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Arndt 'honour' has particular resonance for universities
The furore over the awarding of an Australia Day honour to commentator Bettina Arndt has particular resonance for Australian university campuses - they have been used as a platform by the controversial men's rights activist to promote her pro-men, anti-feminist stance.
Ms Arndt was also scathing of the Australian Human Rights Commission's survey and findings into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses and institutional responses that stemmed from that. The recent federal government review into freedom of speech failed to find a culture of suppression - even though protests against Ms Arndt at Sydney and La Trobe universities triggered the report in the first place.
There are few people more qualified to reflect on how universities are entangled in the Arndt saga that long-time gender equality advocate Sharon Bell.
Over the past week, the appointment of Bettina Arndt as a Member of the Order of Australia has provoked dismay and outrage. Twitter feeds have been inundated by many who have experienced domestic violence and who have borne witness to that violence which Ms Arndt, in her book and her #MenToo blog, has argued is often provoked by women.
Ms Arndt was recognised for "striving to achieve gender equity through advocacy for men". Her controversial views on sexual violence and paedophilia are well known and widely publicised, so awards committees must have been cognisant of this, yet have chosen to proceed with this recognition. The framing of Ms Arndt’s contribution as gender equity is simply extraordinary.
The Australian Government promotes that "honours help define, encourage and reinforce national aspirations, ideals and standards by identifying role models". These honours recognise a wide range of Australians with a diversity of views, which we would not expect to align with our own. That diversity, it goes without saying, is what we are celebrating. It is absolutely unproblematic, except when those views and associated patterns of behaviour are harmful to others.
We should be particularly concerned about Ms Arndt’s recognition in the higher education sector as, despite the fact that it is 30 years since A Fair Chance for All equity discussion paper, it is only over recent years that we have seen significant, whole-of-sector, systemic support of gender equity with buy in on the part of our, predominantly male, leadership.
In 2015, 45 higher education and research institutes signed up to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative with the express aim of improving the promotion and retention of women in the sciences. In 2016, peak group Universities Australia began the Respect. Now. Always. initiative which aims to prevent sexual violence in university communities and improve how universities respond to and support those who have been affected.
Universities should also be concerned as the fraught debate around freedom of speech has made us acutely aware of the potential of controversial views to cause harm.
Universities should also be concerned as the fraught debate around freedom of speech has made us acutely aware of the potential of controversial views to cause harm. Justice Robert French’s analysis of the complex issue of what constitutes harm in his Report of the Independent Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Universities provides guidance:
"Plainly enough, physical injury or death inflicted on another person is a harm. Incitement to violence therefore involves the risk of such harm. Incitement to adverse discrimination based upon hatred or contempt or ridicule directed against a person or group of persons involves a risk of inflicting harm. Economic loss is a harm. Personal reputational damage is a harm."
The fact that it has been Ms Arndt's intention to provocatively promote her views on extremely sensitive issues relating to sexual violence and abuse is clearly illustrated by her much publicised, questioning of sexual violence on university campuses. Her commentary is largely based on her interpretation of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses and institutional responses to the survey.
Ms Arndt’s views, campus tour, and continuing advocacy for male students were promoted under the banner headline: "Phony Rape Crisis on Campus". Her emotive language of "rape frenzy", "rape crisis scare mongering", "kangaroo courts" and "victim-centred justice" ridicules the response to the AHRC survey and belittles those survey respondents who had the courage to document their experiences.
Ms Arndt has put forward an absolutely misleading proposition that "our universities are becoming increasingly unfriendly places for young men—it’s hardly surprising that 60 per cent of graduates are now women". There is zero evidence that this is the case.
It is impossible to ascertain which national aspirations and ideals and standards are being promoted by recognising Ms Arndt as an Australian gender equity role model. The appointment of Ms Arndt as a Member of the Order of Australia diminishes the significance of this award, gives legitimacy to the dubious propositions she is advancing, and reinforces her false premise that the advancement and just treatment of women is at the expense of men. It also fuels opposition to the path to change we are on in higher education.