Who would have thought that a throwaway piece of old fashioned Australian slang could, within a few days, become a matter of international interest? But that”s the modern world of instant communications , home to the “”IIA”” syndrome. Meaning “”insult, indignation, apology”” in that order.
When walking my dog Nancy early Sunday evening, I turned on to BBC Radio”s World Today Weekend program. Feminist Jane Caro was banging on from Sydney about just how sexist Aussie blokes really are.
Caro soon downloaded how 2GB presenter Alan Jones had recently declared: “”Women are destroying the joint.”” The reference was to the former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon and the Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. Then Caro commented how one-time Liberal Party operative Grahame Morris had called 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales a “”cow””, after her interview with Tony Abbott.
Shocking, when you think about it. But not if you think for long. For starters, leftists such as Caro are invariably telling us that Jones is a mere shock-jock. Shock-jocks attempt to shock. That”s what they do. As to Morris, well he was born in country NSW. Calling a person a cow in such abodes is so common that the word gets an entry in G.A. Wilkes”s A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.
Wilkes reported that in Three Elephant Power, “”Banjo”” Paterson wrote that in Australia the most opprobrious epithet one can apply to a man or other object is “”cow””. Moreover in Bobbin Up, the feminist Dorothy Hewett had a character saying: “”I starched your petticoat stiff as a board, and it was a cow to iron.””
Sales soon activated the IIA syndrome. The Morris insult made, she quickly threw the switch to indignation, tweeting: “”I”d rather be a cow than a dinosaur.”” An apology was inevitable. So Morris returned to the scene of his verbal crime on ABC Radio 702 to deliver a mea culpa. However, from what Caro told the BBC, there will be no forgiveness any time soon – despite the fact that no one suggests Sales even faintly resembles a cow.
It seems the level of measurable insult declines if it is directed at a conservative – male or female – by a continuing leftist. At this year”s Mid-Winter Ball at Parliament House, Julian Morrow, one of the “”Chaser boys”” (average age late-30s) referred to mining entrepreneur Gina Rinehart as “”the elephant not in the room””. Laugh? The room, full of journalists, joined in the joke – knowing it was a personal putdown.
Indeed Morrow”s tone is common for the public broadcaster. The likes of Caro said nothing when Bob Ellis, in January 2011, described the NSW Liberal MP Gillian Skinner on ABC”s The Drum Online as looking “”like a long-detested nagging land lady with four dead husbands and hairy shoulders””. Moreover, the ABC managing director, Mark Scott, defended the publication of the piece because it was “”particularly robust””. You can say that again.
Earlier, Jonathan Green, the then-editor of The Drum, published Marieke Hardy”s description of the Liberal MP Christopher Pyne as a “”douchebag””. It was later spiked. In 2008, The Drum also ran a piece by Ellis referring to Hillary Clinton”s “”towering frigidity”” and complaining (without evidence, of course) that she did not engage in a particular sex act. No word was heard from Caro at the time. In recent times, Green was promoted by the ABC and now presents the Radio National Sunday Extra program.
In March, Germaine Greer appeared on Q&A and urged the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to get over her (alleged) “”big arse””. Invited back on the program last week, Greer was at it again. Responding to an approved question, Greer declared Gillard has a “”fat arse”” and advised her to “”wave that arse””. This was also not mentioned by Caro in her whinge on the BBC.
It is true Gillard has been subjected to some sexist comments by the likes of the Liberal senator Bill Heffernan and the former Labor leader Mark Latham. This has been properly criticised. But there were few defenders of John Howard during his time as prime minister. In his 2005 book Run, Johnny, Run, author Mungo MacCallum variously called Howard an unflushable turd, a little c—t and a shithouse rat. Right now, MacCallum”s latest book is being promoted by the supposedly advertisement-free ABC.
But in spite of all the confected outrage, bad language has probably not proliferated. It”s just that what was once said in the pub now features increasingly in sections of the mainstream media and overwhelmingly online.
A sense of perspective might help. In the meantime, Morris should be counselled against using 19th century colloquialisms in these oh-so-sensitive-times. And Sales should desist from getting offended about not very much at all. At least it would free up the BBC for some real news from the antipodes.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.