The ABC invited me to respond to an article by Melinda Tankard Reist’s publishers, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein, on the ABC Religion and Ethics website. Their article was titled The authentic feminism of Melinda Tankard Reist.
I haven’t entered into discussions as to Melinda Tankard Reist’s eligibility to be identified as a “feminist,” let alone an “authentic” one as defined for us by her publishers, self-described radical feminists Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein.
I believe this straw-woman argument has diverted attention away from the more important issues of free speech and bullying that are inevitably raised by threats of defamation action. These issues affect many more people than does the somewhat narcissistic obsession with whether or not someone is a feminist.
I’m slightly taken aback at the authors’ vigilante assessment of my legal situation, expressed in their claim that I posted “defamatory statements.” They disagree with my comments, therefore my comments are defamatory. They apparently have no need to wait until a case is argued in court. (There is a very comprehensive analysis of the situation thus far written by a UK lawyer.)
Faced with the authentic radical feminist determination to take possession of the narrative before it has hardly begun, I am quite glad of the law.
Hawthorne and Klein point out that “misinformation, falsehoods and rumours” about Tankard Reist’s religious affiliations have been around for some time (since 2007 in some instances) and that they have been concerned about this “over many years.” (I’ll go into this at some length, as it is the heart of the matter.)
I’m not aware of Tankard Reist taking steps to correct this claimed misinformation? That would have prevented it being re-published by people such as myself. Had there been denials, I certainly would have included them in anything I wrote.
The most recent information available when I wrote the offending blog was a November 2011 television interview with ABC journalist Jane Hutcheon, in which Tankard Reist claimed when asked that she did not wish to discuss her religious beliefs as she feared such discussion would distract from her work. She did not say how or why.
Tankard Reist didn’t take the opportunity to counter years of what she claims is misinformation when Hutcheon invited her to clarify her religious views, and their effect if any on her work.
Neither did she avail herself of the chance to set the record straight in her interview with journalist Rachel Hills in January 2012.
We now know Tankard Reist is a Christian, and there is no doubt that she did work for Catholic Brian Harradine for twelve years as his bioethics advisor. During this time the former Tasmanian senator used his power to prevent aid agency AusAID from supplying reproductive education, abortion services and birth control to women in underdeveloped recipient countries (with serious repercussions for women who wished to have access to these denied services).
All this information is published on the blogs Unbelief.org (now inactive) and that of Leslie Cannold, along with a brief history of Reist’s career and early life, and her long association with a variety of conservative Christian groups. This latter is verifiable through conservative Christian sources such as Salt Shakers, evangelical Christian Bill Muehlenberg, the Australian Christian Lobby, the anti-choice lobby group Women’s Forum Australia (of whom Reist was a founding director) other sources on the web and in State Public Libraries.
There is no “misinformation” in the biography on Cannold’s blog. There are no rumours. There are no falsehoods. What, then, are these “falsehoods, rumours, and misinformation” that so trouble Reist and her publishers?
The first time I learned anything was amiss was when I received a letter of demand from Tankard Reist’s lawyer on 14 January 2012, stating that his client is not a Baptist.
I am of the opinion that if someone is aware of misinformation circulating for years, is repeatedly questioned about it and does absolutely nothing to contest it, then they really have no grounds for complaint if others believe it to be true. So I was rather surprised to receive this letter.
I was even more surprised to receive a second letter reiterating the threat, and referring to “false claims” made by other bloggers. The only “false claim” identified by the lawyers as a source of grievance is our statement that their client is a Baptist.
Is the identifier Baptist defamatory? Was she a Baptist when the biography was published? If we had all simply said “Christian” would none of this happened? Are you confused? Does anybody care, other than Baptists, perhaps, who might take umbrage at their faith being perceived as potentially defamatory material by another Christian.
Then there is the considerable amount of material that has nothing to do with either Unbelief.org or Cannold’s blog, material that documents her conservative Christian associations over a period of years. This includes the articles written by her for, among other groups, the Endeavour Forum.
The Forum began life as “Women Who Want to be Women” and its mission statement reads: “Endeavour Forum was set up to counter feminism, defend the unborn and the traditional family. (‘A feminist is an evolutionary anachronism, a Darwinian blind alley.’)” Now there’s a friendly environment for an authentic feminist!
None of this need matter much. What matters is transparency and credibility, both absolutely vital for a person claiming the moral authority to exert influence over society’s sexual behaviours and values. And Tankard Reist most certainly claims moral authority.
On the question of abortion, when reading Hawthorne and Klein’s arguments we see their inclination to conflate: because some abortions are traumatic, all abortion is suspect. In the case of Tankard Reist, because a very small number of women she interviewed had a stressful emotional reaction post the procedure, all abortion is bad for all women and will inevitably lead to mental health problems.
A hard decision is also a choice. Women have to resist the maternalistic efforts of radical and authentic feminists to prevent us from exercising our right to make hard decisions and choices about abortion. Women must resist any efforts by these feminists to deny us sovereignty over our bodies. Women have the right to fully live our lives, and that must include learning to live with regret, or living unconcerned, or sometimes being on a continuum between the two.
I also take issue with the authors’ description of males as “men who are ‘free’ to act whenever they are ‘unable to control’ their sexual urges and must have the latest hit of porn.”
This is a profoundly disturbing statement, and gives insight into the contempt the authors apparently feel towards men, whom they seem to perceive as a dangerously unruly, abusive and sexually crazed homogenous mass.
We should demand that Hawthorne and Klein clarify exactly who are they talking about? To which demographic do they refer? My sons? Men I love? Men who are my friends? Men I respect as colleagues?
This gender prejudice appears again when they claim in reference to abortion: “sex is often coercive.” There are likely very many women who find themselves in need of an abortion not after “coercive” sex, but after loving consensual sex. What evidence do the authors have that abortion is often the result of men “coercing” women to have sex?
Sometimes some men coerce some women. It might be more useful to speak of these things truthfully, instead of using the stereotyping and dehumanizing rhetoric of extremism and polarization.
Tankard Reist could have at any time approached me about the problems she has with anything I’ve written. She has a public platform much larger than mine, where she could also have voiced her objections. Instead, she has gone first to the law as a means of silencing a woman who has questioned her publicly for over two years without ever receiving a response.
We may or may not have an authentic feminist here, but we most certainly have an authentic feminist issue.
It’s also worth noting that I have a very small blog and I am not a public figure. Threatening legal action to force me to remove the post has resulted in the content being plastered all over the media, in Australia and overseas. Literally thousands of people have visited the blog and read the post, only because legal action was threatened.
Hundreds of blog posts have been written on the threatened action from any number of perspectives, because it touches on a variety of deep and globally shared concerns.
Dialogue, had Tankard Reist been willing to enter into it, would have been a better, more honest and more discreet way to address the situation. Dialogue would have protected Tankard Reist from the unpleasant exposure she’s currently experiencing. That scrutiny will intensify if the matter proceeds to court.
Perhaps Tankard Reist believed I would be intimidated into cowering compliance by legal threats and that I would maintain a frightened, obedient silence. If this is the case, that belief alone speaks volumes.
This is a cautionary tale for those who would threaten anyone who is a member of an online community. Perhaps Reist and her lawyers naively assumed I wouldn’t tell my cyber community what was happening to me.
Within seconds, the story was tweeted around the globe. This immediately resulted in the so-called “Streisand” effect in which the information someone has sought to restrict becomes even more available, entirely as a consequence of the action taken to restrict it.
With the explosion of social media, it’s no longer as easy for those with a public profile and access to money to safely issue legal threats designed to intimidate an unknown and entirely un-influential blogger into silence.
Canberra Times journalist Crispin Hull looks at the costs of such actions, and supports my apprehension that I will be financially ruined if I defend an action.
Is Tankard Reist an “authentic feminist” as Hawthorne and Klein claim? I will leave this to others to decide, if they consider the effort worth their while.