Saturday, April 09, 2011
"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words I can't pronounce hurt others"
In a Diatribe οf 2008, entitled «Κωλοδουλειές,» the diatribist railed against a barrister who representing the alleged rapist of a victim of Greek descent, sought to disqualify all members of the jury also of Greek descent on the grounds that he had heard that "Greeks like anal sex." This was instructive, because it revealled how thousands of years of prejudice can manifest themselves within a multicultural society, as well as highly offensive. Despite official rhetoric, if multiculturalism is to be defined as a melting pot of cultures existing harmoniously alongside each other on an equal basis, then we definitely have a long way to go. In their groundbreaking study: From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou analyse how the key forms in which migrant communities manifest our existence here are paradoxical. Though lip service is paid to communities forming their own organizations and sub-structures, the way in which this is done is heavily regulated and prescribed by the state, originally in order to keep sub-cultures away from the mainstream. As a result of such government-sanctioned behaviour, the sub-cultures remain isolated, suspect and constantly having to prove their loyalty credentials to their host country, that is perpetually unable to accept them as they are. Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou also note that such racially exclusion is symptomatic of the ontopathology of the predominant ruling group in this country, in seeking to legitimise its conquest and rule over Australia at the expense of its original inhabitants, by acting as arbiter over other nationalities it has chosen to include but not assimilate within its constructed society. In that sociopathic world, generalisations and denigrations can still be made about ethnic groups, just as they were made in the early twentieth century, when ethnic minorities, the Greek one among them, were considered suspect and were subject to internment or at best, surveillance and censorship. Further, in that world, rights can still be abrogated on the basis of perceived racial characteristics. Fifty-year-old Spiros Chryssanthakopoulos has at first hand experienced such ontopathology, complaining that he has been humiliated and racially vilified after discovering from a court transcript that magistrate Jack Vandersteen, clerk and police prosecutor laughed while discussing his name.Mr Chryssanthakopoulos has written to Chief Magistrate Ian Gray complaining that at one point a man can be heard on the recording making the comment "I can't pronounce that sh--". Allegedly the clerk can be heard laughing while struggling to pronounce Mr Chryssanthakopoulos's name, before magistrate Jack Vandersteen says: "No wonder we can't find him ... he would have been a hard name to recite 25 times. There's 19 letters in it."In a letter dated March 18, Chief Magistrate Gray said he did not believe the comment was offensive. "The comment was made following repeated and failed attempts of the clerk to pronounce your name when the case was being called," he wrote. "In my opinion, the recording does not demonstrate the magistrate was intending to cause you any offence...I am sure I speak for magistrate Vandersteen in saying that if any offence was caused, then it is sincerely regretted." So Chief Magistrate Grey does not believe that ridiculing the length or sound of one's name is not racist. He, as chief judicial officer of the Magistrates' Court has made his ruling and the matter is at an end. If anything, his response could be considered to be even more insulting than the ridicule the hapless victim of racism received behind in his absence (one wonders whether Mr Vandersteen would have had the courage to ridicule his victim to his face), as it calls into question the victim's judgment and his right to logically assess slights to his person. All this may do is to reinforce the stereotype that Greeks are overly emotional people and that their protestations are not a matter for concern. Extrapolating Vassilcaopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's arguments further, it becomes evident by such hurtful conduct that the ruling Anglo-Saxon hegemony seeks to legitimise its cultural and temporal rule over the globe by becoming the arbiter of how smaller, tributary cultures define themselves. Consequently, when we choose to present ourselves to the ruling discourse, we need to do so in a manner that panders to their sense of superiority. That is, if our ethnicity is to have any relevance to that hegemony, we need to demean ourselves. If we don't, they will do that themselves. If we protest, they reserve the right to dismiss such a protest. Thus, Chief Magistrate Grey cannot be looked upon without sympathy. He too, without realising it, is a victim of a culture where the denigration of foreign names has become second nature, regardless of whether any premeditation or malice has preceded this. This culture, is a frightening one.
When Anglo-Saxons have unpronounceable names, we are expected to pronounce them. I doubt whether most Greeks who do not speak English well could pronounce the name Vandersteen with ease. Yet there does not within Greek culture, exist a concept of not ridiculing people's names, or constructing a Shakespearean drama around their unpronounceability, simply because in our culture a name is sacred. It encapsulates a person's identity. However, in this country, we who have had unpronounceable names are punished for this via ridicule and dismissal, or by a denial of the legitimacy of that name and coercion to adopt another. As a newly admitted lawyer, unsure of procedure before the bench and fumbling, I have been granted my name an ironic pronunciation by a particular presiding judge, though the same judge did not play with the names of my similarly inept Anglo-Saxon brethren. Prior to that, my school teachers indulged in the same hurtful name calling. This, in my mind, despite Chief Justice Grey's assertions, is passive aggressive racism, designed to demean and I hasten to point out that I would doubt that the Chief Justice has ever had his name employed in the same way.
The Greek community of Melbourne is outraged at the slur directed towards the absent victim, not only because it has had to deal with such ridicule for over half a century, but also because when such behaviour is exhibited by a magistrate, who is, at least in the popular conscience, supposed to uphold the maxim that all are treated equally before the law, this conveys the opposite message, that some people, by virtue of the pronounceability of their names and their ethnic provenance, are more entitled to basic human respect than others. The outpouring of persons who on the Herald Sun website, whether the slur against the victim was reported, made comments such as: "Eat some concrete ponce......obviously the hearing regarding the speeding fine didn't go too well.....so I'll whine, whinge and get my 15 seconds of fame....obviously a slow news," "Get over yourself lovey - OR change your name," "How about you harden the Chryssanthakopoulos up!" or "This is easily fixed, change your name. A name that works well in Greece obviously doesn't work well in an English speaking predominantly anglo-saxon country. Why is that the majority have to change to suit the minority in multiculturalism?" should give our community pause for reflection. All of a sudden, a victim has become vilified and suddenly, turned into a perpetrator.
It is unknown whether the organised Greek community will take a public stand on this issue and demand the institution of protocols to deal with and avoid behaviour that is racist or hurtful in public institutions. As a "subservient" community, to adopt the terminology of Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, we are loathe (and possibly incapable, owing to the fragmented nature of our community,) to display our displeasure at the offhand application of racial slurs and bigoted, outmoded references to such ethnic characteristics, in any effective fashion, lest we be deemed to be "subversive." As a result of this lack of advocacy on our behalf, we lie passively, awaiting the next distasteful intrusion. Mr Chryssanthakopoulos, the victim in this sorry tale should be commended for his courage in speaking out against entrenched and latent racial or ethnic slurs. While incensed Anglo-Saxons may poke fun at him saying: "I feel humiliated, I feel like the court and police are ganging up on me...the racial vilification, the bungles, the vindictiveness, it's all been a nightmare." To the person who responded thus: "Dear Mr Alphabet - face it you have a very long, unusual and difficult to pronounce surname and someone made a joke about it. No one took away your liberty, you didn't lose any of your possessions and no one was hurt... so get over it," we respond by saying that it is a nightmare to grow up in a country where your compatriots were interned in World War I as a security risk, even though your country of origin was allied to Australia, where your people are ordered off trams and buses for speaking in their own language, where they are constantly talked down to and demeaned. It is a nightmare to dream, years later, that there is exists in this country, a concept called multiculturalism, where all cultures are equal, to believe in that dream, and to wake up to the stark reality that decades on, this basic respect for one's ethnicity has not been able to permeate the social strata to the extent that it should have. Magistrate Vandersteen does not need to apologize to the victim or to the Greek community. If anything, we thank him, for letting us know by his actions exactly how he feels about us and for the fact that he has reinforced to us, how important our language, culture and names are to us. We will never let these go.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2011