Word Of The Day
By Mike SeccombeOctober 12, 2012
So there was the ABC’s uber-interviewer, Tony Jones, on Lateline Thursday night, bumping on and on and on in the same stupid rut as all the rest of them, as he interviewed Treasurer Wayne Swan. Did he accept Julia Gillard’s assertion that Tony Abbott was “a misogynist, a woman-hater?” he asked.
Then, after getting an answer, he asked again: “The word means, literally, ‘The hatred or dislike of women and girls’. I mean, are we meant to take that word at its definition…?”
After another answer, Jones asked the same question again: “So do you stand by the use of this word misogynist, woman-hater, in relation to Tony Abbott or do you want to step back from that because ... ?”
It was the same tired, trite question as Emma Alberici asked Tanya Plibersek the previous night. That Leigh Sales asked Penny Wong.
Yes, over the past couple of days — ever since Julia Gillard flayed Abbott for his undeniable sexism — even the sober types at the ABC were singing from the same song sheet as the right wing claquers like Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt and Paul Sheehan. Or, more correctly reciting from the same page of an abridged dictionary.
And all of them equally inane. For the English language is a far more nimble and subtle thing than much of Australia’s political commentary this week.
Don’t take my word for it; take the Oxford English dictionary, and New York Times writer on language, the late William Safire.
Safire, incidentally, was no leftie. He was, as well as being a peerless authority on the language, a right-wing columnist and former staffer for both Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
But just over four years ago, Safire flew to the defence of Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, when she complained of misogyny during her primary campaign against Barack Obama.
Here’s what Safire wrote:
“Senator Hillary Clinton used a word recently that has been changing its meaning. In charging that she has been treated more harshly in the media because of her gender than Senator Barack Obama has been treated because of his race, she said, ‘It does seem as though the press at least is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by comments and reactions of people who are nothing but misogynists.’
Safire continued: “The word misogyny has since its earliest recording in 1656 meant “hate or contempt for women.” The etymology of misogyny is straightforward: In Greek, miso means “hatred,” and gune means “woman.” A misogynist is a woman-hater. I thought Clinton’s choice of the word was in error, and that the word she meant was sexist, meaning “one who discriminates based on sex” — that she had been treated unfairly because she was a woman. When I looked up the word she chose in the Oxford English Dictionary online, however, I noted that the meaning of misogynist had changed, slightly but significantly. In 1989, the definition was “hatred of women”; in the 2002 revision, the definition was broadened to “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”
Thus, sexist and misogynist are now in some respects synonymous. Because sexist has been so widely used, apparently misogynist — in the same sense of “prejudice” rather than “hatred” — now carries more force with those who are familiar with the word,” wrote Safire.
So, then, have we got that? Words change their meanings over time, through usage. These days, "misogynist” is sort of an amped-up version of “sexist”. I would argue that there is a slight difference in meaning, in that a sexist comment may refer to an individual, whereas a misogynist comment refers to the female sex more generally.
In any case, the examples of Abbott’s behaviour and comments cited by Gillard in that blistering speech show him to be both.
The most clearly misogynist of the Abbott quotes cited by Gillard was not his assertion that abortion is “the easy way out”. While that shows an anachronistic and insensitive view on the subject, it does not necessarily show prejudice against all women.
Nor does his deliberate association with people who hold Gillard to be “Bob Brown’s bitch” and who want to “ditch the witch” indicate misogyny. These are sexist terms, for sure, but they are directed at an individual.
As for his suggestion that the Gillard government should have died of shame – so clearly, despite his denials, a deliberate echo of Alan Jones’s appalling quip that Gillard’s father had died of shame – that just showed meanness of spirit and lack of judgment.
No, the real indicator of misogyny came in Abbott’s suggestion that women — all women — are unsuited to the public domain and that it was biologically predestined that men should run the show.
It’s just bloody unfortunate for his argument that the four standout performers in the current parliament are women – Gillard, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Nicola Roxon. We might add that one Liberal woman, Julie Bishop, is pretty darned effective too, and has done a manful job of defending her leader’s indefensible comments over recent days.
Let us recall the Abbott quotes that Gillard referred to in her speech.
He mused that if “men have more power generally than women, is that a bad thing?”
He went on to suggest that men might actually be “by physiology and temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command.”
And he challenged the “assumption” that women’s under-representation in positions of public power was “a bad thing”.
Would you call that evidence of prejudice against women? If you would, then Abbott is, by the definition of the OED and William Safire, a misogynist.
Anyway, it would be very nice if my fellow media folks would get over this fatuous focus on the word, which was used entirely properly, and get to the real issues here, Abbott’s policies, world view, and above all his judgment, or lack of it.