25 Jan 2013

Punch-Ups For Patriots

By Nicholas Herriman
When ethnic violence erupts, we often seek cultural reasons for it. Why don't we do the same for white violence? Nick Herriman takes an anthropological look at the young Aussie men who beat their chests on Australia Day
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.

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Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - 11:46

Nice one Nicholas, thanks.

Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - 15:07

Be introspective about our culture? Goodness what a big ask!! As someone who handed out leaflets at the SCG last week supporting a Boycott of the Sri Lankan Cricket Tour, I can tell you, introspection, even the ability to think beyond the square, does not come easily to many young Australian males. Better to hit or push first, ask questions later seems to be the motto. Not that they were violent with us, but there was a little bit of a rush to get past us, so they did not have to engage.

Why were we there - to oppose the Rajapaksa Regime using cricket to sanitise its appalling lack of human rights record for Tamils and to call for an Australian Boycott of CHOGM. The Canadians (conservative government) aren't going. Neither should we.

Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - 15:35

You had me up until:

<i>At the same time, we should not be overly critical of these young men.</i>

Nope. We should not only be overly critical, but we ought to ensure that they experience the full weight of the law and the condemnation of the broader community. Anything less is letting them enjoy their white privilege.

Posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - 21:58

Good article, but:

"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."

How can you say it's "the worst day of the year for violence and alcohol" if you're only talking about young people? Which is it? I think this should be clearer.

Posted Saturday, January 26, 2013 - 13:13

Me, I would say that we need another bloody ground war, (no drones, Barack) fighting in jungles, very personal, and have a National Draft of over 18's.
We have a great excess of young men, with nothing to do, no where to go, no manners, no controls, full of testosterone and booze, give them a few weeks of very heavy training in how to kill, give them knives and guns, and let them loose on some other counties' surplus young manhood.
This has been a time honoured method of getting rid of internal population pressures.
If let loose on our Internet and web, they will tie us all up in knots.
If let loose in financial areas, they will set out to rob us all blind, as indeed their predecessors have done.
No, a good war with lots of hand-to- hand combat is the answer. Let them do some good, re-fertilising the soils.
One of the troubles with our pollies, is that they tend to ignore these situations until they get out of hand, then they tend to want to just throw everyone in gaol, and throw away the keys. This makes for a much worse situation down the track, as these youths come out, much better educated in mayhem.
Boot camps, Tree Planting, Greening the Deserts, must be about time that these things be thought about. Get them out there, venting their energy and spleen on a shovel, perhaps. The Chinese and the Egyptians used to have good ideas.

Posted Sunday, January 27, 2013 - 12:05

Thanks for another very well written piece!

Dr Dog
Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 08:50

I am with you dazza, where is the Peace Corp? I would have no issue with all young people having a gap year funded by the taxpayer where they go to a third world country or a disadvantaged community under a new Australian aid structure and serve the people, in exchange for free tertiary education. When they get back they will be a lot more grateful for what we have in this country and more community spirited.

Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 14:32

Good one, Dazza. It relieves stress, too.

Stress: The confusion caused when ones mind overrides the body’s natural desire to beat the living crap out of some asshole that desperately needs it.

Bruce R
Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - 17:13

From a wider anthropological perspective it could be argued that violence was inherent in the establishment of modern Australia. Against British citizens (convicts) and First Peoples both of whom paid a price in suffering for the birth of a nation.

But that is another matter to the behaviour of young men, who are probably kicking up against tedium before becoming fully domesticated. Some may sense there has to be more life than this, and, frustrated by the lack of alternatives, hit out.

Should we not be celebrating the day the women convicts were brought ashore? "The birth of a nation" took a most direct form that day, by all accounts.

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 04:22

Thank you very much for writing this Nicholas, and thank you most of all for the empathetical tone - important to be distinguished from sympathetic and/or excuse making.

People behaving in such a way is indicative of people in pain. Sexual violence is no different, and they are very much linked and I would like to see more of this tone employed in conversations about rape.

I once had a fascinating conversation with a plastic surgeon from St Vincents hospital in Sydney. The most common injury he treated: broken hands, from young men punching things, usually inanimate things, but not always.

However, I would like to take issue with your comment that our culture "values" the alpha male. This is largely ostensible and surface.

Yes there is football, and yes in many forums the alpha male will get the girl, but let's face it, society asks relatively more of men in terms of non-alpha male mentalities and behaviour than ever before; especially if you look at things on a long enough time line.

Which men get rewarded with the most material possessions - something society tries its best to compel us to want? Football players aside, it's not the alpha male.

How does society increasingly ask men to solve problems, in the school yard, in the workforce, in relationships? Increasingly, it's NOT through violence, it's through negotiation, wit and emotional intelligence.

But men as a continuum don't change as fast as society. If we're headed for a more androgynous future, and I certainly think we are, they'll be plenty of alpha male stragglers - those who aren't lucky enough to occupy the revered places at the table for this kind of man - for whom life is a testosterone (and alcohol) driven frustration.

For the moment, I think we have to look again at supposedly antiquated concepts like discipline, honour, service. These ideas were inherent and moderating influences on the men of yesteryear. Yes these cultures were more patriarchal, but I think we tend to look back on men of 100 years ago with the opposite of rose coloured glasses -- some of their attitudes may have been antiquated but perhaps modern men could learn something from their sense of write and wrong, duty and honour and responsibility.

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:01

To me, being Australian and celebrating Australia Day means celebrating our multi cultural, multi ethnic, fair and just society. I celebrate that we are perhaps the most egalitarian country on earth.
For me, Australia Day and being Australian has absolutely nothing to do with draping myself in a flag, or getting blind drunk, or singing swagman songs of Irish origin written in the 19th century, or singing 'oi oi oi'.

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:44

It is just dandy to have a feel-good National Day or National Holiday but Australia has its Australia Day on Invasion Day, the anniversary of the invasion of Australia and the commencement of the all-out, continuing Aboriginal Genocide ( 2 million untimely Indigenous deaths since 1788 due to violence, dispossession, deprivation and disease ; only 50 of an initial 250 Aboriginal languages surviving in the worst - and continuing - ethnocide in the world ; currently 9,000 Indigenous Australians die avoidably each year out of an Aboriginal population of 0.5 million, the highest avoidable death rate for any people in the world; see my book "Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950", now available for free perusal on the web: http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com.au/ ).

Australians need to face up to their appalling and continuing secret genocide history of involvement in 24 genocides, 6 ongoing - atrocities that are kept from public perception by cowardly, lying and racist editors, journalists, publishers, politicians and academics (see "Australia's secret genocide history": https://sites.google.com/site/aboriginalgenocide/australia-s-secret-geno... ; "Australian Anzac & Armenian Genocide. Australia's secret genocide history": http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/10256-australian-anzac-a-armenian-geno... ); and my book dealing with egregious Anglo holocaust commission and holocaust denial "Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability", now available for free perusal on the web: http://janeaustenand.blogspot.com.au/ ).

The biggest recent atrocities with which Australia was associated (deaths from violence or imposed deprivation in parentheses) have been all the post-1950 US Asian Wars (38 million), the post-1990 Zionist-backed US War on Muslims (12 million), the post-2001 US War on Terror (9 million) and the 1942-1945 Bengali Holocaust (6-7 million Indians deliberately starved to death by the British for strategic reasons, associated with large-scale military and civilian sexual abuse of hundreds of thousands starving women and girls, and with Australia complicit through withholding grain from its huge grain stores from starving India; see "Bengal Famine. How Australia & UK killed 6-7 million Indians in WW2", MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/focus/editorial/13742-bengal-famine.html ) - all horrendous atrocities whitewashed from Australian public perception by the lying, racist Pacmen (Prosperous Anglo-Celtic Men) One Percenters and their like foreign puppet-masters who run our society and endlessly soil the Southern Cross on our flag.

Australia's Invasion Day should be devoted to exposing, considering and protesting Australia's continuing secret genocide history, noting that we are running out of time to deal with a worsening and terminal Climate Genocide to which climate criminal Australia is a disproportionate contributor (see "Climate Genocide": https://sites.google.com/site/climategenocide/ and "Are we doomed?": https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/are-we-doomed ).

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.