Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
I was in Africa when last week’s #frightbat Twitterstorm broke. The term itself, clogging my Twitterfeed, meant nothing to me. Plus I had a speech to give. So it was the next day before I discovered that ''frightbat'' is Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Blair’s pejorative for smart, articulate female.
The storm – admittedly a teacup affair in African terms – was Blair’s silly faux-election to find the ''craziest left-wing frightbat''. I was on his list.
Even so, being in Africa, I was unable to give Blair’s Witch Project my full attention. The dark continent has a way of whacking you with inescapable life-truths: climate change, food insecurity, mass unemployment. A few recuperative days on safari also illustrates the wild and ridiculous things males of a species will do to attract the female.
Many creatures – hornbills, ostrich, lion, kudu – afford the male extra colour and equipment for this purpose. But where the male is drabber than his objet d’amour, extraordinary feats must be assayed.
The male lesser masked weaver bird, for instance, nesting in reeds near the Botswana border, will painstakingly weave and reweave his elaborate teardrop edifice a dozen times, if necessary, to entice a discerning female.
Likewise the lesser Aussie journo – an endangered species whose male appears especially threatened – will at times go so far as to set up bizarre and elaborate election rituals to engage female attention.
The Blair witch project was a case in point. ''Crown our crazy Queen!'' Blair brayed. ''Find this nation’s most unhinged hysteric!... Only one can stand above all others, wailing and howling ...''
Some believe these right-fright shock-jock tactics simply lack imagination. So creatively challenged are the poor chaps that they must steal our copy, intertwining it with second-rate ridicule to reinforce their patently inadequate nests.
Others see it as a way of feathering all educated, forthright women with the same misogynist brush; a form of anticipatory intimidation. As noted by Rick W. of Port Moresby, a Blair faithful with biting satirical wit; ''I wonder how the poor dears will cope when the Islamists take control?''
No doubt both these theories – imagination-deficit and misogyny – contain strands of truth. But there’s plainly attention-getting in there as well, making this a truly messed up, pigtail-pulling kind of love-hate need.
Although Blair’s hunt-stunt was largely ignored by mainstream media, he became quite excited at the largely good-humoured female attention he scored on Twitter. When finally, after three days of effort, he rated a 35-second TV mention, Blair became quite tremulous, blogging that ''frightbat was actually a thing on ABC News 24 ...''
But what were we frightbats actually supposed to have done? I stood accused, with my nine highly educated and articulate female colleagues (including Anne Summers, Margo Kingston and the formidably intelligent Jane Caro) of ''psychosocial behavioural disorders''. Sounds serious, right? Dangerous, even.
Specifically, we had disagreed with our illustrious leader, Tony Abbott. We’d voiced opinions, in public. Worse, we were female. Damned dangerous.
The nutty elision that equates femaleness with emotionality with hysteria in order to dismiss any and all female dissent is a familiar, household sort of misogyny. Like some old-school father, Blair peppered his rants with the word hysteria, characterising us as ''hysterical crazy people'', ''unhinged hysterics'' and ''perpetually hysterical female commentators''.
It’s an old, old trick. Older even than Freud. The word ''hysteria'' derives from the Greek for womb, hystera. In the 19th century, hysteria (whose symptoms included irritability, sexual desire and a tendency to make trouble) was treated with surgical hysterectomy. Got a womb? Got an opinion? Out with it. You’re hysterical.
So familiar is this kind of misogyny that it tends to pass unnoticed. But being in Africa, where local women’s prowess in instituting sustainable farming and household practice across the continent is massively admired, helped me see it afresh.
I’m not often called overemotional. Overintellectual, sure. Aloof, even. Elitist. Yet, Blair wrote, ''they shriek, they rage, they cheer, they despair, they exult, they scream, they laugh, they cry! There’s never a non-emotional moment in the lives of Australia’s left-wing ladies’ auxiliary ...''
I’m not especially left-wing. Not communist. Not even socialist. I simply try to work from first principles – justice, truth, beauty. Is that emotional? Was Plato hysterical? Was Jesus? Mandela?
I didn’t win the Blairpoll. By the time I even mounted my campaign to be ''solitary monarch of madness'' it was all over. With just 4 per cent of the vote, I came second-last, with the redoubtable Clementine Ford gaining the crown.
But it made me consider my platform. The latest draft is as follows. I vow to support: cycling as the greenest, healthiest and most fun form of personal transport; green, dense, vibrant and entrancing cities as the healthiest and most creative habitat known; a public service that distinguishes itself from the private by nurturing the public realm, the public good and overtly public values; and universal education as the core tissue of civilisation.
I undertake to nurture feminism as an obvious and inevitable corollary of the fairness principle; biodiversity and renewables as obvious elements in survival; and altruism as a matter of shared spiritual necessity.
I further undertake to help give voice to the voiceless – people, landscapes and animals stranded without hope, betrayed by the system, traduced by big money or undermined by global greed. To look under rocks, rejecting mass-produced cliche as unexamined truth. To ask, prod, wonder and speculate because it is useful, interesting and fun.
This all seems pretty simple to me. Yet Abbott’s thuggish regime has empowered these journo-dolts to throw their huffle-puffery against it, striving to make ''intelligent female'' – ''frightbat'' – an insult.
In a way I’m glad. The future requires wholeness of mind, heart and imagination (oops, almost said invagination). As the ducking stools come out, these boys reveal just what ugly little droogs they are: scary, but last-gasp scary.
Remember this. If it looks like a witch-hunt and smells like a witch-hunt, it’s ... well, it’s a full-on emotional outburst. Man-hysteria.