I’m a middle-aged Canadian born 185 cm 90 kilogram straight white male permanent resident of Melbourne, Australia. When I arrived in Australia permanently in late 2010 to join the woman who is now my wife, I became part of a household that included Stella, a King Charles Cavalier spaniel. One morning shortly after moving in, I decided to walk out to buy The Age, and to take Stella with me. I put her on her leash and we started walking along the four lane main street in front of the house. A ute going about 60 kmh in the same direction as I was walking slowed down and pulled into the curb lane. The lone occupant, a Caucasian male who looked to be in his late twenties, stopped the ute beside me and reached across to the passenger side to roll down the window so he could shout at me. “Nice dog, . . . for a poofter!” He then gave a derisive laugh, rolled up the window, pulled the ute back into the second lane and accelerated away.
“Welcome to Australia,” I thought.
When I tell people about this incident they at first often chuckle. After we talk about it, they often say I shouldn’t take such incidents seriously, or sometimes that it was just a joke and I should lighten up. Or that he didn’t mean anything by it.
I wasn’t hurt by the comment, nor did I feel endangered. I wasn’t insulted, and I can shrug the incident off. The man was rude and ignorant. I can see some humour, not in the comment but in the absurdity and randomness of the interaction and its timing in relation to my permanently joining Australian society. I was astonished that someone would see a dog, make a judgment about the man walking the dog, make a decision and the effort to interrupt his drive, slow down his vehicle, pull over to toss out a homophobic insult at a complete stranger and run away. That he would use this language speaks volumes about his worldview and prejudices.
But this random unprovoked incident also speaks volumes about the culture in which that man lives and moves. This man obviously felt entitled and able to speak this way, that there would be no ramifications, that he was powerful enough to insult someone on a public street. And that all these decisions and actions took place so quickly, spontaneously, on simply seeing Stella and me as he was driving by, says that he has long engrained and automatic assumptions and beliefs that erupt from his unconscious when given the unfiltered and unconsidered chance to do so, in a situation with no consequences for him. And this in many ways trivial incident gives a hint of the uncertainty and wariness with which people who are subject to these types of comments on a far more regular and intentionally vicious basis must live.
People who consider themselves powerful in a given situation act without consideration for the impacts on others. And so we come to Eddie McGuire. When confronted with the fallout from his comments, McGuire eventually apologises. But it is his unconscious state—his lack of awareness—that keeps getting him into trouble. The Adam Goodes mess and now the Caroline Wilson debacle are situations analogous to what happened to me: the expression of a moment of thoughtless ignorance that exposes the speaker’s unconscious perspective on and understanding of his culture. The difference is that McGuire’s comments were eventually heard by thousands of people, not shouted out of a passing ute with no witnesses, and so McGuire is held to account. Faced with the reaction, he’ll make excuses, and finally apologize (for reasons he’s not really certain of, with a feeling of being persecuted) because he thinks he didn’t mean anything by it.
Unfortunately, McGuire did mean it, because he is actually expressing his unfiltered beliefs, the ones that are the product of countless thoughtless reinforcing repetitions over his life in the society around him. A conscious part of him may not want these beliefs, and may not like them when confronted with them, but he has them and acts according to them automatically.
Until he changes those beliefs, by being open to comprehending the consequences of his comments on others, and by deeply and unflinchingly examining what those comments demonstrate that he unconsciously assumes are the primary perspectives of his society about indigenous people and the place of women (because comments consistent with these beliefs are therefore acceptable to state publicly without thinking), Eddie McGuire will continue to make similar comments, and will go through this cycle again. I hope he can achieve this growth, but the growth will not happen until he questions himself in truly challenging ways. And the same goes for Australian society in general.