Ideals and reality

Long post. Go get a coffee, or a wine, depending on whether the sun is over the yard arm, then settle down to read it.

I’ve gotten some support for my Tze Ming Mok memorial post, and some criticism. None of it unreasoned, or unreasonable.

I agree with Che that:

System is a place that actively seeks to highlight and discuss difference.

The trouble is, it doesn’t achieve that. There’s a difference between the ideals, and the reality.

For example, the line-up of writers is pretty much white and male. If you look at the list of nine regular writers, you will see (before Tze Ming Mok’s much lamented departure) six men, three women, seven white NZers, two writers who are New Zealanders of Asian descent. Since Tze Ming Mok’s departure, another man (also white) has been invited to join.

(You will notice that those numbers don’t add up to nine. That’s because people can fall into more than one grouping. That word ‘white’ is also problematic. I’m as white as they come – 6th generation NZ but Scots, Irish and English descent to the hilt, with a little Swiss thrown in just for fun. I prefer to describe myself as Pakeha, but I don’t know where that term leaves NZers who are not white, not Maori, not PI, but not anything else either. Like NZers of Chinese descent – are they Pakeha too? I don’t know. And I don’t want to impose identity on anyone else in any case.)

So far so good. There’s not many women writing, but at least there are three on the list, and 33% representation (difficult word – more on that later) is better than the NZ parliament achieves. Two non-white NZers out of nine is not bad at all, but it would be nice to hear from Maori and Pacific Island NZers too.

But to get back to the women, since that’s my main concern. I love Jolisa Gracewood’s writing, but we don’t hear from her very often. I enjoy Fiona Rae’s writing too, ‘though I don’t get to see much TV, so often enough her comments on TV programs don’t mean anything much to me.

But we hear hardly anything from these women. So like it or not, even if the ideal is that there are women writing on Public Address, the reality is that the voices most frequently heard, and indeed dominantly heard, are white male voices. And let me be clear about this…. I love reading the Davids (Haywood and Slack). Dr Haywood in particular has given me some laugh-out-loud moments (this piece is brilliant) and some moments of real fellow feeling – a sleeping baby is a beautiful baby– scroll to the bottom of the page. I enjoy Damian Christie’s work too. I haven’t been reading his pieces from Afghanistan, which is my loss, but I have been a bit bound up with my own current transitoriness. I read Graham Reid’s posts, but contemporary music doesn’t do it for me – I’m a classical kind of woman. Keith Ng’s writing is good too, provocative, making me think, and interesting. I like the way that he goes in for some good, plain analysis and fact finding – comparative tax rates, anyone?

I have been reading Russell Brown since 1999, and I look forward to reading his pieces. I don’t always, but nevertheless nearly always, pretty much agree with what he says (we probably have some differences of opinion with respect to the current government and some of its legislation, and various other things). I have also appreciated the way that he has told people who were being gratuitously offensive, on occasion to me personally, and to other people, both male and female, to pull their heads in. I have heard the word ‘avuncular’ applied to Russell Brown. That seems fair enough to me… ‘though I guess that might depend on the quality of your uncles (my seven uncles are a pretty good bunch of people, on the whole).

My friend Che Tibby used to write for Public Address. We met through Public Address – he wrote his first post there, and I e-mailed him immediately, because as it turns out, we wrote our doctoral theses in pretty much the same area, ‘though mine is more theoretical and his is more applied. He has referred to me, in private, as his oldest commenter. I took this to be a reference to being FIRST, rather than being middle aged…. ‘though he hasn’t clarified that (yet). Whatever. I enjoyed his writing, and I still do, and the duck confit that he and his partner cooked for me was superb. As was the terrine.

So this is not a complaint about the men writing on Public Address. It’s just that, in practice, PAS is monosexual, and pretty much monochrome.

You might think this is not so much of a problem. Women still get represented, even if not very much.

But here’s where I go back to the issue of representation. Anne Phillips, a political philosopher / political scientist, writes about the ‘politics of presence’. She argues that in order for people’s views and needs to be adequately addressed, those people need to be present in decision making bodies.

There’s a nice, practical example of this from NZ politics. Recall that two or three years ago, Helen Clark suggested that given that there was a shortage of skilled workers, and given that women wanted to work, then what we needed, as a nation, was dawn to dusk childcare at schools. This would enable women to work, or to work more.

There was an uproar. Plenty of women pointed out that they didn’t want to work, or to work more. They wanted to spend time with their children, being parents. They wanted flexible work, so they could take time out during school holidays, or look after sick children, or go on school trips.

Helen Clark, and her advisers, got it badly wrong. As we all know, Helen Clark has often been castigated for not having had children, and for being surrounded by advisers who have not had children, or if they have had children, have had a wife at home who has taken care of the children.

I find that criticism of Helen Clark deeply offensive. If a woman decides not to have children, then that’s her decision, and hers alone. And the same applies to men.

But… it’s very important that people who don’t have day-to-day responsibility for children, to talk to people who do. That’s when they can find out what matters to parents, what would make a difference to them, what parents really want when it comes to child care. Because there were no parents present in Helen Clark’s corps of advisors, or at least, no parents who had day-to-day responsibility for their children, she blundered when it came to working out what would make the difference with respect to women and work.

That’s the kind of difference that the politics of presence makes. Simply by being present, by letting other people know how things really are experienced by women / Maori / Pacific Islanders / immigrants / LGBT / rural people / disabled people and so on, the quality of policy analysis, policy consideration, political analysis, political decision making, and so on, improves.

I think that Public Address System suffers simply because women are not well represented there. The lack of representation from women continues in the comments – women are simply not there to nearly the same extent that men are. And I think that without women writing posts, more and more women will feel that PAS is not a place for them. They don’t need to be feminist posts per se, at all, nor posts deliberately couched as a woman’s perspective. I would find that incredibly patronising, and yeechy – back to the 1950s with women’s pages in the newspaper comprised of recipes, knitting patterns, and housekeeping tips.

Simply, for PAS to live up to its ideals, then there needs to be a greater presence of women.

I like Public Address System. I was reading when Public Address started, ‘though for the life of me I can’t find the very first ‘Public Address’ post, c/f the very last Hard News post. If you go back to the day that Public Address System started, you will find that my comment is the sixth one posted. Fantastic, I thought. At last, a blog / forum where left wing views and different views won’t be derided. A place which is just a bit better than the real world. And indeed, that was the goal when PAS was announced over a year ago now.

I’m keen to expand the pool of people engaged in online discussion and I think an atmosphere of respect is vital to that aim.

Has PAS met that ideal? Has it expanded the pool of people engaged in online discussion?

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

A very grim note, and really far, far more grim than is needed. It just seemed so.. apposite.

I do not think that PAS, its writers and its contributers, are hollow men. I think that many of the people there espouse inclusive views. I suspect that many of them are at least sympathetic to the ideals of feminism (bearing in mind that feminism does not equal radical lesbian separatism, ‘though that may be a form of feminism – most feminism works on the idea that men and women are fundamentally of equal worth). However, it’s very hard to espouse such an ideal and to live up to it, day by day, moment by moment. I think that it has become that much harder for PAS to welcome women on equal terms, as women, not as women who are as good as or just like men, now that Tze Ming Mok has gone.

I have couched this post in terms of women. I have been trying to write this from a feminist perspective. I know that Tze Ming Mok’s views were written not just from a feminist perspective, but from the perspective of someone who was not a white New Zealander. I think that most of what I have written here could be written from the perspective of someone who was a member of an ethnic minority group. I don’t want to put my words into someone else’s mouth, but I do think that the same politics of presence would apply.

Russell Brown has said that he is looking to expand the complement of people writing for Public Address. I’m looking forward to seeing who he finds. I hope he finds someone, or two, or three, who will give the regular readers and commenters there a jolt.

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30 responses to “Ideals and reality

  1. “It’s just that, in practice, PAS is monosexual, and pretty much monochrome.”

    I like that. I could have just written that instead and left the rest as an “exercise for the reader”.

    But I wonder what a truly bisexual PA System would be… NOT a pretty mental image! 😉

  2. Dude, I thought you were going to quote that Bikini Kill song!

  3. Deborah- I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with your diversity analogy here. As a citizen and a taxpayer I think I have the right to expect my views represented in the policy process. But a group of people on the internet talking about things I’m not especially interested in does me no harm and gives them pleasure so my attitude is one of live and let live & I’ll find my own people elsewhere.

    To use an analogy I would never go up to a group of people happily discussing cricket and say “why aren’t you discussing vegan recipes and Victorian hair jewelery?” [two things I’m interested in] and I’d be pretty annoyed if I was having a good discussion about those things and someone came into the conversation and insisted it be about cricket which I have no interest in. Too much relentless inclusivity makes things less fun for everyone.

    I don’t see that the Public Address system is obliged to be all things to all people. I read the blogs from time to time (especially Jolissa Gracewood’s) but, I seldom read, and I’ve never participated in the comments. Not out of fear- I just don’t have much time and it’s not really my cup of tea. I don’t think that’s a gender thing incidentally. I’m just not very interested in chatting about New Zealand current affairs most of the time. I am interested in feminism but I would not look to a general interest forum like Public System to provide me with much insight or opportunity for specialist discussion on the topic anymore than I would talk back radio.

  4. MTNW: I’ve heard this perspective of yours before – it irritated me a bit at the time, but I your point was fair enough – that your interests don’t include politics, so why should you be expected to comment on a public blog about it just to represent the wimmins. In this context though, I think your angle is not really applicable. If you had a vegan cooking and Victorian hair jewelery blog (awesome!), this would be a good indication that wittering on about cricket in the comments section would not be a strongly supported pass-time. However, if you are a blogsite that purports to ‘represent New Zealand’, attached to publishing books with grandiose titles such as, I don’t know ‘Grand New Zealand Debates of Our Nation-Defining Time’; hypothesising at length about the New Zealand character, New Zealand identity, New Zealand politics, New Zealand ‘stories’, New Zealand quiz nights, and relentless New Zealandness in general, the casual observer would in fact expect that this vision of New Zealand would include a reasonable number of New Zealand woman and New Zealand non-white people, in the way that the actual New Zealand does. If it doesn’t (and it doesn’t), I think the main objection is that the branding is a bit overblown perhaps.

  5. “group of people on the internet talking about things I’m not especially interested in does me no harm”

    well. of course that’s true. but a closer analogy might be something like a quasi-public sphere such as a newspaper.

    our local rag, the Herald, likes to claim it is inclusive and comprehensive. it trades heavily on that self-constructed image and no doubt a lot of readers, perhaps even some contributors, rely on that styling of the Herald.

    anyone who can both read and think will know that in actuality the Herald (or insert any other msm) is nothing of the sort. the point is though, that in presenting itself as such, the publication then has some duty to be what it says it is.

    obviously being a privately owned publication it can really just do what it likes and ignore any obligations to its audience – but in doing so it loses credibility and authority, as is reflected in the declining news readership perhaps.

    although PAS doesn’t have a masthead saying “inclusive and comprehensive”, one might be forgiven for thinking it once projected an image along those lines. personally, i think it still does. but i think the site is really becoming more msm-like as the days go by.

  6. Tze Ming & the Sprout- yes, both fair comments. I take your respective points.

    And Tze Ming- all best with your new endeavors. I enjoyed your writing and wish you well for the future.

    I think one thing we can agree on is that Public Address is not representative of New Zealand whatever that may mean. But I’m not even sure any internet forum could be representative of New Zealand- in fact, I suspect the entirety of New Zealand participants who regularly read and comment on blogs is a very tiny subset of the rest of the population.

  7. having this conversation across three different blogs is confusing me, but then that’s just the way i sail…

    i think what you’re losing sight of deborah is the successes of system.

    the main success being that (ideally) it allows people to comment without fear of the kind of verbal attack that common to most new zealand blogs. that was one of my personal aims in taking part in the community. the theory being that if the comments threads are calm, people will feel safe delurking and taking part. people like women for example.

    and system is eminently successful in that regard. researcher-che would love to be able to measure how much participation some individuals had in blog commenting before system, and after. i’d also love to measure the relative “social cohesion” of system compared to blogs that completely tolerate verbal attack from socially dysfunctional idiots like everyone’s favourite… dads4justice.

    the trade-off for all this calmness, tolerance and participation is a middle-of-the-road, blog that favours the real-world majority demographic.

    but like ghet points out, the subject matter of hard news probably contributes a lot to that. there are plenty of women active on the web who don’t appreciate politics. jo hubris for example. active for many many years, but didn’t “do politics” much even before she joined the ranks of the public service.

  8. crap! ghet pointed out the politics thing over on my blog…

    again with the 3-blog confusion.

    and… what the sprout said. especially the “enblanding” of content.

    “enblanding”. heh. maybe i can add that the word of the year competition?

  9. Che, I think system’s success is a grand thing, but you’re missing Deborah’s point as well: some people- notably women, but I could point to other examples- have felt shouted down, belittled, and marginalised.
    That’s NOT feeling “safe”, and it’s not “cohesion.”
    From a socio-political point of view, PAS- like most (all?) communities- can be exclusive. Discovering its “fault-lines” would be a great study. Send in the research team!

  10. If I was more interested and had more time I’d be really tempted to have a blog called “big dumb white guy in Vietnam” because hey, that’s how I feel when I’m with the in-laws. Admittedly they’re in Cabramatta not actual Vietnam so I’m not illiterate as well as … what’s the word for “can’t understand the spoken language”? (feeling really linguistically inadequate right now)

    PAS is not perfect, it’s just less imperfect. Compared to the regular arrival of obnoxious wankers in Maia’s blog (and Idiot closing comments for that reason) PAS does pretty well and I really appreciate the effort that goes in. But even so, I’m a very intermittent commentator. I read (and would like to respond) much more on NoRightTurn and try to keep my comments on a few feminist blogs on topic.

  11. @rob. yeah, but there’s nothing i can say about that. i know it happens, but i can’t agree that russell is the cause. and that seems to be the undertone of the conversations i’ve been reading?

    the man’s just trying to turn coin, and getting in readers who people want to view is the key to that. if that means that he has an all-male stable, then so be it…

  12. “the man’s just trying to turn coin, and getting in readers who people want to view is the key to that. if that means that he has an all-male stable, then so be it…”

    Wow. I’m not sure Russ would appreciate a defence of his motives that made his motives sound so sexist.

    Just to clarify, and then I’m not coming back:
    I didn’t quit because of low ratings: My hit-rate was always up there with ‘the big boys’ in the second tier of popularity after Russell. But following the ‘what the audience wants’ logic, my blog would never have appeared. No-one ‘wanted’ to read me before PA recruited me, because no-one had *heard* of me; I hadn’t written any guest posts. Russell just went out and talent-spotted. Judging from his comments, he’s looking into doing the same thing again. “So be it”? That’s not a progressive perspective.

  13. ah… wtf?

    i was suggesting, in an post called “ideas and reality”, that sometimes ideals have to give way a little.

    and your logic is confusing on the ‘audience want’ call. you’re assuming that the audience only wants male.

    i said that if the writers were all male, then that would be because they’re pulling page views.

    but, by your own admission, russell got you in on talent. so… he was picking potential while it was there.

    you’re trying to paint a possible outcome to a practical issue as sexist, when the actual cause could be something as simple as a dearth of decent female bloggers.

    in other words, putting words in my mouth.

  14. i for one don’t think the problem is russell, i think he did a good job getting it started and the success of PAS isn’t a fluke.
    my point is that the tone and limitations of the dominant commenting community is a problem. i think that is partly russell’s fault, if fault is sought, but only indirectly in terms of his willingness to indulge certain voices (perhaps, ironically, in the interests of projecting an image of diversity). those indulged voices, in my opinion, have pushed others in the commenting community away, and ensured many less strident voices never de-lurk.
    inviting new authorial talent will help, but in the end it’s the commenting community that sets the overall tone or sense of community at a place like PAS.

  15. but i can’t agree that russell is the cause. and that seems to be the undertone of the conversations i’ve been reading?

    Ouch! Well, if we are going to hold DPF responsible for the tone at his place, then yes, we would have to hold Russell responsible. But I don’t want to make that claim, at all.

    I do think, given the ‘politics of presence’ line of argument, that it would help enormously if there were more women posting (c/f commenting, ‘though more commenting would be good too). It normalises women as part of the community, instead of relegating them to the sidelines. Of course, Russell can’t control who comments, but he does have considerable say in who posts. And at the moment, that seems to be overwhelmingly white men.

    I have no problem with Russell earning a good (I hope!) income from the project. I have children to support and a mortgage to pay too – I understand those economic pressures. If he finds that white men sell, and non-white or non-men writers do not, then that’s a judgement call for him to make. And frankly, when the kids want to be fed and the bank is demanding payment, why shouldn’t he make the judgement in favour of white men.

    My issue is that when PAS starts to be dominated, in practice if not in its ideals, by white men, then it is not the inclusive community it sets out to be.

  16. those indulged voices, in my opinion, have pushed others in the commenting community away, and ensured many less strident voices never de-lurk.

    i think i know the one you mean.

    i also note that russell has never really pulled me up on anything. i’ve sometimes hoped that’s because everything i say is reasonable 🙂

    that said, i agree about the politics of presence. you don’t have to look too far to see the positive effect on the few female, regular posters on blokey talk in system.

    but as for authors. we all know russell wants more female authors. the questions whether they’re able to (a) be found, (b) post regularly enough to “feminise” the discourse.

    otoh. if you can’t find “employees” what do you do? subcontract!

  17. Che you’ve always been reasonable and polite, unlike myself

  18. All reason has a shadow.

  19. Ditto. I try to be polite, but it slips so easily and sarcasm so often fails…
    And che, I’m not playing a blame game at all. I’m interested in the dynamics at PAS, probably more than I should be, heh, there’s work to be done!
    My partner simply can’t understand how I could be interested. She just doesn’t get it- online “community?”
    I do wonder if there’s a male/female disjunct that makes males more motivated to comment- a sort of “peacock syndrome.”
    What I think we all share- and probably Russell as well- is a sense of loss at losing the women’s voices that have left, fallen silent- and the one’s that have never been heard. And not just women.
    I don’t think it comes down to “white biys sell” though. On the contrary. I think it’s just a lot easier to find vocal white-boy talent!

  20. (that should be “white boy” a phrase I’m starting to get sick of. And, ahm, please don’t think I’m inferring that teh “w-bs” are more talented. Just stating the obvious, that in that forum we seem to be more vocal!

  21. Fine, I’m back. God, I’m pathetic! Thank you lower-case-rob for making this point: “I don’t think it comes down to “white b[o]ys sell” though. On the contrary. I think it’s just a lot easier to find vocal white-boy talent!… And, ahm, please don’t think I’m inferring that teh “w-bs” are more talented. Just stating the obvious, that in that forum we seem to be more vocal!”

    Exclamation mark indeed. My point would be this: if PAS had been established already in late 2004, and Russell decided to fill the gap vacated by Chad Taylor/Debra Daley, he would have looked to the System to provide those voices, and likely would have ended up with – as you put it, a vocal white boy(!) instead of Yellow Peril – because I, and many people like me, and a huge chunk of my community readership would never have bothered poking our heads up on that forum. As it is, he found me through a piece of elite, paper-based prose I wrote which, ironically, included the sentence: “I’m tired of talking to white people.” A lot easier to find white-boy talent? Depends where you look, depends on what structures make things easiest for you. As it was, back then, Russell looked outside the square screen and found someone, me, who did not exactly drag down the hit rate. Rather the reverse in fact. That is the danger of communities, intrinsically tied into their strengths; they make you think the centre of everything is a natural, rather than arbitrary place, and that all voices of worth will come from that centre. Well, I came from the outside, and to the outside I have duly returned. Perhaps it was inevitable (“so be it” indeed…), but I like to think not.

  22. I like to think not, too. If there’s no room for idealism at pas, i can read the chch press. (bleuch! it’s been years.)
    i’d like to see mikaere curtis and deborah posting there, meself. is there a virtual heaven?!

  23. Would not happen. I like Deborah’s blog anyway, as with IS’s No Right Turn…why work for another’s blog for free and have a restriction on your opinion’s?

  24. merc, rob – fancy meeting you here. it’s like old times.

    but yeah, i’m only interested in contributing to something i like to see grow.

  25. It’s in your nature.

  26. Oh god. Now I’ve gone and commented on the wrong thread.

    Anyway, I’ll try and think of something to say here at some point, but I’ve written posts to three different blogs and I’m buggered. Today’s now officially a write-off for paying work, so I’m out with the kids.

  27. The comment Russell is referring to is here.

  28. the man’s just trying to turn coin, and getting in readers who people want to view is the key to that. if that means that he has an all-male stable, then so be it…

    Um, no. Not even a little bit. I have no reason to believe that solely recruiting white males would help me commercially at all, and Tze Ming was always popular anyway.

    But like I say, everyone seems to have a different take on what I should do. Shea is sneering at the idea of gender and ethnic balance on his blog (actually, he seems to be sneering at me in general, but whatever) while other people think I’m not doing enough of it.

    And Merc, perhaps you should just get over it. I have never “restricted” the opinion of anyone who blogs on Public Address and in one particular case my refusal to do so actually cost me a lot of personal grief. I’ve tried to be polite to you but you’ve been quite unpleasant and I’m tired of it.

  29. Um sure Russell, consider it got over. Maybe you’d like to point out where I have been unpleasant to you and I could maybe tell you to get over it too.