“Latham is free to speak. But what Latham’s supporters seem to forget is that Latham isn’t that interested in having that right extended to others.”
In the wake of Mark Latham’s performance at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, a number of journalists and public figures have come out in defence of the former ALP leader. They are careful not to defend his behaviour, but are focused on his right to have a voice and to air his views. Having resigned from his Financial Review column last week, they express concern that a powerful voice has been silenced.
The people defending Latham aren’t particularly concerned about the content of his opinions – just his right to share them.
This has been Latham’s own refrain over the years. His recent complaint is that a largely female political elite has been trying to shut him down. This is presumably because many women have criticised the views he has expressed in his weekly column in the AFR, and in one case commenced legal action against him for personal defamation. (Of course, the women who have criticised him have tended to be women he has criticised in his commentary, but we can put that aside for the moment.)
In short: Latham says “rich girls” and “left-wing feminists” are trying to silence him.
But the truth is, Mark Latham has been trying to silence women for years with insults and personal attacks. I saw that up close on the weekend.
Eight years ago, I wrote a column in which I called Mark Latham a “stay at home psycho”. I have done a bit of a Google search and can’t find the column but I do recall writing that. It was a mistake. It was a throwaway insult and that kind of name calling should play no role in public discussion.
Watch some of Mark Latham’s controversial session at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Post continues below.
Over the weekend, Mark and I were both guests at The Melbourne Writers Festival and like many festival speakers, we were staying at the same hotel. Very early on Sunday morning, I went down to get a coffee and hot chocolates for my daughter and goddaughter who were staying with me. Mark was at the café getting cappuccinos. I saw him and thought, I’ll just pretend I didn’t see him. I figured after the wide condemnation of his session at the Festival the day before, he’d want to be left in peace to enjoy a beautiful Melbourne day.
I was wrong. He chose that moment to confront me about what I had written all those years ago (despite having seen me many times since my column was published in 2007 and saying nothing). As I was walking away towards the teller machines to get money, he called out to me. I said, “Hi, Mark. How are you?” He wasn’t interested in pleasantries. Instead, he confronted me about the comment, berating me for making it. I was taken aback and tried to remember if I had said it or not (I soon remembered I had).
He stood very close to me and said, “How would you like it if I called you a deranged slut?”
I told him I wouldn’t but that I didn’t think “slut” and “psycho” were interchangeable.
The conversation didn’t get better. He was aggressive, I was annoyed and taken aback.
Mark is a big guy. He was standing close, and while I didn’t feel like he would put his hands on me, I did feel intimidated. He jumped from topic to topic, the conversation was unpredictable and that was highly disconcerting.
I apologised about the “stay at home psycho” remark. I said I was prepared to apologise on Twitter for it.
I then asked him to say sorry for calling me a deranged slut. He told me that he didn’t call me that name, only that he wondered how I’d feel if he did call me that, which in this context seemed like semantics.
The conversation didn’t end well. He got personal with me about my name change and other personal details contained in my memoir, a propos of nothing. I lost my temper at that stage and told him that I was sorry I called him a stay at home psycho, eight years ago. Now he was “just a psycho”.
As I walked off, he yelled after me across the lobby that I was “a disgrace”.
For the past 24 hours, I have been in two minds about whether to share this incident publicly. I am not a columnist who likes to constantly put herself at the centre of the story. My training is to listen to other people’s stories. I am a researcher first, a commentator second.
After Latham confronted me, I tried to give as good as I got but most of the time I just asked him questions: Why was he so angry? Why was he always attacking people personally? He told me rich girls like me “hunt in packs”. I told him he didn’t know anything about me and, in any event: What rich girl packs? Had he been watching Heathers? Mean Girls?
Afterwards I was shaken. My thoughts turned to: How do I get my kids out of the hotel without encountering him again? Given what had happened, I was genuinely concerned he might have more nasty things to say if we encountered him at reception as we tried to check out. What if he was on our flight? I really couldn’t be sure that the presence of children would hold him back.
On reflection, I am still confused about why he thinks that women are trying to silence him.
The Editor of the Australian Financial Review is on record saying that Mark Latham resigned as a columnist and was definitely not sacked.
Over the weekend, Latham was given the stage at the Melbourne Writers Festival. His books were on sale throughout the festival. No one stopped his session (although some walked out, offended by his performance).
Latham may feel like women have been trying to shut him up, but the truth is that Mark Latham has never been silenced. Since he left the political arena, he has had many vehicles for his views. And those vehicles still remain. He is free to go on Twitter, start a blog or host his own YouTube channel. He gets invited to Writers Festivals and on TV to talk quite often. Book publishers may choose to continue to work with him.
Despite the content of his columns, Latham has never been silenced. He still has his forums and there are plenty more for him to explore.
Latham is free to speak and tweet and blog and make videos and give interviews and speak at writers festivals and other public events. He is free to take up the commercial offers he insists are on the table. He is free to write more books and people are free to buy them. He has more platforms and opportunities to air his views – many of them paid – than most people.
He most certainly has the right to free speech.
But what Latham and his supporters seem to forget is that Latham isn’t that interested in having that same right extended to others. He has a history of personal attacks and abuse that have the effect of intimidating and silencing others.
Mark Latham and his supporters are so focused on making sure he gets his say, they have dedicated little to no time worrying about the people he is trying to shut down with name calling and nastiness.
I don’t address this column to Mark himself. I address it to the people who defend him and bemoan his “powerful voice being silenced” and ask them to consider this: everything that Mark has to say about politics is already being said by countless academics, former politicians, current politicians and journalists, who are frankly saying it better and with less vitriol.
His views about left wing feminists who hate motherhood and hunt in packs have no basis in fact. As a researcher, I ask: Where is the evidence? But perhaps the better question is, why is he so obsessed with this idea? Why does it grip him to the point that he feels he has to confront me with so much pent up aggression so early on a Sunday morning?
I am not delighting in what is happening with Mark Latham. It is sad and worrying.
It is true that in our country, we are free to discuss our ideas. It is a luxury and a public good. Our freedom of speech is valuable.
What Mark Latham is doing is an anathema to free speech. He is using insults to silence others. He is not the victim here. Those who seek to defend him as a powerful voice must not forget the use that he puts that voice to and what it means for meaningful public discussion.
Did you see Mark Latham at the Melbourne Writers Festival? What did you think?
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