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Time to tell Mum about privilege, EFA!

I have loved and supported Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) for many, many years. The love affair began back in uni, and coincided with my discovery of open source software. The power of freedom (as in speech) was heady and strong back in those days. Today, in many ways, it still is. Right now the fight is not so much against the big software companies though (although that's still up there), but the Australian government.

Senator Conroy has been banging on about introducing an internet filter for years now. I won't go into detail. If you're reading this blog, then it's a safe bet that you already know all about it. There are a lot of arguments against the filter, but they all revolve around one main tenet: freedom.

Which is where the EFA comes into it. They've really gotten onto the bandwagon, and have been perhaps the single most outspoken group against the filter (with the possible exception of Mark Newton). They have provided information for both the informed and uninformed public; organised and undertaken online and other forms of protest; collected, collated, and reported statistics and data; arranged means for interested groups to get together, talk, plan, and rant. And they've created 'campaigns' around the filter to both raise awareness of the issues, and inform the public on methods to avoid the filter becoming law. I've loved every minute of it.

But, for the first time ever, EFA has struck a sour note with me. And I'm not alone in feeling a little cheesed off, either. It's about the EFA's latest campaign, which has been dubbed the "Time to tell Mum" campaign. The basic premise is a comedy sketch featuring Akmal Saleh (who I've never liked all that much, mostly because he only seems to have one joke that he uses over and over again. But that's neither here nor there). Akmal, in his vaguely humorous way, tells us that we need to tell our Mums about the internet filter. This is because Mum's "love gossip" and "care about their families". He never really gives a good reason for this directly, but EFA themselves note that "[EFA] hope this campaign will reach some new people, and further highlight the myths about Conroy's Filter".

As with most things, the comments fall into two broad camps: Those who find the campaign sexist, and those that think that anyone opposing the filter is good people, and the feminists should just get over it already.

Do you want to know a secret? I'm not in either camp. I can see the issue with the sexist language. I can see how it enforces gender stereotypes, and how it is really just not helping. Hey, I'm a feminist from way back, and I'd be lying if I said I couldn't see that side of the argument with extreme clarity. I also, for what it's worth, completely support anyone who has the guts to stand up and yell about it. I strongly suggest you read "Goodbye Electronic Frontiers Australia" over at the Witty Title Pending blog for a great review of the feminist issues that have come up.

But, I can also see this from EFA's perspective. I can appreciate that they are trying to target a wider audience, an audience of people who care about their children and their families, and who are going to spread the word among the traditionally conservative-voting older generation. But it was disingenuous of EFA to target "Mums" specifically, when what they really mean is "older people who are less tech-savvy and interested in 'family' issues". But then, worse crimes have been committed in the quest for a catchy soundbite, I guess.

Therein lies the rub, then. EFA have fallen afoul of their privilege, like so many men before them (the EFA board is made up of all men and one woman. The executive is completely male. I'm not certain of racial background, and so won't make comment on that matter). They have played into gender and social stereotypes. But they're not the first. They certainly won't be the last.

EFA have made comment on how successful the campaign has been. It's gotten people talking, it has (by their own account) gotten the word out to people (Just Mums? Or others as well?) who didn't otherwise know about it. It generated some controversy and got people blogging about it, talking about it, discussing it. Those who liked it shared it around because it was funny (to them). Those who didn't, shared it around to show people how outraged they were.

Privilege is a queer beast. If you have it, you can't see it, and are almost completely unable to understand it. If you don't have it, it stares you in the face everywhere you turn. We all have privilege in one form or another. I'm female, but I have privilege in terms of being white, wealthy (in world terms, anyway), employed, educated, and in my 20's (for a little while longer, anyway). This makes it hard for me to see some things to which my privilege blinds me, but makes me very aware of those places where I'm under-privileged. EFA and their ad company FNUKY really just acted within stereotypes and privileges that they probably don't even recognise they have. They have created an ad that they - within their privilege - saw as amusing and fresh. They imagined that using a comedian and a few gags about Mums and gossip and how they care about their families but know nothing about technology would hold the public's interest, get the message across, and hopefully go viral. And, to their credit, the grand majority of the population (recalling that even though 51% of the world's population possess a vagina does not automatically make 51% of the population feminists) agreed with them. That makes for one successful marketing campaign.

Advertising uses all sorts of social, sexual, and racial stereotypes to get the message across. The very fact that marketing uses 'target groups' (read: "stereotypes") to create campaigns shows this. Take a look at Sociological Images one day to get a glimpse into how advertising campaigns are created and digested by the consuming public. You'll never look at a billboard the same way again. And while past practise does not make this particular wrong right, it does make it difficult to get very worked up over it, from my perspective anyway. The ad agency were doing what ad agencies do: create ads that appeal to a mass market. EFA were not evil by signing off on it, they were just blinded by privilege and unable to see how the campaign would play off amongst a minority of that market. The offense in this case, then, is not within EFA alone, but in the entire marketing and advertising machine, and in society that continues to mindlessly consume what that machine serves up to them.

For all intents and purposes, EFA would be best to make a proper apology (not a fauxpology like the one they have already given), and promise to do better next time. (For more information on what constitutes 'good' and 'bad' apologies, check out the Geek Feminism Wiki article on the subject). They won't, though, for a number of reasons. First, because they are still sitting in their little bubble of privilege and don't understand the issues the feminist left have taken with the campaign. Secondly, because the old marketing adage still holds true, especially on the internet: "All publicity is good publicity".