On Monday night I was still a tiny bit hopeful that the finance minister Mathias Cormann – or anyone in the government – might acknowledge the bigger picture about sexist language. That we might receive some acknowledgement that even when a comment is intended as a (not particularly funny) joke, the implications from interchanging “girlie” with “weak” are insidious.
I am resigned to the fact it won’t happen but I sincerely hope those who think such a matter is trivial, and that an acknowledgment would be futile, were watching ABC’s Q & A on Monday night. At one point the host Tony Jones asked the panellist Matt Colwell about homophobic language. The rapper, known as 360, said this:
“I used to use homophobic slurs all the time in battle rap, in everyday talking to my mates and stuff like that. And I was young. I was very ignorant, you know, and then I got interviewed by a gay man and he said to me, ‘do you understand your power with kids and how much influence you have on these kids? You’re saying a word like faggot and it teaches them that it’s okay’. And then – ever since then it just changed me. I think the only way you can beat ignorance is with education and ever since then I have – I’ve realised the position that I was in and I wanted to – I was like a role model for young kids, so I want to be a positive one, you know. I don’t want to be a negative one. So that just changed everything for me after that. You know, I realised I was ignorant. I realised that was stupid, but I grew up and moved on.”
That is a perfect illustration of the power individuals and words hold. Colwell could have dismissed the words of a man seeking to explain the harm in words like “faggot” to him. He could have fought the imputation that he was contributing to homophobia, even inadvertently. He could have dug his heels in and told the journalist that his concerns were unfounded. He could have decided to continue using the language blind to its effect. But he didn’t.
Instead he listened to the person in front of him and took his message on board. He changed the way he thought and talked about homosexuality, which in the realm of discrimination and prejudice is incredibly powerful.
Colwell says he grew up but it’s not that simple. A willingness to listen and understand the messages around us is not necessarily determined by age. Indeed, sometimes it seems age reinforces a reluctance to listen, let alone understand.
By recognising his potential to stop perpetuating homophobia Colwell becomes not merely a positive role model for fans of his music. He becomes a positive role model for anyone who wants prejudices to be dismantled and discrimination removed, a role model whom many leaders could seek to emulate.
I doubt anyone likes to consider themselves racist or sexist or homophobic; it’s a truth I am certain sits uncomfortably with most. But the truth is the attitudes and beliefs which underpin each of these mindsets are on a continuum and whether we like it or not we all contribute to it. The only way to change that is by acknowledging the sometimes uncomfortable truth and doing what we can to change that.
360, thank you for your willingness to change and your willingness to talk about it. Here’s hoping more public figures follow your lead.