Yesterday, White Ribbon New Zealand issued a statement concerning the Prime Minister’s recent on-air antics. This was in response to a petition that had been in circulation which called for the Prime Minister to be dropped as a White Ribbon Ambassador due to the fact that our dear PM appears to have a bit of a serial problem with trivializing sexual assault.
Not a great look for a charity whose purpose is to remind us all that as applies sexual violence … “It’s not OK”.
Their statement on Key reads, and I quote:
“White Ribbon asks men to stand up and not remain silent when we see behaviour that is violent and/or demeaning to women. Remaining silent allows the violence and sexism to go unchallenged and to be accepted. […] Recently, The Rock radio station created a segment that referenced male rape in a manner that trivialised this horrific violence. It was an awful exercise in bad taste and helped to perpetuate violence by normalising and trivialising it. We understand that some people won’t see it that way, it will be in their eyes just a joke. We however do not agree.”
So far, so good.
But then it also states:
“As many people know, a White Ribbon Ambassador (the Prime Minister) was involved in on-air segment on the Rock which was highly offensive. We have reached out to the Prime Minister, and we are informed that he did not know what was about to occur, and did not at the time comprehend the rape references or make any. We take the Prime Minister at his word.”
There is, needless to say, more than a bit of a contradiction here. White Ribbon NZ can’t have it both ways.
Even assuming it’s possible to believe that a middle-aged and very much theoretically mature man *didn’t* comprehend what dropping the soap while behind bars was supposed to connotate and entail, this is hardly the first strike.
Who could forget his shameful conduct of less than a month ago in attempting to use rape (or, at least, the supporting and endorsement of rapists) as a political weapon during the Christmas Island debacle – and his hiding behind the Speaker shutting down female survivor voices speaking on our behalf to demand an apology from the Prime Minister.
Or what about the workplace assault (arguably with a sexualized element) which became his apparent calling-card in the popular imagination towards the start of the year. It’s sufficiently closely connected to his public image and perceptions that another radio station – The Edge – felt it a good joke to give him the option of pulling on the pony-tails of a number of female staff in an on-air stunt the same week.
A successful White Ribbon Ambassador would have embodied the organization’s values and virtues by “[standing] up and not [remaining] silent” in the face of problematic on-air behavior … rather than participating in and perpetuating it. If “remaining silent allows the violence and sexism to go unchallenged and to be accepted“, then what exactly does “going along with a puerile and offensive trivialization stunt lent legitimacy by the presence of the Prime Minister” do.
Furthermore, it’s rather difficult to believe that the Prime Minister genuinely felt the prison-rape references went over his head. After all, his own Minister of Corrections has previously obliquely endorsed prison-rape as a deterrence policy for serious offenders.
So the questions must be asked: first, if White Ribbon believes Key’s litany of conduct is acceptable for one of its Ambassadors; second, whether it would be prepared to tolerate this sort of behavior from anyone else representing the organization; and third, if not, why Key’s being given a ‘special pass’ by White Ribbon (and surely, what else does “taking him at his word” that he didn’t know what he was doing was offensive … over and over and over again … represent if not that).
From where I’m sitting, the answer is both obvious and sad.
It’s not just that the office (if not necessarily the person) of the Prime Minister still carries a pretty significant weight of prestige and potency.
As an analyst friend of mine put it: “Look at the way the Key government responds to its critics and those who embarrass the government. The Ninth floor has become very adept at manipulating public opinion against people or groups who get offside.”
And he’s right. Ever since it got into office, the Key government has made quite a specialty out of manipulating public opinion to marginalize if not outright discredit groups and individuals who start to become somewhat inconvenient in their truths. In fact, this literally became such an all-pervading pattern for the government that there was literally enough of it to fill a book with. It was called Dirty Politics. You may remember it.
White Ribbon New Zealand will have made the cruel calculation as to whether the limited positive PR boost supplied by keeping the PM on retainer with a ribbon on his lapel is worth the trade-off from the continued hypocrisy inherent in lending the puller of ponytails and dropper of soap added legitimacy by *their* association with him, rather than the other way around.
They will have decided, one way or the other, that they can’t afford to drop him. Either because the marginal benefits of connection to such a high-profile figure (regardless of *why* he’s making headlines seemingly every other week) will be regarded as too important to lose … or, more insidiously, because they’re too afraid of the fallout to make the right call.
That’s “Not OK”.