Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dance(s) of Difference – (4) “Indians told to keep low profile”

Dance(s) of Difference – (4) “Indians told to keep low profile”
In THE AGE Feb. 19, 2009; pg. 1

Torrey Orton
March 19, 2009

In public life the inability to adopt a balanced position about the reality of differences and their underlying similarities, is the source of much pain. This matters more now than any time in my life (65+ years) because the conditions for clear thinking and moderate feeling about differences are disappearing. At increasing speed, various intensive and extensive calamities - economic, food, climate, fuels - are quickly upon us, sharply and inescapably affecting us.

The Indians as a group are just a current example of the experience of other identifiably non-Anglo immigrant / refugee groups which have arrived since the Vietnam war, and, with appropriate variations for different times, the European influx post WW2. These experiences are also not merely local Australian ones. The following story, in various forms, is probably happening in towns, cities and villages across the industrial world on as many axes of cultural difference as there are migrant and refugee ethnic groups, and established local populations receiving them.

The Frozen Cup stand in Bellerose is a marker of changing demographic expressed through foods, dress, languages, religions and races in the borough of Queens, New York City. The story of this change ends with the local political aspirations of the new community. The aspiring Indian local representative Mr. Singh said,

“Pizza-eating people have representation,”… “Burger-eating people have representation. Bagel-eating people have representation. But roti has no representation.”

These new neighbours are identified alternatively as South Asians and Indians, with the latter being the most used in the article. And their food of choice is “roti”, which is as good an identifying characteristic as are those of the other three groups.

In Melbourne we are again being treated to a another flare up around cultural differences and crime. Not strangely, there is also a colour line in the discussion. Not, this time, an African one, but an Indian one. Not refugees, but students. I first saw the flare on February 19th – THE AGE frontpaged it, upper right corner. As I am writing four weeks from that date, the flare is bright again.

In relationship terms, it’s a civic event, with intimate implications (it touches us quickly and deeply in sensitive places) and instrumental overlays (it occurs in various levels of the commercialised world of our everyday). The latter appears in the shortcomings of the first paragraphs on page one – where fire and smoke are to be seen but the fuel is implicit. The manner of journalist Jewel Topsfield’s introduction almost ensures that the smoke and flame increase. My purpose here is to show how this occurred, what followed and what should be done to reduce gratuitous increase of intrinsically volatile matters by THE AGE.

The inflammation started with the title - “Indians told to keep low profile” - a statement of fact with so many alternative readings as to suggest confusion is intended. It did not have to be written that way. So I suspect sub-editorial inflammatory intent, driven by a general editorial policy to attract attention everyday in any way to THE AGE. So we may wonder: Who are the Indians referred to? Who told them to keep a low profile? Why are they being told to do so? …and, Who is the intended (expected?) audience for this article and the following ones?

Who are the Indians referred to ? Those Indians are the victims of street crime in Melbourne’s west. I am still confused about who all the others are – the Indians that is. Five or six different Indian-named voices are heard in sequence but no particular order except to contradict each other, or other authorities like the chief police representative for these matters – Inspector Mahony. One article acknowledges that “Melbourne’s Indians are not a homogeneous group and do not all think alike.”

I am confused about what the Indianness of ‘Indian’ is. Who speaks for that? Who should I treat as authoritative? If no one, then there are unfortunate consequences for Indianness, since it is left to be merely a name, an identifier on the outside of the identified. This is the pathway to stereotypes and profiling – both negative and positive (think food as typical positive stereotype material).

Who told them to keep a low profile? After reading eight articles and four letters in THE AGE over 28 days, I remain unclear. It seems the police told them, but that the police were told to tell them by some other Indians. However, yet other Indians said the first bunch shouldn’t have told the police that. See above for confusion effects on me.

In the meantime, some people watching from the sidelines got the idea the police were up to their reputed habits of disregard for some foreigners of colour / indisputable difference (combinations of colour, language, food, music, being noisy or too quiet ( inscrutable?), etc. (this sub-story goes back thirty years to boat peoples)). So they called in an ex- state minister to excoriate the coppers for being Australian, or something. The ex- minister was one of the earlier arriving, indisputably foreign (in his time), types himself. He has risen to fully Australian, giving hope to more recent thems (Indians, Sudanese…) that they too can eventually do so – that the “roti” will eventually be heard!

Why are they being told to keep a low profile? Why was all this done? To introduce the notion of a “hate crimes unit”? This was the sub-head to the second article. In the middle of all this was a not half bad idea from an Indian student counsellor about providing new arrivals with basic cultural background info, especially about differences that may matter to them and to local inhabitants. One such is where in Melbourne displays of wealth (in locally defined types and degrees like Ipods, watches, etc.,) may attract criminal attention. This is the kind of information one knows about ones own home town, but it is not easy to pick up in another’s since the locals will seldom tell you without asking, and how would you find out to ask before it is too late? Imagine that info in a new arrivals handbook! Who could both know it and would write it with relative impunity? Imagine the outcrys from all manner of ‘interests’ at such truth-telling. We do know not to go down to King Street at night, don’t we?

What actually happened? Why does it matter that 30% of a victim population (the victims of muggings in the west) were of a certain identity? We can’t really tell from the various articles because the types of data required for a comparison aren’t available (or were withheld?). More likely, they just were never imagined as relevant or were harder to access than the KPI’s of the journalist warranted. That mugging matters to the victims is always important. But, is this 30% a real number? That is, given the acknowledged shortcomings in police recording of such incidents, what is it 30% of, what is the actual number? How many unreported muggings occur? How many punch-ups were really muggings, and so on?

Who is telling the story? There are at least four levels of ‘voices’ here: a) journalists, b) letter writers, c) individuals quoted by journalists and referred to by letter writers, and d) the wordless masses who the journalists referred to as ‘Indians’, and the letter writers are presumed to speak for – the Indian ‘community’.
Four journalists are involved in the bylines, two twice each. Another four letter writers got an airing, one of whom – Inspector Mahony – was a must publish. And there was a collection of short takes from Indian ‘community’ members, chosen (?) for mention due to being figures in culturally or socially relevant organisations, or bearers of personal tidings about the mugging experience, first hand or second. Just who is representing what and who about low profiles and Indian victimization is a wonder.

Who is the intended audience? Here’s the underlying question, since its answer(s) provide the rationale for the take off point – the mysterious “Indians told to lower their profile” of Feb. 19th. My guess is there are two audiences; the Indians themselves (the ‘community’) and everyman/woman (another ‘community’). In newspaper sales strategy, the Indians by size don’t warrant a front page position, as don’t specific subsets of African refugees (Sudanese, Oromia, Somali, Nigerian…). So, what in everyman/woman could the sales target be? Fear, generalised anxiety, perceived global vulnerability (broad spectrum vulnerability to global forces). A good way to get attention. All papers do it except the financial rags, who don’t need to. Their freight of fear and exhilaration is self-evident.

What last? Well, on March 12 we have the escalation of the dynamics to straight racialist protocols, aimed at the police. And in tandem a lifting of the game from words to demonstrations, though now aimed at police service provision – eventually the State government. And finally, the March 17 announcement of a “National probe into discrimination against Africans” brings the discussion full circle.

How could all this be done better?
One thing THE AGE should do is provide a rounded treatment of such issues from the start of the reporting cycle on them (a start may be when an issue occurs which warrants a front page or page three article placement for the first time). A well-rounded treatment would include great care about presentation of culturally volatile subjects to ensure:

  • Information reliability and credibility of its sources – who is telling the story and why?
    a) journalists,
    b) letter writers,
    c) individuals quoted by journalists and referred to by letter writers, and
    d) the wordless masses who the journalists refer to as, eg., ‘Indians’, and the ‘community’.
  • Acknowledgement that these source(s) interpretations are disputable from different perspectives / interests associated with them
  • Statement of purpose(s) of the reportage – where it is attempting to sit in the public discourse and who is the intended audience(s).
  • Especially, explicit acknowledgement of the tenuous nature of generalisations arising from the information, OR, giving rise to searches for new information eg, the assumption that increased or decreased numbers of crimes of certain types are predictively significant for public security

These publication criteria would largely apply to within-culture issues of high volatility, too. They often overlap with inter-culturally volatile ones, since the core volatilities for all humans are roughly the same. We have the same core needs. Imagine reporting on life entry and exit issues in a rounded way.

Neighbouring* subjects & issues: social policy, intercultural communication, crime and policing, difference and learning, power, Indians, stereotyping.
*neighbouring = historical and conceptual factors which give perspective to the blog topic

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