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MTR uproar masks bigger issues

Mediawatch | John Sandeman

Melinda Tankard Reist, the campaigner against sexualised advertising and porn, continues to receive media attention following a front cover profile in Sunday Life. She’s now famous enough to be headlined as “MTR” on Crikey.

Tankard Reist is being attacked for being a Christian, or rather not saying it loudly enough for her critics. Blogger Dr Jennifer Wilson made the news this week, complaining after receiving a letter from MTR’s lawyers which asked for an apology from Wilson over her online comments that (MTR) is ”deceptive and duplicitous about her religious beliefs”.

As the SMH put it, the stoush “has set Twitter ablaze with outrage for days” (see #mtrsues).

The fight began in blogland when Wilson criticised writer Rachel Hills of not questioning Tankard Reist about her religious beliefs in the Sunday Life story. Hills responded that yes, she could have asked the question, but surely MTR’s beliefs as an opponent of abortion were obvious.

Not obvious enough for Wilson.

However the Age did ask and put it on the record that MTR is happy to be known as a Christian.

What came next was surprising to this commentator. Crikey, a website not normally known as a supporter of Christianity, ran a column supporting MTR’s approach of presenting her campaigns (for example urging a boycott of Diva for selling playboy branded merchandise to young girls) to the public without presenting a specifically Christian argument.

“There’s a question as to how Wilson’s comments about Tankard Reist can be seen as anything but an ad hominem attack on her character”, Crikey’s Pure Poison argued. “To claim that Tankard Reist holds particular beliefs because she identifies with any particular Christian sect is a lazy argument and one potentially easily disproved”.

Pure Poison also pointed out that Wilson and several media outlets got it wrong. MTR had not sued Wilson, but presented a “concern’s notice” – which asks for an apology to keep things out of court.

The debate has now moved to Mama Mia, the website published by Mia Freedman who in a neat touch for Fairfax is a Sunday Life Columnist. Could this be a Fairfax publicity stunt? Nah, but as a Sun-Herald alumnus it is fun to watch.

Mama Mia has published MTR’s answers to a series of questions. Here are some interesting bits.

1. How do you, succinctly, describe your worldview?

“My world view is based on a human rights approach to issues, especially as they impact on women and girls. The central value of my worldview is the dignity and worth of each human person and I try to uphold social justice tenets of equality, non-violence, respect for life, and solidarity with the marginalised. I try to assess each issue on its merit, informed by this approach.”

4. One of the claims directed at you is that you are a ‘fundamentalist Christian’ and that this must necessarily colour your views on porn, abortion, sexuality and so forth. How do you respond to this?

“I have no denominational affiliation or church membership. I have found its easier for my opponents to label me ‘fundamentalist’ than to actually engage with my ideas and arguments. And just because someone with faith has an idea doesn’t mean they or their ideas should be dismissed, derided, and mocked on that ground alone. I like what Senator Penny Wong, says about her faith, ‘I suppose I think people have very different ways in which they express theirspirituality. I have mine. It’s deeply personal, and it has sustained me at difficult times of my life’. I also think those who claim to have faith should try to make a difference in the world.”

5. Are you motivated by religion in your public life?

“I am motivated in what I do by the global suffering and inequality of women and girls and my work has aimed to make a difference in their lives especially.”

Now some Christians may have preferred the J-word to have appeared in MTR’s response to the first question. Certainly some Atheists would as well. But context is all.

Moore College ethicist Dr Andrew Cameron puts it this way at joineduplife, his blog named after his book.

“MTR makes ‘thick material claims’ about truth, about morality and about reality. She wants us to consider how abortion works. She wants us to ponder what sex is for, and how to do it well. Whether she’s right or wrong, she directs us to a way of discussing actual lives that we’re not very good at.

“… There is a pathetic desperation in attempts like this one to change the subject from abortion and porn as we now practice them, to a scare campaign about religion. This always happens. The moment a whiff of faith is detected, a secular moral panic follows, because the ‘fundamentalist’ concerned couldn’t possibly say anything worth hearing. In this great nation, not believing what they tell you not to believe is the price of admittance to the intellectual elite.”

Tankard Reist is taking on the secular public on its own terms to make the case for women and girls not to be exploited by porn, or sexualised advertising. If she was a doctor promoting a new procedure against disease, or a social worker advising on child protection we would not expect an overtly religious argument.

There are many areas of society where a Christian perspective could be usefully put. But the areas of MTR’s concern may be among those which have suffered because they are often only addressed in religious terms.

Putting MTR in a religious box is a great way to avoid her arguments.

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