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Campaigning for Yes using emotional abuse
When nasty nagging curdles public discourse.
There is a very toxic, typically middle-class, form of mothering. It is when the mother attempts to control her children by threatening to withhold love. It tends to emotionally screw-up the children who suffer it. It is abusive parenting, even if there is no violence involved.
Note for Non-Australians: Australia has what is sometimes known as a Washminister system of government. We take federalism from the US — so, a House of Representatives with single-member seats allocated by population,1 a Senate with equal numbers of Senators per State.2 We take Parliamentary government from the UK — so a constitutional monarchy, where the Prime Minister is the head of government. We take constitutional amendment from the Swiss — changes to the Constitution have to be approved by a majority of voters in a majority of States.3 We have just had our 45th Constitutional referendum. It lost in every State.
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Why should folk care about a failed Constitutional amendment Downunder? Because the failure of the Yes campaign is an exemplar of much wider patterns bedevilling developed democracies, particularly in the Anglosphere.
There were two emotionally-abusive approaches that recurred again and again in commentary in support of The Indigenous Voice to Parliament (The Voice for short).
One was “if you support No, you are racist”: there was no legitimate reason to support No, it was all just motivated by bad feels. Hence claims that racism was a major feature of comments in support of No, with folk publicly blaming the official No campaign. There was commentary that was appalled that there was a No campaign at all.
That this is an emotionally-abusive approach is obvious: “if you don’t do what I say, you are bad” with what I say being “what all the Good people agree is correct”.
While the official Yes campaign avoided going there — and academic and prominent Yes advocate Marcia Langton tried to walk back her use of such arguments — it was very much part of wider commentary in support of The Voice. It has also been very much part of the reaction on social media to the resounding 61 per cent No result, with No winning solidly in all six States and the Northern Territory. (Constitutional lawyer Greg Craven provides an excellent presentation of the reasons the Yes campaign failed, as does Helen Dale here.)
I saw far more of “second level” commentary than I saw of either official campaign.
The fact that the two most prominent voices for No were Aborigines — businessman Warren Mundine and second-generation politician Senator Jacinta Price — definitely blunted all this somewhat. It did not stop its use, as it was targeted at folk who rarely, if ever, interact with Aborigines.
Folk “of colour” who dissent from such narratives are frequently discounted by treating them, as, in effect, traitors to their group. So, piling on the emotional abuse.
Veteran TV reporter Ray Martin’s brief speech in front of PM Albanese— which the PM praised as “powerful” — labelling No voters “dinosaurs and d**kheads” was also in the emotional abuse vein.
The other emotionally-abusive theme in Yes commentary was “Voting No would be emotionally devastating for Aborigines”. For instance, from the Equality Institute:
KAY: As a First Nation person of this country, if the vote goes to ‘No’, I think I will question our country’s values and morals. I think I would feel displaced in my own country and that all the suffering that my mob went through wouldn’t mean a goddamn thing to Australia. It would rip my heart into a million pieces, and I don’t know how I would respond to this. I think it would re-enforce the race war on a higher level that we have seen simmering for many decades and that would open a can of worms. It would set our worlds completely apart, which would take even more time to heal and that’s even if we wanted to try and start that process again. You can only have so many doors shut on you before you stop trying but at the end of the day, I know my people are the strongest people going and I know it’s not just my mob that has the fire in the belly, it’s every tribe within Australia that will not take no for an answer to have their human rights and voice acknowledged and heard. We are ready for the LONG fight if close-minded or racist people don’t want to stand with us. In an ideal world, we would have a Treaty already in place, we wouldn’t be putting this to a vote or even having this conversation. I have hope and I’m holding onto the hope that we want to heal as one and create something that is very unique.
The theme of emotional harm to indigenous Australians began to show up on social media. It turned a constitutional change into an exercise in group affirmation, in generating good feels. If you objected to the constitutional change, you would be generating bad feels about and within a marginalised group.
PM Albanese characterising the Yes vote as an act of kindness, as showing heart, clearly leant into this theme.
These are not reasoning strategies, these are nagging strategies. As the Referendum results show, it turns out that Australians cannot be nagged into voting for Constitutional change.
Nagging strategies threaten those being nagged with the denial of connection. If you vote No, you are being racist, and we cannot possibly associate with a racist. If you vote No, you are showing contempt towards Aborigines, and we cannot possibly associate with someone who treats a marginalised group with contempt.
This is why the entirely instrumental name-calling of Post-Enlightenment Progressivism (“wokery”) has way more resonance than it should. People become terrified that they will be denied connections that they value. Cancel culture — where people lose jobs and have their careers destroyed — is the extreme end of this threat of shunning and isolation.
Such name-calling is entirely instrumental, as it clearly has no connection to anything resembling careful delineation of who actually falls within the (emotionally-abusive) terms. It is all driven by what it strategically convenient. Rather than discussing the matter rationally — or, perhaps at all — it is about signalling your membership of the club of the Good and the Smart while casting out the infidel.
There has been no clearer demonstration of the instrumentalism of such usages than people who are forever finding “Nazis” to denounce cheering on — in the name of decolonisation — folk who are worse than the Nazis in gleefully publicly broadcasting and celebrating their massacre and rape of Jewish civilians.
Those who patiently try to explain that X is not a Nazi, Y is not a Transphobe, Z is not a bigot fail to understand that they can never succeed. The righteously-abusing are using your language, your vocabulary, but not your dictionary. The terms they use are boo words, morally — and socially — exiling those shown to be illegitimate by their dissent from “correct” politics.
Such accusations are manifestations of relational or reputational aggression: attacking people by seeking to destroy their reputation and connections. In the above cases, it is all about words and beliefs. That folk are engaging in wrongthink, so have wrongbeliefs and use wrongwords.
It is a shaming and shunning social-leverage strategy that also enables folk to display their contempt for fellow citizens.
This is a form of aggression that social media aggregates and up-scales very effectively. It is also a classically female form of aggression as (1) it does not require physical strength and (2) it can hide that it is aggression, cloaking itself as “being kind”. A mask of morality is adopted to license what can be remarkably bad behaviour. A mask that people can hide behind, even from themselves.
Hiding that it is aggression is clearly advantageous to the physically weaker sex while strategic self-deception makes such aggression more sincere, so more effective. If you believe what you say, there is neither the internal cognitive cost of trying to consciously manage two levels of thinking at once — what you believe versus what you are presenting — nor the danger of cross-purposes signals that such cognitive tension can often generate.
Such nagging poisons public discourse and interactions and undermines social trust. The threat of the erosion of social trust is why the scold’s bridle and cucking or ducking stools were invented. In societies where folk lived at or near subsistence — and relied on cooperation and mutual forbearance — it was potentially disastrous to permit such socially-corrosive behaviour to reach critical mass.
It is evident that such emotionally-abusive behaviour is poisoning public discourse. During The Voice referendum campaign, it was clear that lots of people were not expressing their doubts — except amongst trusted friends — because of the level of moralised intimidation: moralised intimidation that was often institutionalised.
Folk raised in the Soviet bloc have (privately) noted how very “Soviet” it felt. Yes, both because the same underlying ideas are generating many of these tactics and because the moralised intimidation has been institutionalised.
Australia is the land of “democracy sausage”, where elections become public carnivals of popular participation. The Voice Referendum lacked that carnival atmosphere, precisely because of the emotionally-abusive nature of much of the Yes commentary.
Handing out social outcomes
The Voice proposal itself manifested a classic progressive error — the delusion that social outcomes can be handed out by the state, rather than being the outcome of life-strategies.
Australia has spent billions on indigenous policies, with remarkably little positive effect. Much of the emotional power of support for The Voice came from the feeling that something new has to be done. But we have had a succession of “new” things that have not worked.
The corrupt failure of a previous new thing — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) — likely loomed large in much of the strength of the No vote in the Northern Territory and regional Australia.
That the two major Australian Territories were such mirror images of each other, with the Northern Territory (30 per cent indigenous in population) voting strongly (39:61) No while the public-sector dominated Australian Capital Territory voted strongly (61:39) Yes — the only significant jurisdiction to do so — is a manifestation of a persistent problem in contemporary developed democracies: an administrative class strikingly out of step with its wider society. That the pattern of votes was very similar to the rejection of the Republic proposal in 1999 is striking indication of ongoing socio-cultural divides.
Persistent failures in indigenous policy come from the delusion that government spending can just hand out social outcomes and because the incentive structure of so much of that spending has been so dreadful.
You pay organisations to do what makes their income and social leverage go up. If you pay organisations to hand out money because Aboriginal outcomes are poor, then their revenue flows depend on Aboriginal outcomes being poor. This not only does not encourage them to find genuine solutions, it actively militates against them doing so.
On the contrary, one creates a class of “Abocrats” — as they are colloquially known among indigenous folk — namely a vampire elite who feed off the bad social outcomes of their confreres.
Constitutionally entrenching these appallingly bad incentive structures was never a good idea.
Note that engaging in such analysis is not a bad of good or bad feels. It is a matter of reasoning through consequences.
If the emotionally-abusive strategies within Yes commentary were classic “feminine” emotional manipulation, then the this is divisive, unclear and unnecessary of the No campaign were classic "masculine" we-have-a-problem-to-solve-and-this-won't-solve-it, reasoning.
One can see the difference even in the pamphlets handed out to voters. The No pamphlet starkly presents that there were indigenous folk who were not in favour.
The Yes pamphlet is about the mechanism of voting, listing the key points (recognition, listening, better results).
On the other side, the No pamphlet is the blunt statement of the footie coach.
The Yes pamphlet is the we ‘will break it down into bits’ of the kindergarten teacher.
Polling suggests that the only group that the Yes campaign resonated with was educated, middle class women — aka “doctor’s wives”, though female professionals seem to be more prominent (see The Teals). So, good-feels versus bad-feels emotional manipulation worked with them.
With other folk, well, it turns out they don’t like being nagged. Nor should they.
It would be nice to think that folk might learn their lesson by the way the ‘Yes’ campaign, and its supporting commentary, threw away their commanding lead in the polls, and we will not be subjected to this sort of mass, emotionally-manipulative nagging again.
Unfortunately, such methods have proved to be very effective as institutional-capture strategies so, sadly, are likely to continue. How many Diversity Officers are using emotional-abuse patterns to enforce a fact-incidental — or even fact-hostile — regime of required “good feels” within organisations?
Besides, the more people who voted No, the better this mask of morality works to express contempt for their fellow citizens and elevate their own sense of moral superiority. So, while this particular emotionally-abusive nagging has been seen off at the ballot box, but it is not likely to stop blighting our societies and public discourse any time soon.
Joyce F. Benenson with Henry Markovits, Warriors and Worriers: the Survival of the Sexes, Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
All six Original State are guaranteed at least five seats in the House of Representatives. So, Tasmania has five seats, which is more than its population would otherwise give it.
Currently, 12 per State, with the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory also having two Senators each. The House cannot be more than twice the number of Senators as otherwise unresolvable disputes between the two Houses are resolved by a Joint Sitting of both Houses.
So, a referendum has to get a majority of votes in four out of the six States. Territory votes count to the national majority but not to the majority of States. All except one successful amendment won in all six States (and it won in five out of six). Only eight out of 45 proposals have passed. All the ones that passed were bipartisan — they were supported by both the PM and the Opposition Leader of the day. When it comes to amending the Australian Constitution, it really is a case of Bipartisan or Bust.