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On s*x work and freedom of speech

5 Apr



On April 9 and 10, Melinda Tankard Reist is hosting a conference marketed thus: ” ‘World’s oldest oppression,’ the first ever gathering of sex industry survivors and abolitionists in Australia, will be held at RMIT University in Melbourne next weekend.” On Tankard Reist’s website it is further described as a “two-day conference for a world free of sex trade abuse,” and a “feminist human rights conference.”

Various parties have called for no platforming action against the conference, on the grounds that it offers an opportunity for hate speech, and the furthering of a religious/moral agenda against all sex work. This agenda intentionally conflates sex work with an international and abusive sex trade of women and girls. The two are not the same, and Tankard Reist et al do their cause no favours by this conflation. Given my knowledge of Tankard Reist and other participants in this forum, I’d be inclined to agree with the apprehension of conflation: these participants steadfastly refuse the possibility of sex work as a choice, and make no distinction between women who are the victims of sex trade abuse, and women who choose sex work as their career.

Reist, Caroline Norma and Julie Bindel have all at some time made the argument that women who choose sex work as their profession are victims of a kind of false consciousness, that is, they don’t actually make a choice because they have been abused to the point where choice is no longer possible, they just don’t know that about themselves. This seems to me a most presumptuous and offensive conclusion for anyone to arrive at, other than the women concerned, and it should be identified and challenged.

I need to disclose here my personal encounters with Tankard Reist, when she threatened to sue me for defamation after I’d written on this blog about her religious affiliations and their influence on her moral and political sensibilities . While it was a difficult period in my blogging career, and brought all manner of people from Anne Summers to Julia Baird to Miranda Devine down on my head, and made me for a nanosecond a global cause and the subject of a petition to save me, it also taught me valuable lessons about efforts to silence a contrary point of view, and it is this learning that I’m drawing on in my argument that Reist et al must be permitted their platform.

After my experience of Reist attempting and failing to bully me into silence with threats of financial ruin if I didn’t shut up and retract, (supported in her efforts by some of the mainstream press) I’m highly sensitised to any form of censorship. As an academic committed to the deconstruction of controversial ideas rather than their silencing, I baulk at the current penchant for refusing a platform to those who hold a position with which I strongly disagree. I can’t support authoritarianism in any form, and withholding the right to express ideas is an authoritarian act. Who is to decide which ideas may or may not be expressed? And since when was it possible to destroy any idea by denying opportunities for its expression?

The fact that RMIT hosts this conference (which at first blush appears perfectly acceptable, after all, who wouldn’t like to abolish sex trade abuse) doesn’t indicate administrative support for views expressed during the conference. Permitting the expression of ideas does not indicate  acquiescence or agreement with those ideas. If ideas are forbidden expression on a university campus, we are in deep excrement.

Tankard Reist is adept at tailoring her marketing to fit her desired outcomes: in this instance she is using an understandable abhorrence for the trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery as an opportunity to attack all sex work. This approach needs not to be silenced, but identified and challenged.

Reist also states that survivors of sex trade abuse are speaking at the conference and I cannot, in any universe, agree to the silencing of the voices of survivors. Undoubtedly they are survivors who support Reist’s opinions: they ought not to be denied a voice because of this. I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse: is someone ready to instruct me that I may speak of this only within their terms of reference?

The weapon in situations such as this is not censorship but protest. Demanding that a third-party, in this case university authorities, step in and take action on students’ behalf is infantile. If you don’t want someone speaking on your campus get out there and protest and hopefully the academic staff who agree will support you. No platforming is the first resort of the weak.  You can’t no platform the world and everything in it you don’t want to hear. You have to learn to use your own voice for the whole of your life so you might as well start at university.

I’d like to add that Vixen Collective, who are protesting the “World’s Oldest Oppression” conference, have not called for RMIT to no platform. They have simply asked for an opportunity to have a voice in the discussions. That request has been ignored by the conference organisers. 




Out of MTR’s defamation jail! The Streisand Effect, & conduct that offends

13 Jan
Image: Feminists for Free Expression

Image: Feminists for Free Expression

This time last year I received a threat of defamation action from anti pornography activist Melinda Tankard Reist. The gist of her complaint is outlined in these extracts from a letter of demand, sent by her lawyer Ric Lucas of Colquhoun Murphy, on January 13 2012:

 We are instructed that you have made a number of defamatory posts concerning our client on the internet, set out principally under the heading “The questions Rachel Hills didn’t ask Melinda Tankard Reist” on your blog No Place for Sheep. These claims have been widely circulated, including on twitter.

For instance you assert that Melinda Tankard Reist is a member of a church that preaches the second coming off [sic] Christ, the end time, evangelism and that sex filthies the human female and renders her impure. You claim that “Tankard Reist is a Baptist.” This is simply false, yet you have erected an entire panoply of criticism upon it. And you finish your attack by alleging without the slightest evidence that our client is “deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs.

This is false and unwarranted, and seriously defamatory.

Our client is very distressed at your behaviour, and requires that you immediately remove these posts from the internet. They are very damaging to her reputation.

Ms Tankard Reist also requires a prompt apology and retraction by signed letter, in terms to be agreed with this firm, and which also should be published upon your blog “No place for sheep” [sic]. She also requires payment of her legal costs.

She reserves her right to damages for defamation. 

We note that this is a concerns notice pursuant to s126 of the Civil Law (Wrongs) Act  2002 and is not for publication.

Then, on January 17 2012, I received another letter from Mr Lucas.

We refer to our letter of 13 January. We note that instead of seeking legal advice and considering whether you should withdraw your false claim that Melinda Tankard Reist is “deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs…” you have redoubled your attacks upon our client, with the result that a number of journalists have raised the issue with our client.

Our client intends to rely on your conduct as aggravating the damages payable to her. The slightest reflection on your part would have led to the conclusion that your false claims are very hurtful to our client, and by circulating them so widely, you have done significant damage to her reputation. We can only conclude from your behaviour, especially since our client sought an apology, that you are motivated by malice.

We have pointed out to you the false basis on which you have proceeded, yet instead of apologising, you assert that because someone else has said (falsely) that our client is a Baptist “She is going to have to sue a few more blogs than mine.”

You cannot rely on anyone else’s false statements on a blog, as a defence for your false claims. Was that the full extent of your enquiries, before you proceeded to make the hurtful and damaging claim that Melinda Tankard Reist “is deceitful and duplicitous about her religious beliefs…?”

We note you have misled the followers of your blog by asserting that our client has demanded that “I withdraw all of my posts about her.” That is just another falsehood on your part. The demand is specific – that you withdraw those which are defamatory, and we specified some allegations, in particular the entirely false claim that Melinda Tankard Reist “is deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs.”

Your sense of guilt about that particular claim is palpable, given that when you were seeking support online against my client’s attempt to censor you, you did not even disclose that was at the heart of my client’s objection to what you had written. 

Since our letter of 13 January you have made further defamatory claims, and comments on blogs, which should also be withdrawn. You should also take down defamatory and abusive comments by others, hosted on your blog.

You have in your published writings pointed to the fact that child abuse is a transgression of several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have called for domestic law to give effect to a charter of rights. You are no doubt aware that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights powerfully affirms the right to honour and reputation. Article 12 provides that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

You should reflect upon the fact that you have seriously flouted your obligation to uphold the Universal Declaration. Would you like to be described publicly as “deceptive and duplicitous?”

Australian law protects Ms Tankard Reist against your breach of her rights, through the law of defamation. It is an imperfect protection, because it cannot require you to retract or apologise for your breach.

The only remedy the law provides is the right to obtain a judgement declaring that what you wrote was false, and an award of compensation. If you will not retract, the law will protect our client’s rights.

Without prejudice, we note that our client’s aim in this is not to bankrupt you. She would much rather you came to your senses, and realised that a person who wishes to be taken seriously as a social commentator, who has pretensions as a scholar of human rights with a PhD from Southern Cross University, should check their facts, and not indulge in flights of libellous fancy. 

If this matter can be resolved by negotiation resulting inter alia in a correction and apology, that would be far preferable to the expense of proceedings in the ACT courts.

I’m resisting the considerable temptation to deconstruct this harangue.

A complainant has twelve months to instigate defamation action following the issuing of a letter of demand. This period has now expired.

The thing is, if Tankard Reist had bothered to contact me directly, I’d have been more than happy to discuss the situation with her, and to publish her rebuttal on the blog. This is an example of how threats of legal action and demands for money achieve nothing, and indeed, can make matters far worse. See this brilliant analysis of the Streisand Effect as it played out in this case, to Tankard Reist’s considerable detriment.

I have  strong objections to people attempting to intimidate and bully others into silence through threats of financially crippling legal action. I think it is all too often the first resort of a coward. Imagine how much better this could have turned out for Tankard Reist if she’d challenged me, instead of trying to frighten and silence me.

It’s also worth checking out Sarah Joseph’s analysis of the proposed draft anti discrimination bill. In this proposal, it becomes unlawful to engage in “conduct that offends, insults, or intimidates.”  There is quite a difference between offence and insult,  and intimidation and harassment, yet they are lumped together in the proposed legislation as unlawful. As Joseph points out “There is no human right not to be offended or insulted. And indeed, historically much important speech has offended somebody.”

After reading Joseph’s piece, I am at a loss to understand why Attorney General Nicola Roxon is pursuing this avenue. While I would be delighted to watch Alan Jones and his ilk hauled before the courts on a fairly consistent basis as they continue to offend and insult someone because of their protected attribute, the bigger picture is frightening, and smacks of far too much government control. Nobody enjoys being insulted and offended because of who they are and what they believe, yet the idea of taking legal action in such circumstances is extreme, is it not?


To those who would sue us

10 Apr

Blogger Dan Buzzard wrote about homeopath Francine Scrayan in a post titled Scammed to Death: How Francine Scrayan killed Penelope Dingle. Briefly, Dingle was seriously ill with bowel cancer and Scrayan “treated” her with alternative medicine. Dingle died a horrible, painful death. The full story and the Coroner’s damning report can be found at Buzzard’s website.

As well, there’s an excellent post here at Chrys Stevenson’s blog titled When the Despicable cry Defamation. For some balanced commentary on the need or otherwise for defamation laws, Metamagician aka Russell Blackford  has a piece here as well as this highly recommended commentary and link on his blog.

Buzzard has now received a Cease and Desist order from Francine Scrayan’s lawyers, demanding that he remove the offending posts, as well as publish a retraction and apology. Scrayan reserves her right to sue him for defamation.

Only a couple of weeks ago, concerned parent Daniel Jeffares questioned literature distributed in his child’s school by the Bravehearts child advocacy organisation. In an attempt to discover the qualifications and experience of the authors of this material, Jeffares approached Bravehearts’ founder Hetty Johnston several times, only to be informed that his correspondence had been referred to her lawyers.

Then there is my own ongoing situation with Melinda Tankard Reist. This brilliant analysis of my circumstances by Scepticlawyer titled Once we suffered from crimes now we suffer from laws is  a must-read if you’re interested in some in-depth commentary on defamation threats. As well, there’s a Defamation category on the blog where you’ll find most of what’s been written here since I received the threats.

I don’t know if the situation with Buzzard is similar to mine, however the threats against me by Tankard Reist are viable for twelve months after the date of issue. At any time between now and next January, I can be served with a writ. One learns to live with threats, however my question is, why should anyone be obliged to, simply for expressing an opinion?

As with Reist, Scrayan could have chosen from any number of commentaries if she wanted to launch a defamation action. Instead, they both chose “unknown” bloggers. As Stevenson points out, this is a rather self-defeating exercise as individual bloggers rarely have the protection of moneyed institutions. Neither do we have unlimited access to lawyers who will defend us without a cent coming from our own pockets. What Reist and Scrayan might have achieved is a retraction and apology, which they could then use to self-publicise. They might have achieved this without risking the court proceedings an institution with deep pockets, unlike bloggers, may choose before capitulating.

Apparently these people think so highly of themselves they believe they are entitled to bully, intimidate and ultimately silence the opinions of others in order to defend their “good names.”

Reist and Scrayan depend on the successful provocation of deep fear. It’s no joke being faced with a legal situation that would certainly end in bankruptcy for many bloggers. I wouldn’t blame anyone who made the apology and retraction rather than face that prospect, and the prospect of such a dire threat hanging over his or her head for twelve months. And this is what these people count on, that the threat in itself will be sufficient to get them what they want.

Never mind that one is an advocate for public morality and the protection of children, and the other is a “healer.” In spite of their noble professions, or perhaps because of them, these women seem to believe they are above questioning, above criticism and fully entitled to threaten another human being with the loss of everything in order to protect their “reputations.”

Hetty Johnston, who has thus far only threatened to bring in the lawyers when her methods were questioned, is also a child advocate.

I’m in agreement with Blackford that we do need some form of defamation law, however its current manifestation allows those who would silence rather than debate, power to threaten and intimidate anyone who disagrees with their point of view. This does go to the character of such people. Surely they are capable of robust debate and engagement with other points of view without resorting to legal threats? And if they are not, if their characters are such that they are unable to defend their positions, should that weakness be supported by our legal system? And should people so apparently lacking in the courage of their convictions be granted the power to silence those who question them?  Do we really want a society in which our laws give a voice to bullies, while silencing  those who challenge them?

To those who would sue us, first read The Streisand Effect

To those who would sue us: toughen up, princesses.

To those who would sue us:

Free speech from the coal face: Update

14 Mar

Update: I’ve just been made aware of yet another article alleging I lied about Reist’s religious affiliations, and that a bullying campaign of lies is being conducted against her on the Internet.

The fact that there is a comprehensive record of her involvements with a variety of conservative Christian groups, based almost entirely on their own literature and available both on line and in libraries, makes these accusations and the people who make them look very dishonest or gullible, to say the least.

Along with the conservative Baptist group the Salt Shakers, Reist was also involved with the Endeavour Forum, formerly Women Who Want to be Women. The motto of this organisation, run by Babette Francis, is  “A feminist is an evolutionary anachronism, a Darwinian blind alley.” These people are seriously anti feminist and anti choice. Their stated aim is to “outlaw abortion.”  Their connection with Reist is   confirmed in their literature.

If Reist has changed her views and moved away from these groups and their philosophies, why not simply say so? Denying any connection with them is absurd – the sourced and referenced evidence is available for anyone to see.  Are Reist and her supporters claiming all these religious groups have falsified their records in a conspiracy to discredit her?

Most of us understand that people can change their views and their affiliations. What is more difficult to understand is why anyone would attempt to deny those affiliations, and co-opt others into publicly supporting them in that denial to the extent that they put their own reputations on the line when it is apparent  that the affiliations existed.

As I’ve said before, there are areas of Reist’s work that I agree with in part, and I applaud her determination to bring these to public awareness, even though I don’t always agree with her methods. It seems to me that her determination to deny her past is only doing Reist and her cause harm, and quite frankly, I can’t see the point of it. Suing me isn’t going to make her history go away.

We all change allegiances about something during the course of our lives. It’s no great offense. But it becomes a problem if we deny the allegiances ever existed, and that anyone who states otherwise is a liar.

The more Reist and her supporters persist with this farce, the less credible they appear. No doubt Reist’s supporters do their own work well, so why risk their hard-earned reputations?

While I don’t doubt Reist has been the recipient of unsavoury commentary, this is a separate issue, and has nothing to do with me. I have used reliable sources, the religious groups themselves in most instances, and I have not abused Reist. So it might be time to leave me out of the claims of bullying, lies and on line abuse.

This may sound bizarre, but when I learned that I can’t be forced by the law to apologise and retract my opinions about Melinda Tankard Reist, I experienced the most profound relief. She can still bankrupt me. But she cannot make me lie.

This caused me to consider what it means to take away someone’s right to speak freely, and the conditions under which it might be justified. There are not many, I concluded. I will defer to Russell Blackwell on what these might be.

I don’t know what it does to someone to be forced into publicly professing a position they do not hold, out of fear that otherwise something dreadful will happen to them. It sickens me to think about it. I also wonder what could be the satisfaction in wresting a false apology from an opponent, in the full knowledge that they don’t mean it and have only proffered it to avoid the trouble you’ve threatened them with if they don’t comply.

Impasses caused by wildly differing opinions and interpretations are not unusual. Civilised people must find ways to deal with them that don’t require one party to compromise themselves out of fear.

In the weeks since I received the defamation threat, I’ve read some dreadful things about myself, some written by people one would expect to know better, some written by people who are pitifully uniformed, some downright threats such as the one that advised me to dig my own grave. I’ve been hurt, angered, saddened and disgusted. I’ve also taken on board what seemed to me like intelligent critical commentary, and I’ve learned from it.

Much as I would like to be able to silence those whose observations have caused me distress and even anxiety, I can’t, and I’ve had to find other ways of dealing with my discomfort. It’s called standing on your own two feet, and my grandmother taught me all about it. Threatening legal action is the easy way out. Finding the resources within yourself to deal with what somebody says about you that you hate them saying is far more challenging.

What I’ve also learned is that determining what causes “harm” is complex. For example, many things that have been written about me leave me entirely unaffected, while some cut me right to the heart. This in itself is an opportunity for learning. What is it about certain attacks that hurt so badly while others, that someone else might find intolerable, are irrelevant?

The answer of course lies in the individual psyche. In psycho babble terms, some attacks push buttons and the buttons they push are to do with personal history. Whenever my buttons are pushed, I’m compelled to ask why, and to track down the origins of the sensitivities. The good thing about this is once I’ve identified them I can defuse them, if only to the degree that when I next bristle I know why. This gives me better control over myself and my reactions, rather than yielding up that control to those who want to make me squirm and will be gratified if I do. It’s a long process. I expect to be in it for the rest of my life.

If I can get the law to just shut everybody up what have I gained? In my terms, nothing, and in the end one can only live by one’s own lights, no matter how bizarre they may seem to someone else. Demanding the law take care of something one can quite easily address oneself is like running to a parent when somebody’s said something mean. It’s fine for a certain phase of childhood, but after that it’s sad.

The moneyed (because it is only the moneyed who can embark on these actions, they are inaccessible to those without ample funds) who cannot deal with feeling offended, misrepresented, badly done by, wrongly described, wrongly judged, affronted, and so on ought not to be able to turn to the law in an attempt to resolve their injured feelings. There aren’t many of us who get through life without suffering these indignities, especially if we have any kind of public profile. To believe that we have the right to deny free speech to anyone as revenge for injured feelings is narcissistic overkill.  “You hurt me and I now have the right to destroy you, because I can afford to destroy you.” Or ” You hurt me and I will make you take it back by threatening to destroy you, because I have the money to do that.”

Mmmm. Wouldn’t a grown up just handle it?

I love free speech. I don’t love it blindly, and there are circumstances in which the speaker must be held legally accountable for his or her speech.I would like to imagine that anyone who is considering defamation action thinks deeply about what they are doing because what is certain is that one threatened action is like a pebble cast into a pond – the ripples are endless, and people not immediately involved are also silenced or restricted in their speech, out of fear. I would not like to be responsible for casting such a pebble without very good reason.

I can’t imagine a world in which everyone is always nice and inoffensive. It isn’t one of my dreams. What I do imagine is a world in which people stand strongly on their own two feet, because they’ve been taught how to do that. A world in which offense is dealt with by drawing on inner resources, because people have been taught from childhood how to develop the strength and character do that. A world in which something as precious as freedom of speech is not threatened by the disgruntled wealthy, but where there are legal safeguards for when it is dangerously abused.

Helen Pringle’s hypocrisy

12 Mar

For the second time in  matter of days, Helen Pringle has published an article in which she claims I did not get my facts right and used “unprincipled reasoning”on which to base my January 10 post on Melinda Tankard Reist.

This is in spite of me commenting on the first publication, and correcting her  misinformation.

At this point, were I Tankard Reist, I would call in the lawyers to threaten Ms Pringle with defamation action unless she withdrew her claims, apologised, and paid me money. Pringle knows, however, that I don’t believe in such action as a means to resolving anything, and she feels quite safe to continue making false claims, in the full knowledge that they are false.

Neither does Pringle disclose that she is a contributing author to Tankard Reist’s latest book. In fact she explains nothing, her reference to me being as follows:

[Leslie] Cannold and others like Jennifer Wilson can see these considerations clearly in their own case, and in cases to which they are (rightly) sympathetic, such as that of the Bolt complainants. But they seem unable to take a stand based on principle in regard to those with whom they are not in sympathy. Unprincipled reasoning like this about freedom of speech is rife in what passes for public debate in Australia.

So in an article entirely about freedom of speech, Pringle neglects to advise her readers that I am being threatened with defamation by her colleague, Tankard Reist, in an attempt to silence my freedom of speech. Instead she describes me as “unprincipled”, offering no context at all for that accusation and no links to any context either so that her readers may evaluate the situation for themselves.

Had Pringle bothered to check her facts, she would have discovered that the sources on which I based my piece of Jan 10 2012 are fully referenced.

I can think of little less principled than continuing to publicly disseminate information after being made aware of its falsity. Pringle has further lowered the tone of public debate in this country .

Her article concludes:

So let’s have vibrant debate and disagreement about exercises of speech in our polity and our culture. And let’s have it in a context marked out by considerations about the inviolability of the person…

That is the inviolability of all persons, isn’t it? Including those with whom Pringle  is not in sympathy?

This is not Tu Quoque, it is not, it is not

10 Mar

The ad hominem argument known as “tu qouque” or “you too” goes like this:

She cannot sue me for libel because she was just successfully sued for libel.

It’s clear this is fallacious: the fact that she has been found guilty of libel doesn’t mean she can’t claim she’s also been libeled. While we can exclaim at the hypocrisy we may see in such a situation, hypocrisy in no way negates claims that are deserving of attention whether she has committed the same offense or not.

My post of January 10 that caused Melinda Tankard Reist to threaten defamation action has understandably been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny and commentary. A consistent criticism is that I didn’t have the “facts” on which I based my allegations about Reist’s religious influences, that I made knowledge claims without the knowledge. I’ve pointed out that I used information available uncontested in the public domain for a long time, that I watched and read interviews with Reist by journalists, and that I have sources dating back to 2006 questioning Reist’s religious motivations.

For some two years now, I’ve been contesting what I consider outrageous claims made by Reist (and others, but so far nobody else has threatened to sue me), and outrageous attacks on public figures that are supported by nothing other than Reist’s opinion. Why nobody has threatened her with defamation action I don’t know. I do know from correspondence with some of these people that they’ve considered, and in a couple of cases are still considering taking action against her. The cost of such action is a major obstacle for many who might otherwise resort to it, however this does not seem to be a consideration for Tankard Reist.

What’s remarkable is that those who have developed an intense interest in my post of January 10 have shown absolutely no interest at all in the injustices perpetrated by Reist in her savage personal attacks on men and women whose lifestyles and opinions she does not care for.

For example, this crusade against a singer whose song she finds objectionable doesn’t stop with him: Reist attacks his girlfriend for failing to prevent him writing it. This is what I wrote at the time:

MTR also holds Delta Goodrem partially responsible. Why didn’t Delta check the lyrics before allowing Brian to record them, she asks. Is Delta so inured to sexual violence that she didn’t even notice what Brian was on about?

This would be unfortunate, MTR suggests, as Delta is a spokeswoman for Avon Voices, a group that raises awareness of violence against women.

I guess the sexual conservatives also hold women responsible for what the men they live with do.

Personally, I think that’s a pretty low and unnecessarily malicious swipe.

Indeed on ABC’s The Drum the article title is: “New song from Delta’s man feeds rape myth.” Delta’s man?

Then we have this attack on Tasmanian DPP Tim Ellis. Reist continued to post this article on her website when other sites such as On Line Opinion took it down, after being advised by the DPP that it contained references to a case currently underway, and risked incurring charges of contempt. The article and Reist’s commentary make no reference to the extraordinary decision by the DPP to publish his reasons for not proceeding with prosecutions in the Hobart Mercury. They simply attack him personally and professionally.

Then we have this gem, Reist’s interpretation of a video she doesn’t like:

Women are slaves and bitches who can service a man’s sexual needs, even in death. Men are brutal and dominant, and have no empathy for women. Men enjoy dead women as sex and entertainment. The female body is to be devoured, reduced to the same status as meat. Female bodies should be displayed before men as a great feast for their consumption.

Beside which my allegedly lurid interpretation of the virgin birth looks quite inadequate.

Then we have this vicious tirade, directed against Shaune Metcalf seven, yes seven years after he committed an appalling crime, had been found guilty, and punished. Reist also attacks a defense of Metcalfe by Celia Lashlie. I’ll post in full the observations of commenter Bruce Thombo Jefferson on Reist’s article, because it’s worth it:

Bruce Thombo Jefferson :

15 Apr 2011 12:43:05pm

I think the point of this article as I read it is that Ms Tankard Reist feels betrayed because Ms Lashlie has allowed a balanced and educated approach to dealing with a criminal who commissioned a crime when he was a 16 year old several years ago. My guess is the actual assault is a secondary matter being used a vehicle by Ms Tankard Reist to go to war with those ostensibly of her faction that do not tow her party line. 

The theme seems to be the righteousness of her anger and her right to indulge it freely when that sort of approach is being questioned by Ms Lashlie. It appears, from the little I have managed to find out, that Ms Lashlie is a person who worked with male prisoners as a warden in the NZ system and she seems to dedicate herself to the notion of rehabilitation and the possibility of positive outcomes. Ms Tankard Reist seems to enjoy more punitive approach. 

Now the punishment after the fact orientated sort of republican Southern Baptist style of rhetoric so fashionable in the USA is a good vote catcher over there but we have to ask ourselves if it is really effective in making a better society? Clearly they have been a total failure in lowering the number of abortions, one of Ms Tankard Reists pet projects, sex crimes or even teenage pregnancy. The reason for this is that is outed by Ms Tankard Reist herself. The object is not rehabilitation , its not prevention, it is the revelling in the feeling of righteous anger and self justification. 

Is this type of self indulgence worth supporting? I would argue not. These people may like to keep their kids as their play dolls by hiding any hint of human sexuality from them They may resurrect the lynch mobs of the fifties but they can even establish repressive, even in extreme cases genocidal regimes lasting decades but they wont actually achieve a better society.

Ms Lashlie appears to represent the other side. One is reminded of Victor Frankl who after years of incarceration in German Concentration camps felt it was his duty upon release to work with ex guards and other Nazis to help them come to terms with what they had done and move on. I always like the notion that the aim of life was to heal a fractured world rather than drive a wedge deeper in but that’s just me.

I notice that most of Ms Tankard Reists supporter entourage here are concentrating on the side issue of the horror of the crime rather than on Ms Tankard Reists theme of her right to tantrum. Perhaps that is because even to them its hard to see the point of it. 

I would argue that all round Ms Lashlie’s constructive engagement approach is better because it will lead to a better outcome for all parties, the ruby player , the mother and the child than Ms Tankards Reist’s approach which will lead to third parties having an indulgent anger fests but nothing else really.

It really is most interesting that my January 10 post should attract such attention when articles such as Reist’s (and there are many, many more that I haven’t noted) go entirely unremarked by my critics.  If one is honest about striving for a media in which knowledge claims are supported by knowledge, and in which people are not singled out for unfair criticism, the work of a writer such as Tankard Reist is a good place to start your critique and offers far more examples of what offends than does my insignificant post.

Which is not to claim that I should be left uncritiqued, or that Reist’s complaints and threats are invalid because she has also committed offenses. This is not tu quoque, it is not, it is not.

More like a question of balance.

The ad hominem fallacy & the Tankard Reist affair

4 Mar

Someone today directed me to a post on the feminist blog RAW/ROAR where there’s an argument as to whether or not my blog on Melinda Tankard Reist (the one that inspired the defamation threats) is based on ad hominem arguments about her religious beliefs.

There isn’t any reason why the post’s author, tammois, should know that I’ve been writing against Reist’s (and others) views on pornography and abortion for about two years now, and there’s some 28 posts on the topic on this blog, plus posts at the Drum and On Line Opinion. Nowhere do I argue that I disagree with Reist’s views because she’s a Christian. I’ve never read of anyone else making that argument either. However tammois feels quite comfortable attributing this viewpoint to me:

 ‘I disagree with her [MTR’s] anti-porn work because she’s a fundie Baptist and by the way you know she’s pro-life/anti-choice?!’

I left this reply:

I have written at length for the last two years on my blog and in other places about why I disagree with MTR’s stand on pornography, and her theories of inevitably debilitating post abortion grief, and I have not found it necessary to discuss her religious affiliations as part of my disagreement.

The particular blog to which this author refers specifically addressed questions either not asked by interviewers, or asked and inadequately answered about Reist’s religious views and the influence they have on her views on pornography and abortion.

As Reist has herself stated that she feels her religious views would negatively impact on her moral campaigns and that is why she will not discuss them, it is perfectly reasonable for me or anyone else to ask what that impact might be, and why she fears it will be negative.

I believe Reist’s moral views are influenced by her religious beliefs and indeed, Reist seems to hold some fears about this herself, though not from the same perspective of course.

This last blog, for which I have been threatened with defamation action, asks questions that have been asked by many others for at least the last six years. I have never heard anyone claim that they disagree with Reist’s views on porn or anything else “because she’s a fundie Christian.” The question is always about her influences, and how they affect her very public moral campaigns.

I’m astonished at how someone can mount an entire argument based on a  falsehood and at the same time claim they’re protesting the use of an ad hominem fallacy.

The ad hominem is not always fallacious. There are arguments for making what’s know as a circumstantial ad hominem. There are those who argue ad hominem reasoning can be essential to understanding moral issues. Arguments that question the opponent’s possible dogmatic bias, for example, or vested and conflicted interests, are legitimate critical responses.

The circumstantial ad hominem is an allegation of bias, and intended to serve as a warning that the arguments need to be scrutinized. Allegations are just that. They aren’t proof that an argument is incorrect or flawed, and are not used as proof: they merely raise legitimate questions about possible bias.

Making an allegation is not a biased act. Conflict of interest of all kinds can affect objectivity. It is perfectly acceptable to allege a conflict of interest when there are grounds to do so. It isn’t conducive to free speech and healthy debate for such allegations to be prevented, or silenced by dismissing them as fallacious.

I have more than enough reasons to allege Reist’s moral views are not objective but are influenced by dogmatic bias, and I’ve named all of them over the last two years, as have many others. As the allegations have never been denied by Reist it is necessary to keep on making them when arguing against her moral position.

There seems to be  a popular opinion that the ad hominem argument, of which there are I think three main types, is always the same and always fallacious. This isn’t the case. It might be a good idea for those who intend to use the accusation of ad hominem as a means of discrediting an argument to do their homework first.


When it’s ethical to disclose your religious beliefs

11 Feb

I grew up in a nominally Christian household. I was educated at a boarding school run by Anglican nuns. As a young mother I had my sons baptised. Soon I’ll attend the baptism of my infant grandson.

In my early thirties, I ceased to believe in the Christian God and organised religion. A few years later feminism gave me the analytic tools to deconstruct religion and reveal it for the powerfully oppressive force it can be for women.

I look back to my time with the nuns with great gratitude, but I no longer subscribe to their beliefs.

What I learned about being a Christian is that a follower is expected to live his or her faith. It isn’t some abstract concept that is trotted out on Sundays. It’s supposed to imbue every aspect of life, every action the believer takes is to be taken in God’s light, and when a Christian encounters difficulties of any kind, a Christian prays to God for guidance and sustenance. No matter what one’s profession, one is expected to perform it as a Christian, according to Christian values.

I don’t know if all Christians learn this, but we certainly did.

Followers are also expected to identify themselves in the hope that others will “see their good works and glorify their father in heaven.” And, hopefully, join the religion.

These seem to me a commendable set of expectations. Transparency, honesty, willingness to share, and to extend invitations to others to join you in what you believe to be the best way to live a life here on earth.

As long as they remain strictly invitations.

So I am entirely unable to comprehend the attitude held by Melinda Tankard Reist that her religious faith distracts from her work and she doesn’t want to talk about it for fear of being “labelled.” Labelled what, I’d like to ask. Labelled Christian? How and why does Tankard Reist believe that being labelled as a Christian distracts or detracts from her work?

In an interview with Reist on Mia Freedman’s website mamamia is this observation: Ms Reist herself has said in the past that she is reluctant to discuss her stance on religion because people tend to use it to ‘colour’ the rest of her work.

My understanding is that a Christian is supposed to “colour” their work, indeed colour their whole lives with the presence of God. Why is this “colouring” regarded as negative by Reist to the degree that she is reluctant to discuss her religious views and appears to distance herself from them when the question of their influence on her work arises?

In the same interview a comment from Herald Sun journalist Jill Singer:

Worst of all, in my view, is that Tankard Reist protests robustly if anyone dares question what it is that informs her strongly held opinions. Specifically, she gets very, very edgy if anyone dares suggest her Christian beliefs influence her opinions.

If you are proud of your beliefs, and are living a life based on them, why would you become “very, very edgy” if anyone suggests those beliefs influence your opinions?

As she is a Christian we can legitimately expect that Reist comes to her morality influenced and guided by the morality of her faith. If this is not the case, then one has to wonder what kind of Christianity she practices, as the concept of a Christian who is Christian in everything other than her morality is somewhat baffling.

When Reist in her role as the morals police seeks to influence public morality and public policy, it is entirely reasonable for her audience to ask if her morality is influenced by her Christian beliefs. Christians have very specific moral positions. They are not all the same, and unless Reist reveals what hers are, we can only make assumptions. To claim, as does Reist, that her Christian beliefs are in some way different from her moral campaigns and can’t be discussed as they will “distract” from those campaigns, is more than a little bizarre.

Ethically, Reist is required to reveal how her Christian beliefs influence her opinions.  The public is not required to sit meekly by and unquestioningly accept a social order likely designed according to Christian morality, particularly if that morality is in some way concealed.

My Christian upbringing taught open-ness, pride, and joy in that faith. The idea that faith would detract from a moral message is simply incomprehensible. Does one build compartments, then? In here my faith, in there my morality and the two have no relationship?

The ethics of the situation are obvious. If Tankard Reist is a practicing Christian then there is no doubt that her faith guides her moral values. If she has a relationship with God in which she seeks through prayer advice and instruction on her work, as Christians are required to do, then she is ethically obliged to disclose this.

If she is seeking to morally prescribe for the public then we need to know if she does this in conjunction with her relationship with the Christian God, or if she is acting entirely alone.

Why? Because there are millions of us who do not believe in that God and do not wish to be forced to live our lives subject to any Christian morality. We have a human right to live free of religion and the imposition of religious morality.

We have the right to ask, is Tankard Reist acting in the best interests of human beings or in the service of her God? Because the two do not always coincide. The bottom-line with just about all religions is what many of the followers perceive to be God’s will, and not necessarily the welfare of human beings. We have overwhelming evidence of this priority.

If anyone seeks to morally prescribe from such a position, I am entitled to know that and to make my decisions accordingly. In those circumstances it is, to my mind, completely unethical to refuse to discuss one’s relationship with religion and its influence on one’s very public work.

Greer at the Opera House, Eva Cox, Julia Gillard and MTR. Feminism today. *Sigh*

7 Feb

There’s been a debate raging in the media for over three weeks now as to whether or not morals campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist’s claim to be a feminist is legitimate. Some of the arguments are addressed here and here.

This has come at a convenient time for the Sydney Opera House events management team, who have now co-opted the debate and the threats of defamation made against me by Tankard Reist as advertising material for their upcoming event starring Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf. This event is titled “The F-Word,” and up until the legal threat the organisers were worried that nobody was interested in feminism anymore. The resulting internecine wars have gone a long way towards cheering them up.

Any woman who believes she has the right to tell any other woman she may not call herself a feminist is engaging in an act of bullying. A woman may self-identify in whatever way she chooses. Others may disagree with her choice but disagreement isn’t the same thing as attempting to deny her the right to define herself as she sees fit.

There were at least twenty-seven different factions of feminism last time I counted, many with oppositional points of view. Hegemonic attempts to impose just one definition of the ideology as the norm on all women who would thus identify themselves, is antithetical to feminist principles.

In a situation where the group calls itself “feminist” and is but one of many groups identifying as such, on what grounds does this group assume the entitlement and privilege that allows them to declare all others ineligible?

The ongoing fights about who is entitled to identify herself as a “feminist” are a sad indicator of an ideology that is rapidly disappearing up its own fundament. For example, presented with a choice between engaging in public debate about the other issues the Reist defamation threats have raised, such as free speech, our defamation laws, the rights of bloggers and social media users, all of which are or would once have been considered feminist issues, the public feminists decided to ignore all that.

Then we have the pro Tankard Reist argument that she is an “authentic” feminist as presented here. Whenever someone uses the word “authentic” in an argument such as this I wonder why. To cast other feminists as “inauthentic” perhaps? The article is written by women who describe themselves as “radical” feminists. Are they also authentic? Have I fallen down a rabbit hole?

The battle for and against is two sides of the same struggle for sole possession and domination of the feminist narrative. A struggle that is founded on exclusion, expulsion, entitlement, privilege, and an appalling lack of imagination.

If I wanted to define feminism for myself, I would turn to bell hooks

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys.

 At the risk of incurring the usual old anti feminist slurs, I’d suggest that any woman or group of women who seek to take possession of the term “feminist” are engaging in their own form of patriarchal domination, and one that we could all do well without.

I don’t know if Greer and Wolfe will be discussing any of this. But I am bemused as I watch a defamation threat made against me by a self-described feminist, turned into an advertisement for an Opera House event at which two of the planet’s most famous feminists will discuss the relevance of feminism. Irony, anyone?

Then there’s the furore about whether or not criticism leveled at Julia Gillard is sexist and misogynist. This is difficult. I’m of the opinion that there is a strong misogynist undercurrent, but I can’t prove it. It’s easy enough to find examples of male PM’s whose appearance is subject to mockery, and exaggerating physical appearance of politicians is the cartoonists’ stock in trade.

Gillard comes with baggage of the worst kind. Would the emotions surrounding that baggage have remained so powerfully alive had a man ousted Kevin Rudd? Is it worse when a woman does it? And if so, why? Is this a manifestation of unresolved mother issues from the time when many of us were under some woman’s thumb, and powerless? Does it hurt more when a woman does it because they aren’t supposed to?

Fascinating questions for an analyst of the collective psyche.

I do take issue with the argument that because she’s a woman Gillard has less authority. She has authority, and in my opinion that authority is both increasing and stabilising as she grows into her role.

Rather, there are those among us who resent a woman’s authority. We might like to reframe that as the woman’s regrettable lack of that quality, however I don’t believe that’s the case in this instance. Anyone who watched as Gillard calmly instructed her bodyguards to ensure Abbott’s safety on Australia Day can’t claim the woman has no authority. It’s innate.

The inability to accept and deal with a female authority figure  is often expressed in dismissive contempt.

In many ways turning the Gillard story into a gender argument is not helpful, even though misogyny is undoubtedly present and ought to be outed if possible. Nevertheless, a woman can’t win when gender becomes the focus of the debate, and Bob Brown didn’t do Gillard any favours by attempting to defend her. I doubt it’s a stoush the PM herself is eager to engage with.

And so to the second feminist Australian Legend to be honoured by Australia Post, Eva Cox.

After referring to me as a nit-picking blogger in her article for New Matilda on whether Tankard Reist is a feminist or not, Cox later apologised for the insult.

However, as she then went ahead and published the same article again here I’ve come to the conclusion that her apology meant less than nothing.

It’s interesting being silenced from both ends of the feminist spectrum. Tankard Reist uses the law in an effort to control me. Cox chooses the arguably more subtle method of refusing to name me and dismissing my arguments at the same time. A man would be pilloried for using the same negating tactics against a woman writer.

Cox apparently has no objections to the law being employed to silence female dissent, which surprises me somewhat, but there you go. Tankard Reist has positively seized upon the law as an instrument of personal control, and has now resorted to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as well.

Then there’s this description of me and my kind made by Cathy Sherry, in her article defending Tankard Reist. I am, she writes, an  “unaccountable blogger sneering and abusing from the safety of [my] bedroom.” According to Ms Sherry, I’m not even worthy of an office simply because I blog. In a later comment elsewhere Ms Sherry refers to me as “faceless” as well, while Anne Summers refers to me simply as “a blogger”. Summers also apologised later.

How to explain this feminist contempt for female bloggers? One would think that blogging and feminism were made for each other. The blog offers an ordinary woman a voice where once there was a deep silence that has been broken only by a select few.

At the end of  three weeks of remarkable encounters with a variety of self-described feminists I have to conclude that because I’m unknown, a blogger, and entirely without influence I don’t count as a feminist or as a woman, and am to be shut up one way or another by a feminist who has more of a public presence than me.

I’m not unduly upset by all this, but I am very puzzled, as well as a little aggravated. I fear it says a great deal about where feminism is today, and it isn’t pretty. I fear it suggests that feminism has sold itself out to some of the values it once despised and resisted. I fear it’s going to be all down hill from here, if we aren’t very careful.

The second letter.Tankard Reist claims human rights abuse.

7 Feb

to Dr Jennifer Wilson

“You have in your published writings pointed to the fact that child abuse is a transgression of several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have called for domestic law to give effect to a charter of rights. You are no doubt aware that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights powerfully affirms the right to honour and reputation. Article 12 provides that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

You should reflect upon the fact that you have seriously flouted your obligation to uphold the Universal Declaration. Would you care to be described publicly as “deceptive and duplicitous?”

Australian law protects Ms Tankard Reist against your breach of her rights, through the law of defamation. It is an imperfect protection, because it cannot require you to retract or apologise for your breach.

The only remedy the law provides is the right to obtain a judgment declaring that what you wrote was false, and an award of compensation. If you will not retract, the law will protect our client’s rights.

Without prejudice, we note that our client’s aim in this is not to bankrupt you. She would much rather you came to your senses and realised that a person who wishes to be taken seriously as a social commentator, who has pretensions as a scholar of human rights with a PhD should check their facts, and not indulge in flights of libellous fancy. If this matter can be resolved by negotiation resulting inter alia in a correction and apology, that would be far preferable to the expense of proceedings in the ACT Courts.”

Rick Lucas, Colquhoun Murphy.

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