When an Australian tennis player gets roundly condemned for sledging an opposition player, no-one is going to be very surprised. It pains good sports that Australians have given themselves a name for unsportsmanlike behaviour; our cricket team is legendary for its sledging, taunting opposition batsmen consistently, prying for psychological weakness in an attempt to weaken their skills. It’s defended as part of the game and goodness knows there’s no point holding our breath waiting for gentlemanly conduct to return to the arena anytime soon. But it doesn’t reflect well on our humanity, all this undermining of others in order to gain advantage, and it needs to be condemned on behalf of a better society – one that enjoys sport for pleasure, for testing ability against another, for the pursuit of athletic excellence without psychological warfare.
But the condemnation that will rightly meet this young tennis player’s bogan* outburst can also be channelled back into another opportunity to revisit what has been recently raised by Adam Goodes. Because where Krygios is simply uncultivated and uncouth – an embarrassment – and at fault, in the case of Goodes, we have the sportsman taking the moral high ground and the fans revealing their bogan natures. (In answer to the question, why aren’t other Aboriginal players booed on the field, the answer seems easy: Goodes is booed because he made public the racist undercurrent of Australian society. Those fickle fans who boo Goodes are shooting the messenger.)
And one of the thing Goodes added to the conversation through the whole sorry saga was the plight of being an Aboriginal Australian in 2015. Not the frontier wars, which we bury under as much pioneering blather as we can, so that we don’t have to think about the way an entire race was decimated in order that the colonists could possess the land. That’s history, which needs to be better understood and further discussed; but this is now. The chronic health problems, the structural inequality, the grog, the unemployment – all of which are also being improved on the ground by creative programs spearheaded and managed by Aboriginal people themselves – this all needs to be talked about in the mass media, every day, until this land is healed and its people live in genuine mutual respect.
But there’s another problem, which has been increasingly haunting Aboriginal populations in recent years: the spectre of suicide. How do we respond to the suicide epidemic amongst indigenous youth – and, while I was in Western Australia recently, the suicide of a mother of an indigenous youth that had previously killed himself – right here, now, in Australia? (The story was reported here. I won’t publish the picture or name of the lady.)
We respond with compassion, first.
Then, with questions.
Why? This has to be the first question. What conditions, what kind of society do we live in, that could allow this to happen? This is taking the question to its radical conclusion, as well as down to its roots. Any suicide diminishes the community. It should be a rare occurrence, a final option only for the most bereft, the soul who has lost everything and just can’t take it anymore. We can then learn to let them go, with sadness, because we can understand. But when suicide becomes something that registers as a significant percentage of deaths in any community, we have a problem. This is now the case with Aboriginal Australians. And it hadn’t always been this way.
So, as a wider community, as a nation, we need to talk about this. Why would a living member of the oldest surviving human culture on the planet kill themselves? What is missing in their cultural tool kit that leaves them open to this sorry demise? It’s a contemporary version of a ‘clash of cultures,’ of course; an ancient way of life forced under the yoke of modernity by people with new technologies, desire for ownership, and all of the Guns, Germs and Steel as described by Jared Diamond in his great book on global colonisation. But suicide prompts not just big picture, structural arguments that show how such situations arise; it requires a moral examination, a set of questions that also include how people relate to each other in everyday life. In order to improve the non-Indigenous population of Australian society – to be a better people, with more self-respect – we need to find more ways to show our respect for Aboriginal cultures and people, beyond admitting the story of colonisation behind modern Australia. We need recognition of the deep wisdom traditions that knew this place for countless generations, honourable and ongoing conversations about how things work here, how things are and could be.
To help stem the tide of suicide amongst Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders, let’s start by showing respect for their traditions. Respect for the land that sustains us, combined with knowledge about working it, rather than against it; extended understanding of kinship relations, which include all members of our community as well as our relations in nature; cooperation rather than competition. But we have to do this at the personal levels, enact it as more of a mainstream story in the media, not just on NITV (Channel 34, a great resource for all Australians) but also in the more commercialised channels of TV, film and other portals of modern story telling. Better than worrying about how much of a bogan one of our sports stars is; let’s keep building and telling stories of how rich, diverse and wise the Aboriginal cultures of this land still are.
For more information:
Info plus organisations designed to help: http://www.livingisforeveryone.com.au/Indigenous.html
*bogan: for international readers, a bogan is an Aussie term for a rough character, usually tasteless:
Generally ‘dim-witted’, bogans are well know for having poor and vulgar language and typically found in rural areas or outer, lower class, suburbs. A male bogan can often be seen wearing old attire typically a ‘wife-beater’ (singlet), Australian rules football jumper, or a flanel shirt.