“Extremism”, “Slut Shaming” and the “World Stage”

Anyone that watches the horror show that is the six-thirty news may have already inadvertently dodged the plight that has struck many of the discourses worthy of our collective attention and one of my personal annoyances (yes, there are others… many, many others). Just like the nasty letters-to-the-editor that you see in your local rag and the (unfortunately) nationally syndicated radio programs heard on the AM dial, nightly news telecasts seem to appeal to the lowest common denominator by utilising many expressions that refuse to get to the bottom of important issues. Issues such as the recent Royal Australian Navy display on the “world stage” at the International Fleet Review, the looming US debt crisis that potentially has ramifications for the global economy and is the fault of “extremists” on either side of the aisle that “refuse to negotiate”, or even Miley Cyrus’s recent performance at the MTV VMAs and her crusade to create a “strategic hot mess” image for herself.

Before I get too ahead of myself (my friends would probably suggest that I’m well past that point) I must declare that the following rant about the incorrect use of words I’m embarking on has the potential to leave me red faced as I will invariably use a few split infinitives or end a sentence or two with a preposition. But highlighting poor grammar or spelling is not the purpose of this piece. Instead, I want to focus on what Stephen Fry, perhaps the most well-known and outspoken proponent of the “joy of language”, perceives as the “context, convention and circumstance” of words and their usage.

Like me, Fry considers the pedantic and serious approach taken by some toward the correct use of words unimportant to the underlying value in being able to articulate with a degree of confidence and accuracy the concerns that one might have. Unlike me, however, Fry’s optimism of the joy that language can provide to individuals is in quite contrast to my pessimism toward the overuse of certain terms that garner support or provoke fear whilst failing to address the serious issue being debated.

This is the point at which I ascend to the lofty heights of my high horse.

Throughout the week, if anyone had nothing better to do, they may have seen the display of “military power” that was exhibited at the International Fleet Review hosted by the RAN. I suppose that most IR and Politics students would be aware that the ever evolving conception of what constitutes power in the world, and whether or not it can even be used, leads to politically charged terms such as “military power” being unwittingly espoused by whatever pretty-looking reporter (either male or female) that was sent out to check what’s happening in the world right now. Also, Sydney Harbour’s hosting of the “world stage” for this event is debatable in terms of how important it might have been for someone in say sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East.

This leads me to discuss another example where the power of rhetoric is being blasted into living rooms every night by those who either don’t understand the ramifications of their words, or those who seek to gain from the support or fear they garner from its use. In the US, Democrats and Republicans are trying to resolve the first government shutdown the country has experienced in 13 years (the fact there has been more than one is enough of an indictment). This last week, President Obama implored Republican congressmen to “stop this farce” and not give in to the Tea Party “extremists” that form the basis of their electoral support. The fact that President Obama compares political representatives elected with support from the Tea Party (nothing more than a group of US citizens concerned about the economic policies of the nation which has been co-opted by socially conservative groups) to politically violent individuals responsible for the terrorist attacks that all Americans experienced should highlight the fact that the man considered one of the most skilled orators in history is not immune from the muck raking and fear mongering that is associated with such charged rhetoric.

Last, but surely not least, is the critical analysis that has flowed since a 20 year old girl provocatively grinded a 36 year old man in front of an international television audience. I’m all for addressing the serious issue that is institutionalised misogyny and sexism. But arguments for and against the issue are undermined by useless monikers such as “slut shaming” which look good on a pithy blog, but ultimately do not address the issue in and of themselves. Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter in response to Cyrus’s performance which O’Connor felt would “obscure her talent” by enabling her to pimp herself out and not empower her as suggested by one woman who responded that the public display of sexuality is in fact empowering, just like public displays of intelligence or humour. The whole debate has evolved into absurdity as Cyrus responds to the “slut shamers” by announcing in Rolling Stone magazine that she is working to create a “strategic hot mess” image.

As we can see, the contexts of these three examples are quite different. Again, the circumstances aren’t entirely dissimilar as reporters jostle to have their story appear first on the bulletin, as the President attempts to save the world from economic despair, as unashamed feminists strive for the admonishment of a “slut” wherever she may appear. However, the conventions have changed drastically as these catch phrases designed to sum up major issues in thirty second sound bites fit for broadcast work their way into our modern lexicon. There is nothing wrong with the introduction of new language to disseminate new ideas and opinions to a much larger audience brought about by modern technology.

As soon as these one-liners come to embody the broader discourse that is presented every night, there is a serious cause for concern that the younger generation should hold when access to accurate and informed debate becomes a relic of the past that is replaced with pseudo-news programs like A Current Affair and Today Tonight.