The Ethics Of… Bullying Margaret Court

Strange as this is going to sound amid the bombastic Age of Trump, it is quite refreshing to come across a full blown bigot. In these days of PR, slippery talk, rhetorical fallacies playing to deeply ingrained cognitive biases, and good old blatant lies, there is something kinda beautiful about someone who is willing to stand on a national soap box and straight up say the gay are satan worshippers. It’s an opinion you know is out there a hell of a lot more than is stated, and you know that this sort of basic idea is what all that slippery language about ‘family values’ and the ‘sanctity of marriage’ are orbiting, but you rarely if ever see someone just come out and say it anymore.

So thank god for Margaret Court for having the courage to stand up and say what she honestly thinks, because I was really hanging out for someone unambiguously wrong to take apart this week.

For those not in the know, Court is an Australian tennis champion from the 1970s, famous enough to have one of our major event spaces named after her, who recently decided to get in front of the media and declare that the sport was “full of lesbians” who are “after our young ones”, and naturally she threw in a comparison to gay rights campaigners to Hitler, because of course she did.

A recording of her comments for those who are understandably sceptical someone could be that backwards.

Naturally these comments caused the proverbial to hit the other proverbial (trying to swear less) and Mz. Court received the standard spanking that clueless celebrities generally get when they decide to make comments about topics well outside their expertise (looking at you Jason Akermanis, Pink, and Justin Bieber). But true to the sort of hard-nosed attitude that prompted such frank statements in the first place, Court has since doubled and tripled-down, and made even stronger statements along the same lines, claiming ‘that US figures showed that homosexuality was caused by sexual molestation and emotional abuse in a majority of cases‘ (pretty definitively false, incidentally. Shocker.).

Naturally this has turned the woman into a national pariah and movements are underway to unwind her entire legacy, up to and including getting her name removed off that stadium. National treasure Pauline Pantsdown (going to have to explain that phenomenon another time) went the extra mile and dug up some statements Court made back in the 1970 supporting apartheid in South Africa and opposing the Tennis Association’s boycott of the nation.

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So now she has ‘blatant old-school racist’ tacked on to her persona along with ‘blatant old-school homophobe’, pretty much sealing the deal for her disappearance into shameful irrelevance.

In a way, this is quite sad and tragic considering Court, up until now, was considered a great of the game whose legacy was solid and secured – all of which is now totally undone because she couldn’t just shut up and accept that it’s not the 1950’s anymore. But in another way this is also quite beautiful – a perfect demonstration of just how far society has moved in the relatively brief time since Court’s ‘day’, with her current self-destruction serving as a perfect symbol of just how seriously we take this sort of ignorant bollocks these days. This isn’t just ‘we strongly disagree with your beliefs and would like to you to reconsider them’; this is ‘your beliefs are so incredibly wrong and destructive that any attempt to promote them will get you rejected so hard by society, it will retroactively ruin your achievements from 50 years ago’.

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If ethics are only as serious as the consequences they can bring to bear, these are some pretty damn serious ethics.

So… hooray? I mean here we have a person with provable incorrect opinions which we know from history tend to lead to the wrongful persecution of large groups of people, who is having her arse handed to her by society at large for trying to push said opinions. I mean that’s a win, right?

Well get past the kinda disturbing idea that society can and/or should destroy anyone with sufficiently deviant opinions, and there’s still the fact that this sort of response completely fails the primary purpose of a debate: it fails entirely to change Margaret Court’s mind.

As I’ve written on here before in some detail, a debate which does not aim to convert your opponent to your side is nothing more than self-indulgence. It is well established that attacking, mocking, demeaning and even simply dumping evidence on your opponents will, if anything, just reinforce their opinions and completely fail to achieve anything positive. Difficult as this may be, try to view this fracas from Court’s point of view: imagine that you actually believe her perspective that homosexuality is literally the product of the cosmic source of all evil, and then view the ‘progress’ that has been made on the topic over the last 50 years – for Court and other true believers, things must look like we’re headed for a Sodom and Gomorrah scenario pretty bloody fast, and in the face of this overwhelming threat the very least someone like Court can do is to use her celebrity to make a stand against such evil.

Given these beliefs, how then is she going to react to near the entirety of Australian society, even the conservative bits (and half the churches!), climbing so far up her arse that she now technically qualifies as a puppet? At best she’ll collapse under the criticism, effectively destroying her as a person (and in case that isn’t clear, that’s hardy a good outcome is it?), and at if she’s made of tougher stuff then she’ll take the massive opposition as just more proof of how bad the situation is and rise to the challenge all the harder. And in case you’re tempted to think that one vocal nutter won’t matter much, I refer you to similar comments made 12 months ago about one Donald ‘definition of the underdog’ Trump.

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See also.

But never mind Margaret Court – what about us? We can only control our own conduct at the end of the day, and considering the withering barrage of scorn progressives are currently laying on to what is effectively the equivalent of someone’s backwards racist aunt, doesn’t this count as bullying? Sure she’s a bigot and a blatant one at that, but she’s also old, hopelessly outdated, scarcely relevant and has sweet bugger all power to influence the debate – isn’t laying into her on this level both unnecessary and subsequently kinda… cruel?

Combine this with the fact that we absolutely are not trying to change her mind or achieve a positive outcome here and this all seems more about us enjoying the punishment of a daft old lady than actually trying to achieve anything. Hardly what one would call ethically justified, right?

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It’s for the greater good.

Well… sort of. See there is one exception to the rule that a debate must always focus on converting your opposition – when you’re debating in front of an audience. Because when that is the case there is far more at stake than just converting your opposition – you are effectively competing to win over the opinions of however many people are watching. And while it may not be honourable, fair or perhaps even honest, as a utilitarian the rhetorical destruction of one opponent can absolutely be justified if it buys the conversion of a multitude.

And god damn if Margaret Court isn’t offering herself up as the perfect opportunity to make an example for the cause. Blatant, shameless bigotry by a celebrity on a national media platform? If that isn’t an opportunity to demonstrate precisely and in great detail why homophobia is wrong then I don’t know what is.

It’s a freebie, a gold-plated opportunity delivered to your door – everything you oppose distilled down into one single example, expressed in unambiguous language that leaves them no wiggle room to escape via, in front of the entire nation, based entirely on ‘evidence’ that can be disproven by a child with an internet connection. It’s like if Tony Abbott handed me a tape of him eating a panda and dared me not to give it to the press.

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Which now I think about it, actually wouldn’t surprise me that much. That’s an onion he’s munching on there, skin still on. It’s like he doesn’t know how food works.

But tempting as it may be to try justifying the destruction of Court for the greater good, and it is tempting, that is not the standard utilitarian sets for us. As per last week, it is not enough that we choose an approach where the benefits outweigh the costs, which they certainly do here – we must choose the approach with the maximum benefits and the minimum costs. Anything else is ethically inferior and therefor unethical.

So yeah, you could justify taking one old bat apart for the benefit of society, but if there are options out there where you can benefit society without destroying a human being (or better yet convert her to your side), then that is unambiguously the ethical choice, and the former ‘destroy a human being’ approach is now unethical.

Am I saying Court should be left to peach her idiot gospel in peace? No. But how we oppose such nonsense is as much, if not more important than what we aim to achieve, since how we pursue our goals ultimately dictates what we get in the end. Margaret Court is a fossil with backwards, unpleasant opinions and she should indeed be opposed, but she is no serious threat – more a narky old bag who’s standing up for a tragically outdated set of morals than politically savvy firebrand. What she really needs is a sit down, a cup of tea and someone to talk to, but lacking that we can at least deal with her soapboxing in a firm yet calm and respectful manner.

Court may indeed be a perfect symbol for what we oppose – but are we the perfect symbol for what we wish to create?

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