Flat White

You are not allowed to debate male privilege – full stop

5 June 2017

7:25 AM

5 June 2017

7:25 AM

You are not allowed to debate the existence of male privilege. At least that’s according to Fairfax Daily Life columnist, Ruby Hamad.

In a just-published article, Hamad has denounced a debate planned by Triple J’s current affairs program, Hack, for later this month. The June 20 showdown is set to be simulcast live on ABC 2 and Triple J, with host Tom Tilley posing the question “does male privilege really exist and if so, how does it impact us today?”

According to Hamad, “It has taken feminists decades to get terms such as ‘male privilege’ and ‘rape culture’ into mainstream consciousness. And, whether Hack intends to or not, it risks undermining this work by legitimising the idea that there is no such thing as male privilege.”

Hamad concedes that the debate might not be so bad Hack intends to take a “give them enough rope” angle – an approach they apparently took in a recent debate on “stealthing.” But “even so,” says Hamad, “the entire exercise is grossly misguided … First, because it frames male privilege as a question for which the answer has not yet been resolved, and second, because it takes an apparently neutral stance, presumably intending to give both sides equal time to air their views.”

There may well be a strong case for the principle of male privilege. But the way we determine this is through public discussion and debate. This is a fundamental principle, dating back to ancient Greece, which has been at the heart of western civilisation since the Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, rather than embracing the opportunity to advance their ideas, feminists like Hamad have decided to adopt a quasi-religious approach to truth. Concepts like male privilege are treated as revealed truth, flowing from authors and academics to committed activists who then proselytise to the wider public. This means that concepts like male privilege aren’t just ideas or theories, the validity of which can be tested. They are part of a dogma and to question them is heresy.

The remarkable thing about this approach to ideas and public debate is that it’s the complete opposite of the approach taken by the feminist movement for most of the twentieth century.

It’s impossible to deny the tremendous strides feminists have made in ensuring equal rights and greater opportunities for women, particularly in modern western countries like Australia. But they didn’t achieve these victories by avoiding public debate. On the contrary, these victories were won through passionate and confident engagement in public debate.

The idea that the suffragettes would have forgone the opportunity of a live debate broadcast around the country – if such a thing were possible – is simply laughable. Yet this is what people claiming to be their intellectual heirs are now advocating.

Hamad’s argument against the debate is grounded in a critic of journalistic objectivity.

As she points out, this approach is the basis for a lot of journalism today (it’s certainly the approach of the ABC): “The reporter keeps themselves out of the story, does not blatantly offer their opinion, and, having presented the information to the audience as impartially as possible, leaves it to them to make up their own minds.”

There is indeed a problem with the much-vaunted idea of objectivity. Ultimately, it is impossible for any journalist or media organisation to be truly “objective”. Personal values and beliefs, as well as institutional culture, will always have an impact on what is considered news and how that news is reported. This is a serious problem for taxpayer-funded media companies like the ABC and BBC, who are justifiably required to avoid bias.

But the answer to this – at least for private sector media companies – is for journalists to be open about their bias and for readers and viewers to be aware of it. The answer is not to treat entire issues as unquestionable.

Yet this is Hamad’s view. As she puts it, “Just because there are vehement disagreements on certain issues, it does not automatically follow that each opposing viewpoint is equally valid, nor that the job of the journalist is to never take sides.”

Well yes, obviously. But debating an issue does not imply that all opinions are equally valid. There are many issues where there is vastly more evidence to support one position over the other. There is perhaps no better example than the issue of vaccination. The case for vaccinating children is overwhelming. But this isn’t reason to never debate the issue, at least not if there is a significant number of people who hold a different view. On the contrary, publicly debating an issue is often necessary to dismantle misleading arguments, which can spread far and wide when left uncontested.

The problem for feminists like Hamad is that this relies on the idea that people are rational enough to hear both sides of an argument and realise that the evidence for one side is greater than the other. But if your ideas are dogma then there can be no debate. All that’s allowed is for ideas to be taught as incontrovertible fact.

It’s for this reason that Hamad wants media companies like the ABC to avoid entire issues and act as a propaganda arm for a particular point of view. As she put it, “young men of school and university age – Triple J’s target demographic – need decisive leadership when it comes to respecting women’s rights,” they are obviously too dumb to hear the ideas tested in a debate.

Patrick Hannaford is an Australian writer. Follow him on Twitter @PatHannaford.

Illustration: CBS Television Distribution.

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