“You once said to me, ‘Essex, no one comes from their consciousness fully developed.’ In that statement you summed up, for me, the daily task of being accountable to ourselves and to one another, truthful and honest, and of course open to change. Committed to change.” ‘Letter to Audre Lorde’ by Essex Hemphill
First, some background for our overseas readers: a couple of weeks ago the AFL (or Australian Rules football) Grand Final where my team (St Kilda) was defeated by Collingwood took place (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but that’s sufficient knowledge about what happened, I think). In their ‘celebrations’, two Collingwood players raped a woman at someone’s apartment (or, for those who are that way inclined, they’ve been accused of doing so). Footballers in this country being accused of raping women (and, I assume, actually raping women) is not a rare thing; and so, at least annually, we get a rehearsing of discourses such as, ‘she asked for it by getting drunk in a public place’, and we get a proliferation of media types commenting on what happened, to varying degrees of outcry. (for some crappy responses, see those by Spida Everitt and Kerri- Anne Kennerley; for a great response, see that by Ben Pobjie).
And I think that’s all you need to know at this stage. So here we go…
In the aftermath of the Grand Final, after a couple of hours at the bar where we were drowning our sorrows (not that I drink, Mum!), I launched into what can only be described as an embarrassingly overstated description of how, that afternoon at the game, I had felt oppression. Real oppression. The type of oppression that can only come from having 60,000 people yell at you that who you are is second-rate, while you know that there’s nothing you can do to demonstrate how not true that is. And so you swear, at opposition players and opposition supporters, knowing that it’s useless, but that your voice is all you have. And then the boy in front turns to the opposition supporters who have come to sit behind and loudly abuse our players (and whom I, and others around, have been repeatedly telling to ‘f*** off’), and says quietly, ‘have some humility.’ And your heart breaks, because, truly, that’s sometimes all the oppressed have: their dignity and their ethics. The knowledge that, in victory (and particularly when the victory is so certain, the opposition so crushed), the oppressor shouldn’t boast, shouldn’t make it worse than it is.
So, while it might be overstated (in terms of oppressions going round the world, this doesn’t even come close to being a real oppression), I think there’s an important moment in there. In Melbourne, in the inner-city left, it’s super-cool at the moment (and maybe it always has been) to hate football. And while I know of plenty of people from my peer group who harbour a secret – or not so secret – love for the game, there’s a pervasive discourse which says that football is evil: it’s patriarchal, racist, sexist, heteronormative etc. And while I think, in many ways, it is those things, it’s also importantly, in that way, not different to any other institution in which we all participate (and in which we’re forced to participate) everyday. From our workplaces, to the media we read, to the tv we watch, to our places of learning, to the language we speak (thanks Butler), we need to recognise that our everyday lives are lived in ways which are thoroughly infused with the racist, classist heteropatriarchy. In so many ways it’s inescapable, and in so many ways we consciously and unconsciously repeat it. So yes, while football might be a site for the acting out of inequalities (for want of a better term), it’s definitely not the only institution which reinforces these same discourses and produces these material conditions. As in, I think I do less harm by supporting a football team than I could do by working as a corporate lawyer.
Because, of course, we can always decide to what degree we are going to evade and disrupt the discourses we are faced with. For instance, we can choose to hate the players on our teams who we know have committed rape (hello Stephen Milne!); we can choose to support teams whose presidents haven’t made antisemitic comments (as the president of Collingwood did, as a guest speaker at a Jewish community function a few years back: when asked whether there are any Jews in Collingwood, he replied ‘Depends if it’s rent day.’ Sigh. As my brother said, ‘[the] bitterness [of defeat] never tasted so sweet.’).
In the aftermath of the raping perpetrated by these two Collingwood players there’s been a lot of focus on rape by footballers. On a tv discussion show the other night, the panellists spent a lot of time talking about what this instance of rape meant, and how the AFL should prevent players from raping women. Watching this discussion, and reading the commentary that is proliferating at the moment, it becomes really clear that this rape is being worked to discursively segment off rape within football from all other rape. Whereas in the 1980s and 90s the issue was one of ‘stranger danger’ (which worked to efface the fact that a woman was/is much more likely to be raped by someone she knows, rather than a stranger), now it’s ‘footballer danger’, which works to efface the fact that still, one in three women in this country will be raped or sexually assaulted. Rape is common. But by focusing on footballers raping women, by making the conversation be about how to stop footballers raping women, the fact that it is an everyday occurrence is effaced.
As I’ve been thinking about all this over the last few days, I’ve also been thinking about the Loyalty Oath which looks like it will become law in Israel. I assume you’ve read about it, but if not, have a read here, here, here, here and here. This Oath requires that all future non-Jewish citizens of Israel pledge their loyalty to a Jewish and democratic state. And it’s been interesting watching the response from people who I would call left-wing Zionists: people who have a deep faith in ideas of liberalism and democracy, and also in the idea of Israel existing as a Jewish State. These people, it seems, have been radically challenged by this Oath, writing that this Oath represents the breakdown of Israeli liberal society; that to pass this Oath would be to threaten Israeli democracy.
But I think that it just makes explicit what we have known to be true for quite some time: Israel excludes non-Jews (and, specifically, Palestinians). One cannot be a full citizen of Israel, and be non-Jewish. The two categories are irreducible. What this new legislation, this new Oath, does is make explicit practices which have been occurring on a daily basis for quite some time. It doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s not, I don’t think, a huge leap. But it instrumentalises the exclusion which the Occupation, and which the displacement of Palestinians since 1948 (and before), inaugurated. It’s not as though Israel has always been a liberal democracy, and now this liberalism and this democratic spirit ends. We must question the extent to which Israel has ever been a democracy for non-Jews (in particular). We must also question the extent to which any country is a democracy, and acknowledge that none truly are, for all their citizens.
So what’s the link between these two ‘events’? It’s this question of the everyday, and the ways in which particular events get segmented off as different, thereby producing the everyday as something which doesn’t contain rape, exclusion from citizenship, sexism, racism, heteronormativity. Knowledge is thereby produced of a society which doesn’t inherently contain these things. Rape in football makes the argument that rape isn’t part of the everyday. The Loyalty Oath makes the argument that discrimination in Israel isn’t part of the everyday. It makes it seem like we can change around the edges and it will all be ok: as if rape could be ended without a revolutionary change in the ways that people engage with one another. As if differences in equality within any democracy could be eradicated without a revolutionary change in how we conceptualise and put into practice any nation-state, any democracy.
Which is why that quote from Essex Hemphill up the top seems to me so poignant: if we have a daily task of needing to be accountable to ourselves, we also have a daily task of recognising the everyday ways in which discourses of oppression, or making particular ideas ‘normal’ and normative, proliferate.