It is only now, in watching the Prime Minister in her latest episode with Peter Slipper, that it has occurred to me that, when she goes into political battle, she carries with her a magic gender shield so that no matter what anyone says about her policies or incompetence, all she hears is ‘You’re useless because you’re a woman’. No one actually ever thinks it or certainly ever says it, but that is what she always transmutes every form of criticism into so that nothing is personal, everything is ideological, and the ideology is some antique disdain for women that was already out of date in the 1960s.
For someone such as myself, who felt as strongly and positively about Margaret Thatcher as I did about Ronald Reagan, the notion that behind my disgust at the policies of the astonishingly incompetent Prime Minister that Gillard has proven to be are attitudes based on her sex is both insulting and ridiculous. But for her such beliefs are a talisman that psychologically protects her from every criticism, since she never has to take them seriously. To her, they are based on biological facts not on her personal deficiencies and incompetence.
There must be no end of such people in politics. It now strikes me that Obama is of a similar kind, transmuting political criticism into a statement on race. The colour of his skin provides a psychological shield against taking criticisms to heart, since such criticisms are, in his mind, racially based and not on political disagreement.
The question then is what is one to do to convince such people that what is being said about them is unrelated to various existentially biological facts but to their political decisions. And it may turn out that there is nothing that can be done. But if so, it is a warning to us that to elect people such as Gillard or Obama to high office carries the risk that they are incapable of responding to normal political debate since they are incapable of interpreting criticism as based on policy difference unrelated to biology.
They will therefore never respond to the criticisms they receive in the way a person – male or female, black or white – would if they were in a similar position without such beliefs about others. This will, moreover, only affect politicians on the left of the ideological divide since the right has entirely discarded categorisation by race or gender. They are, in fact, so far outside the normal thought processes of the right that it has become almost impossible to engage in debate with such people. Simply put, we are never quite capable of understanding why they are so resistant to the criticisms we make.
The inflexibility of both Gillard and Obama – over the NBN or boat people here in Australia or over health care and the budget in the US – means they plough on relentlessly in the face of innumerable facts and arguments that demonstrate how wrong such policies are. They don’t listen, they are incapable of listening, because they disregard all criticisms as based on dislike of women in the one case or of black people in the other. It is simply not so, but that is how they think because that is what they desperately want to believe.
Steve Kates teaches economics at RMIT University. His most recent book is Free Market Economics: an Introduction for the General Reader