Other commitments have prevented me from weighing in to the debate about anti-abortion, anti-porn lobbyist, Melinda Tankard Reist and her threat to sue, blogger, Dr Jennifer Wilson for defamation. In the meantime, much has been written – both in the media and in numerous blogs and twitter comments (see the twitter stream for #MTRSues). This is my contribution. I hope it is fair, but I make no pretense at being unaligned – I stand firmly in Dr Wilson’s corner.
Dr Wilson angered Ms Reist by claiming in a blog post that she is ‘deceptive and duplicitous’ about the religious agenda which drives her activism. A lesser claim is that (shock, horror!) Wilson wrongly characterised her as a Baptist.
Melinda Tankard Reist admits to being a Christian – although, from what I’ve seen, when questioned on this topic she affects the demeanour of a dental patient, just prior to a painful extraction. By her own admission, the impression Ms Reist wants to give is that although she tries to follow the teachings of Jesus, her opposition to pornography and abortion is based entirely on credible, unbiased evidence without any ideological spin.
Ms Reist claims to be a feminist and wants her work accepted under that banner. And yet, feminists who have worked long and hard to advance women’s rights and freedoms object vehemently to Reist co-opting the word to advance an agenda which calls for women’s rights to be curtailed (allegedly in their own interests). Ms Reists’s paternalistic (maternalistic?) view of women as victims who must be protected is inconsistent with the tenets of modern feminism.
The meaning of words usually has some ‘wiggle room’ but meaning cannot be infinitely elastic. I could call myself a Christian but inevitably people are going to look at my work and the kinds of people I hang out with and suggest that to do so is ‘deceitful and duplicitous’ – and they’d be right.
The parallels between Tankard Reist’s views and those of far-right, conservative, religious institutions and organisations, raises important questions as to whether she can be rightfully characterised as a ‘feminist’. Reist, it seeems, is the ‘pin-up girl’ for a regular tea party of fundamentalist religious organisations whose dogmatic beliefs favour discrimination, chauvinism, misogyny and paternalism. (I’m reminded of Jim Wallace’s view that female soldiers should not be able to serve on the front lines because his wife needs his strong, male hands to get the lid off the Vegemite jar at breakfast time.)
Inevitably, these synergies and relationships raise doubts about whether Reist’s views are genuinely based on what is best for women. Is it possible, instead, that her views derive from the right-wing religious groups in whose company she is so often seen?
Certainly ‘rebranding’ these dinosaurs’ antediluvian views as ‘feminist’ and disseminating them via a young, articulate and attractive woman would be a particularly ingenious marketing strategy. (Despite Melinda’s extreme sensitivity to the sexualisation of women, there’s nothing more compelling than a foxy fundamentalist.) Sadly, I’m not totally convinced Pell, Wallace and their ilk are that clever. Perhaps Reist’s role as the marketable face of out-dated dogma is purely serendipitous – like the rookie golfer who, with no skill whatsoever, just happens to hit a hole in one.
Regardless of how it came to be, it is true that evangelical and conservative Christianity could do with an image update. The likes of Jim Wallace, Bill Muehlenberg, Fred Nile, Peter Stokes, Cardinal Pell, Peter Jensen, Steve Fielding and Danny Nalliah aren’t exactly a big drawcard for women and Gens X and Y. Even that cool-cat hipster, Brian Houston, is beginning to look uncomfortably like Glenn Robbin’s Uncle Arthur kicking up his heels to Lady Gaga at the family Christmas party.
But, getting back to the threatened defamation action; Ms Reist objects to Dr Wilson calling her ‘deceptive and duplicitous’. Perhaps ‘evasive’ or ‘coy’ may irk her less? Whatever terminology is used there is no doubt that Ms Reist, herself, has spoken of her desire to keep her religious views out of the public sphere so that her work will be viewed without the imputation of religious bias.
I don’t know Ms Reist’s work well enough to comment on its content. But others, whose opinions I respect, suggest that it does not come from a place of pure research, scientific objectivity, or an ideologically unhampered commitment to women’s rights. And, if this is true, women have a right to know what interest groups, religious views, or non-feminist agendas may influence Ms Reist’s choice of source material and filtering and selection of data.
There are many credible academics and scientists who somehow manage to separate their religious beliefs from their research. Honest researchers – whether secular or religious – go where the facts lead them. They don’t begin with an immutable position and then try to assemble facts to prop it up. The fact that Ms Reist is a Christian – even a fundamentalist Christian – shouldn’t negatively influence her work if it is backed by credible evidence drawn from reputable, mainstream sources or based on methodologically sound research. Indeed, if this was the case, Ms Reist would stand out as a shining beacon of hope in the stench-ridden swamp land of fundamentalist propaganda.
But, if it’s true that Ms Reist’s approach to research is obtaining anecdotal ‘evidence’ from a carefully pre-selected, non-representative cohort of women; if she buys in to hysterical and unsubstantiated Catholic conspiracy theories about abortion rights and a Nazi-style secularist eugenics agenda; if she spreads rumours about the medical ‘risks’ of abortion which have long since been debunked; if her arguments on the psychological toll of abortion and pornography on women and the wider population don’t stand up to expert scrutiny – then she is not disseminating information, she is disseminating propaganda, and the public deserves to know the difference.
Whether Ms Reist is genuinely able to separate her religious views from her academic research, or whether she is a shill for a fundamentalist boys’ club, her ‘brand’ has almost certainly been irreparably damaged by the foolish decision to threaten Dr Wilson with legal action. Instead of silencing rumours about religious bias, she has ignited a firestorm of international publicity. While it is (remotely) possible she may have some legitimate complaints relating to Dr Wilson’s critiques it seems Ms Reist made no attempt whatsoever to resolve the issue through discussion.
Whether at Ms Reist’s hand or not (who are you jjane246?), the recent sanitising of her Facebook page and Wikipedia entry to expunge her numerous links to the religious right, play to Wilson’s advantage rather than Reist’s. The decision to threaten heavy handed and intimidatory legal action on what any court must surely decide is a trivial matter, makes Reist look like a schoolyard bully.
Worse, because defamation actions are notoriously costly, Reists’s threat sets off even more rumours that her legal costs might be underwritten by one or more of the wealthy religious institutions which so enthusiastically support her views. There is no doubt there are quite a few right-wing homophobic, misogynistic religious wowsers who would like to see bloggers like Wilson, Leslie Cannold and, dare I say, me, cowed into silence.
Finally, this whole debacle has brought Melinda Tankard Reist’s work to the attention of a whole host of feminists, academics, writers and journalists who may not otherwise have heard of her. Melinda may be enjoying the spotlight, but I doubt the added scrutiny is going to work in her favour.
Please consider signing this online petition which requests that MTR stop her legal action against Wilson: