Last year I conducted a study on interruption in Australian Senate Estimates in which I argued that interruption can be a powerful gatekeeping tool, that it is overwhelmingly used against women, and that this should make people angry. We see this kind of behaviour not only in Parliament, but increasingly on prime time television. Following the much reported interruption of social commentator Jamila Rivzi by Steve Price, during their battle on Channel Ten’s highest rating show The Project, Mia Friedman, founder of the Mamamia Network, suggested that interruption on televised panels is not a big deal and we all need to ‘grow up’ and ‘get on with it’. After considerable time researching the issue of ‘interruption’, I’ve concluded that men use interruption as an effective tool against women. Nevertheless, that said, I’m inclined to agree with Friedman. So, how can both positions can be true?
There is a big difference between debate in Parliament and debate on TV. There are different rules governing discussions, and different aims for interaction. In politics a parliamentarian may be looking to advocate his or her party platform; but on television, it is primarily about being opinionated, engaging and grabbing an audience.
There is a clear distinction between interruptions that should cause concern, and interruptions that we should simply accept as a necessary part of conversation. That distinction is best illustrated by the behaviour of Steve Price. As a public commentator he tacitly agrees to have his words and opinions scrutinised. As such, there have certainly been moments worth discussing in relation to the discourse tactics he would appear to employ.
An interaction between commentators such as Price and Rivzi is a powerful example of an interruption which can be both fair play and harmful. A transcript of the interaction is provided below:
Jamila Rivzi, a passionate advocate for Hilary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign, was invited on to The Project to discuss the election of Donald Trump. While Rivzi was being asked her views on Trump, Price proffered another point of view. Price answered a question directed to Rivzi, stating that the Trump victory was a result of the dissatisfaction of “real” America. Rivzi pressed Price on this, which resulted in a heated exchange, filled with interruption.
In terms of gendered discourse analysis, this exchange was unremarkable. Steve Price’s reaction to Rivzi wasn’t polite, but nor was it sinister. Most likely it was the result of Price’s view that Rivzi was being rude. Trying to promulgate that interaction into something larger distracts and dilutes from the actual problem. This is an interruption which we should all be able to accept as a necessary part of a heated discussion.
However, the behaviour that follows is far more concerning. After blaming Rivzi for the election of Trump (a rude response, but not the problem), he goes on to characterise her comments as a “heckle and lecture”. This is an example of the classic Steve Price silencing tactic of tone policing. Instead of focusing on what Rivzi’s said, Price decided to focus on how she said it. Members of marginalised groups will be well familiar with this silencing tactic. In focusing on her tone, Price defined the terms by which the conversation had to take place, and simultaneously diminished Rivzi’s ability to communicate.
Tone policing is often associated with the emotionality of an argument, in that it promotes the concept that emotion and reason cannot coexist. This belief, combined with the idea that women are intrinsically emotional and thus incapable of rational thought, barred women from public life for a long part of our history. Whether Price’s tone policing was intentional or not is beside the point – to avoid an altercation that caused him discomfort he took charge and derailed the conversation.
Tone policing shifts the focus of a discussion from the actual issue at hand to the tone of voice. It is a tactic that prioritises a speaker’s own comfort above the value of the discussion. This was even more evident in Steve Price’s interaction with Van Badham on ABC’s “Q&A” program. Price labelled Van Badham as hysterical during a discussion on violence against women and the harm caused by the casualisation of a targeted “joke” about drowning a female reporter.
The Project gave Price an opportunity to apologise for the Van Badham incident, and characteristically he used his allocated five minutes or so to tone police some more. He suggested the manner in which Van Badham addressed him was a problem: in other words, that he was “verballed”. This suggests that if Van Badham had been calm about domestic violence the altercation wouldn’t have happened. That Van Badham should have prioritised Price’s comfort in a discussion about assault and threats of violence against women. Steve Price had earlier dismissed the violent rhetoric used against a female reporter, as “as a joke on a football show”, saying “too much had been made of what was essentially some blokes having a laugh about something they shouldn’t have been laughing about”. When these comments were then reflected back to him, he prioritised the protection of his own reputation at the expense of an important public discussion about violence against women.
Therein lies the rub: Men and women are treated differently when they interrupt each other. When Steve Price interrupts he is rewarded with more uninterrupted air time to state his case and he avoids offering an apology. What’s more, he does not experience any professional punishment. This is clearly not the same outcome for the women discussed in this article, all of whom received relentless threats of violence, via social media, following their broadcast appearance.
Perhaps Price would do well to learn to question what makes his speakers impassioned or upset in the first instance. And then maybe he could try to focus on the content of what people are saying, rather than asking his interlocutors to speak in a more civil manner. Given his public profile, it is unfortunate that Price fails to understand that people he goes into battle with are rarely angry because they want to cause hurt, but rather because they are hurt by the constant erasure of their voices. While emotional truths may make a noisy shock-jock uncomfortable, they are not necessarily an attack on his character. As a media personality, and a man who is given a wide berth in public space, I believe he has a responsibility to do better. Fingers crossed.