The apes of wrath

Like many Australians I was nonplussed to discover the term "ape" is out of bounds when directed at a footballer of Aboriginal ancestry. “Ya big ape” is one of many animal epithets commonly employed at the football games I regularly attend, where their use provides an entertaining alternative to common obscenities.

"Ape" is traditionally used to refer to a large and intimidating member of an opposing side, one who threatens to make life difficult for the home team. From the Collingwood perspective, this describes Adam Goodes to a T. Here the term is interchangeable with any number of other synonyms, e.g. “Get off him, ya big oaf/pig/boofhead/thug/galoot, etc."

Baboon may also be used in this context, and while the barracker may indeed be alleging that the subject of the taunt boasts simian ancestry, it is well understood that this is meant at an individual level. Accusing a second-rower or prop-forward or being "a big ape” does not involve an allegation that all those who share the player’s ancestral roots are sub-human, just that the mother or grandmother of this particular player did possibly cohabit with a gorilla, hence the outsized physiognomy.

As a Sydney follower of Rugby League, I find the vast majority of comments are directed at the guy blowing the whistle, with the general theme being to question whether he is in full possession of his mental faculties, has an undeclared financial interest in the outcome of the game, or is somehow vision-impaired. The animal epithet most commonly applied here is "goose" or perhaps "bat" (as in “blind as a …”). For example, “That ball was a mile forward! Hampstead, you goose,” referring to what many in the stands might perceive as a moment of blindness on the part of referee Daryl Hampstead.

Feline adjectives are also commonly employed, e.g. “Get on-side Hodges, ya big cat.” Here, a NSW supporter is describing Queensland centre Justin Hodges in uncomplimentary terms. The exact meaning of “cat” is not strictly proscribed, although it does imply a diminished masculinity. It is a catch-all term that is used when some kind of non-specific insult is called for. “Goat” can also come in handy here.

Probably the most serious criticism that can be levelled at a player in Rugby League or AFL is to accuse them of being "a dog" or performing a dog-like act. This is so devastating it is sparingly used. Why this is so when pet dogs are almost universally beloved is an enduring mystery.

"Boong", "abo", "coon" and "darkie" are terms of disparagement for Aborigines, as noted on Wikipedia’s List of Ethnic Slurs page, where "ape", far from being an Australian pejorative, is actually defined as an insult to a black person specific to the US. It may be that the compilers of this handy online compendium have not kept up to date with modern Australian usage, but they do list a wide gamut of phrases from "abie" (a Jew) to "zipperhead", an historic US military slang term for an Asian person. Quoted references date up to 2011, which is fairly recent. If "ape" had been replaced with a slur traditionally directed at Aborigines, one could understand Mr Goodes being driven to react as he did.

In my experience, Rugby League barracking is generally good humoured. Indeed, in all my years of following the sport, I cannot recall a single incidence of skin colour being the entire basis of a taunt. An opposing player of a darkish hue might be referred to as a “black bastard”. However this is not necessarily a racial insult in the Australian vernacular, where "bastard" is practically an honorific, e.g. He’s a fit bastard … that bloke is one strong bastard … that black bastard sure can play, etc.

There has been widespread condemnation of the use of "ape" by the 13-year-old girl, as well as Collingwood president Eddie McGuire’s subsequent gaffe in remarking that the producers of the theatrical spectacle King Kong could enlist the Swans star to promote their show. Many regard both as unmitigated examples of racial vilification, and the local commentariat rushed to print with acres of columns decrying the loathsome incidents. These commentaries generally started from the position that Australian suburbia is a cauldron of racism threatening imminent boilover, inhabited by citizens who have difficulty suppressing the urge to run out with pitchforks and mallets and attack the first Indian/Afghan/Aboriginal/Asian they encounter.

Goodes has been hailed as a hero, and those of us who do not concur with the apprehension and interrogation of the young girl are asked to peer deep into our souls to uncover whether we are indeed something described as “casual racists”. I understand this to mean someone who perhaps does not undertake vigorous espousal of racist causes but is prone to toleration of objectionable phrases and behaviour — when Auntie Flo makes a quip about Asian drivers at Christmas lunch, for instance. As well as being casual racists, those who fail to properly acknowledge the suffering allegedly caused by the "ape" jibe are perceived as heartless as well.

Mr Goodes claims he was heartbroken to hear "ape" used by the teenage spectator. Subsequently, there have been outpourings of sympathy on his behalf, to the extent that a newspaper captioned a picture the following weekend “Adam Goodes … playing with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.” Presumably it meant the weight of collective white guilt, although whether this was in reference to the girl’s ape taunt, racism in general, or the entire Aboriginal post-1788 experience was not made clear.

Another article, headlined “Racism hurts for life,” interviewed Manly prop George Rose, “who first heard the deeply offensive slur ‘nigger’ at primary school.” Can any slur be capable of causing a pain that “hurts for life”? I have been called a "gub" by an Aboriginal, a term listed as a slur against white people at the aforementioned Wikipedia page. It was not a big deal. On a number of occasions my religion, race and sexuality have been aggressively questioned, but I have managed to endure these slurs without losing sleep.

When I was a young boy at a small Catholic primary school in the 1960s, the route home passed by a small stretch of Housing Commission homes, where the kids would gather in the front yard to yell, “Stupid Tykes!", by which they meant  Catholics. Being emboldened by the company of the Collins boys from down the road I would typically yell back “Up yours pubbos (i.e. public school kids)” and hurry on for the next couple of blocks until at a safe distance.

Times were much simpler then, and we took no further action. If I had said something to my parents, no doubt Dad would have replied with the oft-quoted advice that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” He used that a lot. Nowadays the incident would probably be reported to the school and a team of professional counsellors called in at handsome per diems to conduct a tiresome course of diversity training.

I also recall a time in my early career as a journalist in the 1980s when I attended an industrial estate in a tough suburb with a camera bag slung from my shoulder. A couple of hoons drove past, slowed  menacingly and then began to aggressively question my sexuality, assuming my camera bag was actually a handbag. I cannot recall exactly how I dealt with the situation — possibly I laughed — but  the moment passed and I was able to recover from the harangue.

More recently, I was genuinely harassed while driving on a Sunday afternoon in the vicinity of Sydney’s La Perouse, a place where youths of Middle Eastern appearance are wont to assemble. Navigating my car in front of what one would have once safely described as "a wog job", i.e. a hotted-up vehicle featuring a lurid shade of Duco and loud dual exhausts, I managed to earn the ire of its young occupants. They proceeded to tailgate me along the road for a time with a klaxon horn blaring, all the while hurling imprecations.

As is my practice in traffic when somewhere behind me honks, I slowed down and turned to smile and wave. This did not help.

I pulled up to turn onto a side road, at which stage they came alongside to curse me through the open window as a “dumb Aussie c***”. They based this on the fact I was white-skinned and driving a Commodore family wagon, although I could’ve been a Kiwi on holiday (which would have made the insult doubly hurtful.) I guess this was my Cronulla Riot moment in reverse. However, rather than leaving indelible scars, it caused me great amusement.

I was discussing these issues with a friend recently. He found it offensive that I was attempting to equate any of the “slurs” that I have ever experienced with the racist insults suffered by an Aborigine. I don’t know that it is so absurd. An insult is an insult. A slur is a slur. One deals with it and moves on. To allow mere words to be the cause of a lifetime of pain seems terribly silly. The suggestion that people with Aboriginal ancestry are unable to rise above a spoken insult in the same way that non-Aboriginals can and do is positively discriminatory.

This is typical of the new political correctness that seeks to restrict freedom of speech as a means of enforcing what are regarded as more important rights, i.e. to live a life free of racism, ageism, sexism vilification, prejudice or any other form of hurtful spoken or written nastiness.

The question over whether use of "ape" by the young heckler was offensive is actually no longer in play, as Mr Goodes’ declaration that the phrase offends him is considered enough to settle the matter once and for all. The process is self-fulfilling as given the widespread media coverage, there are no doubt white schoolkids across the land teasing fellow black students by calling them apes. Kids will always use hurtful names in the playground. The secret to survival has ever been never to allow anyone to know when they get under your skin, whatever shade it may be.

Meanwhile, on the footy field, the menagerie of pigs, goats, geese, cats and dogs running around for the great football codes will continue to be urged on by their many enthusiastic fans, while sadly their gorilla, ape and baboon teammates must be retired to the sheds forever, relics of a bygone era.

Leave a Reply