David Cunliffe didn’t make the best choice of opening words, yet the quotes that followed,“Family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men” and “Wake up, stand up, man up, and stop this bullshit”, were certainly well expressed and on-message. Women’s refuge, whose interest is reduced gender violence, endorsed his speech. However, those whose interest is increased ratings – viewership or political opinion polling – focused mostly on the preceding quote “I apologise for being a man”. Mainstream media outlets overwhelmingly led with that quote, Cameron Slater joked that Cunliffe’s deceased father would be ashamed, and online news comments sections became bastions of conservative males shrieking the battle cry “not all men…”
The substance of the Labour policy of $60 million over four years for more frontline services in emergency housing, prevention, education, and judicial reforms to assist survivors of gender violence was outwardly substantive, especially given the degree of secrecy around gender violence. According to Women’s Refuge, 80% of gender violence goes unreported and, according to the Ministry of Justice, about 90% of sexual assault is similarly unreported. Nor are modern judicial systems well-equipped to fairly assess claims. In Australian journalist Anna Krien’s book Night Games, a coverage of the trial of an AFL player linked to Collingwood Football Club that explores objectification and permissive culture with the AFL, she notably highlights legislative and judicial practice favouring the opinion of defendants over victims, unlike crimes such as theft or robbery. Comparatively National policy, though offering more support to victims through case management and GPS tracking, doesn’t focus as strongly on addressing root causes.
Like the Cunliffe apology quote, media reporting of gender inequality tends to trivialise issues through emphasising the more emotional, entertaining aspects. Labour’s attempt at equal gender representation in caucus was labelled as a “man ban” without proper consideration of the lack of female voices in parliament, let alone in many areas of the public sphere. Similarly with the Roastbusters case, rather than foster public debate led by women about addressing gender violence, the media focused on the downfall of John Tamihere as a combination of “mission accomplished” and the reaffirmation of “not all men…”; the purging of responsibility to allow the audience to feel good.
A huge factor in this inability to discuss gender inequality in the public sphere is due to the successful right wing narrative dominant with regards to all inequality: an absolutist ideal of meritocracy that claims hard work is rewarded, all must play by exactly the same rules, and all results and actions are isolated to the level of the individual. For example, the general argument against the Labour ‘Man Ban’ was that women should be promoted on merit. Similarly on the Cunliffe apology, John Key criticised Cunliffe, saying the apology was “… a bit insulting to all men in New Zealand, because the vast overwhelming bulk of them are good, loving husbands, uncles, brothers”, and supported by many in the blogosphere and in news comment threads across the nation. The problem with such analyses is that they ignore the hidden individual, cultural, and institutional relationships and biases that distort the idea of merit towards outcomes. Between For women, income levels lag behind, they still carry out the overwhelming share of unpaid childcare, household duties, and caring for relatives is done by women, adult domestic violence is committed overwhelmingly against women, and representation in politics and prominence in many other areas of public life is still behind men.
If anything, Cunliffe’s poorly expressed quote indicated that he saw addressing gender violence as a collective responsibility where men must shoulder a burden rather than absolve themselves of any responsibility to ending it on the basis that they’re not individually violent. That the idea of being a man is not just a man only responsible for “him and his own”, but also understanding that the whole issue of gender violence is not isolated to the actions of perpetrator and that social problems require a great deal of collective responsibility and input from all parts of society.
If the last year is anything to go by, the public cannot expect media or politicians to be the sole means to address gender violence. Change in attitudes and solutions to gender violence will ultimately come from grassroots collaboration of activists and women’s services and advocate groups towards finite policy and legislative change. Here, politicians are effective insofar as they either empathise with advocates for change or are forced to make changes by public demand.