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PoliticsMay 31, 2024

Is it time to stop white knighting female MPs? An argument with myself

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MPs don’t need to be defended from offensive speech just because they’re women. Or do they?

It’s time to stop white knighting female MPs, obviously. You’ve been thinking this privately for years! During the pandemic, when Big Disinfo reached our shores, concern about the “online abuse” of female leaders (especially Jacinda Ardern) hit a fever pitch. The phenomenon continued throughout last year’s election – billed as the most dangerous yet for campaigning MPs –and more recently, white knights have defended politicians like Chlöe Swarbrick, Erica Stanford and Golriz Ghahraman after citizens criticised and confronted them. 

To hear the white knights tell it, online misogyny has reached epidemic proportions, and we should be especially concerned about its impact on….. (checks notes)….. the most powerful women in the nation.

Listen: MPs are the elite of the elite. Some robust criticism from citizens is the price they pay for the privilege of governing our lives, and in the case of a genuine threat from a member of the public, they can afford to hire private security or retreat to their second or third homes. They’re the last people in need of the knights’ protection, and that doesn’t change just because they’re women. 

Mmmm OK, who exactly are the white knights and what are they doing that bothers you so much?

They’re a contingent of academics, nonprofit activists and journalists building a narrative that it’s a uniquely dangerous time to be an MP, especially a female one. 

I accept that female leaders are often confronted in insulting, sexist terms, online and off. But MPs are accountable to the public, and Trevor, Brent and Brendon hopping on Twitter to call Chlöe Swarbrick a “woke bitch” or “Jezelbel [sic]” doesn’t warrant a moral panic. It’s also hyperbolic to call this “technology-facilitated gender-based violence”, as a range of nonprofit activists do, given we’re talking about an exchange of words. 

And of course, we’re not just talking about Trevor, Brent and Brendon with their hot Telegram fingers here. We’re talking about Sharlene, Pam and Henrietta too – and they hate the Jacindas and Chlöes, and everything they stand for.

Hang on, what’s wrong with roundly condemning this kind of speech, whoever it comes from? A lot of it is really misogynistic.

Yes, but there’s an insidious dynamic at play. Watch them closely, and you get a sense the knights aren’t bothered by sexism per se, so much as the riff-raff daring to address their social betters in that manner. They’re knights, after all. You know who knights protect? Sovereigns and lords. 

Wait, wait, wait. There’s a lot I disagree with there, but first: isn’t this you in 2017, condemning sexist comments about Jacinda Ardern when she became leader of the opposition? 

I knew you’d bring that up. Yes, that’s me, and yes, it’s a white knight spiel. You wouldn’t catch me writing it in 2024. 

One thing I’ll say in my own defence is that, with one exception, I was criticising media figures and opposition MPs, not ordinary people, for their sexist comments about Ardern. That’s an important difference, because my problem with the white knight phenomenon is that it’s a subtle form of class warfare. 

Right-o, Engels, let me stop you there. I think I follow your argument: MPs are elites – “sovereigns”, as you put it – and the white knights are academics, nonprofit activists and journalists who gallop out of the castle with their swords raised whenever the “riff-raff” gets lippy with an MP, especially a female one. This is all to keep the working man under the boot. Is that it?

Pretty much. To complete the picture, you should mention that white knights are invariably elites themselves, or at least, elite aspirants; middle-class strivers who want to rub shoulders with our leaders, if not walk the halls of power themselves one day. White knights defend MPs to signal their in-group status.

[Loud and forceful sigh] 

I can see those Christopher Lasch books have gone straight to your head. Can I bring you back to reality for a second? All women, including the poorest, are harmed when powerful women are barraged with unchecked sexist abuse, because misogyny hurts women. 

A lot has changed since 2017, especially after the pandemic. We’re not talking about a few broadcasters asking female MPs how they juggle work and kids. We’re talking about a serious, measurable proliferation of harassment, abuse, hate speech, and rape/death threats targeting female leaders. Your Trevors and Sharons are dwelling in dangerous, hateful cooker communities online, marinating in conspiracy theories and retrograde ideas about gender. 

Check your cause and effect. Are you sure what we’re seeing here is a new and proliferating problem of rank women-hatred, or is it possible social media has merely exposed powerful women (and men) to the fire of discontent and anger they’ve been stoking in the low-to-middle classes, decade after decade? The stagnant wages, the offshoring of industry, the mass sell-off of state assets, the endless assaults to the dignity of ordinary, working New Zealanders. Did MPs expect the victims of these policies to stay silent about them forever? 

You say the “abuse” got worse during the pandemic – what do you expect? Some people grieved helplessly as their sick, elderly parents died alone in nursing homes. As their wives gave birth to their babies, agonised, alone and terrified. People attended Zoom funerals for their closest friends. People lost jobs they’d held down for decades because they refused a new vaccine they didn’t trust. Did MPs really think they could evade the anger and discontent this caused? In a democracy?

Look. We can argue the toss about whether the pandemic measures went too far, but given you mentioned democracy, don’t forget we have a representative one. We elect leaders (sometimes female ones) to make decisions in difficult circumstances, and none will be universally popular. That doesn’t entitle you to jump on Twitter and call Marama Davidson a “demon wemon [sic]” who’ll perish in Nuremberg 2.0. 

Besides, how do you know all the abuse is coming from the “low to middle” classes? I know plenty of misogynistic rich men. 

I’m not saying all the abuse is coming from the lower classes, although I think it’s clear from the vernacular that much of it is. I’m saying the lower classes have most to lose from the narrative that it’s a uniquely dangerous time to be a (female) MP, because this is ultimately about insulating elites from the anger of the people whose lives they (mis)govern. 

And actually, you are entitled to jump on Twitter and say all those things to Marama Davidson! It’s called free speech, and it’s precious. That’s exactly the freedom the white knights are chipping away at, because that’s what a lot of this “abuse”, “harassment”, “hate speech” and “violence” actually amounts to: political speech

Calling Barbara Edmonds “an ugly man” isn’t exactly the “I Have a Dream” speech.

It doesn’t have to be. Political speech doesn’t need to be articulate and refined to be worthy of protection, but that’s exactly what the knights are advocating for: a requirement that the plebs address their lords and sovereigns with better manners. 

Do you seriously not see how this all paves the way for a clampdown on political expression? Whether it’s through the Harmful Digital Communications Act or expansive hate speech laws, if citizens can’t criticise, confront – and yes, insult – MPs, that will have a chilling effect on democracy, especially for those citizens least able to afford strong legal defences.

Let me give you an example. The Spinoff article I linked above, “Election campaigning has never been this dangerous”, cites an “abusive” heckle directed at Labour MP Willow-Jean Prime by a member of the public. What did the heckler say that was so dangerous? Brace yourself: 

“Oh that fucking Willow-Jean Prime, she’s useless” – and later, “I hope you lose, Willow-Jean Prime!”

See what I mean? This is not about protecting the safety of female MPs. It’s about decorum.

That’s far from the worst example, though, even in that article. You’re cherry picking. Some female leaders are receiving rape and death threats so graphic they’d make your stomach turn.

Sending someone a rape or death threat is behaviour I condemn wholeheartedly. It’s also criminal behaviour for the police to deal with, and they should take it seriously – which they invariably do, when the victim is an MP. Not so much when the victim is a regular women experiencing harassment and abuse.

But since you’ve accused me of cherry picking, let’s look at some other examples. After saying she understands why Jacinda Ardern and Dutch politician Sigrid Kaag resigned from politics, Kate Hannah of The Disinformation Project uses the following examples of “abuse” directed at her to demonstrate “how technology-facilitated gender-based violence is being used to suppress women’s participation in public life”:

“It’s a damn shame such a beautiful face could belong to such a traitorous bitch.”

“This is one of the key narrative architects of NZ govt war against the people. She heads up a Think Tank that vilifies white people and those who fight for freedom.” 

“They are barren”

“Presstitutes”

“The whore of babylon?” 

This, she implies, is the kind of thing female MPs are being barraged with. I’m not saying these are respectful or constructive comments. But do any of them really strike you as violence

They strike me as misogynistic, veering into hate speech. Let’s go back to the Willow-Jean Prime example. “Oh that fucking Willow-Jean Prime, she’s useless”. That’s abuse. Sorry, but it is. Couldn’t the heckler have just said, “I really disagree with your pandemic policies, Willow-Jean Prime. They’ve made my life a misery.” 

Sure, but you’re doing a little something called “tone policing” there. Remember that nugget from your social justice warrior days? If citizens are only permitted to challenge MPs in terms the knights don’t find offensive, great swathes of people are effectively barred from challenging them at all. 

Listen, I know you’ve landed in the world of “thank you for telling me” and “ngā mihi”, but you know the vernacular in less well-heeled spaces. “Come here and say that” and pinko fuckwit and “the state of that bitch” and fucking useless egghead and “I’ll give you something to cry about” and cunt cunt cunt cunt. This is how people who don’t spend all day prodding a MacBook speak.

I concede that MPs need thick enough skin to weather the odd insult or two. But if citizens are permitted to target MPs with gendered, racist abuse, over and over and over, that will eventually make the job so unbearable only white men can stomach doing it. Do you really think that will bring about the revolution? 

Look at the women who are being driven out of parliament: they’re often young, brown members of progressive parties who sincerely care about poor and working-class people.

No MP is truly on the side of poor and working-class people.

OK, stop. Enough of this Marxist horseshit! And spare me all the Laschian crap about elites too, because it’s way too simplistic. You understand that someone needs to lead us and make our laws, right? Do you want women, including women who come from non-elite backgrounds, to be de facto exempt? 

What I want is a robust democracy, where MPs are accountable to the people they govern, and where citizens don’t need to speak the Queen’s English before they can address politicians. What I really don’t want is for hate speech to be defined so broadly that it captures ordinary speech – political speech – and therefore silences it. Can you really see that going well, especially for the least well-off among us? 

Can you see the proliferation of sexist abuse going well for women, especially the least well-off among us? 

Ahh, yes. The least well-off women. Poor women, rural women, working women; women with head injuries, addictions and disabilities. Women who already shoulder the most harm from misogyny and violence. I’m so glad you brought them up. 

Answer me this question, and really search your heart before you do. Have you ever seen a knight dedicate themselves to these women?

Read Kate Hannah again. “The usual targets [of gendered violence online] – women politicians and journalists – has expanded to disproportionately include women academics and, increasingly, public servants.” Do those sound like disenfranchised and downtrodden women to you? 

Or read this report on how “technology-facilitated gender-based violence” impacts women. “Although there have been several studies of women in public and political life (journalists, politicians, activists), there is limited evidence on the impacts on the human rights and democratic freedoms of everyday women and girls in all their diversity.” 

My italics. They have no idea. They haven’t even bothered to check.

Because everyday women are not their concern.

Do you really believe that?

Yes, I do. Don’t you?

I don’t know. I don’t think so. But let’s have a cup of tea. 

Correction: an earlier version of this story misattributed this report by Social Development Direct to The Disinformation Project. 

Keep going!