This is a sociology essay I wrote in 2006 (I think) while at university. As I'm not pulling an all-nighter for a rapidly approaching due date, I had the luxury of tidying it up a bit and fleshing out the conclusion. It still sort of makes sense, which is nice.
It is totally tl;dr, by the way.
On December 11, 2005, up to 5,000 people (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05a) converged on Cronulla Beach in what ended up as Sydney’s now infamous Cronulla riots, during which the white, Anglo-Celtic gathering of people “chanted racist slogans and attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance in retaliation for the bashing of two lifeguards, which locals blamed on Lebanese gangs” (The Age, 13/12/05a). The exact details of how many people were involved, charged with offences or injured vary according to source, however it can be said that on the day of 11th December, between six (ABC News, 11/12/05) and thirty-one (Daily Telegraph, 12/12/05a) people were injured, including five police officers and two paramedics (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05b). The number of arrests made on the day was reported as between seven (SMH, 11/12/05a) and fourteen people (Daily Telegraph, 12/12/05a). The incident made headlines both nationally and around the world, and was followed by two nights of reprisal attacks on the 11th and 12th of December, during which cars and shops were vandalised in “smash-and-bash attacks” in Cronulla, Maroubra and Brighton-le-Sands (news.com.au, 14/12/05). Once again, the number of participants, arrests and vehicles damaged vary according to source, with some putting the figure at fifty men involved, over one hundred cars damaged and six arrests (The Age, 13/12/05), and others reporting up to fifty “carloads of youths” and forty cars damaged (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05b). In addition, one person was stabbed. Each incident involved text messages and took place against a backdrop of intense media coverage.
While the usage of new communication technologies, particularly mobile phones, is in itself an interesting study, I shall not be examining it in this essay. Rather, I shall be focusing primarily on the coverage of the issue of ‘ethnic gangs’ in the media, and how this interacted with the social imaginary of Australia and Australian identity, and the power struggle between competing social fields for legitimacy within the broader national field to create the space for this particular manifestation of violence.
Smith (1996) defines Australian identity as a “general concept...grounded in common-sense thinking and everyday life...a broad set of shared understandings within (Australia) about its people and values...common languages, symbols and practices which help to constitute” an individual as Australian (Smith, 1996, cited in Phillips, 1998: 282). To be in possession of an Australian identity is not only to feel Australian, but also to be perceived as Australian by others who are also Australian. In the field of this symbolic community there are various prescriptive and proscriptive norms (Mizruchi & Perucci, 1968: 154) – do’s and don’ts – attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as roles and expectations the adherence to which enable the individual to gain social, cultural, symbolic and material capital. Such norms and so on generally include speaking English, associating with people already established in the field, and supporting the endeavours of the field. Individuals who wish to ‘achieve’ an Australian identity are in this fashion required to ‘play the game’ of the field in order to be recognised as a valid field member. Through continual interaction with and investment in the field as well as previous socialisation and acculturation, the individual develops a field-specific habitus. This is the internalisation of the requirements and values of the field. According to Bourdieu, this can all be traced to the fundamental drive of humans to be recognised by other humans deemed to be in a position to recognise them with authority; for if the self is seen through the eyes of the projected other, then the positive recognition by that other as regards the value and worth of the self is vitally important to the continuation of the self in its stable, relational form (Bourdieu, 1997: 166); a mirror is required to see the existence of what exists.
And yet where there are norms, there is by definition, deviance. Individuals within a specific field, who have by virtue of their symbolic, social, cultural and economic capital the symbolic power and authority to shape the doxa of the field “are able to impose their conceptions of deviance and normality onto others” (Roach-Anleu, 2003: 313). While one can rise to ascension and recognition within a specific field through the accumulation of symbolic capital, this capital only has meanings so long as the other field members accept its value. This means that the individual who strives to dominate in the field is in fact reliant on the field and its members to maintain the codes of meaning about the very gained resources through which the actor intends to dominate (Bourdieu, 1997: 166). As a result, the doxa - which shields individuals from realising the socially constructed nature of their accomplishments (potential or otherwise) and identity - must be maintained by a continual process of self-identification against the external, non-field ‘other’. It is through deviance that this can take place, as the moral outrage and repulsion to behaviour deviant to the specific field in which one is operating serve to cement the virtue and legitimacy of those who identify themselves in opposition to those same actions and othered 'dispositions'. It is in this way that we can return to the cultural field of the ethnically Australian and see it in terms of the dichotomous either/or relationship that it has with its polar opposite: the ‘unAustralian’.
‘UnAustralian’ as a word, while used in the past in reference to non-whites, communists, and foreigners, has enjoyed something of a renaissance in contemporary Australian discourse since the 1990s (Phillips & Smith, 2001: 326). UnAustralian characteristics, according to Phillips and Smith, “seem to acquire their meaning through their opposition to such orthodox ‘Australian’ attributes as mateship, anti-authoritarianism, not thinking you’re better than anyone else, cutting down ‘tall poppies’ and believing in the importance of everyone pulling together for the good of Australia” (2001: 329). It is a kind of anti-nationalism, a nationalistic deviance, which does not respect the sacred sites and values of what is perceived within the Australian cultural field to be the ‘traditional Australian way of life’. These sites and values are determined integral to the definition of Australia by historical discourse, generally dominated by cultural elites – those deemed to be in possession of symbolic capital (Bourdieu) – and shared historical experience (both actual and perceived) within the members of the field. Truly iconic amongst these significations is the beach and the tradition of surf-lifesaving:
“Going to the beach on a summer’s day is a tradition in this country – as Australian as a slouch hat, the Melbourne Cup, a sprig of wattle, the scent of eucalyptus smoke in the air. And there’s an aspect of this tradition we have all been taught to respect – that’s the role of the volunteer army of surf lifesavers who stand guard while we enjoy ourselves. That in this country we have bred a strain of selflessness so ennobling and so constant is something that every decent Australian regards as a stamp of quality on our national character. And every day at the beach – if we are smart – we breathe a silent prayer of thanks for the lifesavers’ work. …in attacking our lifesavers, they attack us all.”
(Daily Telegraph, 6/12/05a – emphasis mine)
The Australian and the UnAustralian are part of the social imaginary of this country, which while not uniformly ascribed to across the board, still holds true to a large number of social actors within this country. In the same way as the doxa of Bourdieu’s theories, Castoriadis’ conceptualisation of the social imaginary is about the bringing into being of “a world in which society inscribes itself and gives itself a place” (Castoriadis, 1997: 84). As the doxa renders ‘rational’ involvement in the field, the social imaginary with its socialisation, language, norms and values serves to hide the socially constructed nature of the power dynamics and inequalities of society. It is a story, a myth and a narrative that binds the community together in solidarity through “the internalisation, by socially fabricated individuals, of the significations instituted by the society” (Castoriadis, 1997: 85). Through this internalisation, the individual is tied to the social imaginary in the same way as he or she is tied to the field: it gives them meaning, purpose and ontological security.
However, what is not mentioned in the above editorial piece is that the living, breathing symbols of Australian nationhood – the surf lifesavers – were not in uniform when attacked on December 4th, 2005. As Liz Jackson of the ABC’s Four Corners reports: “Three volunteer lifesavers were leaving the beach, having finished their patrol. They were not in uniform. There was a verbal altercation with a group of what the locals call Lebs, with provocative insults on both sides” (Four Corners, ABC, 13/3/06 – emphasis mine). This information did not make the initial news releases, giving the impression that the three lifesavers had been ‘in the line of duty’ at the time, and that this was therefore a conscious attack on Australia and Australian identity from a deviant, UnAustralian and therefore ‘anti-national’ group of individuals. That is to say, a direct challenge to everything that the Daily Telegraph editorial cited above lauds to be the heart and soul of the nation.
Looking back to my previous discussion of social fields, symbolic power and the social imaginary, it can be clearly seen how this would enrage dedicated field members of both the broader national field and, more specifically, those members who are intimately involved with the very significations that prop up that specific doxa of Australian identity - the beach and beach culture.
The ethnicisation of appropriate and inappropriate conduct in the Australian/UnAustralian dichotomy - for such is often the implication - can be further seen in the ethnicisation of crime, especially gangs. While ‘youth’ is often coupled with ‘crime’ in media reports, Collins et al (2000) argue that a further link with ethnicity is made to the extent that youth crime becomes racialised, “equating gangs and crime with non-English speaking background (particularly Vietnamese and Lebanese) and Aboriginal youth, implying that therein lies the explanation of the event” (2000: 32). Media representations certainly have a large impact on the way a group of individuals is seen by the general public. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia commented on this in 1999, stating that “the race for the fastest headline only leaves time for unverifiable content, simplifications and clichés – all of which are fertile breeding grounds for racial prejudice ... the media encourage a quest for simplistic answers and polarising presentations” (cited in Collins et al, 2000: 33). Brubaker (2002) points to the trouble in classifying people and their acts according to their ethnicity or nationality in that what tends to happen is the reification of entire groups “as if they were internally homogenous, externally bounded groups, even unitary collective actors with common purposes” (2002: 164). This depiction of a “monochrome ethnic...bloc” (Brubaker, 2002: 164) means that entire ethnicities are cast as unified social actors with little distinction between each individual. We can see the real consequences of this in the Four Corners report, “...For Being Lebanese” (16/9/02):
Stephen McDonell (journalist): Since 14 young Lebanese Muslim men pack-raped several girls in Sydney, the press has been full of talk about race and religion.
Man at mosque: Listen, of all the people that raped girls in the past, did you tell that they were Christians or Catholics or Jews? You say they’re Muslims, OK? We did not go and rape anybody.
Man at mosque 2: Yeah, the whole community has been targeted.
(Four Corners, ABC, 16/9/02)
McDonell goes on to say: “There’s a perception that Sydney’s young Lebanese men are now inextricably linked to gang activities. This could mean anything from a few friends hanging out and wearing tracksuits to men involved in street fights to sophisticated cocaine and car rebirthing rackets. The categories are used like they’re all the same thing.” Certainly in the case of the bashing of two Cronulla lifesavers, what started out as “a group of men” in a car-park (AAP, 5/12/05a) quickly became “a large group of men” (AAP, 5/12/05b), “a gang of youths” (AAP, 5/12/05c), and “a group of thugs” (Daily Telegraph, 6/12/05b).
Arab and Muslim communities have experienced a dramatic upsurge in racial vilification and abuse since the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Sydney gang-rape cases in which it was alleged that Lebanese youths had “specifically targeted Anglo-Australian girls” (The Age, 13/12/05b), the Tampa ‘crisis’ and the Bali bombings. According to a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched in June, 2004, “two-thirds of Muslim and Arab Australians...say they have experienced racial vilification”, with “90% of female respondents [out of a sample of 1400 individuals] experiencing racial abuse of violence since September 11” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/6/04). Adding to this unfortunate rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is the fact that six women from Maroubra died in the 2002 Bali bombings, which, according to Federal Liberal backbencher Bruce Baird, whose Cook electorate includes Cronulla, “had fuelled anger towards Middle-Eastern Australians” (The West Australian, 13/12/05). Not only is ethnicity being lumped in with crime, but global terrorism is also ethnicised, becoming a major problem in the way Australians view others of Middle Eastern background or ‘appearance’.
In conclusion, it would appear to ‘common-sense’ perceptions of ethnicity and crime, viewed within the social imaginary of Australian norms and values versus those of its UnAustralian antithesis, that the bashing of the lifeguards at Cronulla by men of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance was the final straw in relation to a problem long racliaised in the Australian media. The aggression of the 'protestors' on December 11th arose out of intoxication and anger at the perceived violation of the norms, values and behavioural codes that mean so much to what was interpreted - at most likely unconscious level – as integral to the continuation of a coherent and contained sense of national identity. This identity was constructed via the internalisation of these historically and socially constructed codes of meaning (often couched in racial terms) and therein the sanctification of certain places and people. Also vital in this process is a systematic othering of socially and culturally assigned deviants – UnAustralians - and their alleged instrinsic traits. It is possible to conclude that the Cronulla riots were an attempt by people heavily invested in this code of racialised national identity to draw a line in the sand delineating themselves from the 'other' and thereby cemeting their own membership in the social and cultural field of what it is to be 'Australian'.
Australian Associated Press “NSW: Drop in police leaves lifesavers open to attack: Tink” General News (5/12/05)a
Australian Associated Press “NSW: Lifesavers Bashed at Beach” General News (5/12/05)b
Australian Associated Press “NSW: Bashing of two lifesavers not an isolated incident” General News (5/12/05)c
Australian Broadcasting Corporation “Mob Mentality Shameful: Police Commissioner” (11/12/05) < www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200512/s1528593.htm > [ accessed: 1/6/06 ]
Four Corners “…For Being Lebanese” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (16/9/02)
Four Corners “Riot and Revenge” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (13/3/06)
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Collins, J. et al Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime: youth, ethnicity and crime Sydney Pluto Press: Sydney. 2000
Daily Telegraph “New text threats” (12/12/05)
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news.com.au “Police blanket thrown over Sydney” (14/12/05) < www.news.com.au/stroy/print/0,10119,17567226,00.html > [ accessed: 1/6/06 ]
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The Age “Fresh Violence Rocks Sydney” (13/12/05)a
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Sydney Morning Herald “Mob Violence Envelops Cronulla” (11/12/05)a
Sydney Morning Herald “Sydney’s Racist Mob Violence Spreads” (11/12/05)b