Well I heard it on the radio

Ah words, and their slippery meanings.

Sometimes, exploring the meaning of a word can prompt some philosophical pondering – such as when I wrote a post about cool, in which (typically), I got caught up looking at the history of the word, it’s changing meaning since the late 19th century, and an attempt to analyse what cool means in contemporary times.

I came to the conclusion that cool is a word with a very fluid meaning, as it’s always open to interpretation, because cool is used in all sorts of ways within language, and at any point in history, different people will think that different things are cool. 

Cool can be used to describe an activity, but saying it’s cool is not the same as saying the activity is fun. In most cases it probably is fun, but it’s something else as well.

For example, I might think that listening to public radio is cool, while someone else might think that public radio is dull, and that listening to a commercial radio station that plays the Top 40 is cool. We would both be employing the concept of cool to mean, an activity that has currency and keeps us abreast of the music, issues, conversations and events that we want to know about. The funny thing is, we’d both be right. Cool can apply to different things, for different people.

Cool has become a replacement for value judgements about what is good, or right, in a moral sense. For example, you may think it’s totally cool for football supporters from all teams across Australia’s national Football League (AFL) to systematically band together week after week at matches, to boo a specific Indigenous football player, any time he makes contact with the ball, over the course of an entire season of football matches.

You may say that’s totally cool, and if you did, I’d interpret you to mean, not that it’s a great thing to happen, but that as far as you could see, there’s nothing wrong with doing it. You may agree with some of Australia’s deep thinkers, including ex-Cricketer Shane Warne, and shock-jock/singing canary Alan Jones, who have commented that being booed at is just a part of being a sports person.

Perhaps you think that it was really uncool of the player, Adam Goodes, to call out a football supporter who called him an ape during a game, a few years ago.* Perhaps you’d agree that Goodes is asking for it, and should toughen up. Perhaps the lack of sportsmanship that’s displayed by football fans in booing incessantly at one specific player every week doesn’t bother you – you’re cool with it and think that he, and everyone suggesting that it is racist behaviour, should just chill out.

But my idea of what is cool might differ from yours. I might think it’s incredibly uncool that anyone could continue to engage in that behaviour, (the booing) or defend those who continue to boo, and not see, or at least not admit to understanding that, even if the intention was not originally racist, that subjecting one specific Indigenous player to humiliating booing week after week just condones and empowers racist attitudes.

No doubt it’s true that some sports people do get booed, but when an Indigenous player with a record of standing up and calling out racism is being systematically targeted and booed at, I think there are some people booing for the wrong reasons, and too many other people falling over themselves to defend them.

Call me crazy, but when I hear anecdotes about people who have called out “go back to the zoo” or called Goodes an “ape,”  the picture I form of those people does not equate with my idea of cool.

So what is my idea of cool, as it’s used to describe a person, as if cool (or coolness?) is an intrinsic character trait? It appears that my personal interpretation is someone who is compassionate, and generous of spirit. The opposite to cool, therefore, would be someone who is mean-spirited and has no empathy for others. In that case, when describing character, perhaps the best antonym for the word cool is the word redneck.

Another quality that I admire, and think cool, is courage – particularly the variety required to be willing to stand out and be different, or to stand up for others who are unpopular.

In this sense, I think that the young Indigenous player, Lewis Jetta, who stood up for his team mate Goodes last week by performing a traditional Indigenous war dance after kicking a goal, showed great courage. It took courage to stand up for his colleague by doing something that was unpopular when Goodes did it (allegedly, a war dance performed by Goodes at the Indigenous AFL round in May was the catalyst for ramping up the booing he has been receiving ever since.) It’s courageous for someone in the very early years of their potential career as an AFL footballer to risk alienating fans. To me, the courage required means that was a very cool thing to do.  However, many commentators thought that Jetta’s wardance was confrontational, and questioned why he would exacerbate the situation by doing it. Clearly they did not think it was cool at all.

While writing this post, I looked back at footage of Jetta’s wardance, and then at footage of the wardance that Adam Goodes did. Watching, I thought both performances were cool, in and of themselves – completely aside from any courageous statement being made by the player.

But what do I mean when I say that the war dance was cool? Well, dance is an important part of Aboriginal culture, and these two men know how to skilfully execute some traditional moves. Watching the footage, this is what I saw: after kicking a football through a goal post, an athletic man, still running, does not slow down, but alters his gait, to incorporate rhythmical movements of the shoulders, arms and legs as he runs towards the fence, in such a way that it’s a dance while also mimicking running towards prey with a spear. It’s powerful and graceful and I think it’s cool to see such an expression of traditional Aboriginal culture that normally, as a white person, I’d have to go on a tour to the outback, or pay for a ticket for Bangarra Dance Theatre, to see.

Is the war dance confrontational? Well, yes, of course a war dance is confrontational. So is a Haka, a traditional Maori war dance. I’ve always thought the Haka was cool –  if you have never seen it, check out this clip on Youtube of New Zealand team the All Blacks doing a Haka before a Rugby match with France – it takes about 1 min 31 secs. You’ll see aggressively poked out tongues, and upraised fists being punched in the air. Again, it is cool because it is powerful and part of a traditional expression of culture.

Speaking of upraised fists, isn’t it common for most sportspersons to do an aggressive but celebratory air punch in the air while facing opponents, or opponents’ fans? – I’m picturing most tennis matches I’ve ever watched.

Usually, those kinds of “up yours” gestures are forgiven, or thought to be cool,  in that context, because it’s understood that the players are in a ‘zone’, that they have to stay in that zone to maintain their fierce competitiveness, that the actions are done spontaneously, and that they are done in a celebratory mode (probably even more so if the team or player has been losing up until that point.)

*

Some readers may think it is uncool of me to write about very specific, local/topical/political issues on a personal blog that is read by people who won’t have followed, or have any interest in, this very local story, but now and then, some attitudes in society bother me too much not to vent about them.

For those who know or care nothing for the very specific events described, I tried to also make this piece of writing an exploration of the many different shades of meaning given to the word cool.

So I hope that was cool with you.

*

*Well I heard it on the radio is the first line of the song Treaty, by Yothu Yindi.

*the fan who was kicked off the ground for calling Goodes an ape was a 13 year old girl, but I doubt that in the heat of the moment that Goodes heard her abuse and pointed her out, he was thinking about her age. (And doesn’t her young age make it worse in some ways?) Those who keep bringing this incident up as justification for why they don’t like Goodes conveniently ignore the footage from a press conference held the next day where he said that he was heartbroken to find out that she was so young, and that the person who needed help “through this” was “that little girl.”

 

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4 Comments

  1. I heard about the events involving the two footballers you mention but have not informed myself deeply of the matter so it would be wrong of me to comment on it in detail. For example, though it’s fairly clear that racism is a factor in the behaviour of some of the people, it seems that there may be other reasons for conflict, such as actions that some people might find objectionable apart from their relevance to specific race or culture. White crowds have often condemned white players for their behaviour on the pitch, and subsequently engaged in a campaign of hate towards them.

    This is one of the problems: when conflict arises between individuals or groups of different race, racism is likely to be invoked even if it wasn’t a factor to start with. For example, I once invigilated an exam where a candidate got up and left in the middle. I remonstrated with him because the rules required him to remain seated until I had collected his exam paper. I would have remonstrated with any candidate in those circumstances. This candidate happened to be black and he immediately complained to the examiner in charge that I was being racist. Now whether he was deceitfully “playing the race card” or genuinely believed I was racist, I do not know. The fact remains that a non-racist intervention was swiftly tainted with an accusation of racism.

    I would say that racist taunts are shameful and I utterly condemn those who make them. They do deserve to be called out and publicly shamed. Unfortunately, though, this is never the end of the matter and it all too easily initiates a vendetta. Shaming a racist rarely stops that person being a racist and may have the unwanted effect of rallying support from other racists. The person who does it is considered “courageous” or “reckless”, depending on your view of the circumstances.

    We all have irrational dislikes of certain categories of people (red-heads, men with beards, folk of race X, etc) and these are hard to suppress. What matters, though, is whether you allow the reflex to manifest itself in actual prejudicial behavior. If you do, then that is classic racism in all its inglory. The whole point of being civilized is that we curb our prejudices to maintain social harmony. Racism is therefore as much a crime as picking pockets or burglary.

    I think, though, that sport is one area where racism is rife. Perhaps it is encouraged by the competitive nature of sports where people consider their team superior and are dismissive of all others and look for reasons to substantiate this disdain. It is so tempting to dismiss them as “a bunch of [insulting racial epithet]”. While the racist attitude remains latent, things are peaceful but an incident, such as a controversial action on the pitch, can easily let the genie out of the bottle. Putting it back is a lot harder than releasing it.

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    • Thank you for you very considered response Silver Tiger. There are so many worthwhile and interesting points in your comment that it’s taken me a week to respond!

      I have no doubt that in some cases, as your personal experience proves, a non-racist intervention that is not to the liking of the person from the minority group may be labelled racist when it is not. I think in this case, (and I hope that I indicated this was what I thought) there are people booing who genuinely believe they are booing the player because they don’t like the way he plays, and that they would do the same to a white player. But I guess it’s at that point where I feel as if people who are genuinely not racist, would stop and think, “well, if you come from a history of 200+ years of your ancestors being wiped out, treated like slaves and marched in gangs with chains around their necks, separated from their families, and treated as second-class citizens, all by white folk, perhaps all this booing by those same white folk (predominantly) week after week would become depressing and demeaning in a way that goes beyond just hurting the pride of an individual…heck, maybe I’ll stop the booing for now, while it seems like this has taken on a momentum of its own and become something I didn’t intend it to be.”

      Your point about irrational dislikes of certain categories of people is an interesting one. I wonder how often “irrational dislike” could be rephrased as “fear”. I dislike people who are showy, fake, loud and pretentious, but in theory that “category” is something they have some control over. If you have an irrational dislike of men with beards, that actually seems quite rational to me. 🙂 But if you have an irrational dislike of someone else because they are gay, or transexual, or Chinese, or disabled, or some other factor that is an integral part of who they are, then I suggest that in most cases it’s probably because you were brought up in an environment where you had little or no exposure to such people one-on-one, and any discussion of them as a category was negative, and probably ill-informed.

      I dislike hearing people mouth off about an entire group of people. Many years ago when I was having driving lessons, I thought I’d finally found an instructor who was patient enough to cope with my very slow progress, so I was dismayed one day when he began a sentence by saying “there is one kind of driver you need to avoid at all costs when you’re out on the road…” I thought, “oh no, if he’s going to say Asians, or women, I’ll have to end having lessons with this guy”, who had seemed up to that moment, quite nice. Fortunately he finished by saying “that is, drivers wearing hats. Anyone who doesn’t take their hat off in the car is generally a bad driver.”

      Well that little bit of prejudiced advice was ok by me, because wearing a hat in the car is something you have a choice over.

      I agree that it’s important to monitor our own behaviour to make sure that we are not being prejudiced towards someone else, but I think it’s possible to aim higher than that too. I think we can actually try to learn more about certain groups, or categories of people by engaging with them when they come across our path, and take the trouble to know them as a person, and through doing so, perhaps move onto the next plane, so that instead of an irrational dislike that we have to hide, we might see beyond the “category” and feel acceptance of them as just another individual.

      After all, my uncle had a beard and he was a lovely man.

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  2. I don’t have any particular dislike of men with beards and chose that as a random example. I’m sure your uncle and I would have got on together perfectly well!

    The fact that white people have abused members of certain races over a long period does predispose modern members of those races to detect a racist attitude, perhaps seeing it when it is not there because too often it is there. That may have been the case with my exam candidate.

    Human beings are billed as rational creatures but in so many cases they do not behave rationally and mob psychology too easily overwhelms their critical faculty and dictates their actions. Individuals may recognize that a football match is not the place and time to show disapproval of a player’s previous behaviour but then get caught up in the booing and catcalling of the mob.

    I liked the story of your driving instructor. I haven’t driven a car for 10 years but do wear a hat. I didn’t have the hat when I drove, so I cannot say whether I would have fulfilled your instructor’s negative expectations of hatted drivers. I can say that wearing a fedora is not something to be taken lightly. You have to learn to “fly” it in windy weather and there is always the problem of where to put it in situations such as the cafe or restaurant. I often end up wearing it during the meal simply because there is nowhere else to put it. Being a hat wearer possibly does modify one’s behaviour in as yet uncharted ways.

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  3. I was using “you” in a general way above, although I’m glad to hear you don’t have an irrational dislike of men with beards! I love hats, especially in the cold weather, and nowadays I do find myself driving while wearing a hat! Not a fedora though, which I just don’t think I could carry off – I agree, the wearing of a fedora is not to be taken lightly. I wear beanies and greek-fisherman style caps – I’m not sure what my driving instructor’s theories were on the wearers of those. 🙂

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