The Problem with Common Sense

The Adam Goodes controversy says more about us than it does about him.

One of the more interesting things about the current debate involving AFL player Adam Goodes is the way some public figures have mobilised ‘common sense’ against him.

After Goodes asked that persistent booing of him cease because it was racially motivated, a huge social movement swelled in support of Goodes. They argued that the booing is racist, in many instances without having watched or followed AFL closely, and howled down people who argued otherwise as also being racist.

Now, I am not going to get into the question of what motivates the booing, because I simply don’t know enough to comment. I am sure some people are booing because they feel destabilised by an ‘uppity Aborigine’ (to quote one media source). I am sure some people are booing because they don’t like the Swans champion player thrashing their team or playing dirty. There are a raft of reasons.

But one thing that can’t be doubted is the racialised commentary and racist overtones that have come out of the public furore over the incident. I’m not going to pursue that here either, because I think racism is generally recognised as being Not A Good Thing, and overt racism is not the thing I’ve found most problematic here (even though it is a problem).

The big problem is the way figures like Shane Warne and Sam Newman – sporting figures – mobilise ‘common sense’ in an effort to deny the issue of race.

It’s a tactic that gets employed by Andrew Bolt extensively in his writing, and in fact is what makes him such an insidious commentator.

Their remarks typically sideline issues of race, and reduce cultural tensions to a psychological conflict: Adam Goodes had a bad weekend, Adam Goodes has a bad attitude, Adam Goodes singled out a little girl, Adam Goodes scared people.

Because these statements sound plausible, like common sense, it becomes easy to ignore systemic issues around race. The same logic was used in the removal of Aboriginal children from families, and it is at play in contemporary racisms like ‘Aboriginal people are all lazy’, ‘alcoholics’, ‘bludgers’, etc.

These crude rationalities are an expression of white power (what we might call in sociology a normative statement). Commentators like Warne, Newman and Bolt exist in a position of incredible influence and authority by virtue of the culture they were born into, and that gives them power over the very terrain of rationality.

To be clear, this is not a critique of individuals for being white, but it is definitely a critique of whiteness (and by whiteness I mean the socio-political construct of whiteness).

Part of the problem with these sorts of discussions is, twofold:

One, that people immediately feel like they are being criticised when their position of power is challenged and…

Two, that this challenge to their power doesn’t make sense because it is being located outside of the dominant rationality.

Do you see how this works?

‘Whiteness’ is the cultural construct that sits alongside being of ‘European descent’, but you can also see a similar construct in what is laboriously phrased ‘heteronormativity’ (as well as a whole bunch of other ‘normativities’).

Let me translate this for you: when we talk about straight people as being ‘normal’, we set up gay/lesbian/transgender/intersex/bisexual/queer people as ‘abnormal’. The rationality here has been built over hundreds of years, and it is a powerful one.

“But Pat!” you say, “by far the most dominant form of relationships in the world are heterosexual ones!”

Yes, that is correct. Presently about two and half percent of the population identifies as gay (roughly the same proportion of the Australian population, incidentally, who are Aboriginal or who practice Islam).

But the word ‘normal’ isn’t a helpful way to think about this.

In the gay community, being gay is ‘normal’. Being an Aboriginal Australian or a Muslim is a ‘normal’ way to practice your life. Within the broader social sphere it might be less common, but that doesn’t make it less legitimate.

Hopefully now you are beginning to see that the road the rubber is hitting isn’t a road at all, but actually an unstable bush track.

People like Andrew Bolt use incidents like the current Goodes one to rail against ‘political correctness’, as though somehow the inconvenience of showing respect to someone is a fundamental assault on their own cultural identity.

It probably is something of an assault on Bolt’s sense of racial superiority, though that’s obviously not a bad thing.

But when Sam Newman et al tell Adam Goodes to suck it up, to stop being so sensitive, or that the criticism he faces is not shot through with racialised overtones, it is in fact Newman who is practising irrationality. He’s ignoring the cultural overlay that our society brings to bear.

Yes, in a stadium, people may not be consciously thinking ‘I dislike him because he is Aboriginal’. That’s not the way normative rationalities work.

But the irritation some white people feel at Goodes’ defence of his Aboriginality, and the fact that they seek to diminish the issue or shift the subject to other aspects of his behaviour, is most definitely an expression of systemic racism. It is not deliberate, but it is the learned racism of ‘common sense.

These modes of thinking trap us – they make our world less diverse and less imaginative. They prevent us from learning new things and exploring new ways of being and of understanding the world.

In short, Sam Newman is a moron.

Don’t let him make your world less interesting, and don’t let him ruin your sport with his old-fashioned ‘common sense’.

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2 Replies to “The Problem with Common Sense”

  1. Nice work, and I’d like to read your thoughts on the suspension of ‘commonsense’ through cognitive dissonance. For instance, the same commentators who tell Aboriginal people that they have to accept the British invasion and learn to live with the world as it has panned out, but at the same time want the borders closed because we don’t want these Muzzo terrorists coming here and changing our way of life!

    1. It’s fascinating isn’t it! I find it a really difficult area to theorise about, though that might be because I was raised in the age of the internet (and Gen Y are generally very good global citizens). Australia has always had a problem with xenophobia – whether it be the Chinese (and union resistance), the Japanese, non-English speaking Europeans, Vietnamese, ‘Asians’ and now Muslims. My sense is that there’s a cultural anxiety sitting beneath the surface for some people – ‘we did this to the First Australians, and now somebody is going to come and do this to us’. So for the Hansons of the country this sense of illegitimacy (again, an unconscious sense of illegitimacy) manifests as anger directed towards the ‘Foreign Other’.

      This might also provide some clues as to why Reclaim Australia has started spruiking its support for Aboriginal Australia at their rallies. Not only do they want to address the headline hypocrisy of ‘stopping immigrants’ by claiming solidarity with the first Australians, but perhaps they want to address the psychic guilt they know underpins Australia’s cultural insecurity problem. But if it came to actually giving up real power to Aboriginal Australia, it’d all fall apart. I’d like to see them let go of symbols they hold in high esteem – the flag, the anthem, etc – and give genuine power to the First Australians. Because to do so would undermine the version of ‘Australia’ they promote, and Reclaim Australia would collapse under the gravity of its own contradictions – an ideological neutron star of unimaginable density, dead and cold in the universe.

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