at disputing the message a waste of energy that should be focused on effecting change. However, a message is central to any social movement: it is a core element of any campaign, not just in terms of communication but in terms of its semiotics. That is, social movements emerge through the construction of a group identity. Symbols of the movement become important signposts used to delineate between “us” and “them”, politically speaking. An important part of coalition building is being able to successfully mediate these differences under a set of common ideals.

Whitebrook notes in Identity, Narrative, and Politics: collective identities are constructed through narrative means; Einwohner et al have elaborated upon this in Identity Work and Social Movements, noting that these collective identities are produced through joint action, negotiation, and interpretation. It is this ‘identity work’ that enables members of a social movement to construct a shared sense of identity and work together in collective action. Taylor et al have described three components of identity work in their text Feminist frontiers II :rethinking sex, gender, and society: namely boundaries, being markers of similarity and difference; consciousness, the framework through which participants struggle to describe the collective interests and identities in contrast to the dominant order; and negotiation, which refers to the various demonstrations of opposition to the status quo.

The strategies of building a collective identity are described by Bernstein in her book Sexual Orientation Policy, Protest, and the State. She notes that LGBTI activist movements differ to other social movements as one of their strategies is to emphasise sameness with the mainstream, even making tactical decisions about whether to celebrate or suppress their otherness. Of particular interest, both Harris and Meeker have highlighted instances where specific LGBTI movements sought to align themselves with church, state, and family or attempting to assimilate rather than subvert.

Collective identities for social movements require the aggregation of individual accounts of its participant members through this identity work: one of the mechanisms requires the sublimation of internal difference.

Collective identities for social movements require the aggregation of individual accounts of its participant members through this identity work: one of the mechanisms requires the sublimation of internal difference. As Lyotard has previously argued in his seminal work on The Postmodern Condition, and elaborated on by Einwohner et al, any attempt to solidify a movement’s collective identity means the collective identity must be negotiated among the participant members and towards the broader society. Bystydzienski and Schacht, in Forging Radical Alliances across Difference, state that this much necessarily be inter-sectional, arguing that identities are not discrete modules within an aggregation, but must be understood as intertwined with each other.

That is, identity work is a mediation of a group’s identity, where individual members come to internalise the symbols, values, and aesthetics of the collective identity, either by reconciling or rejecting the components of a collective narrative that are at odds with their own sense of identity. Understanding this issue is crucial to revealing the deeper issues at play around the conflicting social tensions underscoring coalitions of social movements. That CAAH has elected to use an unequivocally radical byline is one that has sent a message to the main-streamers that they are no longer part of this movement. Based on the commentary of the radical left, the impression that I get is one expressing that the mainstream have become deadwood in the fight against the Establishment.

Of Pride and Prejudice

On the question of whether the message is the right message depends on how you measure its success. As a message that is designed to garner public attention, it is incredibly successful, considering that it is a message that has been commented on by media and politicians alike. Whether it is a message that will successfully catalyse and mobilise people on the ground, I think it will probably fall short (though I am happy to be proved incorrect on this prediction).

Using the message as the byline transforms the statement from a meme to a symbol of the movement itself…

To properly respond, I would repudiate that the rudeness of message is the central issue, and actually a superficial point. However, by placing it as the by-line of the protest it is elevated from a pervasive sentiment into an ideal. Using the message as the byline transforms it from a meme to a symbol of the movement itself, a marker of inclusion or exclusion that participants must either accommodate or reject. It is a message that is incredibly polarising among the stakeholders in the marriage equality campaign, and notwithstanding the apparent contention over which group (CAAH or AME) should be the rightful custodian of the message (a debate in its own right), that these groups are openly at loggerheads hails the onset of greater divisions ahead.

Admittedly, these divisions haven’t emerged from nowhere: AME represents a powerful lobby group with a single narrow objective, and has been criticised for pandering to a privileged interest; CAAH represents a voice of marginalised groups that seek a wider reforms, and have been criticised for being divorced from the ‘real world’. The radical queer movement is likely to be increasingly empowered by this message, and angry at the mainstream for not falling in line with the rallying cry, while the mainstream LGBTI movement is likely to be increasingly disaffected by the message and become resentful of having to work to disassociate themselves from that message while trying to lobby parliament.

I think this signals the start of a fight over which message is put into the public sphere, and who controls the message. Lamentably, I think the louder more controversial message will begin to draw greater media interest. Very likely, we are going to see a set of communities divided against each other, rather than united against a government they wish to effect.

Update

Having published this article, I was subjected to some criticism. I am reproducing it here without attribution, as it was in a private forum. The criticism was one that argued that even if the above analysis is correct, then the worst case scenario is one that achieves no legislative change with the consequent of solidified a radical movement/community by ditching the “white picket-fence crowd”. Note, this confirms the position I stated earlier that the protest movement may be all to happy to dissolve their friendship with the mainstream.

To this, I disagree: the worst case scenario is one of deep alienation and division. It takes a false dilemma between the radical and mainstream and reifies that sense of division into a real division. It also shifts the emphasis on the purpose of the protests away from pitching a message to an external audience with the desire to effect change, and consolidating attitudes within an already insular group.

I think this is a bad idea, because it creates opposition when there does not need to be one. It shifts the site of contest into the middle of a group of people seeking to achieve a similar outcome, and possibly expending energies on both sides in ways that will undermine any mutual efforts.

By emphasising and endorsing the way that such a symbol excludes and others the mainstream, it reduces the political discourse down to an “us” and “them” mentality, and means the protest movement is adopting a siege mentality, depending explicitly on tactics of dissent. Such strategies mean that the social movement becomes static and inflexible, resisting any changes in the social consciousness. Worse, it entrenches dogma and makes it unassailable to criticism and possible discourse, becoming calcified. This makes the message less about communicating and more about reacting and iterating a staple of repertoires of contention.

In order for the movement to move beyond mere protest and counter-culture, the coalition building needs to incorporate and include greater diversity. A message that divides various communities into sides is a means to produce a social bubble by exclusion. It is a tactic of retreat and bulwark; albeit a reasonable tactic to survive a hostile and adversarial government.

However, the harder task of affecting change, or even changing consciousness can only be achieved by engaging with the public at large and communicating a message to them. In doing so, the message seeks to enroll a broader array of people that a movement doesn’t necessarily agree with. Historically, the instances of legislative reform on Marriage Equality were introduced under conservative governments, but because those governments were in coalition with a liberal party.

The first time it was introduced in the Netherlands occurred because Boris Dittrich (head of the liberal party in the Netherlands) demanded it as a concession to support the conservative party into government. A similar scenario was more notoriously repeated in the UK under Doug Cameron.

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2 thoughts on “Sound and Fury

  1. Interesting article, I like the part where you talk about the left and right divide. Jonathan Haidt has popularised the Moral Foundations Theory to help explain the divide in terms of the types of language that people respond to.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Foundations_Theory

    Values prioritised by neoliberals:
    1. Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.
    2. Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions
    3. Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.

    Values prioritised by neoconservatives:
    4. Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation.
    5. Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority.
    6. Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

    Liberty is also valued most highly by libertarians.

    Consider arguments for and against gay marriage, broadly based on these six values

    1. We need to care for queer people and celebrate their love
    2. Same sex couples deserve to be treated equally, it’s unfair to exclude them from marriage.
    3. Discrimination in marriage laws oppresses the queer minority

    Consider arguments against:
    3. Churches and religious business will be “oppressed” if they are sued for not providing services to same-sex couples if they can legally marry, or “I am oppressed if my child hears that some children have two mums at school”
    4. Family is the building block of society, don’t betray our nation by changing marriage
    5. “Just hope that as we remember servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!”
    6. Queer people offend me, so I shouldn’t have to see them on TV or in public

    Recently the Christian Democratic Party put out the ridiculous statement that straight couples made less money, and demanded “income equality”, earning a “pants on fire” ruling from politifact 🙂

    Also, remember the viral video of a gay US marine coming out to his father, emphasising the duty, service and sacrifice that gay soldiers can make, possibly helping gay people be perceived as worthy of respect by those that prioritise conservative values.

    Personally, as a straight male, I think arguments for gay marriage should focus less on nebulous concepts like “love” and more on solid arguments on equality and rights that better connect with the mainstream. But I’ve also heard activists complain that some issues like protection for transgender people aren’t pushed as hard as they could be, because they’re still a way off the mainstream consciousness.

    I think that “Fuck Tony Abbott” would be a very polarising catachphrase, and absolutely agree that it risks creating a siege mentality. As you say, it “makes the message less about communicating and more about reacting” which is a HUGE problem in the age of social media where it’s easy to get into feedback cycles of “fire up my base by offending yours” arguments.

    • I find it interesting that the term neoliberal is used in this reply, as its meaning is very much different from what I understand it to mean and from how it’s understood in international relations and global politics. Neoliberalism has become a philosophy that has become separated from markets.

      Rather, the schema of neoliberalism has become the construction of clientele relationships between corporations and the state.

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