The ugly underbelly of bigotry

One of the advantages of the information age is that we get to see the truth - the whole, unvarnished truth - about the state of the world.

No, that truth isn't to be found in some particular person's meme, photo, tweet, Facebook or blog entry.  It isn't to be found in right wing "think tank" analyses, nor is it to be found in shrill left wing critiques.  It is somewhere in the middle.  It is a combination of all of that.  Because out of the mess of information and disinformation, bias and correction, logic and emotion, a picture starts to form.  Pixel by pixel it materialises out of the blur of ignorance and phantom dissonance.  Stare at it long enough and the image becomes crystal clear.

Right now a picture is coming into focus.  I'm looking at the underside of our Western society.  And I'm afraid it isn't a pretty sight at all.  In fact it's downright ugly.

It's particularly ugly and distressing when it manifests as the sight of infants drowned in the Mediterranean - Syrian refugees fleeing a bloody conflict that has no end in sight.  Dying while trying to get to a safe haven we aren't exactly extending to them.

But it's also ugly when it's the sight of something far more banal: like the gaggle of KKK protesting the right to fly the Confederate flag while being accompanied by man on a tuba.

Or the cartoonish Donald Trump pouring invective on Latin Americans, the female gender and basically anyone else who he happens to stereotype.

Or the hypocritical Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who refuses to register same sex marriages because of her personal religious beliefs.  (Would the four-time married Mrs Davis be comfortable with another county clerk "revoking" of all 3 of her divorces as well as her last 3 marriages on the basis that they were all contrary to the Bible and therefore null and void?)

Or our Australian Border "Farce" when it proposed to stop and question people randomly in the streets of Melbourne to determine their residency status - on the basis of what power God only knows.

But bigotry gets even more banal - and therefore evil - when we aren't even aware of it.  Because that kind of bigotry can ultimately allow almost anything to happen.

Nowhere is "banal bigotry" more evident in Australia than in the case of former Australian of the Year and (twice Brownlow Medalist) footballer Adam Goodes.  For those who don't know, he has been labelled a "sook" for taking offence at the constant booing he attracts at matches.  For all I know you, dear reader, might well be one to argue that it has nothing to do with his Aboriginality.  "We're booing Goodes because he's a dickhead," is a common refrain.  "It's not racism.  There are other Aboriginal players - they don't get booed."

Sure.  But is it is a mere coincidence that the booing only assumed a cacophonous, vuvuzela-like, quality after Goodes (understandably) asked stadium security to deal with a 13/14 year old spectator who called him an "ape"?  Was this merely the act of a "wuss"?  Should he have "manned up" and not "picked on someone who was just a kid"?

Forget the fact that this "kid" was certainly old enough to know better (I knew what racial hate speech was at 13 or 14, I can tell you).  Forget that Goodes' reaction to her particular racial slur came after enduring years and years of similar abuse.  Forget that he merely informed the stadium security - then subsequently said he didn't blame her, accepted her apology and called for people to support her.

No, what's really happening here seems to be lost on people.  The picture hasn't crystalised for them.  Or they don't want to let it.

So when Goodes performed an Aboriginal dance that "simulated a spear throwing" he "went too far": he wasn't doing what anyone asserting some pride in their culture would be tempted to do in the face of an angry crowd booing that culture.  It was "aggressive" - never mind the fundamental aggression of the booing and racial slurs.  No, the crowd isn't the problem.  Racism isn't an issue in Australia.  Apparently Adam Goodes is the problem.

I think Waleed Aly put it best when he said:
Why are people booing Adam Goodes?  There's no mystery about this at all.  It's not as simple as it being about race.  It's about something else.  It's about the fact that Australia is generally a very tolerant society... until its minorities demonstrate that they don't know their place.  And at that moment - the minute someone in a minority position acts as though they are not a mere supplicant - then we lose our minds.  And we say: "No, no.  You gotta get back in your box here."  And that's why Adam Goodes ruffles feathers.  It's not because he's controversial.  It's not because he's a provocateur.  It's none of that.  It's because he says: 'I'm actually going to... express Aboriginality.  And I'm going to do it at a time and a place where the vanilla... cover of Australian society doesn't cope with it very well...  We have seen this before: the minute an indigenous man stands up and is something other than compliant, the backlash is huge and it is them who is creating division and destroying our culture and that is what we ultimately boo.  We boo at discomfort.

That's right.  Australians are generally a very tolerant society.  That is the upper side - the one we like to think about and the one we want others to see.  The ugly underbelly?  It's the fact that we remain "uncomfortable" about differences:  We don't like to see people wearing things like headscarves.  We don't like different languages, strange foods and odd customs.  We don't like anything upsetting our established "norms" - be they linguistic, religious, or racial or sexual.

It just ain't normal!

We don't want to be reminded of the image - that oh so ugly image - of the underbelly of our society; the part that doesn't care to know what it's like growing up and living as part of the most denigrated, disrespected, ridiculed and discriminated community Australia has - its original inhabitants.

I can't claim to know what it's like to grow up as an Aboriginal Australian.  I can only guess.  But at least my guess is based on some experience of discrimination.

I've already related how I was bashed at age 4 in country New South Wales because I was a "wog" who should "go back to where he came from".

What I haven't told you about is the time my brother and I were turned away from joining the local Scouts group in a little country town "because there weren't enough places".  I still remember the RSL hall with a total of maybe 12 boys our age - and 2 Scout masters.  "No places" eh?  It wouldn't have had anything to do with the fact that we would have been the only "wogs".

I can recount thousands more such experiences as a "new Australian".  For us it was difficult in the late 60s and early 70s.  As just one example, we were stared at and verbally abused for speaking in our first language on public transport.  This happened to me as recently as 1998.

So no, I have no experience of being Aboriginal.  But I do know what it's like growing up "different" - not being the norm.  I know what it's like to be made to feel "ashamed" - to feel you are worth "less" than others - because you don't fit that norm.  I know what it feels like to wish you could change the colour of your skin (albeit from "olive" - rather than "black" - to "white").  I know what it's like to feel odd because you're born into a Serbian Orthodox background - and not a single custom in the Catholic, Anglican or Uniting churches is remotely familiar or comfortable.  I know what it's like to be laughed at because you don't know what "toast" is or because you mispronounce "salmon" with the "l".

And I know the temptation, once you realise the levels to which you've lowered your own self-esteem, to stand up and shout back proudly: "I am who I am, so what?" - to do what Adam Goodes did with his "spear ritual".  To give your haters the middle finger using your own cultural reference, as did soccer player Bobby Despotovski when he gave the Serbian 3 fingered salute to a booing Croatian crowd (the salute is actually an Orthodox Christian symbol but now associated with Serbian nationalism that erupted during the Balkan wars of recent years).

I'm not defending Despotovski's inflammatory gesture - merely seeing it in the context of an emotionally charged statement: "I am a Serb - and proud of it."  In the same way, Goodes' spear dance was a statement: "I am Aboriginal - and proud of it."  Goodes was certainly entitled to make that statement.  You can't give it the inflammatory political context of Despotovski's gesture.  Even if the "spear throwing" was "aggressive" (which many dispute), it was certainly no more aggressive than the Maori haka.

I can't say I know what it's like to be Aboriginal.  All I can do is take my experience of being a "New Australian" - and multiply it by 1000.

No one wants to feel "second class" because of where, how or to whom they were born.  Yet that is what we've made our indigenous brothers and sisters feel since the day we arrived.  We couldn't even issue an apology for the Stolen Generations until 2008.  That's how much "discomfort" we feel being reminded of it.  As many people said to me: "It was done by someone else in another time - why should I/we apologise for anything?  Better for it to be put aside.  Let bygones be bygones."

Except that we cannot afford to let "bygones be bygones".  We must stand up and acknowledge what others did in the name of our country (whether of birth or adoption).

As a born Serb I am proud of my culture - but I am most certainly not proud of atrocities committed in Croatia, Bosnia or Kosovo in the name of Serbia.  I acknowledge those atrocities and I condemn them.  I'll even apologise for them, even though I wasn't anywhere near there; even if I'm aware that I'm apologising to some whose people also committed atrocities.  A wrong is a wrong.

Similarly, I wasn't here in Australia during the Stolen Generations - but I'll apologise for that too.


Because in both cases I am a survivor of a group that must call the past for what it was - and never forget that past.  Ethnically I am a Serb.  In Australia today, I am a non-Aboriginal.  In both cases I feel I must speak out - if only to make sure past wrongs are never repeated.

Yet the past is being repeated.  How we in Australia treat our boat-arriving refugees is no different to what the Western nations did in 1939 when they turned away the Voyage of the Damned.  Maybe if Western governments had officially apologised to the Jewish people for this cruelty, we might not be doing what we're doing now.  The repetition of the cruelty would be too obvious, for one thing.  But as far as I know, no such apology has ever been issued.

And for those with sophist objections about apologies and why we should not make them, I'll say this: "sorry" really shouldn't be the hardest word.  Saying "sorry" can and should be part of acknowledging the wrongs of the past done by those who were your predecessors and from whom you've inherited your culture and position - your relative privilege in society: the privilege of not feeling ashamed of the colour of your skin or the way you speak or the god you worship.  The privilege of feeling "normal" in the skin in which you were born.

In Australia from the 1950s to 1970s it was we Southern and Eastern Europeans who bore the brunt of bigotry: we were the "wogs" and "dagos".  In the 1980s and 1990s it was the "Asians" (partly because of the influx of Vietnamese boat refugees after the Vietnam War but also because of more recent Southeast Asian and Chinese immigration).  In more recent times it has been anyone from the Middle East who has been looked upon with fear, suspicion and even loathing.  Particularly if that someone happens to be Muslim.

Kobane - where the dead Syrian child was from.
Who wouldn't want to flee this place?
In today's Australia it is ugly that we've failed to see the recent increase in "boat arrivals" as anything other than a symbol of war in the Middle East - war for which we are at least partly responsible.

It is particularly ugly that we don't care what happens to the people in those distant lands - so long as we don't see it happen.

As far as refugees go, the "ugly underbelly" of our society will only care to see that which is "different" about them.  It fears those "differences".  And it will do its best to deny that fear in a flurry of discomfort.

Simultaneously, the ugly underbelly will ignore that which is familiar about those refugees: our shared humanity.

At least our government in Australia has belatedly offered to take in 12,000 Syrian refugees.  Of course priority will be given to Christians.  No, no, it's not a "Christian Australia Policy" to rival the old "White Australia Policy".  It's just because we want to protect the most persecuted minorities.  Sure.

And we'll be taking refugees from camps in and around Syria.  We won't be doing anything about those Syrian refugees already being held in indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru.  No, they are totally different.  Besides, we have to deter people smuggling across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia.  The only way to do that is to treat those refugees who have arrived by boat as inhumanely as we can get away with.  We couldn't possibly stop the people smugglers by opening up a processing centre in Indonesia...

If there is anything to be gained from the almost impossible sadness of seeing that drowned Syrian child on the beach, please let it be this:
Let us stop looking at people as being of a certain nationality, ethnicity, race or religion - or for that matter gender or sexual orientation or identity - and look at them as just people.  
Maybe then, we in Australia (and the West generally) will "rediscover our humanity".

Bigotry isn't defined by who we are.  It is defined by what we do - in every case.  Let's see if, for a change, we can do the right thing - the human thing.

Let's acknowledge that we, the privileged, owe it to our less privileged brothers and sisters to extend a hand of equality and friendship.

Let's acknowledge that Adam Goodes has a background most of us can't begin to comprehend - and that the booing necessarily means something far more hurtful and personal to him than we can imagine.

Let's acknowledge that "black lives matter" - even though "all lives matter" - especially when the statistics regarding black lives speak so loudly.

Let's acknowledge that "feminism" isn't replaceable by "humanism" until that special bigotry that allows rife sexual harassment of female trainee surgeons is eliminated and we have a prime minister who doesn't feel free to talk about "housewives at their ironing boards".

Let's acknowledge that being LGBTI is a "normal" part of the human spectrum and have marriage equality for all.

And above all, let's acknowledge that the people fleeing Syria today are just like you and me.  They need help.  Now.

If you feel uncomfortable about the colour of someone's skin, their religion or their sexual orientation or identity - or how you treat them and their feelings as a consequence of any of these - this is really nothing but a symptom of a "banal bigotry"; that ugly underbelly you don't feel comfortable showing others.

Whenever you feel the urge to argue about this, remember that picture on that beach in Turkey.  What you saw wasn't a Syrian "illegal immigrant".

It was a child.

And he did not die because of a war or an accident. He died because of a callous indifference in Western society towards the plight of his people. He died because of the "banal bigotry" that comprises our ugly underbelly.

Paul Kelly famously sang "from little things, big things grow".  Maybe it's time big ugly things like human suffering didn't grow from little things like banal bigotry.  Maybe it's time big things like welcoming kindness, care and protection grew from little things like rediscovering our humanity.