International Women’s Day 2015 saw many professions of support for women’s rights from politicians worldwide. One of them was a tweet from Canadian politician Jason Kenney, a long-time Conservative MP, Cabinet fixture and new Defense Minister for Canada. “On #IWD2015,” wrote Kenney, “thank-you to the @CanadianForces for joining the fight against #ISIL’s campaign to enslave women & girls.” Accompanying this message was a collection of three photos: two showing women in niqabs wearing chains, and one showing a smiling middle-aged bearded man with his arm around a crying young girl – the implication plainly being one of child-marriage.
The evidence is pretty compelling that the Islamic State treats women with horrifying brutality, though Kenney has a relationship with the truth that left it no great surprise when all the images in his tweet were fake or misinformed at more than one level. The trope of particular interest in his tweet, however, is the use of progressive rhetoric in the service of non-progressive ends. In this case those ends include some combination of self-congratulation for a politically divisive military campaign launched by Kenney’s government, and anti-Islamic pandering that excites a range of emotional reactions to terrorism, Islam, and foreigners, in the run-up to a Canadian federal election.
The political strategy is reasonably clear. The use of cherry-picked examples, dogwhistles and selective emphasis to smear a target group invites charges of bigotry. These charges might be forestalled, though, if one can turn the focus to misogynistic or patriarchal aspects among (sub-groups of) the targeted population. Some people who would otherwise push back against both misogyny and racist or religious bigotry are horrified by media reports of the treatment of women under the Islamic State, and this may leave them conflicted or less motivated to criticize the anti-Islamism being played for votes here. Even if critics are not deflected, progressive noises in defense of this same-old-pandering will at least confound listless mainstream media analysis that relies on different sides to distinguish themselves through the language they choose. And it will inoculate one’s voting base against the force of the criticisms. What do you mean, the Conservatives have dismantled or slashed funding to all manner of women’s programs, and refuse even to discuss a formal inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada? Why, they’re the ones fighting the real misogynists in this world!
Some of the most effective propaganda and media management currently on display in the Canadian context, and no doubt more widely, aims at colonizing the language of progressive causes, or at least destroying its power to differentiate between political actors.