Politics


This post will obviously contain language that may offend. So stop now if you’re a prude.

Cross-posted at Fully (sic).

In Melbourne on Saturday, more than 2000 women and men gathered for a protest called slutwalk. The immediate catalyst for the march was the indiscretion of a Toronto police officer who was giving a routine safety talk to ten students, but the walk is in broad reaction to a long history of sexual discrimination against women. See here for a comprehensive report on the Melbourne slutwalk and here for an excellent column by Catherine Deveny (plus hundreds of disparate comments that I can’t be bothered with).

Anyway, the officer at the heart of this told the students:

Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.

 

The effect around the globe has been massive, and slutwalks have sprung up everywhere in Canada and the US, Europe and Australia, ostensibly to reclaim the word slut and remove its perlocutionary force as an offensive word, but also to show support for gender equality and denounce rape and other forms of sexual abuse and harassment.

This interests me linguistically as instances of word reclamation are infrequent, and usually happen at a grassroots level by spreading throughout a community as opposed to by prescription, so it will be interesting to see how the reclamation of slut works out.

Linguist Arnold Zwicky has already commented on the existence of the other non-slur use of slut, as a suffix meaning ‘someone enthusiastic about’, such as scrabble-slut. Slut has therefore already joined a long list of slurs that have non-slur uses as suffixes, including -nazi, -virgin, -whore and -queen. He concludes:

I don’t think “a slut is a slut”. It depends on the morphology and the context, and words can be reclaimed.

But can slut be reclaimed?

There have been only a few successful word reclamations in English globally over the last hundred years or so; the most notable of these is nigger, but other examples are fag (but interestingly, not faggot), queen and although it hasn’t completed the journey yet, cunt. So looking at these examples, can we infer anything about how successful an attempt at word reclamation is going to be?

I mentioned above that word reclamation is usually driven at a grassroots level, whereby the community to whom an offensive term is directed begin using it as an in-group marker of identity. At the same time its use by someone outside the group is still taken to be offensive, but is now rendered powerless as compared with the power that its in-group use has in strengthening group identity. For instance, the power of nigger used as a slur is minuscule compared with its power to strengthen pride in the black community. Being told that a word is no longer offensive just might not work; it has to spread from below. Much like democracy in the Middle-East.

There’s also another element to word reclamation that might not work in slut‘s favour. Successful reclamations like nigger, fag and cunt describe things that are just facts about people and are thus not subject to value-judgment; being black, being gay, or being female. The dictionary of the computer I’m writing this on defines slut as “a slovenly or promiscuous woman”. So slut describes behaviour which is potentially subject to value-judgment, and there’ll always be someone in the world who will judge it harshly.

Slut unfortunately, may therefore never be able to escape slurhood.

This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.


  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so.
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

As I was leaving the house the other morning, I took a quick look in the letterbox and found a small, fridge magnet-sized flyer:

I have to confess, I have no idea what the message in this is supposed to be. Why use the election cycle as the frame of reference? Is this an election ad? If so, where is the ‘Authorised by…’ fine print? Is whomever this flyer advertises planning to stop immigration? And why pick on the Greens?

I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person, but for the life of me, I just don’t understand!

As Jane announced last week at Elac, a Research Symposium on Bilingual Education was held on Friday at AIATSIS, at which their 24th discussion paper was launched by Mick Dodson.

Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t even enter the consciousness of the population, and would soon slip into the æther. This symposium, however, and the discussion paper, made it onto ABC’s online news, twice.

The paper is Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory1 and is co-written by Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell (and edited, partly, by me).

It addresses the issue of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, describing its history, beginning more than 25 years ago, up until late 2008, when the decision was made to force all Northern Territory schools to teach at least the first four hours of English per day out of five hours of lessons, leaving a single possible hour per day for tuition in a language other than English. This decision, made by prominent Tiwi woman, Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour shortly before being moved from the Education portfolio to the role of Attorney-General, will take effect in time for the commencement of the 2010 school year.

The theory, of course, is that children learn a language most effectively through what’s known as immersion; a child surrounded by language X will pretty quickly become proficient in language X. But placing 30 kids who speak Kriol or Warlpiri as their first language(s) in a classroom with a single teacher who speaks only Standard Australian English and has no training in ESL/EFL can scarcely be considered ‘immersing’ the poor children in a sea of English.

I can personally attest to this paper being a very insightful discussion of the topic and, perhaps along with dozens of other interested people, have sent it on to Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Education, Malarndirri McCarthy, and the Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, asking them to take the hour or so to read it.

If the 2010 school year begins and the 9 remaining bilingual schools in the Northern Territory are forced to teach what is effectively English-only, I believe the consequences will be detrimental not only to the few remaining healthy indigenous languages, but also to the children who will be thrown into the deep-end of an education system that is entirely foreign to them.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24)

I just can’t resist pointing out the irony of China accusing Australia of not protecting Chinese students, especially on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I’ve been back in Sydney for almost a week now, having been in Melbourne before that to attend the University of Melbourne Linguistics and Applied Linguistics Postgraduates Conference, where I presented the Kaurna Electronic Dictionary1 to a sell-out crowd. It was the final leg of an epic, two part world wind whirlwind tour that began in Wellington almost two weeks ago. (more…)


  1. For some background on the dictionary, see these posts (definitely not automatically generated):
    Mobile Phone Dictionaries

    Ceased to Be

    Conferences, Seminars and Dictionaries

    More Good News
    One down, one to go

I’ve been at Sydney University now for over six years, including five years as a full-time student with full voting rights whenever any elections were held. So I’m not exactly new to the phenomenon of the stupid election slogan, but I still can’t help but wince any time I see fresh paint in the graffiti tunnel advertising the newest slew of pseudo-political hopefuls.

Sometimes I wonder why they do it. Friends tell me they’re usually politics students who want to catapult their post-graduate career straight into being a staffer in DFAT, or even being fast-tracked through the totally democratic factions of the Labor Party. I should point out that this last point is more characteristic of Labor than Liberal. Liberal party hopefuls tend not to be electable at uni – unless it’s for the editorial team of Honi Soir – their trajectory normally takes them through the Young Liberals instead. Predictably, I would just ask for the Greens affiliated candidate and be done with it.

Anyway, here’s a sample of this year’s contenders for the election to the board of the USU:

I Dig Doug1

Alex: A Union Revolution

K2 is Good for U3

Bec On Board

There are also a bunch of contenders that consider their mere name adequate to be a slogan in itself. First names4 are spray-painted, chalked, and emblazoned on walls, roads and footpaths, and even the highly visible vertical rise of outdoor staircases all over the uni, hoping to impress themselves on the consiousness of the undecided, or more likely, apathetic voter. I wish I could exemplify their effectiveness in making me want to elect them, except ironically, I can’t remember any of their names.

My favourite from the list above is K is Good for U, as it uses a highly considered pun on “U” – being a homonym for an English pronoun on one hand, and the initial of the point of the election, the Union, on the other – but it also effectively plagiarises pays homage to a breakfast cereal, using the (likely registered trademark) typeface and colour-scheme of Kellog’s Special K5.

So, what is the stupidest election slogan you’ve ever heard?


  1. Better would have been Me Doug. You Dig?
  2. Stands for Karina and is written like the K in Special K cereal
  3. U presumably stands for Union
  4. They only use first names, it seems
  5. I have no financial interest in using a brand name or product. In fact, Special K has to be one of the most odious cereals I know of

Over the past 10 months or so, I’ve made it clear that housing, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors of indigenous affairs right now. The state of the vast majority of dwellings in most aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and probably elsewhere is quite honestly despicable.

Despite this raw fact, and despite all relevant research pointing to poverty and poor housing as key risk factors for the neglect and abuse of children as well as a direct cause of most juvenile medical problems in indigenous children, the Howard/Brough intervention plan failed to address housing, and seemingly didn’t even consider it as an important issue. There was talk during the earlier days of the intervention that the military presence, under the banner of ‘Norforce’, would quickly build 500 or so dwellings in a blitz to address the problem of chronic overcrowding, which, by the way, sees up to 10 people sharing a single room in the worst cases, but this never seemed to eventuate.

Just yesterday, however, the federal and the Northern Territory governments jointly committed $647 million specifically for housing in 73 communities1 that will fund around 750 new dwellings.

Clearly then, I welcome this investment, but wonder why each dwelling would cost $862,600 to build. I’m no structural engineer or master builder, but I’m sure that sticking a few cinder blocks together and plonking a corrugated iron roof on the top wouldn’t cost much more than 100 large, if that. Moreover, such is the economy of scale that building ten dwellings on average per community would make things like plumbing, wiring and so on, a bit cheaper. This is probably another example of money going missing somewhere between the governmental announcement and its arrival on the ground2.

Furthermore, after the announcement of the $647 million for housing, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, announced that the funding would double as training and employment for indigenous people in the communities, as whoever wins the contract to build the new dwellings will be compelled to hire and train local workers.

I this this idea has several benefits. Firstly and most obviously, it provides jobs, temporary as they are, but training also in very useful trades for aboriginal people in their own communities, which is consistent with the previous Minister “for” Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough’s, plan of modernising the labour market and providing employment opportunities, and it allows people to stay in their communities and get ‘real’ jobs, rather than having to travel hundreds of kilometres to work in a mine.

Secondly, it’s likely to prevent some of the property damage that regularly occurs to dwellings in impoverished communities. If one of the residents of a house played a significant role in its contruction, they’d probably be less likely to punch holes in the walls for ventilation in summer, for instance, or switch on every stove element to full-blast for heating in winter3, and would try to discourage others from doing so too.

Closing the gap in life expectancy is shaping up to be a huge challenge for Australia over the next few decades, but I think without adequate housing for remote communities, any health spending, in the long term, would merely be pissing in the wind.


  1. Presumably, these 73 communities are the same 73 communities that formed the focus of the intervention.
  2. For more examples of misappropriated funding allocation, see here and here.
  3. Clearly though, the ideal solution would be to build dwellings that take into account the climate, instead of tin sheds that get up to 45 degrees centrigrade inside during the build-up season heat.

Newstopia, a satirical news program on SBS, commenced its second season last night and one story covered was the formal apology to the members of the stolen generations.

Presenter Shaun Micallef grilled a caricature of a staffer for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs about why there shouldn’t be any compensation delivered with the apology (my own transcription):

Micallef: So the pain they suffered is so great, that they shouldn’t get a cent.

Staffer: Well it’s an incalculable loss.

Micallef: Right. So we’ve actually saved ourselves quite a bit of money by doing such a proper job on them, haven’t we?

The whole program can be viewed for free, and without commercials, from the Newstopia website, but only until the next episode airs on the 5th. The segment on the apology runs from about 9’30” until 11’10” or so, but the rest is also worth watching.

On my way to work late this morning, I took note of how many Aboriginal and Torres Straight flags there were flying prominently around Sydney Harbour. They flew above the bridge, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and notably, above Kirribilli House. I don’t know if they’ve been there any longer than just today – the day of the formal Parliamentary Apology to the stolen generations – or if they’d been there for a while, but certainly, and fittingly, today is the first time I’d noticed.

The apology itself was of course only one part of this morning’s proceedings, and a short part too. And since the text of Kevin Rudd’s first parliamentary act as Prime Minister had already been made public, the more interesting part of the session occurred after the reading of the motion. Both Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson delivered very deliberated, considered speeches, each of which took more than twenty minutes, while the motion, at 361 words, was finished in under three.

Kevin Rudd, in his post-apology speech, reiterated the reasons that an apology is so necessary for the reparation process after the Bringing Them Home report and for reconciliation in general. His speech overall was solemn, dignified, yet implicitly scathing towards the inaction of the previous government.

These stories cry out to be heard, they cry out for an apology. Instead from the nation’s Parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade.

A view that somehow we the Parliament should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong. A view that instead we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side.

In addressing the historical context, Rudd unashamedly lambasted policy-makers of the early twentieth century, rather than offering defences, or historical rationalisations.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory protector of natives, who stated, and I quote, “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half castes”, to quote the protector, “will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.” End quote.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing. But we must acknowledge these facts, if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic, forced separation was somehow well-motivated, justified by its historical context, and as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

The conclusion of Rudd’s speech was met with lengthy applause and a standing ovation. Nelson’s speech in reply, also caused people to stand, but not for the same reasons.

He started out well, soliciting applause after acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land upon which Canberra was built. But after that, he slowly but surely lost the support of the crowd.

Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what happened here. Our generation does not own these actions. Nor should it feel guilt for what was done, in many cases, with the best intentions.

But in saying we are sorry, and deeply so, we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its decisions and its actions. Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in adversity, our actions can have unintended consequences. As such many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions.

It was around about this point that large groups of people watching the apology from right around the country began to stand up and turn their backs at Dr Nelson, in a symbol of disrespect that hasn’t been seen at such a high level of office since 1997, when John Howard angered a gathered crowd of Indigenous people by sternly refusing to apologise.

Shortly after the conclusion of Nelson’s speech, the entire parliament stood in apparent unanimity to vote in favour of the motion, though with the exceptions of Don Randall and Wilson Tuckey, who was publicly very skeptical about the point of such an apology, even moments before it was read.

“So the Prime Minister reads a speech, apparently some people stand up and sit down and then a miracle happens over night, there’ll be no petrol sniffing … and girls can sleep safely in the family bed at night,” [Wilson Tuckey] said.

When asked by Sky News if he supported the apology, a technical error occurred, with Mr Tuckey telling the camera he was unable to hear the question.

That’s our Wilson.

This apology has only been one step in a long and arduous process of reconciliation, but it’s a very important step symbolically. In the (paraphrased) words of Mick Dodson, we have to willingly go through all this sorry business before we can start the healing. Without an apology, we risk being viewed as insincere in our commitment to restitution for our predecessors’ actions, although until last year, this would have been precisely the case, generally speaking.

In all the talk just prior to, and following the apology, many people are crying about how the sky will surely fall in, with the inevitable flood of compensation cases that will necessary follow.

I personally think compensation should be given, I don’t think many people can successfully argue to the contrary, but I am sympathetic to the decision that Rudd made, not to include any compensation in the apology directly. An apology and compensation were two of the key recommendations of Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson’s report Bringing Them Home, but they are not one and the same. Compensation should become available at some point down the track, preferably soon, and claimants should not be made to undergo intrusive and traumatic, lengthy legal proceedings in order to secure it. But I think it’s wise to leave compensation as an issue quite independent of an apology.

We took an important step forward this morning, and I think I can earnestly say that for the first time in a long time, I’m very proud to call myself Australian. Contrast this with numerous times over the past 7 years or so, probably since Tampa, that invoked a fleeting feeling of nationalistic shame.

I might even celebrate Australia Day like a normal person one day in the future.

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