The magic of the word

By Legal Eagle

When I was studying medieval Celtic history, I read somewhere that the early Irish believed that writing something down was a kind of magic, and various stories feature inscriptions in ogham, which assist the writers to find people, mark things as owned by a particular person, and to send magical messages.

The early Irish were right: writing is magical. When you commit something to writing, it has a certain power and permanency that the spoken word does not (at least, not until we developed the capacity to record people’s words). Sometimes, when I’m reading something written long ago, I realise that the author lives on in a certain sense. They can still speak to me, even though they are long dead. It’s the kind of thought which raises the hair on the back of my neck.

With this in mind, I am always careful about what I commit to paper or to the screen. Perhaps being a lawyer makes one even more respectful of the power of the word. As I’ve said before, I sometimes like to think of the links between bards, lawyers, historians and religious figures: they are all purveyors of the law/lore, and can harness the power of words.

Poor Catherine Deveny could have done with thinking a little harder about the power of committing something to writing. Deveny was using Twitter to comment on the Logies (the Australian television industry awards). She recently got into trouble with Twitter a few days ago as well, as detailed here. Deveny made two controversial tweets in her coverage of the Logies:

  • “I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid”
  • “Rove and Tasma look so cute . . . hope she doesn’t die, too”

Bindi Irwin is the 11-year-old daughter of the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame, and a precocious child television star. Rove McManus is a television and radio personality whose first wife, Belinda Emmett, died of breast cancer in 2006 aged 32. Tasma Walton is Rove’s second wife, whom he married last year. Deveny was not the only one who got in trouble for unpleasant Logies twitter commentary: comedian Wil Anderson also got in trouble for a number of nasty comments about fellow attendees.

The Age sacked Deveny yesterday as a result of her tweets. Deveny defended her tweets, saying “It was just passing notes in class, but suddenly these notes are being projected into the sky and taken out of context.” I’m not quite sure how much context you can get into a 120 tweet, but never mind. She later tweeted, “Twitter is online graffiti, not a news source.” Um, no, it’s not, as one columnist pointed out today. It’s not like whispering something to your mate in school assembly or writing something anonymously on a toilet door. It has that magic permanence of the written word, and it’s up there attributed to you. Thousands of people read what you say. It’s more like writing something in the sky with one of those skywriting airplanes.  I’m sure that’s why people get in trouble with e-mail, or social networking. It feels like the spoken word, and has that oral informal quality, but it is the written word.

There’s a few things I’d like to explore here. First, it seems that Deveny doesn’t have a filter. She doesn’t think deeply (or perhaps at all) before she spews stuff out. Twitter is a really, really bad idea for someone like her. Now, I have been known to put my foot in it myself in conversation. I tend to say what I think, and when I was younger, I dropped a few real clangers. These days, I try to think carefully before I put words on the record, just to make sure I’m fair. Legal training has been great from my point of view. Of course, I still sometimes stuff it up. Sometimes you just push people’s buttons without meaning to do so.

Secondly, Deveny’s writing is intended to shock and horrify, and to appeal to certain prejudices. On the ANZAC day thread, David Jackmanson said, “Seriously, she’s a latte-belt version of Andrew Bolt. The same appealing to prejudice, just aimed at different people.” This is spot on, except that Deveny’s nowhere near as cluey as Bolt.

Thirdly, I’m not a particular fan of Bindi Irwin or Rove McManus. I don’t dislike them (after all, I don’t know them) but I don’t particularly like them either. Bindi Irwin is a little disturbing in her media incarnation, because she behaves like a little adult rather than a child. Even my four year old daughter finds her disturbing (without any suggestion from me, I should add). This is  in part because of the faux “ockerisms” in Bindi the Jungle Girl. She told me, “Bimby doesn’t talk like a real person, Mummy.” (“Bimby” is Eaglet No. 1’s unintentionally amusing mispronunciation of Bindi.) Still, I can’t help feeling sorry for the kid because her father is dead, and I wonder if she ever allows herself to behave like a carefree kid rather than a little adult. I’ve never watched Rove’s show for any length of time: on the one occasion I watched it for more than five seconds, I felt vaguely irritated by him. Again, however, I felt deeply sorry for him when his first wife died at such a young age.

Deveny defended her two comments:

Today, Deveny stood by her comment about the 11-year-old, saying she was using satire “to expose celebrity raunch culture and the sexual objectification of women, which is rife on the red carpet”.

“This [the Bindi Irwin comment] was a ludicrous remark that was as ridiculous as me saying I hope the dog that Molly Meldrum brought with him got drunk.”

“I meant every single word [about Rove and Tasma],” Deveny said today.

“I love Rove. I worked for Rove for five years. I’ve publicly said and printed I would take a bullet for him. He endorsed my first book on the front cover.

“They looked really sweet. I do hope that Tasma doesn’t die and I hope that Rove doesn’t die … I absolutely meant it.”

Humour is a difficult thing. It always skates on the edge of cruelty because it often involves laughing at misfortune. When I was a child, I couldn’t watch Fawlty Towers because I found it so cruel. I was also hideously embarrassed by Basil’s rudeness and stupid tendency to be his own worst enemy (perhaps it’s for this reason that Deveny also makes me want to come out in hives). On the other hand, sometimes schadenfreude is very funny.

In fact, Aristotle considered this conundrum long ago in Book IV of the Nichomachean Ethics (1128a27). I have been reading Book V for my thesis — don’t ask.

Those then who go to excess in ridicule are thought to be buffoons and vulgar fellows, who itch to have their joke at all costs, and are more concerned to raise a laugh than to keep within the bounds of decorum and avoid giving pain to the object of their raillery. Those on the other hand who never by any chance say anything funny themselves and take offence at those who do, are considered boorish and morose. Those who jest with good taste are called witty or versatile… But as matter for ridicule is always ready to hand, and as most men are only too fond of fun and raillery, even buffoons are called witty and pass for clever fellows; though it is clear from what has been said that wit is different, and widely different, from buffoonery. The middle disposition is further characterised by the quality of tact…

Aristotle highlights Deveny’s problem. She was trying to be amusing and satirical, but she was more concerned to raise a laugh than to keep within the bounds of decorum and to avoid giving pain to the object of her raillery. She didn’t care or perhaps didn’t realise that she could potentially hurt the people at whom she was laughing. Further, she didn’t seem to have any clue that joking about a child having sexual intercourse is not funny, it’s revolting. By all means, highlight the hypocrisy and mixed messages which beleaguer the portrayal of young women on television, but don’t do it like that.

Nonetheless, Deveny is not the only Australian “media personality” to fall into this trap. Aristotle’s phrase “even buffoons are called witty and pass for clever fellows” immediately made me think first of Sam Newman, a presenter on the AFL Footy Show, as well as radio presenters Kyle Sandilands and Jackie-O (whose antics are described here). The Chaser have dropped some cruel clangers as well. Aristotle is right – it’s easy to get cheap laughs by mocking other people, and to be thought a witty person as a result. It’s much harder to be funny and tactful.

Has Deveny been treated unfairly? On one level, I do feel sorry for her, even though I’ve never liked her writing. She’s a bit like a toddler who has been revved up until she’s totally hysterical and going crazy at everything, and everyone’s laughing until she smashes a few vases, and then a few more, then she’s suddenly smacked by the very same people who were responsible for revving her up in the first place. I feel that she’s probably standing there thinking, “But we were having such fun five seconds ago?!” The Age should have pulled her into line well before this.

If you look at those other “media personalities”, they have gotten away with behaviour that is possibly more repulsive than Deveny’s conduct. Is it about sexism? In part, I think it is. Many people probably just write Sam Newman off as a “lad”. I think society expects women to be more sympathetic and caring than men, and society comes down on them harder when they are not, particularly if they are unsympathetic to a young child.

But it’s also about money and effect on the market share. Will Sam Newman’s behaviour affect his core demographic? To the contrary, I think his behaviour is probably actually a net asset. The Footy Show isn’t aimed at someone like me who finds him offensive, it’s aimed at people who find him witty, or people who like to be shocked. The same goes for Vile and Tacky. By contrast, The Age is aimed at people like me. And, as I said over three years ago, I cancelled my subscription to The Age in part because I was so irritated by the prevalence of opinion columnists like Deveny. I want to read intelligent, well-thought out opinion pieces. The Age is trying to appeal to its demographic, and has calculated that the net harm to subscriptions which will be caused by sacking Deveny will be outweighed by the potential net gain. *Shrug* I don’t have to put up with badly-written opinion pieces, particularly when there’s so many fine blogs around.

(P.S. I was just doing the tags for this post, and I noticed to my own amusement that I’ve managed to combine medieval Irish history, Greek philosophy and the Logies. What a lovely melange, if I do say so myself.)

Update:

Pavlov’s Cat on the Deveny saga.

Update II:

See also Larvatus Prodeo (with links to various other posts) and Renai LeMay.

Update III:

Jason Wilson at New Matilda.

Meanwhile, Deveny has continued to defend her comments and to criticise The Age for its decision, saying (among other things):

  • “Nobody’s editorial policy should be dictated by ‘Offended from Balwyn'”
  • “Any person with a voice . . . has to stand up and say what they want their mainstream media to be. This is the Beijing of media.”
  • “And so much for the comments being offensive, The Age has been running them again and again and again. They have lined their pockets with gold through my bravery and off-colour remarks.”
  • “…This is not about twittering, this is about class, this is about gender, this is about relevance deprivation. This is a fight between old media and new media.”

My comments are as follows:

  • If Offended from Balwyn stands up and says she doesn’t want to hear from Deveny in opinion columns in The Age any more, then on her own analysis, she can’t blame the newspaper for acting on this, because she also says we have to stand up and say what we want our mainstream media to be.
  • There’s definitely some truth in the fact that The Age allowed (and perhaps even encouraged) Deveny to be iconoclastic and offensive. From that point of view, I can definitely see why she is bitter. I would be too.
  • This is about class?! How so? The only way I can see this being about class is that Deveny has a rather divisive and snobbish penchant for sneering at the “suburbanites” and “bogans”. As I’ve said above in my post, gender is perhaps more arguable, but as SL has pointed out in comments below, a male columnist would be equally likely to be sacked from a quality broadsheet for making the Bindi comment in particular.

15 Comments

  1. munroe
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    As a “comedian”, she’s entitled to say crass and offensive things… at a microphone in some second rate pub somewhere with the smell of beer, and competing with a TV in the corner showing sports.

    It’s not approprate for a major, serious news and opinion outlet have such humour as an integral part of their public image. She wasn’t a good fit. It took the Age a while to figure that out but they did. If they just want to be left wing and funny, they should call themselves the Chaser. Or Billy Connolly or something. If they want to be a newspaper they’ve got to think a little differently.

  2. Posted May 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Brought over from LP:

    Apart from agreeing with PC, one other thing occurred to me: any male (Bolt or otherwise) who wrote a similar sexual slur about a pre-pubescent child would have lasted about 3 hours, tops. Whether we think that response is legitimate or not is another matter, but the fact is, our society has set its face against that sort of thing. Comedians, artists and others have to realise that. They may have freedom to make sexual slurs, but their employers also have the freedom to sack them (Deveny) or force them to grovel in order to keep their jobs (Kyle and Jackie-O).

  3. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Andrew Bolt has blogged about her for some time and blogged on her demise. I’m inclined to agree with him. She was a crass waste of space with nothing useful to say.

  4. Patrick
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Bullshit she wasn’t a good fit. LE was right when she concluded that it was her who wasn’t a good fit with the Age.

  5. Hugivza
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I heard Deveney interviewed on ABC News Radio. Her defence was unconvincing and appeared to be based on her view that as a comedian/enne she could say anything she wanted, and it was up to the audience to interpret it benignly (how this works with an exhortation for prepubescent sex is hard to fathom). Given the quality of her defence her sacking was probably overdue.

  6. Gemma
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    RE: Bindi – blame the scripts she’s given – apparently in real life shes nowhere near as disturbing as she is in BTJG

  7. Posted May 6, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Gemma, interesting point. Reading your comment, another thing occurred to me: Bindi’s public incarnation is the antithesis of a ‘sexualised’ little girl. She wears comfy and practical khaki clothes and teaches young kids to learn something about nature. Surely this is a good thing?

  8. Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    ‘I hope Bindi Irwin gets laid!’

    Eeeewww!!

    I hope Bindi Irwin gets something to do that keeps her away from New Idea for a very long time.

  9. munroe
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Bullshit she wasn’t a good fit.

    Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’ve been overestimating the average intelligence of Age readers.

  10. Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Also brought across from LP:

    I read the articles of Deveny’s the New Matilda piece linked to, just to get an idea both where the New Matilda writer was coming from, and where Deveny was coming from. I’ve never lived in Melbourne (although LE does), so I’ve not read Deveny’s stuff before.

    I got a strong sense that she doesn’t like people very much. Is that a sacking offence? I don’t know. I’m not on the left so I can’t comment on the internal ALP stuff that some people have raised on the thread [over at LP], although I do find it interesting for the simple reason that I wasn’t aware of it.

    An observation: one of the things I was forced to learn as a sometime public figure is that it is best to respect broader cultural limits. These limits change over time but they’re relatively easy to spot. People are often under the impression that today’s Australia (or the UK) is almost ‘anything goes’ when it comes to public utterances. It isn’t. Our utterances are policed as much as utterances were policed fifty years ago.

    We just police different stuff.

    That may make for rather tame arts and culture, for which I’m sorry, but I don’t really see any alternative.

  11. munroe
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Our utterances are policed as much as utterances were policed fifty years ago.
    We just police different stuff.

    There are important differences.

    It’s more libertarian now. You have the right to legally say what you like, but there can be genuine social and economic ramifications for crossing the “broad social limits” that people expect. As you say they change over time, something that society can keep track of with its informal, ground-up censure, but that the law would make a meal of. It seems to be working very well.

  12. denuto
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I think Catherine is very close to the mark when she says “…This is not about twittering, this is about class…” Actually, I think it’s about lack of class.

    I have to agree with commenters here and elsewhere that calling this kerfuffle a free speech issue demeans any serious discussion about free speech

  13. Peter Patton
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    It is very much a free speech issue. Firstly, the free speech of The Age, and secondly, Catherine, the tribe has spoken. You are the weakest link.

    Good bye.

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