Recently the TV host Daryl Somers was forced to apologise on air after a controversial act on the Hey Hey It's Saturday reunion special in which singers painted their faces black to mimic The Jackson Five. Notably, it took an American visitor Harry Connick Jr., to point out the political incorrectness and bad taste associated with this skit.
Unfortunately, all too few Australians appeared to see the seriousness of this event. As such we might assume that this kind of bigotry in Australia is deeply embedded in the culture and fully normalised. This gives credence to the arguments of Indian students that Australians are racist. Perhaps that should be “inherently” racist! Given the high incidence of violence against Indian students and other racially motivated forms of violence, shouldn’t we be asking where do Australians get their crass racial attitudes and their legitimisation of violence towards people of difference?
With this in mind, I would contend that Australians adhere to an old narrative of systemic inequality that needs to urgently change.
Innocent jokes or harmful narratives?
In the course of my recent research on small communities and resilience I came across the following little gem:
The Bathtub Test.
During a visit to a mental asylum, I asked the director as to how he determined whether or not a patient should be institutionalised.
“Well” said the director, “We fill up the bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient and ask him or her to empty the bathtub”
“Oh, I understand”, I said. “A normal person would use the bucket because it’s bigger than the spoon or the tea-cup.”
“No”, said the director, “A normal person would pull the plug. Do you want a bed near the window?”
This joke appeared in the News Letter of a Rural Transaction Centre [RTC], which included in its logo a statement to the effect that the RTC is “A Federal Government Service”. It also acts as an agency for the ANZ Bank, Centrelink, Veterans Affairs, The Taxation Department, Medicare and various businesses. On the back of the publication it displays the logo of a Shire Council and the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development. The publication has no disclaimer, nor was the material referenced and it has a local circulation 440. This may not be a significant number but it is not the only example of a narrative that has the potential to poorly shape community attitudes, in this case towards what is perceived “normal” and what is not. Further, the circulation happens to cover an area where there are a disproportionate number of mentally challenged individuals and families. The question remains: is this just an innocent joke or a harmful narrative?
In the same publication an entire page is devoted to a story (reproduced from an American Newspaper) of how a man who was mugged went about seeking retribution against the mugger by carrying out a barrage of criminal activity - including threats against the American President - for which the mugger was intended to get the blame. Again, are there moral, ethical and legal issues here that need to be addressed? While the article might be entertaining reading, we might ask, do the publishers of community newsletters and the like have a duty of care in terms of how their material is perceived and possibly acted upon? Moreover, if the sponsors of this material knew what was contained between the pages would they support it? If so, where is their sense of community responsibility?
This is an issue for every writer including myself. Where does one draw the lines of integrity and who has the right to be judge? Undoubtedly, if people feel aggrieved they have a right to a voice and the writer is often the vehicle for that voice. Moreover, if we care for one another in communities should we be seen making each other’s disabilities [or crimes] the object of humour, even by default?
Measuring the impacts
One of the most common problems presented to researchers and therapists like myself, are the effects of societal violence and bigotry. These effects come in many forms although the outcomes are always the same; trauma, stress, loss of confidence in the self and system.
There are strong correlations between bigotry and violence and both are a major contributing factor to health costs as well as a burden on the already stretched community services. This in turn impacts on the loss of productivity and the nation’s economy. Despite all efforts to curtail it, societal violence and bigotry is escalating and we need to understand the underlying causes of why this escalation is happening. Changing demographics and social disparities account for some of the reasons but it is not the whole story. We must come back to a narrative of violence and bigotry that is deeply embedded in the Australian psyche and those who espouse it are often also the victims of similar violence and bigotry.
What the sociologists say
In the past sociologists might have argued that violence in Australian society is inherent in our culture beginning with settlement and the genocide of the first Australians. In addition to this we can count the violent treatment of prisoners and women transported from the northern hemisphere for petty crimes. Colonisation was a distinct regime of violence. In Australia the legitimation of this violence also took place when it became the basis of the outback and bushranger culture. In this respect violence became akin to the taming of the wilderness (or the wildness in human nature): we called this being civilised or civilisation and it became linked to what was viewed as normal socialisation.
In Australia this still means an all white, middle class, dominant male positioning. Anyone not normal was subject to various forms objectification and abuse that included beatings, incarceration, medicalisation and/or electric shock treatment for the desperately wayward (mostly women). Little has changed, we still objectify and abuse people who present as different.
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