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Legitimate Thuggery: Reflections on a Cultural (down)Turn

Change is a cultural necessity, but let’s move in the right direction. It is to their shame that Australian public figures can act like thugs and be praised or rewarded.

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Recent events in the often disparate worlds of Australian politics and sport reveal that audiences will move quickly to the site of spilt blood, whether it’s internecine ALP political coups or fighting in the NRL. Audiences also love a comeback, and Kevin Rudd’s is proving to be a spectacular one, indeed. The most recent Newspoll has the Coalition and the ALP at 50% each, but Kevin Rudd is soaring in terms of preferred prime minister and satisfaction with job performance. This week has also seen restrictions on the ready availability of the caucus coup – the one that made Rudd both victim and victor.

In interestingly related news, the NRL commission stuck to its ban on fighting in Origin for Game III, parrying off the protests from, well, almost everyone – the players, coaches, teams, and most vocally, the fans.

On June 26th, Rudd’s revenge on Gillard and the sinbinning of four players in Game II clashed slightly with one another in terms of scheduling, yet there was an aspect of thuggery in these events and their consequences, which deserves closer attention.

Politics has been at its bloodiest during the Rudd/Gillard era, and on the question of an upcoming political coup, commentators spoke of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Few would doubt that Rudd had spent much of three years destabilising and campaigning for the top job. Another campaign was simultaneously underway against our first female prime minister, this time directed by thugs in the media, and driven by equal parts stupidity and misogyny. And yet, these kinds of behaviour, Rudd’s and other’s, can produce startlingly positive results for the antagonists: the termination of Gillard’s political career and the resurrection of Rudd’s. Labor’s winning election chances have now entered (or perhaps loomed) into the realm of possibility. Waleed Aly artfully encapsulates how Rudd’s thuggish behaviour has been rewarded: “he held the party to ransom, and ultimately got paid.”

Football is played on similarly blood spattered turf, but here I mean it literally. The skirmish between Nate Myles and Paul Gallen in Game I led to a warning: players who engage in such behaviour in future games would be sinbinned. The warning was serious, the players were not, as four were sent off after a fight broke out in the 54th minute. Game III threatens to overspill with tension, as I’m sure players will continue to resort to their arms before reasoned disputation. For this reason, the ban remains controversial, and the reaction has been consistent and resolute. Players, fans, the NSW and QLD teams have overwhelmingly come out in support of . . the thugs! Apparently, those who try to place limits on injury and brutish behaviour are committing an egregious sin, and carry a heavy burden of explanation. I’m still receiving Facebook invitations to ‘like’ the community fan page entitled, “Stop screwing our game.” The supporters here denounce the recent changes to the code as a violation of the game’s integrity and exhort those in positions of footballing authority to allow the resumption of the thuggery that made the game great in the past. Well, all of this is expressed with a little less eloquence. The page really consists of the slogan ‘BRING BACK THE BIFF!!’ and pictures of Origin players thumping one another in the head.

Despite the formal rule changes in politics and football, where does popular legitimacy reside? I would point to the fans, hungry for violence, and Kevin Rudd, sating his revenge and ambition. To put it mildly, this bothers me, as it reflects the legitimisation of thuggery in two central aspects of Australian culture.

Australians take a certain pride in our self imposed characterisations: our good humoured, lackadaisical nature which is warmly received by foreigners. These images might sit quite comfortably with the events of the last few weeks: we now exhibit a relaxation of outrage towards political and sporting thugs, and for the latter, there is only a rise to criticism when such behaviour is subject to limitations.

ALP politics and the NRL don’t exhaust my criticisms, either. The pervasive social and political rejection of asylum seekers and refugees is reduced to a simplistic and cruel mantra of ‘turning back the boats.’ This is a political platform based on abandonment of the most desperate and vulnerable people, and it is met with approval.

Thuggish policy making is matched in social behaviour, too. I have written elsewhere on the culture of binge drinking in this country, and how it often finds bloody expression in outbreaks of violence in our cities. And yet, the castigation of choosing not to go out and drink excessively finds greater legitimacy than staying in.

Criticism of these issues, especially sport and drinking, leads me into prickly territory, where the term ‘un-Australian’ is thrown around with great vehemence, but little accuracy. I can fend this off. Perhaps the burden of explanation, however, can be shared. Perhaps any football fans, if they are still reading, can bring some clarity to the issue and explain why football’s integrity is dependent on frequent outbreaks of thuggery.

Of course, many football fans simply enjoy watching a game and are indifferent to the game’s rising violence. Fine. But the partisans and defenders who speak are drowning you out, and drowning the game, too.

Change is a cultural necessity, but let’s move in the right direction. It is to their shame that Australian public figures can act like thugs and be praised or rewarded. It is a greater shame that the position which denounces them is the contrarian one.

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Make Dodgeball Great Again

Dodgeball is not an ‘unethical tool of oppression’ and to label it so is both ludicrous and dangerous. Have we lost our minds?

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I remember it as if it was yesterday. The recently completed gym floor was crisp, clean, and squeaked with almost every step of the overpriced sneakers that graced it. Battle lines had been drawn and there I was, locked and loaded in the far right corner of the gym. I had scanned the battlefield ahead, and saw that the opposition numbers were dwindling- falling like the cannon fodder they were. My fellow combatants were more than capable, some in fact, excelled like this game was art, like it was real battle.

Then I saw my target, arms to her side, nervously looking across from her side of diminishing numbers. Her eyes screamed ‘fear’ (or maybe indifference, but in my mind, it was fear) and I knew that there was only one thing to do. I gripped the foam of the ball with a vengeful firmness, loaded my arm with the fury of a Nolan Ryan fastball and let loose. My memory says the sound of the noisy gym was broken, and that all the fellow combatants and fallen brethren fell silent, stopped and followed this one moment as the ball left my hand to its intended destination. It was a glorious moment. Glorious because unlike most times, the ball flew through the air with unmatched grace. Unlike most times I threw the ball, there was no deviation, no broken flight plan. And unlike most times, where I’d luckily hit my target on the leg, or on the arm, it zeroed in with laser-like precision and exploded itself right in Annie’s* face. Bullseye. Like a bird exploding from a Randy Johnson fastball.

Did I revel in the glory of that standstill moment? Was the brazen destruction of a fellow combatant as cinematically award-winning as a Spielberg movie? The truth is, that wasn’t the case. Amongst the fleeting chaos of the game, no one saw. No one stopped and watched my moment, and that in reality, it was a split second that remains animated only in mind. I recoiled in shock, partly because it was not my intention to hit someone in the face, no matter how unintentionally glorious it was. But partly because my gut instinct was to slink away into the back of the pack to hide unseen- like a cowardly saboteur responsible for the wreckage, eager to hide from the blame. I didn’t even look back at what I had done.

I don’t remember who won this particular game (safe to say it wasn’t Annie), but it was all part and parcel to the wonderful school-time game of dodgeball.

One that has come under scrutiny, and under the threat, by the researchers discussed in this National Post article, who have labeled it an “unethical tool of oppression”. With such hyperbole, you’d think they were talking about a population who lived under a military dictatorship, or a segment of that population threatened during mass rioting. Not surprisingly, I lived through both of the latter, and no, dodgeball is nothing like either. They are talking about dodgeball- a mostly harmless game (unless you are Annie) played by children during recess and PE class.

The article goes on to say how dodgeball, along with other forms of games played during PE class are sports of “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation” and that dodgeball in particular, is “not just unhelpful to the development of kind and gentle children who will become decent citizens of a liberal democracy. It is actively harmful to this process.” Sounds like it was written by someone picked last in gym class.

We can argue endlessly about the participation-trophy culture that has permeated the discourse of children’s sports (they couldn’t even settle on a winner at the Spelling Bee). But the truth is, I fear greatly for the future of democracy if we equate the game of dodgeball to actual, real oppression. Sure, Annie probably doesn’t like dodgeball all that much, but I too was hit plenty on the dodgeball court. Like I was on the basketball court. But it’s all part of growing some thick skin in this very real world where people don’t throw soft, red balls at you. The truth is, most kids would probably benefit from getting hit in the face with a dodgeball a few times, it’ll be good for them in the long run. This I’m certain of.

I had a lot of fun playing dodgeball as a kid. It’s an absolute shame that there are “scholars” and “researchers” who equate it to very real life issues this world faces. Teaching kids that life isn’t fair from a young age is a good thing. Participation-trophy culture is not. I don’t need a Ph.D. to know so.

Dodgeball teaches you a great deal in a simple game. And if dodgeball supposedly teaches children lessons of democracy, then I sure as hell would want the future leaders of whatever world we venture towards to be able to dodge a wrench when someone throws one at their heads.

*Annie is not her real name. C’mon, how much of an asshole do you think I am?

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