THE BLOG

Our Best National Trait Is Also Our Worst

26/01/2016 5:01 AM AEDT | Updated January 26, 2016 16:47
Paul Kane via Getty Images

Australians hate, hate, hate being told what to do. We just hate it. It's why we rail against so-called "political correctness" and the ever-encroaching Nanny State and against all manner of people who would tell us how to live our lives. That's our best national trait.

Our worst national trait? It's exactly the same. We so vehemently hate being told what to do that we often fail to moderate our behaviour, which is something we should all do from time to time.

Let me explain this through the lens of sport.

If one sports story rings loudest through the 12 months since the last Australia Day, it's not a grand final or golf tournament or world title that anybody won. It's the Adam Goodes booing saga.

A refresher. Back in 2014 Goodes got called an ape by an AFL fan. On any day, but especially on Australia Day, it's worth spelling out why that's so offensive. In short, if you tell a person that they're an ape, you are calling them unevolved, unintelligent and subhuman. Simple as that.

It is a statement which drills straight down to the red hot molten core of racism. Nothing could be uglier.

Goodes called out the person who called him that. She happened to be a teenager. A shocked Goodes went to great lengths to point out that he wasn't picking on her. He reached out to her and explained this.

But in season 2015, the booing started, and quickly gathered a momentum of its own. Pretty soon, fans at all away venues were booing the Sydney Swans star and former Australian of the Year.

Some said they were booing his cynical style of play, which was probably true. But many, undoubtedly, were booing because they didn't like a black man who was brave enough to stand up and make the AFL's official stance against racism something more meaningful than a motto.

Before long, all booers became implicated in the racism. As stated, not all of them were racist. But the non-racist booers kept booing anyway -- so how could you possibly distinguish their voices?

It didn't matter how calmly you explained that if you booed Goodes for footy reasons, you were lending your voice to a chorus of truly vile people. People just wouldn't stop.

That, right there, was us at our worst. The non-racist booers wouldn't be told what to do. There was a really obvious, clear cut reason to stop booing, but it seemed too much like a concession, like being told to do something (or not to do it) and accepting it.

More recently, we had the Chris Gayle saga, in which an incredibly self-obsessed visiting cricketer publicly tried a couple of sleazy lines on the reporter and TV anchor Mel McLaughlin, thereby humiliating her. McLaughlin was just trying to do her job. But Gayle made a mockery of that.

There was an outcry. Channel Ten, after a foolish initial endorsement of the event on social media, swiftly apologised. But then came a bigger outcry to the outcry. "Can't a man say complimentary things about a woman anymore?" went the general response. There was even a #StandByGayle hashtag, which ludicrously implied that Gayle had somehow had been hard done by.

Here was another case of Australians arcing their backs when told how to act or feel. But it's another example of an occasion when we should have listened and moderated our behaviour.

If you spoke to female sports reporters in the immediate aftermath of that event -- and I spoke to plenty -- they were adamant that this sort of thing happens with sportsmen all the time, and they find it absolutely abhorrent.

They are media professionals, not a pretty face with a microphone. The incident upset loads of respected female journos. The swell of public support for Gayle pissed them off even more.

Sometimes, people do the wrong thing and we can all agree on it. On Sunday night, Channel Seven went way over the mark when they broadcast images of confidential match notes which were tucked away in Daria Gavrilova's courtside tennis kit.

This was a clear breach. Everyone agreed on it. Channel Seven stuffed up. We all got it. But things aren't always this simple. Sometimes, we need to take other people's word for it that a breach has occurred. Even if we don't initially agree, we should try to take on another person's perspective.

Adam Goodes was clearly distraught at the booing, just as female journalists were dismayed at public support for Gayle. Why was this so hard to understand? Could we not adjust our initial reactions to accommodate the views of the parties who felt hurt?

To do so would not have shown weakness. It would have shown maturity.

The Australian disdain for authority is one of our defining and most endearing characteristics. Not for nothing are our national heroes people like Ned Kelly and the swagman who stuffed the jumbuck in his tucker bag. Seriously, who cheers for the squatter or the troopers in Waltzing Matilda? Nobody.

But there's a time to back down. There's a time to listen and say "gee, this really matters to someone. Maybe I'll think twice about how I feel about it, and about how I respond. Maybe it's about them, not me."

And maybe we'd have a much better Australia if even a few of us took the time to do that.

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