Punch-Ups For Patriots


Last year, Melbourne-based alcohol and drug centre Turning Point found that assaults and drunkenness among those aged under 25 spikes on Australia Day. Our national celebration is the worst day of the year for violence and alcohol; from 2000 to 2009, the number of intoxicated young people treated in emergency departments on 26 January increased by 50 per cent.

In the space of living memory, Australia Day — no longer confined to small, formal almost melancholic local events— has become a heavily-hyped, high-spirited and inebriated national ritual.

So what does it signify? 26 January means different things to different people. For some, it’s simply a "celebration of the nation". The story others tell themselves is that Australia Day is an opportunity to celebrate Australia’s freedoms, protections and opportunities. Many Indigenous people interpret it as "Invasion Day". But for a minority of young men the occasion affords an opportunity for drunken violence.

Sporting singlets and thongs and draped in Aussie flags, they descend, after an afternoon of drinking, upon the cities and towns for a night of thuggery in the name of patriotism. Violence includes "glassing" wherein the perpetrator breaks a glass or bottle and then submerges the sharp points into a victim or simply smashes the glass on the victim’s head. One-punch violence (usually implying approaching a random victim and knocking him unconscious with one or two punches) and knifings are also becoming part of the repertoire. Melees may ensue with other young men as well as with police, non-white people, women, the elderly, the young — all are within the rather blurry sights of our young, flag-waving enthusiasts. 

Aside from the violence to others, intimidating behaviours and implicit forms of violence to the self also arise. Risk taking behaviours include "burnouts" and "donuts", which are different ways of allowing car wheels to spin at high velocity, losing traction and causing a profusion of acrid smoke and a loud squeal. "Roof surfing", standing on the roof of a car driven at high speed, also seems to be a common activity.

From an anthropological perspective, the important thing about this violence (towards themselves and others) is that it takes a culturally meaningful form. 

Firstly, there are places where violence is more condoned or more likely. As far as places, pubs must be near the top of the list in Australia. In Indonesia, where I do fieldwork, it is billiard halls and bus and train stations where young men tend to fight each other. In both countries, of course, football matches are the place to go for a fight. For Australia Day, it is public areas where the violent bravado takes shape.

Times are also allocated for when violence is more allowable. In many cultures, carnival (medieval Europe), Mardi Gras (contemporary New Orleans) and other celebrations are associated with riotous and uncontrolled behaviour. In Indonesia, the campaign period for national elections is a time when the youth can take control of the streets and beat each other up. A similar opportunity is signified by "schoolies" and especially "muck up day" in Australia. Australia Day (not Christmas, Easter, or Anzac Day) offers another occasion when this kind of behaviour is tacitly accepted. Symbolic, or what anthropologists might call "ritual", understandings of time and place mark off when violence can be acceptable.

Acts of violence tend to draw our attention. According to David Riches, a pioneer of the anthropology of violence, violence is a potent form of "imagery". A hit in the face is typically more symbolically powerful than a verbal rebuke, but depending on its force and context it could say different things. The perpetrator might be rejecting an unwelcome sexual advance; punishing inappropriate behaviour in a child; or, attempting to recover lost honour. We may not even see the same hit as violent if it is expressing patronising affection; bringing someone back to their wits; or simply pretending or joking.

Thus, even if the context is established, the same action might be seen as violence by some or an act of caring or compassion by others. It is especially difficult to use the term "violence" in ritual contexts — is tying up a buck on a buck’s night a form of violence? In these ways, interpreting the meaning of any violence is problematic. "Play" fighting and physical expressions of affection among young males in Australia thus can sometimes escalate into violent fights.

Nevertheless, proceeding cautiously, it might be possible to understand aspects of Australia Day violence. Typically the violence expresses dominance and power. For young Aussie males it is a defiant announcement of their ownership of the country.

As Elisabeth Betz, a youth culture researcher at La Trobe University, notes that in the context of Australia Day the violence implies "we are here, we can do this, and we can get away with it". Many Australians might wish that the flag only represented unity of the nation, but with Cronulla rioters and Pauline Hanson brandishing it, the flag has come to also represent White racist values. So young revellers can exploit this ambiguity to push an implicitly racist message — "this is our day and this is our country".

At the same time, we should not be overly critical of these young men. Ideas of masculinity that lie behind the Australia Day violence turn young men into "victims" in a culture. "Top dog", "alpha male" or whatever we might call him, our culture values the image of the tough, dominant and macho man over the quiet, withdrawn or humble one.

It seems to me that young men face significant pressure to live up to a violent stereotype. Moreover, rage against this image of masculinity paradoxically leads to violence against others and oneself. If my impressions are correct, suicide rates among young males in Australia, which are unacceptably high, are also partly attributable to this masculinity.

Violence, risk-taking, and self-harming are complex issues that cannot be reduced solely to culture. That said, issues of youth, racism and masculinity in our culture are important factors in Australia Day. And this culture is something for which we are all responsible.

So, in light of recent accounts of violence between Aborigines and Pacific Islanders, it is important to remember that white "Aussie" youths are just as capable of violence.

According to Monika Winarnita of La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, "ethnic" violence, like the recent events in Logan, is decried and scrutinised. Yet Australia Day violence evades similarly critical reflection. Moreover, when it is "ethnic" violence, we often ask, "Where are the elders? Why aren’t they doing anything?" or seek to understand the background and cultural issues. Maybe we should question why no one is standing up and taking guardianship or leadership regarding the expectations and behaviours of young white men.

As we celebrate on 26 January this year, and especially when the inevitable news reports of violence begin trickling in on the following day, it would be worth reflecting critically upon the masculine and racist values of Australian culture and the way they are expressed on Australia Day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.