Payback: OK for you, not OK for me

And the hand-wringing begins in earnest, at – as usual – your ABC.

AFL player Liam Jurrah, who hails from Yuendumu about 300km from Alice Springs, has been charged with assaulting someone with a machete. This alleged assault forms part of a complex payback feud that’s been waging since 2010 in the local football club.

Gerard Whateley, on the ABC sports page, claims that we are going about this the wrong way. Here are two salient quotes:

In the past 48 hours Jurrah has again taught us how simplistic our understanding has been. Our challenge is to comprehend rather than rush to judgment on talkback radio. This 23-year-old’s obligation is not to football. It is to his people.

I was with Whateley all the way. Jurrah is an Australian citizen, and his obligation is the same as mine – not to football, not to payback, but to the laws of this country, which are quite specific on the matter of other people, their personal freedoms, and the impact which a machete can potentially have on a person’s social schedule.

But then Whateley put me straight: Jurrah’s people to whom he owes his fundamental obligation are actually his clan back home. “They are a tribe divided, locked in a cycle of violence predicated by a stabbing death at the football club two years ago. Payback has proven impossible to stop.”

Whateley seriously expects us to take this as a reason for us not to ‘judge’ him. I don’t judge him, because I’m not a judge, and I probably won’t be on any jury that ever gets convened to do exactly that. Anyway, Andrew Krakouer recently did his time in Wooroloo Prison like a man, and won 2010 Fairest and Best in the season after his release.

But Whateley – outrageously – wants us to take up the white man’s burden.

This can’t be the tenor of the debate. Indigenous participation has enriched football of all codes in this country beyond measure. In return we must accept our obligations to understand what we have nurtured. How can we hail a culture from the grandstand and then instantly disavow it when the circumstances become challenging? Our covenant with Liam Jurrah is worth more than that.

Well, the answer to his question is: We hail a culture from the grandstand when we see it putting this kind of illegal, poisonous, community-wrecking payback behind it. After all, we hail our own culture for putting away its illegal, poisonous, community-wrecking traits like racism, poofter-bashing and unequal pay, don’t we? Positively pride ourselves on it at times.

And what covenant with Liam Jurrah do we have, exactly? I wasn’t at that meeting – the one where we decided that he was so backward that we had to treat him as a poor primitive who was unable to control himself because of his tribal passions. I thought he was part of the same social contract as the rest of us. Apparently not.

Payback – like ‘honour killings’, polygamy, female genital mutilation, and going around with a black polyester bag over your head – is something that actually has no place in Australian law or society. Nor should it have. It’s not OK for me to attack someone who hurt my family years ago, and it shouldn’t be OK for him either (which is still unproven). No wonder payback has proved unstoppable – no one is actually trying to stop it.

Whateley’s dead right: this can’t be the tenor of this debate.

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