Monday, November 11, 2013

A surge in the tide



I hope you’ll allow me not to change the subject quite yet, if only because it would be a little ungracious of me, as if I were the kind of person who is able to take sudden public attention in his stride. What follows, however, are some fairly disorganised observations. My more serious attempt to think the issues through is the one I wrote for Overland. The general background of the events is well covered by The New Zealand Herald here and here. And I feel very well represented by the interview I did on Friday with oh my dear God is that Mary Wilson I’m talking to?

So, then.

If you have the good fortune to become associated with a successful campaign, you don’t argue – you thank people. I have received a number of incredibly generous messages of support over the last few days, and I appreciate all of them. The ones written by survivors meant even more, and moved me profoundly. On Friday night we came home from the opening of Justine’s exhibition to a gift of beer and wine, and a donation in my name to Wellington Rape Crisis. This wasn’t my typical week.


The media attention is a privilege, too, and when they call you, you don’t quibble – you do the interviews. Try to muster something useful to say. See if you can help keep the issues in the news a little longer, and explain why it matters.

That said, I think it’s important to counter the impression – helped along by the bias of the media, both mainstream and social – that the RadioLive sponsor boycott had very much to do with the actions of an individual, much less a bloke (as if we had forgotten how much easier it is for a man to speak out against rape, and just why that is). All I did was write a bunch of emails. They weren’t persuasive emails, as I’m generally of the cynical view that you cannot persuade businesses to do anything other than act in their own best interest. They weren’t even the product of a savvy social activist’s reading of the prevailing mood. Truth be told, I thought nothing would come of them, other than my collecting a series of fudging statements about why the advertisers would continue to support the Willie and JT show, which might constitute an interesting document, and nothing more.

Unsurprisingly, it was the professional PR people, rather than the blogger, who read the prevailing mood correctly. They operated in a tight feedback loop. First, Freeview got in touch to say that they didn’t sponsor the show as such, but rather placed orders with the station which then chose in which slot to schedule the ads. Would you seek to discriminate in the future and avoid the slot?, I asked them. They said they would get back to me. Then AA Insurance said they would pull the ads from the show. Then Yellow announced they were going to withdraw advertising from the station altogether. I had to read the email twice to make sure I got it right. After that, the bar was set. Freeview wrote back to say they would pull the ads after all. Countdown’s initial polite ‘no thanks’ was turned around in a matter of hours after targeted pressure on social media, especially by the Misogyny Busters group. Everyone else who got in touch (including The Finance Marshall, who rather endearingly asked ‘not be mentioned in blogs’. Hi guys.) did it to say that they would abandon the show or Radio Live. Of the ones that didn’t respond, some I assume contacted the station directly, since the Willie and JT slot will be commercial-free until the end of the week.

I can only conclude that all of these businesses fell into line under so little pressure because they could read the signs. This had nothing to do with the emails and the tweets, and everything to do with the public outrage over the serial rapes committed and bragged about by a group of young men, the inaction and the lies of the police, and the nauseating behaviour of selected members of the media. From a concrete, political viewpoint, that measurable outrage – and not the boycott that resulted from it – is the only thing that has any value to us. Because really, who cares that some advertising budgets got shuffled around? And whilst Radio New Zealand didn’t exactly misquote me last Friday when it claimed I wanted to see Jackson and Tamihere sacked (I said something to the effect that I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t please me), I didn’t actually care very much whether or not it would end up happening, except insofar as it would be a measure of just how strong the tide against rape culture in New Zealand actually is. You could place a mark next to it on the sea-wall. ‘The day when Willie and JT got canned’.

That sentiment, in turn, didn’t come to us fully formed by virtue of some natural human inclination toward social progress, but derives from a very precise set of ideas about gender, sex and consent that have been campaigned upon by feminists for decades. We may just have reached a turning point in which enough people have been persuaded for the entire societal compass to be abruptly reoriented. The vile questioning of Amy, in this respect, was as much a part of the story as the crimes that are, finally, being investigated. It was the thing that also had to be rejected, against which we also needed to say: ‘enough is enough’.

A corollary of the above, is that we shouldn’t over-emphasise the degree in which the advertiser boycott was the result of a social media campaign. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be tremendously useful tools to agitate and to amplify political and social messages. But it was a television journalist who brought the story to light, and rape prevention and counselling organizations and feminist writers who gave it a strong framing after the report aired on TV3, insisting that the police version be questioned, first, and calling out the rape apologists, second. Social media is useful only if it can draw upon the patient and inevitably much slower work carried out by strong militant organizations and committed activists in the background. That’s what makes the outrage coherent, hence possible to mobilise.

A picture from the Misogyny Busters Facebook page, supplied by Gina Giordani – whom I also thank very much for her counsel this week

Whatever the successes of the last few days in pressuring the police and the media as institutions, any triumphalism would be misplaced. Michele A’Court put it best of all, for mine, in her piece in the Sunday papers: ‘It was a tough week to be a woman, or someone who loves them.’ But, she concluded, ‘I'd like to think we can start making the next weeks tougher for people who hate women.’

Let’s do just that, Michele.




New phase of the campaign: to get the boycotters to give money to Rape Prevention Education. Telecom has pledged $10,000. Let's get the others on board - updated spreadsheet here.

The petition to put pressure on John Key at change.org is up to nearly 75,000 signatures. The more, the better.

The wonderful (and Tiso-employing) literary journal Overland is having a Subscriberthon, which is due to end tomorrow. With prizes and everything. (Prizes other than the ones that can only be enjoyed in Australia will be shipped to New Zealand.)

The new issues of the 4th Floor Journal is out and look! Our resident poet!

My partner, Justine Fletcher, has an exhibition on at the National Academy of Fine Arts until November 26. It’s an installation connected to this photograph of the inaugural Council of Women (1896), and - quite by coincidence - half of what she makes will go to Wellington Rape Crisis.