Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear

Defending Deveny

The stereotyping of atheists as ‘militant’ has now become so common it’s even used as a perjorative by atheists against other atheists.

“No, I don’t believe the state should fund religious schools,” I said at a recent meeting of the Sunshine Coast Atheists.

“Oh, so you’re a militant atheist, then?” responded one of our more elderly members as I sat before him with my fluffy blonde hair and blingy earrings, sipping mildly on a glass of white wine.

Militant? Moi?

As my friend Warren Bonett notes in The Australian Book of Atheism (Bonnett, ed. 2010, p. 328), think of a religious militant and you’ll most likely picture someone wielding a gun. Think of a militant atheist and you’re likely to conjure up an image of Richard Dawkins with a bit of colour in his cheeks.

Yet, Dawkins’ critics routinely accuse him of being ‘militant’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’. Anyone who has heard Dawkins speak should be able confirm that his calm, mellifluous tones and reasoned arguments are anything but strident. At worst, he may sometimes throw in a cheeky one-liner. But strident? Militant? Loud? Aggressive? No.

So, why this misperception? Why do people project these kinds of negative attributes onto others? Of course, some people actually are militant, shrill and strident. But could it be that, in some cases, there’s a kind of auditory illusion in play? Could it be that because Dawkins says things that make people uncomfortable; breaks the social taboo which says that religious beliefs must be ‘respected’; and, refuses to ‘stay in his place’ as a tweedy, bookish, Oxford don, he is perceived to be something which, viewed dispassionately, he clearly is not?

Here’s Dawkins defending himself against the charges:

This kind of misperception can also arise out of the cultural bias of gender stereotyping. Even in today’s enlightened society, powerful females are routinely castigated for failing to conform to social expectations. Sadly – even amongst the liberal intelligentsia – there’s a deeply ingrained, perhaps even subconscious, belief that ‘mouthy’ or assertive females with strong opinions should just ‘shut the fuck up’.

For example, when ABC journalist, Leigh Sales held Tony Abbott’s feet to the fire on ABC’s 7.30 program, recently, she was branded as shrill and aggressive. For some, a woman publicly holding a man to account is deeply discomfiting. Perhaps that’s why Liberal Party strategist, Grahame Morris, carped, “… Leigh can be a real cow sometimes …”

In similar vein, I’m reminded of Alan Jones’ suggestion that Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, should be ‘put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea’.

As the recipient of this kind of criticism, myself, I should not have been surprised at the fall-out from Catherine Deveny’s appearance on ABC’s Q&A this week. Deveny’s opposition to Anglican Archbishop, Peter Jensen, resulted in an onslaught of vitriolic criticism and abuse – even from those who claim to support her positions on asylum seekers, same-sex marriage and women’s equality.

Even the Australian weighed in with an editorial reprimanding Deveny and the ABC for failing to show the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney ‘proper regard’ and ‘respect’.

While the Australian characterises (or more accurately, caricatures) Deveny as mocking, crude, crass and intolerant, Jensen is ‘frank, concerned and conciliatory on homosexual health issues’. Deveny, we are told, was guilty of ‘shouting down’ the Archbishop.

The criticism on Twitter went into overdrive. According to comments on the #qanda Twitter stream Deveny is: an ugly, extremist, stupid, unintelligent, idiotic, thoughtless, self-righteous, self-centred, self-absorbed, nasty, confused, frustrated, bitter, twisted, humourless, un-funny, unreasonable, unrespectable, disrespectful, sarcastic, mocking, catty, hateful, boorish, blustering, bullying bitch.

What’s more, she is: combative, vicious, shouty, loud-mouthed, arrogant, aggressive, angry, abrasive, childish, silly, garbled, inarticulate, intolerant, hypocritical, pathetic, disgraceful, disgusting, rude, condescending, bigoted, preachy, patronising, dogmatic, offensive, immoral, discriminatory and ‘up herself’.

Deveny, her critics tell us, is not only irritating, but fucking annoying, embarrassing and cringe-making. Lathamesque, she is a useless, satanistic, psycho, nutter, hysterical, raving lunatic, bogan, dickhead, troll and PC thug who acted like an absolute tit and brought down the tone of the whole program with her tiresome schtick.

Her own worst enemy, Deveny was, apparently: ridiculous, a graceless, uncouth pundit – mutton dressed as lamb – and her awful, outraged, rehearsed ranting turned into a train-wreck as (loving the sound of her own voice) she yelled everyone down while spouting only t-shirt slogans. This ‘showboating #%^*+•’€|£ ‘ should, according to the Twitterverse, learn to debate without yelling, shut her pie-hole, shut the fuck up, be gagged, have a sock put in her mouth, have a burqa thrown over her and go to hell.

Some critics decided that abusing Deveny on Twitter was ‘a step not far enough’. Eager that she should not miss their valuable opinions on her Q&A performance Dev’s been receiving email:

“You lack manners and the ability to listen to others showing no decorum or any social graces,” writes NJ (male) in an email headed ‘Motormouth’.

“Didn’t you hear us all yelling at you to just shut up?” writes AR (female). “You are not clever – you’re just plain rude and you continue to set back the cause of women every time your very loud voice trumps those of others we would all like to hear.”

“Why does it come as no surprise to me (and many others) that you are not married,” writes Jason of Brisbane who doesn’t have the testicles to give a last name.

Jason’s tirade, entitled “Arrogant annoying shifty bitchiness” includes the following gems:

“I doubt you can find one man that could bare [sic] to even sit down to dinner with you for 30 minutes.”

“Can’t wait for the revolution where we shoot all the extremists on the left and right who just get off on grandstanding on issues in which they will never make a dent in anyone’s opinion.”

Then, tellingly:

“… my mother was just like you, she was full of just as much deflective shit, living her own lies and never able to hold her tongue, never wrong. I don’t even talk to her anymore for the same reasons I can’t stand listening to anything you have to say, even when I agree with you, actually especially when I agree, it makes me question those beliefs when they align with crazed bitches like yourself.”

“Don’t bother replying,” Jason signs off, “I am [an] evil white male who couldn’t give a fuck what you have to say, but thanks for reading what I had to say bitch.”

TH (an agricultural specialist, apparently) was more succinct: “What a great display your listening skills, tolerance of peoples [sic] beliefs and your sense of humour you fat disgusting loud slag.”

Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? How could so many people be wrong? It’s very clear from the criticisms directed against her that Deveny rudely talked over her fellow panellists, shouted, yelled and dominated the conversation.

Or did she?

Yesterday, I spent a very long, boring day undertaking a forensic examination of the transcript of Monday’s night’s episode of Q&A. It yielded some fascinating results.

Curiously, as this was one of the rare Q&A’s where the women (Catherine Deveny, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Anna Krien) outnumbered the men, the male guests (Peter Jensen and Chris Evans) still managed to dominate the conversation 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

Far from being drowned out by Deveny’s aggressive interruptions, Archbishop Peter Jensen actually racked up a word count double that of Deveny’s – more, even, than Deveny and the equally loquacious Concetta Fierravanti-Wells combined.

No wonder when Q&A host, Tony Jones, silenced Deveny to give the final word to Jensen, she snapped in frustration, “Yeah, I think he said plenty of words!”

Indeed! In terms of word count, Jensen even spoke more than the host, Tony Jones!

Here’s the word count score card:

Peter Jensen: 2,592 words

Tony Jones (host): 1877 words

Chris Evans: 1,397 words

Catherine Deveny: 1,259 words

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: 1,242 words

Anna Krien: 775 words

(Anna Krien, interrupted three times by Jones (but not once by Deveny), was effectively sidelined for the evening. She must have been silently fuming at the affront.)

The average number of words spoken by the panellists on Monday night’s Q&A was 1,450 words. Deveny’s contribution of 1,259 words was 13 per cent below the average. Jensen’s, on the other hand, was 78 per cent above the average. Please stop a moment and let that sink in.

Fact: Deveny did not dominate the Q&A panel, nor did she manage to drown out Jensen or any of the other panellists.

So, what about interruptions? Did Deveny really ruin the program by rudely talking over everyone? I checked. The answer is, “No, she didn’t.”

In examining the transcript, I considered an ‘interruption’ as any interjection which stopped the previous speaker from completing their sentence (usually marked by ellipses in the transcript). In some cases, Jones interrupts by his own admission, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but …” and I counted these as well.

Here’s the interruption score card:

Archbishop Jensen (supposedly the most polite panellist) interrupted the host three times. He also interrupted Deveny once. Jensen scores four interruptions.

Deveny was far more ‘submissive’ to Jones’s authority than the Archbishop; she interrupted the Q&A host only once. In addition, Deveny interrupted Jensen twice and Evans once, making her ‘interruption quotient’ exactly the same as Jensen’s.

Considering the transcript dispassionately, Deveny was no more or less disruptive* than the Archbishop.

Well, maybe Jensen did manage to speak quite a bit, but, by God, he had to struggle against Deveny’s constant interruptions, didn’t he?

Well, “No”.

It’s true that Jensen was interrupted six times, but don’t blame Deveny! She only interrupted Jensen twice while host, Tony Jones, interrupted him four times. Deveny, herself, was interrupted three times during the course of the program (by Evans, Jones and Jensen).

Perhaps Deveny was allowed to dominate the conversation some other way? Did Jones, for example, displaying his ‘well-known left-wing bias’, call on her to speak more often than the other panellists?

Not at all. In fact, Deveny was only asked to speak four times during the program (and once more by an audience member). Further, despite having been far less verbose than Jensen, Deveny was twice requested to ‘keep it brief’. In contrast, Jones asked Jensen to comment eight times (Krien and Wells, six and Evans, four).

So, of all the panellists, Deveny (along with Evans) was given the least opportunity to speak by the host.

The fact is, criticism of Deveny is based on a biased misperception of her performance.

So, maybe it was just because Deveny was so damn shouty and loud that everyone thought she was taking over the program, eh?

Nope.

I asked a professional sound engineer to listen to the audio of the program to ascertain whether Deveny’s voice was routinely raised above the volume of the other guests.

His response, after examining the audio, was to say that, as he expected, Q&A’s audio director ensures the sound is compressed and filtered so that all voices come through at a consistent level ‘within tolerances below which pretty much any normal person could detect.’

In other words, even if Deveny had been shouting (and there is no evidence that she was), there is no way a viewer could tell that from watching the program online or on television.

The sound technician explained:

“All radio and TV audio is heavily processed in the desk in the first place and then again via a finalizer before being broadcast – there’s very little variance in volume. With what was broadcast, there’s no way for a non-physical audience member to prove Catherine Deveny shouted or even noticeably raised her voice.”

So, did Deveny yell, shout or raise her voice on Q&A? Certainly not so as any armchair critic could notice. If they thought she was ‘shouting’ it was because of their own biases, not because the volume increased when Deveny spoke.

Presciently, Deveny noted the tendency to portray women negatively in a recent article about the cyber-bullying which saw, celebrity, Charlotte Dawson admitted to hospital.

“Men speak, women are outspoken. Men have opinions, women are opinionated. Men are passionate, women rant. Men have mouths. Women are mouthy,” Deveny observes.

“Having the misfortune of being born with an opinion and a vagina, I am no stranger to these trolls who try to get my attention on an hourly basis. Women who colour outside the lines cop a hundred times more vitriol than men and it’s a thousand times more vicious.”

It is interesting that, according to Deveny, Peter Jensen specifically asked to be seated next to her on Q&A. Was it strategic? Did Jensen intentionally pitch his delivery to contrast favourably with hers? If so, it seemed to work – although not all viewers were taken in.

As Ruth Liston (@ruthieboots) commented on Twitter:

“The gross violence of Jensen’s soft-spoken misogyny and homophobia is infinitely more harmful than Deveny’s well-meaning brashness.”

Similarly, @bijayci ** noted:

“… [Jensen] gave out more jibes and insults than loud deveny but in [a] smoothe [sic] smarmy voice to fool all.”

@DavidW2035 agreed, tweeting:

“Just because you are sexist and homophobic in a genteel way does not make your words less aggressive.”

So, what was Deveny’s crime?

She went on to Q&A and argued eloquently for the plight of asylum seekers.

“It is extraordinary that we’re not doing our basic obligations as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. We shouldn’t just be doing what the UN suggests we should be doing, we should be doing so much more. We have so much to give,” she said.

“Detention centres are well known to be factories for mental illness. It’s just not good enough.”

“Do you know how many terrorists have arrived on boats into our country? Zero.”

“This is not about stopping the boats, this is about starting the planes.”

Then, she argued for the right of same-sex couples to marry – even though she doesn’t believe in marriage herself:

“For me rights are rights. It doesn’t need an argument. People are people and nobody should be able to stand in the way of how people want to celebrate their love.”

Intolerant?

No. In fact, she told Jensen, “I do support your right to discriminate within your religion”.

And, (quite rightly, in my view), she warned the Archbishop that advancing the antediluvian view that wives should be submissive to their husbands is hardly likely to improve the alarming decline in church attendance.

Why should that be sugar-coated; especially in light of the argument from audience member, Bronwyn Fraser, who said:

“I work with Christian cultures – women in Christian cultures overseas who do have this biblical wife submission approach to marriage and they also report some of the highest levels of domestic violence and sexually-based violence.”

No matter how softly phrased, how gently put, Jensen’s views, combined with the power inherent in his position, do real harm to real people.

I cannot for the life of me understand why Deveny should have been required to pander to his passive-aggressive proselytising.

When the Archbishop failed to denounce the smear-campaign and fear-mongering of the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace (please refer to my blog post on this shameful propaganda), Deveny responded, not with propaganda, but with the view shared by the overwhelming majority of peak mental health bodies:

“… homosexuality is not a health risk. Homophobia is a health risk. Hate kills. Hate causes suicide. Hate causes self-harm and hate causes depression. It’s not homosexuality, it’s homophobia.”

After the program I had two phone calls. The first, was from from Gregory, a gay male friend – a mature, professional man in a stable same-sex relationship. He said that, despite having long since come to terms with his sexuality, Jensen’s words had shaken him badly.

He said:

“I’ve gotta say that Peter Jensen’s words on Q&A Monday night were very cutting, I was yelling at the TV and was more than impressed to have Catherine in her quiet, direct way, taking him to task. It’s so disheartening to listen to someone like Jensen say he wants to talk about the facts then make an outrageous suggestion that gay people have a shortened life span. And I mean disheartening. It’s been one hell of a week. Religious type people make false claims and then reinforce their own mistakes as if they’re right. The impact on my well-being is quite astounding. I can certainly see how it could have a huge negative impact on a young gay person who may not have built up a life-time of resilience.”

His outrage, he went on, “was further compounded by people [being] so critical of Catherine Deveny. It was distressing to have people saying that she was out of order, but somehow it was acceptable to let Jensen say those things unchallenged.”

The second call I received was from Carol, the mother of a gay teen.

“I can’t tell you how much it meant to Nathan and me to have Catherine Deveny stand up and defend gay people so passionately!” she said.

“As far as I’m concerned, she was incredibly restrained. As the mother of a gay child, and knowing what he’s been through, I wanted to punch Jensen!”

“People – interviewers –” she explained, “let Jensen’s kind of homophobic remarks go through to the keeper all the time. I find it infuriating! Catherine didn’t let it go through to the keeper. That’s the difference between kids committing suicide and not committing suicide and Jensen didn’t even seem to care!”

It is true that Deveny was outspoken in her views on religion. But she didn’t simply launch, uninvited into a rant about the Bible. She spoke only after an audience member specifically asked for her view. In Deveny’s opinion (and, having written and performed in a one-woman stage show on religion, she has done her research), the Bible is, “… basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division.”

You may not agree, but it is her opinion and why shouldn’t she express it? Did anyone object when Jensen launched into a virtual sermon towards the end of the show?

Deveny believes that, despite thousands of different interpretations of the Bible, the only thing they can all agree on is homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division. That seems pretty accurate given the preoccupations of Jensen and the ACL. Should Deveny have been too polite to point that out? If so, what the hell was she there for?

So why is Deveny being so heavily criticised?

What if Jensen had been spouting racist propaganda? Would it have been deemed appropriate for her to respond to that with a soft voice dripping with demure, feminine reserve? Is it because Jensen was only misogynistic and homophobic that she is being targeted?

Any way you approach it, the outrageous criticism of Deveny only make sense if we understand that her performance was viewed through the filters of cultural, gender and religious bias.

Deveny’s sin is to be an outspoken woman, fearlessly breaking the taboo that says the religious beliefs of others are sacred and should not be publicly attacked. This is a taboo which has kept the religious perpetuation of domestic violence, child rape, child stealing, third-world poverty and the evasion of taxes under the radar for centuries. I think it’s a taboo that has done way more harm than good.

Catherine Deveny did nothing wrong.

She did nothing more than stand up to a passive-aggressive religious bully who consistently abuses his elevated position in society to impose his religious views on others, argue against equal rights for his fellow Australians, support the status quo and disseminate shameful propaganda which does real harm to real people.

I only wish there were more men with balls the size of Catherine’s.

Chrys Stevenson

*(To be fair, my analysis shows Deveny might be said to have interjected twice (as opposed to interrupting). The distinction is that Deveny started speaking after the previous speaker had finished their sentence. She did not speak over them or cut them off mid-sentence. Neither of Deveny’s interjections were to Jensen. Fierravanti-Wells made a similar interjection to Krien.)

Need to check my stats? Here is my working document: Q&A Working Document – Transcript

** A reader has noted that I wrongly attributed this tweet to @stephjudd. I apologise for the error. I expect I misread a reply from Judd, but I should have been more careful. Steph Judd does not share the view expressed in @BiJayCi’s tweet. Apologies to both Steph Judd and @BiJayCi.

Related Article:  The Blokeyness Index: blokes win the gender war in Australia’s 4th Estate – Chrys Stevenson in the King’s Tribune

(A substantial part of this article is available free. The whole article can be accessed for a small charge.)