Words can hurt. We all experience this at some point in our lives. But exactly how much? Does our language foster a violent culture? Does our humour normalise abuse, racism and misogyny?
These were the questions tackled by Askin’ For It: Violence & Australian Language, a discussion panel chaired by Mary Crooks, and made up of Gabrielle Carey, William McInnes, Rachel Matthews and Paul Zappa.
Although the discussion ranged across many issues, sexism and domestic violence were major themes. Gabrielle Carey, author of Puberty Blues, hit the nail on the head with a point about one of the widely accepted core values of Australian culture: mateship. Carey pointed out that the word ‘mates’ refers commonly to a friendship between two men. She cited the American slang phrase ‘bros before hos’ as a reasonable summary of attitudes that exist within American culture. “A woman can’t be a mate, in the words of my now ex-husband. Maybe there’s a really dark flip side to mateship”.
Paul Zappa, a specialist in violence prevention education, brought a lot to the table in terms of experience. His time working with teenage boys in schools across Australia came up often in the discussion, and it was clear he had a firm grasp of how young people become accustomed to turning a blind eye. “What I see amongst young boys when I visit schools is that the worst thing you can be is a dobber, or a snitch.” Zappa argued that this culture of not wanting to rat out your mates can turn ugly pretty easily; “When you see your friend leaving the club with a girl who’s really inebriated, you don’t do anything because you don’t want to be a cock blocker.”
Rachel Matthews, a PhD in Creative Writing and VU alumnus, provided a serious voice, which was often required to counter William McInnes’ tendency of bringing humour into the conversation. “I think we need to respect young people more,” Matthews said at one point, arguing that they were often kept out of the dialogue around violence despite it being something they will inevitably have to deal with.
While many of the points made were insightful and thought provoking, there were also some jarring moments, mostly provided by William McInnes. A self confessed “penis wearer in a nice suit”, McInnes admitted early on that as a well off, middle aged white male he was rarely in the firing line for racist, sexist or abusive language. He provided some interesting anecdotes about the culture of teasing that he had been brought up in, and how later in life he had realised that it could have a serious effect. Unfortunately McInnes’ self-awareness regarding his privileged position in society didn’t make up for his frustrating trivialising of the issues he was presented with. He seemed to have the view that Australia is mostly a tolerant and progressive society, and that we’ve come a long way since the sixties. This optimism appearedto prevent him from taking things too seriously.
It was disappointing to see so much ‘she’ll be right’ brusqueness from McInnes, especially when the conversation had so much potential to delve into some deeper issues. He was clearly on board with the idea that language, especially surrounding racism, could be a damaging tool; but his tendency to take things lightly, with humour and an attitude bordering on nonchalance, detracted from the panel’s ability to unearth the issues buried in our language and culture.
It was especially uncomfortable when a young male audience member asked McInnes why he was complacent about Australia’s violence, when there was obviously still so much work to be done. McInnes responded with tones of the disrespect for youth that Rachel Matthews had mentioned earlier, brushing off the question with a general statement about every generation thinking they could do better then the last.
Over all, Askin’ For It was well worth attending. These kinds of discussions are vital to our growth as a nation, especially in a time when our government seems determined to drag us backwards. Still, a feeling of dissatisfaction has followed me home. The panel of Askin’ For It had great potential, but some how it was not fully realised. Perhaps if there had been more time, or fewer distractions, the discussion could have transcended from interesting to ground breaking; what a shame that it didn’t.
Edited by Rupa Ramanathan