Language, action and reality – we’re all spectacularly missing the point

You have no doubt heard of Greens Senator Larissa Waters and her No Gender December campaign, which attacks the marketing of toys as 鈥渇or girls鈥?or 鈥渇or boys鈥?

You have also no doubt heard of The Australian鈥檚 journalist Christian Kerr鈥檚 reaction to Senator Waters鈥檚 campaign, which was to point to a Facebook photo of her daughter wearing a pink princess dress as supposed proof of the Senator鈥檚 鈥渄ouble standards鈥?

Opinions on Kerr鈥檚 action have been mostly along one of two lines: first, that there are no actual double standards involved; and second, that what Kerr did is incredibly creepy.

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But there鈥檚 another point to be made here which relates to a much broader question of how public debates are played out, and it is this: even if Larissa Waters is guilty of double standards, that has zero bearing on whether her arguments against gendered toys are reasonable.

鈥淚t doesn鈥檛 matter what side of that debate you鈥檙e on: Greens in planes doesn鈥檛 disprove climate change any more than Gina Rinehart opening a solar plant would prove it.鈥?/span>

This is important to keep in mind: the good Senator could dress her daughter in pink every day, fill her bedroom from top to bottom with Barbie Dream Houses and stuffed unicorns, and forbid her to look at pictures of trucks until she鈥檚 eighteen 鈥?and it wouldn鈥檛 make the slightest difference to the rightness or otherwise of No Gender December.

Calling out hypocrisy is extremely popular, because it鈥檚 always satisfying to expose other people as liars and scoundrels, and because it鈥檚 easier to identify hypocrisy than to dissect arguments. And there鈥檚 nothing wrong with calling someone a hypocrite, per se: hypocrisy is not an attractive trait for a person to possess. But it鈥檚 when we enter the area of public discourse, and realise that debate is being polluted by cries of 鈥済otcha鈥?that obscure the substance of the issues at stake, that the hypocrite-hunt becomes damaging.

We have reached a stage where we believe that saying 鈥淭hey aren鈥檛 practicing what they preach鈥?is the same as saying 鈥淭hey are wrong鈥? This belief takes only a moment鈥檚 thought to dispel, but it鈥檚 tenacious as hell nonetheless. So tenacious that when No Gender December is ridiculed because its spokesperson dresses her daughter in pink, the debate can shift to whether or not this constitutes a double standard, rather than the fact that it鈥檚 utterly irrelevant to the campaign鈥檚 merits: either gendered toys are a problem, or they are not, and whatever side you鈥檙e on, what you do with your own kids won鈥檛 alter that.

The tendency to substitute hypocrite identification for argument is a sickness. It鈥檚 why climate change deniers think they鈥檝e scored a telling point when they crow that a greenie politician travels by air: 鈥淭hey want us to cut our greenhouse gases, but they鈥檙e emitting tons of the stuff in their fancy planes!鈥?/p>

But of course how a person travels has literally no effect on either the science of climate change, or the advisability of various suggested solutions. Al Gore could take a fleet of 747s with him every time he goes shopping, and live in an open-cut coal mine, and it wouldn鈥檛 make him wrong about global warming. It鈥檇 make him kind of a jerk, but it鈥檚 the fact that so many commentators think a debate about the future of the human race is a debate about who is or isn鈥檛 a jerk that is the whole problem.

It doesn鈥檛 matter what side of that debate you鈥檙e on: Greens in planes doesn鈥檛 disprove climate change any more than Gina Rinehart opening a solar plant would prove it.

Thomas Jefferson, famously, owned slaves. This fact may render the words of the Declaration of Independence 鈥渁ll men are created equal鈥?somewhat hypocritical on his part. But does it make them wrong? Can one mount a coherent anti-equality argument based on the fact that a man who spoke in favour of equality didn鈥檛 practise it?

I鈥檇 have thought not. Any more than one can argue that climate change is a hoax because greens pollute, or that a charity has no merit because a millionaire told you to give to it while hoarding his own wealth, or that your defence of public education is invalid because you sent your kids to a private school.

Or that the facts about gendered toys are dependent on whether Larissa Waters鈥檚 daughter dresses as a princess.

We鈥檝e got to break ourselves of this habit. There are hypocrites galore in this world, and we can while our lives away pointing them out. But if an issue matters enough to argue about, it should matter enough to disregard the characters of the arguers, and concentrate on the argument. 

Ben Pobjie is a writer, comedian and poet.