Twirling towards freedom

Women of Calibre

Seemingly every other day now, one of my friends posts something on a social media site about how worried women should be if Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister come September 14. Every time Abbott makes a clumsy comment, the reason I’m filled with dread isn’t that he may well be running the country in a few months. It’s because I know I’m going to have to read about it on Twitter. Constantly.

Last week, Abbott did what he has done before and will do again: he made an unscripted comment, the kind of ham-fisted statement that women who enjoy getting fired up about dutifully got fired up about. This time, he told reporters in Melbourne that under the Coalition’s $4 billion paid parental leave scheme new mothers earning up to $150,000 would be paid six months’ full salary as maternity leave. It was important that these “women of calibre,” educated high earners, would have a “fair dinkum chance” to have families. 

You can guess the rest. 

This month, Robyn Annear wrote an excellent essay for this magazine about the book that was born out of the Destroy the Joint movement, and commented on “the insularity of hashtag activism: social media as echo chamber.” It’s a sentiment that I’d only previously articulated as an unpleasant shudder whenever I came across one of these circle-jerks on Twitter: people tweeting at each other about how they’re angry about the same thing. Usually I just unfollow the participants. The thing I like about Twitter is that it exposes me to news, views and insights that I wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to. If I want to read the opinions of people who think the same way that I do, I can always log into Facebook. 

To what end are these endless hashtags coined and proliferated? Is this the best way to stimulate debate about issues like this? Or just a reflexive gesture made instinctively by this generation of feminists? Annear points out that the viewpoints we’re exposed to online is an increasingly narrow set of opinions. Tailoring our Twitter feeds so that we’re only presented with opinions we already agree with and arcing up together at the ones we don’t, as Annear notes, “doesn’t amount to a multiplicity of viewpoints or make for a nuanced consideration of ‘divergent realities.’” As social media users continue to tweet, share, post and like each other’s contributions to a circle that’s growing smaller and smaller, isn’t it less of an intellectual debate and more like a game of soggy biscuit?

Aggregating anger online like this doesn’t seem to serve a particularly useful purpose. It’s important that genuinely offensive, unreasonable and dangerous comments made by our politicians are highlighted, but I’m not sure that turning them into hashtags does much for anybody who isn’t already well aware of what the outrage is about. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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