By Ruth Limkin
Last week was a fascinating study in social media, social activism and instant response.
I suspect it was also a time when many people were hurt.
For those who were out of the country, asleep, or hibernating, it went something like this.
Wendy Francis, who for 18 months has been actively promoting the idea that outdoor advertising should be G rated, made a complaint about an outdoor advertising campaign. The campaign, which was on billboards and bus shelters, was encouraging condom use during sexual activity.
When the advertising company removed the ads, the twittersphere and blogosphere went into overdrive, as did facebook.
A small demonstration was held. Blogs were written. Facebook pages were started. A lot of obscene language was used and insults were leveled at Francis.
Why? Is it because people actually wanted condom ads to be in public places? When Wendy successfully complained about the “World’s Thinnest Condom” outdoor advertising last year, no such outcry ensued.
There was something different about the condom ad in last week’s furore. It featured two men. The term homophobic was quickly and effectively tagged to Wendy’s actions, and the response was swift and furious.
People genuinely concerned that homophobia would hurt their same-sex attracted friends were indignant and joined the chorus of condemnation.
Even the Queensland Premier got into the act, retweeting “…thousands of united Australians are stronger than a handful of homophobes. RT [retweet] if you agree…”
But what if it wasn’t homophobia?
Ironically, it was the same-sex attracted hairdresser of the campaigner who dismissed the claims of homophobia in a very interesting piece run by the Brisbane Times on Friday.
He said, “I am actually [her] hair stylist and I can let you know that if she was homophobic she definitely would not be coming to me. I have known her for about seven years and we have great conversations about things. I am also a gay dad. I have a child with a gay girlfriend of mine. We talk about these all things and she would be one of the most open-minded people that I know.”
One of my great concerns, as this situation was unfolding, was that by adding the term homophobia into the debate, it would end up hurting us all.
It would hurt those who are same-sex attracted or in same-sex relationships. When activists tagged this issue with the term homophobic, and turned a complaint about an outdoor ad that promoted condom use into an ‘anti-gay’ slur, a filter was placed over the rest of the conversation. This filter was always going to exponentially increase the chance that same-sex attracted men and women would be hurt because the entire issue was now going to be skewed as personal attacks.
It would hurt those who genuinely care about appropriateness of outdoor advertising. Who’s going to want to complain about any kind of inappropriate ad that happens to have a same-sex couple in it – whatever they’re doing – after the relentless abuse Wendy received last week?
It would hurt social debate in our nation. The worst thing about accusing someone of homophobia is that you are making a judgement on their motivations rather than their actions. When that happens, we are no longer discussing the issue at hand, but someone’s internal world. No-one can defend themselves from that.
In the past 18 months, Wendy Francis has had three other billboards removed, which is no small effort when you consider the statistics on how few outdoor ads get removed following public complaints. None of those three contained a same-sex couple so to suggest she is targeting homosexual activity just doesn’t match this history.
You can’t advertise condoms or use phrases like ‘safe sex’ on television when children are deemed to be watching. Why should it be any different in outdoor advertising when children will see it?
Let’s disagree. Let’s have different opinions, and let’s be mature enough to respect each other while we do that. Let’s fight fair, and let’s play the issue, not the person.
If you want to judge someone, then judge them by their actions. To judge someone by your assumption of their intentions is a divisive approach that ultimately hurts us all.