238. Racism and the Paradoxes of Miscommunicaiton

It is an axiom that we will be mis­un­der­stood. “All the world old is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a lit­tle queer” [Robert Owen 1771–1858]. It is chis­elled in stone that our writ­ing will be mis­un­der­stood. In every “lit­er­ate” nation, approx­i­mately 50% of the pop­u­la­tion is not lit­er­ate enough to prop­erly decode a news­pa­per, and in Aus­tralia appar­ently only about 16% of peo­ple can com­pare the ideas in two news­pa­per edi­to­ri­als. There­fore, if the topic is con­tro­ver­sial, mil­lions are guar­an­teed NOT to decode the writer’s mean­ing, but to insert their own pre­con­cep­tions. Given all this, per­haps what fol­lows is not sur­pris­ing:


Dear Sir,

On 24 Jan­u­ary 2012 the Bris­bane Times ran an Aus­tralia Day speech by a well known and liked Aus­tralian of Chi­nese ances­try, Charles Teo (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/turning-point-to-a-greater-australia-20120123-1qdyl.html). It hap­pened to deal with racism – a very dif­fi­cult and com­plex topic. As usual the topic attracted many com­ments. How­ever, the com­ment I made was rejected. Per­haps there is a kind of cul­tural cen­sor­ship at work in this dis­cus­sion. Any­way, here is my “bad” com­ment re-quoted, since it has some rel­e­vance to Indian-Aus­tralian rela­tion­ships: “Shortly after Christ­mas I returned to the house where I rent a room in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, and found the place deserted. Even­tu­ally I learned that the lessee was in hos­pi­tal. He had col­lapsed, hem­or­rhag­ing, passed out, come to and tried to call 000 and failed. He called to the Pun­jabi girl in another room for help. She refused to come out. He man­aged to text her a help mes­sage. She refused to come out. He passed out, then two hours later, barely alive, was able to phone an out­side friend. As the ambu­lance took him away, he learned later, two Indian peo­ple rushed in the open front door and helped the Pun­jabi girl to flee with all her belong­ings. By my per­sonal code, that Pun­jabi girl is a totally failed human being. As an ordi­nary Aus­tralian it would be nor­mal for me to have a very dim view of “Indi­ans” after some­thing like this. As it hap­pens how­ever, I have spent my entire career work­ing across cul­tures in Aus­tralia, and decades in Ocea­nia and Asia – long enough to learn that racism is nobody’s monopoly, and a very com­plex phe­nom­e­non. It takes an effort to cross the bound­aries of your group, and indi­vid­u­als every­where vary greatly in their will­ing­ness and courage to make that effort. We can encour­age tol­er­ance, but we can’t leg­is­late courage or even decency.”

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