It ain’t funny!
Over the many years (38 of them), that I have made Australia my home, I have been accused of many things! In recent years the most common accusation has been one of stifling the larrikin in Australians by impeding their natural sense of humour. The most recent occurrence of this was when I publicly criticised the former cricketer Greg Ritchie for his racist comments about Muslims and South Africans. His comments in regard to South Africans were around the use of the term “Kaffir” a term so offensive that it is considered similar to the use of the term “Nigger” in the United States. On writing a letter to the Editor of the local newspaper criticising Mr Ritchie, I was the subject of a series of letters taking me to task for not understanding the “Australian” culture and basic larrikinism that goes with living in this society. Most of the letters suggested that I go home to my country of origin and try and sort out the racism issues that exist there!
Leaving aside the basic issue of the fact that I live in this country and that my children will grow up as Australians first and foremost, it got me thinking about the acceptability or otherwise of jokes about different cultures and the practices of those cultures. The basic principle by which I abide is that any poking of fun at a culture’s traditions or mores has a major attendant risk and that is the risk of stereotyping. For example, Irish jokes have the consequence of treating people of Irish origin as less intelligent than others. Likewise, jokes about the Sikh community (common in India) have the same impact on Sikhs diminishing their worth in some fashion. And for years we, in Australia have ridiculed the first people of this country on the basis of ill-founded stereotypes. That is the unacceptability of the jokes.
But more generally, the discourse of Multiculturalism is sadly in need of a thesaurus of acceptable terms. For example, the use of the word tolerance has me intrigued. This is a term that, by definition, implies a certain superiority/inferiority relationship. The Wikipedia definition is as follows:
a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., that differ from one’s own;
One of the key aspects of that definition is the “permissive attitude’ contained therein. In other words, “I don’t really like your opinions, practices, race, religion etc but I will permit you to practice them!” There is an arrogance attached to that term because it is suggesting that I will tolerate you despite the fact that I don’t like your race or religion. Tolerance was seen as being an acceptable position in years gone by in this society. It is not so now and quite rightly so. Our society should not be predicated on acceptance or tolerance of each other. We should be endeavouring to respect, celebrate and enjoy each others’ cultural values. That is what Multiculturalism strives for. A society in which every one of us is respected for what we are rather than being the butt of jokes and quips about our race or religion.
A contentious area of discussion in recent years in WA has been around the use of the word “Pom”. I find the term completely unacceptable because it tells me nothing about the person to who it refers. There are many in our societies that find the use of that term unacceptable. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to do so. I do not use that term and I find it generally inappropriate to do so. Yet there are many who are of English origin who say that they do not find the term offensive. To me, respect for the individual as a human being dictates that I should not use that term.
Likewise, terms that were used with gay abandon, in the sixties such as “Dago” “Wog” “Boong” etc are all completely unacceptable today. All those terms are stereotypical and unfortunately very negatively so. Therefore, why use them?
The other issue that comes up regularly is in respect of the term “Multiculturalism”. To me the term refers to something far more than the diversity or plurality of a society. It refers to a public policy position that is adopted by governments to account for the cultural diversity that exists in a country. So it is far more than the trite statements used by the parliamentarians when they utter such things as “We practice multiculturalism because 35% of our population is born overseas”. The percentage born overseas figure only refers to the level of diversity in a society. It does not refer to the practice by the relevant governments of Multiculturalism as a public policy.
In Australia we have been fortunate in seeing the practice of multiculturalism being committed to on a bipartisan basis. This has meant that the policy position has outlasted governments. This distinguishes it from the practice in places such as Britain and Germany where the commitment to the policy has not been as strong.
Finally, in trying to determine whether an offence has been caused by someone’s comments, I have always abided by the principle that the only people who can take offence are the people at whom the comments are directed. Hence in the case of Mr Ritchie mentioned earlier, I referred the matter to my South African and Muslim friends for their comments. In the case of the infamous Red Faces skit about the Black and White Minstrel show, the matter was correctly handled by Harry Connick Jr as an American. When the footballer Nic Naitanui was vilified on YouTube, the matter was referred to me for consideration. I refused to take any action unless Nic himself indicated that he was offended. Upon doing so I was able to have the matter dealt with and removed from public view. Likewise my stance on the “Flubba Wubba Nyoongar” video was taken after reference to my Nyoongar brothers and sisters. In defence of my stance on jokes about communities, I emphasise that the position I take is purely in regard to the public dissemination of these jokes. What someone does in the privacy of their own home and to their coterie of acquaintances is of no concern to me and likewise should be of no concern to authorities. But at the end of the day it is, after all, not a laughing matter.
– Suresh Rajan is a regular contributor to The Stringer, a long-time human rights advocate and a former President of the Ethnic Communities Council of WA.