28 December 2016

Bullying and Bennett #nlpoli

Cathy Bennett is the finance minister.  She's one of the most powerful and influential people in the province, bar none and certainly she is among the most powerful and influential women in the province.  If you just counted politicians, her role as finance minister puts her among the most influential people in Canada at the moment.

Shortly before Christmas, Bennett held a news conference to say that she had been bullied by people making comments on social media. Some of the people were anonymous and at least one of the comments Bennett complained about came from a group that was specifically protesting the government's budget.  In fact, every single comment Bennett mentioned, no matter how harsh,  came as a result of the spring budget.

Bullying is an interesting word to use here because it involves a power relationship.  What Bennett claimed  - in essence - was that anonymous people on the Internet were more powerful than she was. Lots of people were quite quick to agree with her. People like Lana Payne, an influential union leader, who devoted her Christmas Eve column in the Telegram to affirming that Bennett was weak and impotent because she was a woman in the face of anonymous men  - or people she assumed were men on social media.

Social media abuse is, to Payne's mind, further proof that "equality is still a distant dream". All these brave women stepping into a man's world and getting attacked,  the commenters agreed. Treated differently from men simply because they are women.  Nancy Peckford, executive director of a political action group dedicated to boosting the number of women in politics across the country, also used the word "bullying" to describe what Bennett and others had experienced.

In a column at theindependant.ca, Michelle Keep wrote about Bennett's experience.  "Writing this article is a challenge because I feel pressure to say certain things.  To come out and denounce the abuse as wrong - which it is.  To support Cathy Bennett against the abuse - which I have."

We don't know if this was specific pressure from people telling Michelle she had to say certain things. Most likely it was silent pressure.  Peer pressure.  Pressure from people she associates with and who occupy prominent positions in the community.  People with whom Keep identified were standing behind Cathy Bennett and Keep was in a conundrum since her political analysis led her to criticise Bennett.

In the end,  Keep gave in:  a "movement of solidarity with and for working class and poor Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can't be unified as long as women - even the elites - are given special hate.

Special hate.

There's actually not a shred of evidence that Bennett had received any special hate of any kind.  To the contrary,  the sort of thing Bennett brought up at the news conference was very common stuff for politicians who'd held the finance minister's job before now and who just happened to be men.

Bennett may not have received any special hate, but did get very special handling from local newsrooms.  They had no trouble granting Bennett's request to have not just women reporters but very specific women reporters at the news conference.  And when CBC's Anthony germain public questioned the special handling, plenty of women slammed him hard on social media in precisely the same fashion that they were supposedly opposed to when applied to Bennett.  The whole episode is a mass of these sorts of contradictions.

So what was Bennett up to?  Simply put, we don't know. On a simple personal level, Bennett did raise an issue that had been bothering her personally for some time.  That's why the SRBP post called her news conference "brave".  On another level,  Bennett might have been doing nothing more than launching the anti-bullying campaign mounted by a network of women's groups in the province immediately after.  They were curiously well-prepared and the messaging has been too consistent for them to have cooked up the idea within 24 hours of Bennett's comments.

If Bennett had been trying to neutralise political opponents, then she did so fairly quickly.  People who had been criticising Bennett stood beside her quite quickly.  Let's not forget that in the process, they also extended to Bennett some political cover with the suggestion - as Lana Payne implicitly argued - that Bennett was a victim simply because she was a woman.  Payne's argument - all of the arguments, really - were inherently sexist.

The only ones who didn't make sexist arguments, curiously enough, were the men who challenged Bennett's control of the people at the news conference. But they gave Bennett an immunity from criticism since both Bennett's presentation and arguments like Payne's made it forbidden to criticise Bennett simply because she was a woman.

It was a cumbersome bit of argumentation but it's not like we haven't seen local women's rights activists act this way.  Linda Ross made two partisan political attacks on behalf of the person who appointed her to her job as head of the provincial status of women group. On both occasions, Ross fabricated a claim about Kathy Dunderdale's political opponents. Otherwise, she stayed silent. This instance with Bennett looks very much like the same thing,  whether or not Payne and her associates even realised what they were doing.

In that context,  Keep's initial instinct to view the issue as one of power, pure and simple, seems to have been the right one.  Keep and some others didn't feel right siding with the person who they felt had caused so much harm with her spring budget.  Keep would probably have noted, as SRBP blogged just before Christmas, that
In 2004,  the median income for men in Newfoundland and Labrador was $10,000 higher than the median income for women.  By 2014,  the gap in median income between men and women in Newfoundland and Labrador had grown to $16, 130.
By contrast, the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women thought it was more important right before Christmas to discuss how many high-income women made it onto government advisory boards.

Maybe Michelle should kept to her first train of thought.  That might have led her to a different conclusion, but certainly one not full of contradictions like the one she settled on to conform with the message being spread by the leadership of local women's groups.

Her first instinct - power trumps sex (gender) - was probably right.  You see no one ever bullied Cathy Bennett.  Well, certainly no anonymous arse on Twitter. But the only people who want you to believe otherwise have far more connection to Bennett than just their similar chromosomes.