Sunday, March 11, 2007

Across town

Chris Trotter's column on Friday made connections between 1980s police rape cases and the tour. I'm not willing to concede that police rape belongs to a by-gone era, but I do think there's probably a point there. These men's obsession with using their batons to abuse women, clearly comes out of the same culture that created the red squad.

The first part of Chris Trotter's article, which covers the incident in some detail, is very interesting. But I disagree with most of the conclusions that he draws from it:

The thing about the 1981 Springbok Tour that made such vicious confrontations inevitable was that people who would normally never come within half a mile of each other were suddenly arriving at the same place. The New Zealand of The Listener and film festivals and feminist consciousness-raising was on a collision course with the New Zealand of the TV Guide and "adult" videos and steaming male bodies in the rugby club changing- room.

On the surface it might have been a case of "liberals" and "progressives" meeting "reactionaries" and "racists". But, beneath the political veneer, a deeper, more visceral, dynamic of cultural attraction and disgust was at work. In some part of their respective psyches, "Pro-" and "Anti-" responded to the Springbok Tour like a carnival freak show at the edge of town with each group defining the other as the geek.
This simplistic analysis is a reasonably common explanation for what happened in 1981. There's enough truth in it to sound plausible, but it ignores more than it explains. It was the connections that he drew between this and the police rape cases that I strongly disagreed with:
In its essence, the public outrage surrounding the acquittal of Clint Rickards, Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum represents the moral collision of two mutually incomprehensible sub-cultures. Like Banquo at the feast, the ghost of 1981 pro-Tour provincial New Zealand has returned to trouble the consciences of the morally, politically and socially victorious veterans of the anti-Tour protests.

It's as if we've all been trapped in an episode of Life on Mars with a New Zealand twist. Here, we don't have to travel back in time to discover a world governed by sexism, racism and homophobia – we have only to take a trip across town.

When I read that Brad Shipton's brother had described Louise Nicholas as "that maggot-lying bitch", all I could think of was the scene with the placard 26 years ago, and wonder how many Kiwi blokes still think of courageous, outspoken and assertive women as dogs to be kicked, punched, raped, intimidated and cross-examined into a proper appreciation of male power.
The first problem with this argument is that he's wrong. I've talked to lots of people about the police rape cases over the last year, middle-class, working-class, urban, provincial, progressive, conservative, and the vast majority have believed those women. I think this issue has united people across usual boundaries, not polarised them. It's been a source of great embarrassment to me that John Banks and Trevor Loundon are sort of on my side.

There are people whose first reaction to these cases aren't to believe and support the women involved, but they also come from across the spectrum. I'm fairly sure that the man who wanted Louise Nicholas to pay back the millions spent investigating these cases would have fitted Chris Trotter's profile of a TV Guide reader. But Findlay McDonald, who called the women who gave out supressed information vigilantes, pretty much defines the listener end of the spectrum.*

There is a more fundamental way that Chris Trotter is wrong. He is arguing that objectifying, abusing and degrading women is intrinsic to working-class provincial masculinity, and alien to middle-class urban masculinity. I've addressed this argument before, in a slightly different form.

This idea is one that I've only ever put forward by middle-class men, and you can see why - because it is in their interests. Either they can use it to argue that women shouldn't fight sexism, because to do so would alientate the working class (who are inevitably entirely male). Or they can use it to distance themselves from men who abuse women and so not examine their own behaviour, or that of their mates (Span mentions in her report on the Auckland march that there was at least one man who shouldn't have been there, from all I've heard that's a conservative estimate).

In reality Chris Trotter wouldn't even need to cross town to find men who "think of courageous, outspoken and assertive women as dogs to be kicked, punched, raped, intimidated and cross-examined into a proper appreciation of male power." I'm sure he knows some (as Span says "Of course I spotted one particular man who really shouldn't have been on the march, given its focus, but then activist circles aren't necessarily less sexist than general society, and sadly I suspect he wasn't the only hypocrite pounding the tarmac for International Women's Day."). Most abusive liberal men are probably smooth enough not to call a rape survivor a 'lying maggot bitch', but they'll discredit her just the same.

I've never heard a woman express this idea, whatever her class background. You don't have to have much experience with middle-class men to know that some of them are abusive misogynist assholes. You also don't have to have much experience with working-class men to know how much some of them respect and support women.

*Or at least he did, until the Listener became a soothing gel


  1. Yes Trotter knows at least one man on that march who is a hypocrite.

  2. Anonymous10:48 am

    This may be of interest:

    I can't help thinking that a situation in which a "respectable" political party allows its vice-president to run a website where he refers to female politicians as "bitches" (or "a lot worse" - his words) must in some way contribute to a social climate where physical or sexual violence against women is seen as acceptable, or where some male police see it as acceptable to gang rape 16-year-old girls.