Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hijacking The Language

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been accused of having difficulty keeping his foot out of his mouth, and it would seem that yesterday has provided us with yet another example. In response to questioning over his refusal to accept Julia Gillard’s invitation to debate the economy, he pointed out that the Prime Minister had previously and repeatedly rejected any further debate, and suggested that she had only changed her mind because her campaign was flagging. In the interim, the Opposition had taken the Prime Minister at her word and made arrangements for their own campaign accordingly. When the questioning continued he said, ''Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn't mean no?''

The reaction was both rapid and rabid. How dare Tony Abbott make a reference to a phrase which is widely associated with the campaign against sexual harassment and assault? How dare he trivialise the issue of violence against women? How dare he use those words to attack the Prime Minister who happens to be a woman? How dare he play the so called “gender card” in the election campaign? Tony Abbott, screamed the feminist lobby, just doesn’t “get it”. Of course, the issue of violence against women is a very serious one, and deserves to be addressed accordingly. But to suggest that Tony Abbott’s remarks trivialise the issue, or display a lack of respect for women, or could be construed as in some way condoning abuse is not fair or reasonable.

Even Tony Abbott’s harshest critics have admitted that they understand clearly the meaning of Tony Abbott’s comments. They acknowledge that he was criticising the Prime Minister for saying “no” one day, and “yes” the next. They recognise that he was suggesting that the word of the Prime Minister could not be relied upon, and not intended to be any kind of attack on women or their rights. But surely, if they are capable of understanding what Mr. Abbott was saying, without misconstruing it as an endorsement of antisocial behaviour, than any other reasonable person could too. If there is no doubt about what he meant, how then could the comments be considered inappropriate?

Of course, the critics have taken issue with the choice of words rather than the actual meaning, claiming that it was an attempt to make a joke about violence against women. Comparisons have even been made with Alexander Downer’s infamous joke about the “things that batter”. But that’s not what Mr. Abbott has done. He has used a commonplace expression, one which is widely applied in many contexts, to make a point about the veracity of his opponent. Just because it is a phrase which has been used in a social issues campaign doesn’t mean that the politically correct brigade has the right to hijack the English language and prohibit the use of particular words and phrases for purposes other than their own. It verges on the Orwellian.

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