Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Inhabiting the Narrative, or The Richardson/Ardern Debacle

The bulk of this post was written in closer temporal proximity to the event, but I have decided to put it out there now with a new thrust. Now it is about the narrative stuff rather than the debacle. Why? Two reasons. One, because then Blogger will think I've written three posts on 6/10/17 (one of those was still my Tuesday 5 September) so I will have 666. Two, because I referred to it in my other post from today.

NZ's current PM has six children. He's been asked about what that means, he's answered that. The previous PM had two kids. One of whom is quite well known: widely derided even as a bit of a tosser. I guess John Key was asked about them at some point. But the more pertinent thing is that John Key was once asked if he pissed in the shower. He answered. He does. The point is that John Key's quest to paper over every problem by being goofy has fundamentally altered how we think about talking to politicians. Questions that we'd never usually ask people were something that John Key wanted to answer. In fact, he preferred to answer those questions. It's one of the reasons some people think he's a tosser too.

This is what we call a narrative. As humans our lives consist entirely of narratives. Not in the sense ones on Discworld do... they actually have an element called narritivium there... but in the sense we make sense of literally everything through narratives. The trouble is that there is no single narrative. That might even be true of actual narratives too. I mean, we could look at Harry Potter as the tragedy of Draco Malfoy... which is a rather different interpretation to the normal reading. But with real life, all narratives are retrospective and because of this they're really picking and choosing stuff. There is no teleological component to reality, but there is in Harry Potter. Let me show you another narrative.

In the Western world there has been a tendency to consider women as something akin to walking wombs. That is, the entire social function of the woman is to birth the next generation. Hence, all women are perceived as eventually being mothers... and while a normative vision of monogamy simultaneously exists all men are not thought of as eventually being fathers. It doesn't add up. Even worse, some women will have children with multiple men. More reason to expect everyone will be a parent. But because of the way Western morality and thinking works, it's only mothers.

Yet, things have been changing. We now think that women can do anything: they don't have to be just mothers. In fact, we now recognise how problematic saying "just a mum" is. Being a mother is a big deal and incorporates lots of different jobs, tasks and functions: it's real work which we don't recognise justly. We also recognise that employers use motherhood as a rationale for dubious employment practices: being pregnant shouldn't introduce any uncertainties about whether or not one will keep one's job. Asking women if they're thinking about having children reflects the old way of doing things. Being pregnant or potentially being pregnant is irrelevant.

That's another narrative. Notice that it seems somewhat mutually exclusive with the previous narrative. However, they are both equally true. They are both true. They both happened in the same reality. But, wait, there are other narratives too.

We could, for instance, talk about the biological clock. For instance, a woman in her late thirties, a couple of years off forty, is subjected to the above social pressure directing her towards having children but is also conscious that the older you are the harder it is to have children. And she might even be thinking about whatever the female equivalent of this speech by Scrubs' Dr Cox is.

Another story that we could talk about is the glass cliff. This is a bit like the glass ceiling insofar as a woman promoted towards the top or to the top discovers that it wasn't a ceiling at all. In fact, it was the top of the plateau. And, in fact, this isn't one of those nice friendly plateaux this the flat bit of a cliff. And there's a glass wall pushing her towards the edge. Or, because I was having too much fun this there, it's the idea women are disproportionately likely to be promoted to the top when a firm is struggling relative to how frequently they're promoted to the top when the firm is fine (or booming). It is an empirical observation.

(Notice how your perception of the glass cliff alters if I change that last part, e.g. by...  not including it? saying that when it was coined it was an empirical observation? saying it was coined following an empirical study? And I could have done something similar with the womb thing. The only people I see using that language are criticising the sentiment.)

If we really wanted we could take another tack and talk about media trends. I don't mean in terms of the impact of Seven Sharp on television or, for that matter, the context of The Project, however. Not because those are irrelevant narratives (e.g. discussing the potential medical applications of bioglass... interesting and exciting stuff but beside the point) but because I don't know enough about them. I, long ago, decided television was a rubbish place for the news and have no familiarity with either. It might be possible to tell you a bit about the presenters but hopefully this introduction makes you realise how fraught that is. What we could say about the media is how it basically serves to get clicks, and the best way of doing that is being first and then supplying more about a story than is really justified. The more opinionated, the better. We could talk about this. But I think I have said enough about it.

There is another narrative I could mention, but it should shape your understanding of what you're reading. Originally I did want this to be about Ardern and the Little Matter, which was a pun (babies are small and it was from her first interview after taking over from that xenophobic weed Andrew Little) that I now thing works better as a post about immigration. Originally, I was going to churn it out maybe a day late. But life got in the way... and so I am late to the party. Oh well. It was a lame party anyway.

Lots of narratives, then, and clear signs of the influence that narratives and how we describe them exert. These aren't the same to clarify. Debacle is a description of a particular narrative of what we're about to describe. I could call it a debate. I could call it a spat. I could call it a reprimand or a rebuke. In fact, rebuke is probably what I could call, from where I sit, the most accurate description of Ardern's engagement with Richardson. Yet, as you will soon see, there are lots of other narratives that we could focus on. In a simplistic sense, if we were journalists we could choose different stories from the same events. It could be about the rebuke or it could be about the abstract issues that Richardson raised. Hell, it could be about the way Ardern handled the matter. Which, I feel, was very smooth. (And now remember the previous post talked a lot about Ardern as a political operator.)

And just so you're not confused, it's not just me saying this stuff. When I linked to the Glass Cliff article you were linked to something discussing the same ideas through the subcase of the metaphor. Indeed, I encountered the idea through some readings we were set in History 300 on the linguistic turn. Specifically, Alun Munslow wrote:
[...] I will argue that the genuine nature of history can be understood [...] as the creation and imposition by historians of a particular narrative form on the past [...] not merely at the writing up stage. [...] Recognising the literary dimension to history as a discipline does not mean that we cannot ask ourselves is it only our lived experience that is retold by historians as a narrative, or as historical agents do we experience narratives -- as people in the past? In other words does the evidence reveal past lives to be story-shaped, and can we historians retell the narrative as it actually happened, or do we always impose our own stories on the evidence of the past?
Look, I don't agree with this stuff, although possibly now I am not in the moment of the course I could be more amenable to it, but I do think everything is relevant. And I think the notion of multiple narratives and imposition of them on events is real. The difference is that, unlike my memory of Munslow and his obfuscatingly dense and overly envelope pushing style, I think that all narratives I can generate are events from reality. This is a massive difference between me and the Hayden White cultists. The way I see it, I have fully embraced their chaos, and realised the order on the other side. (Incidentally, I think the extremely referential habits of myself and my peers is a problem for Munslow-style deconstructionists: not that this is a new thing, Medieval writers loved to show their classical knowledge, for instance.)

I guess this is where we should introduce the example. Most of the above narratives relate to what was briefly an evolving story in NZ politics: Jacinda Ardern, the new leader of NZ's Labour party, was asked if she wants to have kids. The basic idea is that the context we choose, and it is a choice of sorts, to give what happened, tells us what happened. But I think you need to know (and  do remember one way of reading this is that I don't want to get rid of my "research") the course of the events to really get my point about narrative.

There are lots of clips out there regarding the question and part of this is because it relates to two separate interviews... both involving Jacinda Ardern and Mark Richardson. However, as dedicated readers know, I don't believe in videos. (Notice: telling you this is giving you a narrative: a way of understanding what is happening to you as you read.) Hence, in order to suitably ground our discussion, I have written down the bits that matter from the first video (and sometimes been assisted from media quotations). But before that I think we need a Dramatis Personae thingy, familiar from many satirical works:
  • Jesse Mulligan: comedian (retired?)... made jokes about shampoo (I saw him live once)... an ex-host of Seven Sharp, one of the three permanent Project hosts (ca. 41)
  • Kanoa Lloyd: news media personality, formerly presented the weather, now a permanent host of The Project (ca. 30)
  • Josh Thomson: comedian, the final of the Three (ca. 36)
  • Mark Richardson: retired cricketer, now a media personality... a permanent host on the AM Show, was on The Project because that's what they seem to do. (ca. 46)
  • Jacinda Ardern: current leader of the Labour Party... had been in job for a few hours for the Project interview... well known even before that (it was a standing question in some circles why Andrew Little didn't resign earlier)... has cultural capital as a young candidate (ca. 37)
  • Duncan Garner: used to be the other Patrick Gower, now he and Gower are both Patrick Gower? And what of Guyon Espiner? (But I digress.) Political journalist & permanent host of The AM Show. (ca. 43)
  • Amanda Gillies: journalist and a permanent host on The AM Show. Journalist (ca. 40)
  • and, I suppose, there's me... early twenties blogger and uni-student. Not a fan of the concept of generations, can barely remember the Clark-era, doesn't normally listen or watch either show we're interested in.
Okay, so I know a bit more about some of this lot than others and this is a problem given this whole multiple narratives thing, but that's the who... now the what.

Jesse Mulligan: "Hey I've got a question and we've been discussing today whether or not I'm allowed to ask it,"

*audible laughs from Kanoa Lloyd*

Jacinda Ardern: I'll be the judge of that.

Mulligan: A lot of women in New Zealand feel like they have to make a choice between having babies and having a career or continuing their career at a certain point in their lives (late thirties) so is that a choice that you feel you...

Ardern: Thank you for reminding the New Zealand public of my age...

Mulligan: is that a decision you have to make or a decision you feel you've already made?

Ardern: "I have no problem with you asking me that question because I have been very open about discussing that dilemma because I think probably lots of women face it.

"For me, my position is no different to the woman who works three jobs, or who might be in a position where they are juggling lots of responsibilities. You just gotta take everyday as it comes and try and see if you can make the best of lot you're  given. So I am not predetermining any of that. Just like most of the woman out there who just make their lives work."

Don't ask a woman that she doesn't have to tell you that.

Josh Thomson: "It's a special case, you're asking her if she wants to be in Labour or in labour."

*Ardern makes what I think is a forced smile.*

And at this point they then moved on to questions about Jeremy Corbyn. So we'll now abandon The Project and go to the AM Show interview. So here's a link to the interview and a partial "post chain":

Amanda Gillies: [responding to a question along the lines of "is it appropriate to ask this question?" from Garner] "I found it inappropriate. For a couple of reasons. First this is her first day in office [...] it's her first primetime interview and that's one of the first questions she's been asked? [...] and no-one, I can guarantee no-one, asked Bill English when he was 39 and leader of the opposition..."

*Mark Richardson leans back and then in a bit smiling broadly during this last sentence*

Garner: "and it's not just Bill English, uh, no-on has asked any other leader. Clark, Helen Clark, this haunted Helen Clark for years and years when I was in the press gallery."


Richardson: "First of all, to counter you there, Amanda it was a magnificant Project show last night [...] The Question this is, and I think it's a legitimate question for New Zealand, because she could be the Prime Minister leading this country. She has our best interest at heart. We need to know these things.

"If you're the employer at a company, you need to know that type of thing from the women you're employing...

[bit of an exchange between Richardson and Gillies, then Richardson continues]

"Because legally, legally, you have to give them maternity leave. So, therefore, the question is, is it okay for a PM to take maternity leave while in office?"

Garner: [...] because of what we do, and we're journalists, well Mark's... you come and go on that front, but, but we ask questions, that is our job. We ask all sorts of questions, that you may not like, you may agree with, you may disagree with.

"Also, on the agenda in the past few years, Jacinda Ardern has talked about juggling career and family, and kids, and not kids, so I think it's a legitimate question but I also think it's none of our business."

[at this point the video skips to where Jacinda Ardern has arrived in the studio, I don't know what is going on that time. For all I know it could matter. We resume after a point where Garner, clearly the main man here, has talked with her about what Ardern needs to do with the party and whether or not policy change will happen and then...]

Garner: Elephant in the room is Mark Richardson, what do you want to say to him? Because we-we-we have talked about this this morning, this 'can you do this job?' 'Do you want kids?' Its, what about this whole question about how, you know, work, and babies, families?"

Ardern: And, and as I said last night, I totally accept that I will be asked that question because I chose to be honest about it. I think a lot of woman [sic] face this dilemma in the workplace, no matter what they're professional job might be. [...] I am not on my own there. I decided to talk about it. It was my choice. So that means I am happy to keep responding to those questions. But...

Garner: You don't find this an inappropriate question?

Ardern: "For me? No. Because I opened myself up to it.

"But, you [Mark Richardson], for other woman it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that woman should have to answer that question in the workplace. [...] It is a woman's decision [...] it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities."


I could keep going on because they get into some stuff which is interesting, but I think we can summarise it more succinctly with a quote from the surrounding NewsHub article:
Richardson repeated his argument, saying an employer would need "to know at some stage down the line. He may need to have to allow, in his organisation, for that person to take leave."
"I'm not saying don't employ that person," he said.
"Then why ask?" Ms Ardern responded. "If you're asking the question around the time you're making a decision around employment, you're implying it's going to have an impact on whether you're going to employ that person or not.
"That is what I'm saying is unacceptable," Ardern said.
So, how should you think about what we have just witnessed? 

On one level we might wonder what I mean by that: it's a very cynical statement about the media, which will surely colour the two articles I will briefly discuss. But, obviously, this is about how people should be thinking about something. This is the implicit purpose of all political commentary and anyone denying this is just taking the conceit/"fiction" too far. That is, we imagine that political commentary is more than "you should think like me" because people can actually think and sticking a bunch of different opinions out there can provoke thought. However, people often don't think because, frankly, we're too busy thinking about other stuff. It's just how we are. (And, yes, it is confusing to use the term think to talk about two fundamentally different things. And yes they're both thinking.)

Naturally, the above should have got you thinking about narratives again. I have created a new context that worked really well with the initial visions/intentions I had for/of this post. Back then (blue) I wrote: I've taken this angle of narratives because I think Jacinda Ardern is being used to make all sorts of points. Frankly, I think she nailed it both times. Firstly, in pointing out that there is a wider context but also that Jesse Mulligan was okay to ask her because it was her choice. Secondly, switching gears to address the abstract points that Richardson was raising about employment. But that doesn't mean that people aren't using these events for their own agendas, which is an argument I think you're much more likely to accept (allow me the conceit you don't already think this way) if I start off by telling you political commentary is really substantive argument rather than analysis.

Abstract. That's a good word. It's really relevant given the retooling of this post. It used to be more general with an abstract framework. Now, it is an abstract point revealed through a concrete launching point. There is a tension there which introduces much room for misunderstanding. In general, I rarely actually care about my examples, they're almost all really just parables to me. Which is an issue. Here's a quote from Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus, and the Scoundrel Christ:

Telling a story, as he so often did, introduced extra-legal elements into the discourse: persuading people by manipulating their emotions was all very well to gain a debating point, but it left the question of law unanswered.
Which I take to mean, parables and examples and analogies make people think about sentiments which are ultimately unclear. Ironically, that Craccum piece I criticised a couple of hours ago made the same case:
Though, if this were ever in play, it could be detrimental because of the very fact that "new Zealand values" are currently undefined. Will there be an adverse impact on migrants' ability to continue carrying on cultural practices? What qualifies an activity as being against our values? Would we enforce secularity or give a special preference to migrants who leave behind their cultural roots? These tough questions are ones that we have to think about if we want to fairly assess what ACT could do for people colour seeking to move here. Honestly, having no barometer for how this all would be assess of enforced is pretty shady, David.
Even if we understand what ACT means, Anqi Liang argues, we don't actually understand what the policy means. In truth Liang actually goes further than that saying we don't understand what ACT means, but that's because of the flaws with this piece (as I said before, those values are clearly cosmopolitan, but knowing that doesn't help us answer these questions).

This brings us back to our example. On an abstract level, it is often important, I think, to understand the chronology. On a specific level I think we needed to do that with our case study because I feel the two interviews were blurred. Both with each other and within themselves. And perhaps more importantly, because Richardson's thoughts generated the most abstract discussion. And the discussion was abstract, and not about Ardern: that's visible in the NewsHub quote. But the chronology wasn't clear to me from the articles I was reading, which really means the narrative was out of whack in a way that led to a fixation on the abstract. Let's explore two examples (not that I know why I started with these two examples all those weeks ago).

Jacinda Ardern: It is 'totally unacceptable' to ask women about baby plans

This is the NewsHub article. As you can tell from the headline it kind of assumes that people are familiar with the story, but if you're not familiar with the story what you would perceive is a headline that means "Well Known Politician Comments on Gender Issue." And if you know Ardern was asked by Mulligan about where she was with personal plans she'd discussed previously, you would get a different meaning: "Ardern not happy with baby plan question". As to the article's ordering? First paragraph quotes "unacceptable" while the second one talks about the Mulligan-Question ("Ardern, do you still want to be a mummy?"). Then we get the Richardson-Question ("Should Employers be Told about Baby Plans when Hiring Staff?") that we know the "unacceptable" was in response to.

There is an appreciation of the specific but it's buried in the middle of the article. Verdict: Problematic Narrative Structure

'Unacceptable': New Zealand's Labour leader asked about baby plans seven hours into job

A foreign interest piece, from the Guardian. Obviously this is a really problematic headline... it very clearly implies that the "unacceptable" was in response to the Mulligan-Question. Look, Jesse Mulligan might not be the world's greatest comedian or even the best comedian I've ever seen live (a very short list) for free (the same list) but he's not the bad guy here. That was Mark Richardson. Maybe the article gets a bit better?

The first paragraph runs a simple narrative of Richardson-Question is unacceptable following the Mulligan-Question. That is not really making up for the headline, though, and I think inverting the chronology like this casts things differently but we'll be nice. After this it pretty much works in chronological order, but I think the ending conflates the Richardson-Question with the Mulligan-Question, although it is a quote. Whether Lloyd "laughed uncomfortably and rolled her eyes" is less clear to me.

Obviously a clip would be better, but this will have to do. Which leaves... Verdict? Bad Headline, Tolerable Article (at least, if we pretend there is no headline). Remember, I don't care about any ideological slant, even if that might inform how the narrative is put together, because it is possible to be very ideological with a good narrative. I mention this here because NZ's media is more into spelling mistakes than anything else.

What have we Learnt?

There are a bunch of lessons we can take out of this. We could comment on the idiocy of my exercise, it was always going to result in an incoherent end product, right? We could praise the competency of Ardern. We could talk about media-politician relationships in late 2010s NZ and what this means for democracy. We could do a lot, but the original remit of narratives is pretty big.

In essence, the opening point is that we can easily make the question look sexist by talking about the"all women shall be mummies" stuff, and people did do this (anyone who made comments like, "Why do we care so much about Ardern's plans for her womb?"... a parsing I absolutely loathe by the way, it's not clever at all... unless you think that parenthood is nothing more than combining DNA... and rather grating too) without actually saying the word sexist. But we could just as easily make the question not look sexist by framing it within a context of whacky questions we ask politicians these days. And that there were more stories than just these two, which were all true.

But I'd have to say that the point of using the example is that the narratives we choose actually shape our lives. If we had chosen a context like "John Key pisses in the shower" for this story, we might not be talking about Jacindamania right now because the narratives we chose, which justly vilified Mark Richardson, gave some nice positive things for Ardern to do straight off the bat. Now, we probably would be talking about Jacindamania but the point is that the Richardson-Villain interpretation is now a narrative which we can use in the future and that gave us a way of thinking about politics at the time. These are important ideas to talk about, I think... even if my approach had serious flaws.

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