Bob Ellis in the line of fire

Yesterday I appeared on a panel at Sydney Uni with The Drum’s editor Jonathan Green to discuss free speech, along with Steve Cannane and Jack Marx. (And yes, it was noted that we are all white, middle-class men, a group whose access to free speech is generally pretty darn unrestricted.)

I said a lot of faintly pompous things about the value of freedom of speech, so would be remiss of me not to go into bat for that same principle 24 hours later with respect to Bob Ellis’ controversial article on The Drum this morning.

“With respect to” might be the wrong term – I mean “in reference to”, as I’ve little respect for the article. But quite a few people today have been suggesting that it should not be published in the first place. And there, my friends, I take up my cudgel of self-righteousness to defend freedom of expression.

But first, the article, whose contribution to the debate over the role of women in the defence forces and the incident at ADFA provides the last thing either situation needed – a steaming heap of freshly-laid sexism.

Ellis’ central argument is that it’s somehow hypocritical for women to wish to fight on the front lines and yet not be filmed having sex. But actually, there’s no inconsistency at all. The underlying principle is that women should get to decide what to do with their bodies, whether experiencing enemy fire, having sex or indeed choosing to perform for an audience of one’s fellow cadets on Skype, in the rather unlikely event that this in fact occurred.

The article goes on to suggest it is perfectly reasonable for any sexual encounter to be observed by others without consent, which I suspect Ellis thinks is a wonderfully libertine position, but ultimately just seems creepy. I suppose, though, that this article will stand up as permission in court if anyone cares to hide a webcam in the Ellis bedroom.

Perhaps the most problematic element of the article is Ellis’ attack on the victim’s character. He suggests a “hypothesis” that the woman agreed to be filmed, and then changed her mind. The value of this is dubious – raising that question in this fashion, he casts doubt on the question of consent, which is the key to the whole issue. Not only is this cavalier, but it misses the point. If the woman had agreed to what happened, then there’d been no scandal.

By way of analogy, let me ask this – suppose Bob Ellis had written a completely different article. What then? What then? Well, then the large number of people who attacked Ellis’ article today wouldn’t have done so. But then, we’d be inhabiting a different universe.

Furthermore, the question of what the woman agreed to in that room is a factual one for the police and ADFA inquiries, not for uninformed speculation. Nevertheless, Ellis is happy to reach his own conclusion, which is that the woman should have no future in the military:

Is the young woman, moreover, to be named, and acclaimed, and promoted, and hereafter entrusted with frontline command on some field of battle? Who would trust her in any high army position? Who would be sure she was truthful? Or sound of judgment? Or loyal? Or reliable under fire?

A more appropriate rhetorical question, though, is this: who would be so insensitive as to conclude that this woman was not fit for frontline command because of what was done to her against her will? Ellis displays the same Neanderthal attitude that’s displayed in honour killings, when rape victims are killed by their relatives for staining the family’s reputation.

By contrast, he argues the man responsible should get off scot-free because the public outcry is nothing more than a prudish overreaction to an “undergraduate prank”, which, Ellis claims, might drive him to suicide. Yes, correct – suicide is a terrible problem, Bob. But I think you’ll find it’s usually the victims of these situations who attempt to kill themselves, not the perpetrators.

Except that for Ellis, the victim in this scenario is someone else. Hint: he has a penis. Further hint: six of his mates have seen it on Skype.

I could write a great deal more about the problems I have with this article.  But a more interesting question than whether Ellis is wrong is whether his article should have been published.

My answer to this is a simple one – of course, because this position should be engaged with. Is anyone naïve enough to imagine that these views are not shared by many within the defence forces and the broader community? As Jonathan Green pointed out on Twitter when initially posting the article, Ellis’ view of the ADFA affair is similar to that held by Andrew Bolt, whose opinions are so apparently popular that they warrant him getting his own TV show.

Many commenters today have suggested the ABC should not have published the article. Some who replied to me earlier today claimed that the article was not well written, or the argumentation was poor. Obviously I think his logic is flawed, since I disagree with it – but one thing that can never be said of Ellis, in my opinion, is that he writes badly. The distaste is in the argument itself, not its expression.

I’m troubled by the occasional tendency of those on the left to try to rule certain opinions out of bounds. I remember David Oldfield coming to speak at Sydney University while I was a student. Far-left activists tried to stop him from speaking at all, and shouted constantly during his speech. The behaviour made them seem as small-minded as the person they were attacking. Who wants to live in a society where nobody is allowed to dissent from the majority opinion?

Rather sitting around agreeing with one another, those of us with strong beliefs should seek out dissenting opinions, both so our own views are pressure-tested, and so we can understand what we’re up against. It’s a vaccination principle, with counterarguments as antibodies – reading an article like Ellis’ should encourage dissenters to engage with his internal logic and work out why it’s wrong, and how to disprove his arguments. The alternative, which is to not engage with the argument and simply to turn up one’s nose, will not enable us to change anyone’s mind in the long term.

Furthermore, agreement is dreadfully boring – Q&A is always at its dullest when everyone on the panel is saying the same thing. Conversations with people who share my views are lovely and affirming, of course, but they don’t get my brain working the way a good argument does.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s panel at Sydney Uni. With a few exceptions concerning court reporting, the four of us were in furious agreement on the value of free speech. It would have been far more interesting for the audience if somebody, anybody, had taken us on.

I’m glad The Drum, which let’s not forget has a taxpayer-funded obligation to present a diversity of views, published Ellis’ article. It’s an interesting change-up to see him appalling the left and pitching his tent alongside Bolt. And as a long-term fan of Ellis’ writing, I’m interested to see that his capacity for error is not limited to his election predictions.

Ultimately, the article presented arguments I hadn’t thought of and clarified what I think about the issues. And that’s what I look for when I visit an opinion website.

Or perhaps you disagree?

11 Responses to Bob Ellis in the line of fire

  1. Stilgherrian 13 April 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    I’ve this very minute been engaged in a discussion on Twitter about Ellis’ article. One of the themes coming through is that while Ellis has a right to be heard, the ABC shouldn’t be paying him because by doing so they can’t pay a less-well-known but better writer instead. The point has been made that not being published by a particular media outlet is not the same thing as censorship, that Ellis is free to have his own blog but to be paid by the quality national broadcaster is a waste. I hope I have summarised the arguments fairly. What say you, Dom?

  2. njptower 13 April 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    bob wanting to be gungho is a sign of his ageing. he is past military service and probably past conjugal service – he and that roskam creature should get together to discuss military policy.

    in the interests of free speech, i trust this is published.

    adf has been in the last few days demonstrating the veracity of the oxymoron example, military intelligence.

  3. Alice Kennedy 13 April 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    Thank you so much for this entry. I couldn’t believe what I was reading today and it’s nice to know there are high profile people out there doing a good thing by speaking out against Ellis’ blatantly sexist and poorly thought out article.

  4. @nardijah 13 April 2011 at 7:28 pm #

    Love the article and agree, only thing I disagree with is the vaccination analogy, the counterarguments are the antigens, not antibodies. Fastidiously yours, Nardijah

  5. Steerpike 13 April 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Once again an argument for free speech that mistakes the right to free speech for the right of a platform from which to speak it. They are not the same thing and you are conflating two very disparate things in your argument.

    It’s frustrating and embarassing to watch the ABC trade its trusted position for the short term pageviews that these kind of troll articles that @GreenJ thives on shoveling online. It’s just adding to the noise of the internet and that’s exactly what the national broadcaster should be striving to *not* do.

  6. msmaddiep 13 April 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    I have to say I agree with Steerpike – I do not believe Bob Ellis has no right to speak, and nobody (sensible) is suggesting so. What has been suggested is that the Drum could just as easily have stirred up debate by publishing an article that explored some of the more nuanced issues regarding women in defence here:

    Do women officers face a greater risk on the front line than men (for example, from sexual assault)? Are those risks presented just from engagement with the enemy, or do some of them eminate from within the ADFA itself? What are the implicatons for the career progression of female officers if they are not directly involved in combat?

    Then there’s the issue of how exactly to deal with sexual misconduct; how can we legally establish, beyond reasonable doubt, when a crime has been committed, when sexual consent is rarely (if ever) given explicitly or recorded? To what extent are those who receive media about someone else’s dalliances implicated in the crime, if they did not take the pictures or video?

    There are also issues unrelated to defence which could easily have been written about; why do women, more so than men, feel humiliation and betrayal when sexual information about them is conveyed without their consent? (At this point I’d like to point out that the SATC lead characters not once filmed or photographed a partner, even with their consent). Why do any sexually active adults find it either interesting to observe or embarrasing to be caught?

    All of these issues could be written about with sensitivity and in such a way that might actually challenge people’s opinions and make readers question the presumptions underlying our gut reactions. I doubt anyone had such a response to today’s article – as the twitter storm has shown, many are shocked and offended, and I’m sure there are many people who agree, however silently.

    But I can’t help but think that a good opinion piece should find some link between those two groups of people – a link that leads them to a greater understanding of the other’s point of view, one that burrows through our first thoughts and gut reactions and gets to the very seed of the conflict of ideas.

    I don’t think that today’s piece did that. I believe it showed disrespect to the victims of sexual crimes, (needlessly slandering one in particular) and ignored the real issues along with any data or research about women in defence, in lieu of a handful of dated TV references.

    Lastly, and tragically, I believe that all the huffing and puffing that is sure to take place over the next few days will take the media space of someone who might have done a better job of talking about more pertinent points. And that the next time someone does pitch a piece that discusses any of the above, they probably won’t be published because the issue has been ‘done’.

    Freedom of speech is not the issue – we all have the freedom to spout whatever nonsense we want. We don’t have the freedom to be paid for it (with taxpayer funds no less). We also have the freedom to question a government entity as to the editorial decision making process, and question whether it that process is best serving our democracy.

  7. Terence 13 April 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    I’m a little confused by your position here Dominic.

    You spend most of the article discussing how inane and pointless the article is – describing it as “the last thing either situation needed”, demolishing his main argument in a single paragraph, pointing out he is speculating wildly on factual issues he has no information about, and generally pointing out just how hateful towards women the article is.

    Then, after having pointed out all the ways this article adds nothing useful to the debate, you go on to say that it’s an important viewpoint to be engaged with.

    Do you see the disconnect here?

  8. anon 13 April 2011 at 10:22 pm #

    IF ONLY we had to “seek out” boilerplate blame-the-victim rhetoric rather than having it stumble ingloriously into the limelight every single time the media picks up a story relating to consent.

    How is it that Hardy’s piece on Pyne got pulled and yet Ellis’.. “offensive” is hardly a strong enough word.. piece is worthy of publication?

  9. newswithnipples 14 April 2011 at 10:17 am #

    I don’t think the article should have been published by the ABC and it has nothing to do with free speech. The Drum only publishes one article per topic per day, and so instead of choosing one that added to the debate, they went with an intellectually lazy one whose argument amounts to “well, it was on Sex and the City so it must be true, and besides, being filmed having sex is the same as being able to see the roof of my house on Google Earth”.

  10. Kerryn Goldsworthy 14 April 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    ‘Once again an argument for free speech that mistakes the right to free speech for the right of a platform from which to speak it. They are not the same thing and you are conflating two very disparate things in your argument.’

    Oh, well put! And so many otherwise intelligent people do it. They see the red rag of the phrase ‘free speech’ and their logic goes all cattywumpus.

  11. Calligula 22 April 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    None of you young twerps get the picture, do you?
    Read this –
    http://calligulashorse.blogspot.com/2011/04/is-copulation-counter-to-national.html
    – it’ll set your thinking straight.

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