Sex, Fear and Faction: Australia's Bizarre Marriage Survey




Australia is currently in the midst of an official survey of opinion about who can get married.  It’s run by the national census office (the Australian Bureau of Statistics) - but it’s not a census.  It’s about a proposal for legal change - but it’s not a vote or referendum.  It’s about allowing lesbian and gay couples to get legally married - but lesbian and gay advocates opposed holding it.  It’s going to cost 122 million dollars - but the people who launched it will probably disregard its result.
A situation so bizarre must involve the Murdoch press and the new Right. And this one certainly does.  It comes out of a complicated series of manoevres in the national parliament, by which the hard-right faction in the ruling Liberal Party has tried to deny or delay marriage equality.
With support from the rural-conservative National Party and the Murdoch-owned media, this faction in recent years has been running a number of culture-war campaigns.  They are against climate science, against multiculturalism, and against sex education. Marriage equality joins the list.
A free vote in the national parliament would suffice to change the law. Public opinion now seems to support this. Therefore the hard-right faction has tried to prevent a vote in parliament.  One tactic was to propose a national referendum on the issue.  Other parties blocked this.
At which point the government came up with the ripe idea of holding an official postal survey, more exactly, a one-question postal opinion poll.  It could do this without new legislation, using funds supposed to be held for an unforeseen emergency (a move recently declared legal by the High Court).
No social scientist would think this is a sound way to find out what the nation thinks.  Postal surveys usually have a low response rate and many biases.  Individual opinion items have low reliability. Response patterns are strongly affected by the specific wording of poll items.
Nor would a lawyer be impressed.  The survey outcome will have no legal effect at all.  It doesn’t compel parliament to act, let alone follow the survey majority.  It’s clear that some parliamentarians will not be swayed whatever the result.
What the survey does achieve is to create a magnificent occasion for the far right to mobilize hatred and fear.  This is now happening.  The formal ‘No’ campaign has mostly tried to scare people with imaginary disasters for ‘the family’, for schools, for children, and for religious freedom, which are supposed to follow from marriage equality.  The logic is a trifle obscure, but the intent to raise fears is clear.  The informal campaign, the dog-whistling and hate speech, is where the underlying masculinity politics and homophobia surface.
This pattern is not original to Australia.  Though this is not discussed in the Australian media, for the past few years there has been a new kind of international backlash campaign against feminism, women’s sexual rights, gay rights, queer culture and transsexuality.  It is promoted by both Catholic militants and Protestant fundamentalists, who link these targets under the interesting name “gender theory”.
This movement has been particularly active in Latin America and Eastern Europe, though it has also been seen in France, the USA (remember the weird “bathroom bans” against trans people?), and elsewhere.  It surfaced in Australia in a highly abusive campaign in 2016 against the Safe Schools programme (an anti-bullying programme to reduce homophobia in schools).  It is now in full bore with the No campaign on marriage equality.
Because the No campaign can’t make a direct attack on human rights, to mobilize participants in the survey it relies mainly on creating fear among religious communities.  Some religious leaders are willing to help.  I heard one bishop on the radio making an awkward plea for a No vote on the grounds that the survey question didn’t specify protections for religious freedom.
I have known a number of bishops in my time, and most of them are competent professionals.  I sympathised with this gentleman, because if he is competent at being a bishop, he must know that marriage equality in other countries – including New Zealand next door – has not had the slightest effect on religious freedom.
This is a small example of a common problem.  Here’s another example.  In the No campaign we hear frequent claims that having gay parents is damaging for children.  There is adequate research on this question, and the claim is known to be false.
But denying the findings of systematic research is a feature of culture-wars campaigns.  What is claimed to be true is what the campaigners wish to be true.  I don’t think the campaigners are necessarily lying, in the sense of deliberate denial of the facts.  It’s more that the facts have ceased to hold much interest for them.  They construct a world via emotions of resentment, fear and hostility.
This is not so much post-truth politics as truth-free politics.  But curiously it always comes around to favouring the interests of rich, white, heterosexual men with shares in fossil fuel companies.  I wonder why that could be?

Re-making the global economy of knowledge

The latest report from our study of intellectual workers and knowledge production in Brazil, South Africa and Australia has just been published online:
Connell, Raewyn, Rebecca Pearse, Fran Collyer, João Maia and Robert Morrell. 2017. Re-making the global economy of knowledge: do new fields of research change the structure of North-South relations? British Journal of Sociology, published online August 2017, DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12294.
This has a paywall.  The penultimate text is available open access on my website, here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B7PfMzZfEk7vTmxyNkZGRDZFYms .
This paper reports interviews with experienced researchers in the fields of  HIV/AIDS, Climate Change, and Gender Studies about the dynamics of these domains and changing global relations of knowledge.  Here are the section headings, after (of course) Introduction and Method:
Making new domains of knowledge
Instituting global hierarchy in new domains
            Resource inequality
            Forming a workforce
            Intellectual structure
Tensions in the global economy of knowledge
Initiatives in the Southern tier
Reflection

In Praise of Sociology


What’s the relevance of sociology, or more generally, of social science?  The Canadian Review of Sociology has just published a symposium on this question, having kindly invited me to be a contributor.  I called my essay “In Praise of Sociology”, and you will find the text, open access, here:
The citation is: Connell, Raewyn. 2017. In praise of sociology.  Canadian Review of Sociology, vol. 54 no. 3, 280-296.
You will find the printed version here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cars.12150/abstract  but be warned, this version has a paywall.
Basically, I argue that sociology has only a marginal position in a world of tabloid politics and market logic – though it could survive as surveillance of the losers, or a source of entertainment.  But there are other possible futures.  Knowledge of the social world is tremendously important for democratic projects.  And all the tools of current sociology are relevant.  But the way sociological knowledge is organized, including the way it is embedded in a global economy of knowledge, is deeply problematic.  Now read on...

Jessie Bernard Award - returning thanks


Remarks at the American Sociological Association awards ceremony, on receiving the 2017 Jessie Bernard Award for “scholarship that has enlarged the horizons of sociology to encompass the role of women in society”.
With Margaret Andersen; photo courtesy of ASA
I thank you all, and I thank the Association, for your kindness in making this award.  I appreciate the ASA’s commitment to principle, in a time when foreigners from remote places are often suspect, and transsexual women are among the targets in new campaigns of bigotry.
Science is now under threat from post-truth media, corporate greed and authoritarian politics.  Social science is not exempt.  Our critical edge and capacity to document social reality are heartily unwelcome to the powerful and privileged.
Yet a time of trouble is also a time of renewal. Jessie Bernard, for whom this award is named, was one of the pioneers in a feminist insurrection in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed sociology.  As the joke goes, if you can remember the ‘sixties, you weren’t there.  But a lot of strong women were there, and the gender research they launched has grown in sophistication, and increasingly links global North with global South.
Making knowledge is a collective project.  My research on gender depended ultimately on thousands of fellow-workers and students.  Good understanding of society really matters for democratic projects, so it’s vital to sustain that creative workforce. But conditions have changed, and the new generation faces a harder task than my generation did.  I wish you well.
Sociologists, go forth!  You have nothing to lose but your Founding Fathers.  You have a wide world to know.
Back to Top