Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reader perspectives on Melbourne's increasing culture of violence

I wrote a post recently about the savage nature of several bashings in Melbourne, involving kicks to the head, which elicited a couple of interesting and well-articulated responses from readers. In fact I thought they were worthy of more attention so I've repeated them here.

The first is from Peter, an Australian commenting from Brazil. I take it that he hasn't been there all that long to have a truly deep understanding of Brazilian culture, but nonetheless his impressions are perceptive and worth consideration:

It's funny, I'm in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the moment, and while one is at much more risk of being robbed on the street than in Melbourne, or being caught in the crossfire between rival drug-trafficking gangs fighting over turf, one is far more at risk of being bashed simply for reasons of pure aggression in Melbourne, Australia.
So the fears are different here. I am concerned about being robbed on the street more so than in Melbourne, and of course of being in the wrong place when one group of drug traffickers decides to invade another favela, or the police decide to go in and try and get a drug lord. But I'm simply not afraid at all of being assaulted for no other reason than some idiot wishes to express his testosterone that way.

Because there's a lot of violence in Rio, I'd assumed that the people were violent. But after experiencing New Year celebrations on Copacabana Beach, I realised this idea couldn't be further from the truth. Tens of thousands of people on the beach -- and yet not the slightest hint of aggression or violence, even with alcohol being consumed (admittedly, Brazilians don't quite drink like Australians do). Naturally, I wasn't present throughout the whole beach, so it's possible there may have been violence somewhere, but in Australia it's inconcievable for me to imagine there being no violence at such an event. There's always an undercurrent of violence, that is, the possibility of violence, in similar Australian contexts where young people are gathered, and especially where alcohol is being consumed. I was similarly astounded at the absence of a climate of violence during the numerous street parties that are held in Rio during Carnival -- many young people around but seemingly no possibility of fights. If you bump into someone, for example, then it is simply an accident and the person you bumped into is likely to apologise before you have a chance to do so yourself, even though you are the one at fault.

So why the violence in Rio? In Australia there is one recognised government -- the state or federal government. In Rio there are multiple governments -- the state governments, as well as the governments or fiefdoms that exist in the favelas. Since these governments in Rio don't recognise each other's authority, they periodically clash -- the favela governments against each other, and the state government against those of the favelas. Interestingly, there is very little crime in the favelas themselves, as the "authorities" within the favelas do not tolerate such within their fiefdoms.

So while Australians enjoy the peace of having one universally recognised governing authority, Australians are much more aggressive than Brazilians, traditionally amongst the lower classes, like tradies. This isn't always bad, as it means Aussies won't take crap easily, such as from their governing authorities, which is in contrast to Brazilians, who will passively accept corruption and incompetence from state authorities with barely a bleet. But regarding violence, things have gotten out of hand in Australia over the last few years, especially in Melbourne's CBD. I've noticed that the CBD has gotten just downright scary on a Friday or Saturday night.
So while I worry about getting mugged in Rio, I get scared of getting bashed in Melbourne.

Another interesting thing I've noticed is that social decency still exists here. The universal conviviality and politeness with which the people interact here is such that I've given up taking up a seat in the metro over here, as I know in short order I'll be expected to give it up to anyone over 60. Now, can anyone imagine the "youf" of today in Australia, with that messed-up-hair look they all have now, doing the same? They may ... but it's no guarantee.

This retention of decency here amongst all ages is all the more extraordinary given that the consumption of such drugs as marijuana is so normal and widespread among Rio's Generation X and Y as to be unremarkable. The main drug of choice in Australia is alcohol by a country mile, but here marijuana seems to be universally popular amongst my age group (Gen X) and younger. So it's strange to find routine marijuana smokers automatically giving up their seat for an elderly passenger without a second thought -- and just over 60 isn't that old, so it's not like it's because the elderly person is so frail as to be about to collapse.

I'm always really fascinated with how the way that broader trends in society translate to shifts in behaviour of individuals. In other words, how cultural and societal factors - such as how kids are raised, the State's response to social problems, ethnicity, influences from media and religion, and socioeconomic status - impact on how people think and act. I'm hardly an expert on Brazil, but it has often intrigued me that a country that is so devoutly Catholic can also be plagued by such serious violence. But as Peter describes, violence in Melbourne and violence in Rio de Janeiro seems merely to manifest in different ways.

The other comment is from my friend and fellow blogger Bonoboboy, another well-travelled Melbournian who has previously collaborated with me on anti-violence projects with young men. This is his take:

The level of headkicking bastardy that goes on nowadays is just beggars belief. Has anyone asked these guys what goes through their heads? Maybe mobile phones are partly to blame. They can mobilise a group of attackers very quickly, so you need to get your group together before the other bloke does. Maybe the culprit is video games, movies and TV, which give the impression that the human body can take no end of punishment and still be OK (whereas, in reality, just one punch/kick can kill). Maybe its televised war and suicide bombings, which desensitize people from suffering. Maybe its Western society's obsession with efficiency and competition- if violence is to be engaged in, why be constrained by notions of proportional force, fairness and honour? Hurt or be hurt. Maybe there is no context in which to teach young men concepts of morality, compassion and honour, without being laughted at. No more church, football clubs, neighbourhoods etc. The impression you get from a nightclub nowadays is an extreme polarisation of gender- uber masculine men, showing their muscles and money and women showing their flesh. The insecurity on both sides is palpable...

Some interesting theories posited there. I suspect that all those factors mentioned play a role to a certain degree. Bonoboboy's point about the increased ability of people to summon friends via mobile phone is one I hadn't thought of. Along similar lines, is it possible that as more and more deadly attacks occur, the perception grows that any potential attacker will use severe force (for example, involving weapons, a gang of mates, or continuing to attack even when the opponent is down)? Therefore, someone involved may become more paranoid and thus be more likely to use deadly force themselves, since they worry that they may be on the receiving end of it.

Overall though, I think the key is that something crucial has been lost to many of us in terms of empathy. Our society is becoming more individualistic and self-centred. It often seems like more and more young people are adopting a tribal mentality - back up your mates at any cost, but anyone outside your group is dehumanised and unworthy of respect.

More such musings here , here and here.


  1. Hi Eurasian,

    Thank you for including my perceptions of Brazil.

    My feelings alternate over here. On the one hand, I am constantly amazed at how well people get along and interact over here. I remember right after New Years, at the hotel I was staying in, I went downstairs to watch some TV and get a bit of an idea of what Brazilians watch. Flicking channels I decided to watch a bit of the movie Borat. It was the scene where Borat goes into the New York subway and his suitcase accidentally opens to release these chickens.

    The was shocked at the reaction of the people on the subway train. They were soooooooo rude! I mean, come on, the guy's obviously new to the country, and pretty clueless about things, so give him a break, especially as he was only trying to be friendly! Wouldn't you just laugh?

    Now the thing is, I'd seen that scene a few times before, and, hey, it was quite funny. But for some reason now I was stunned at the people's rudeness and unfriendliness. I realised that the experience I'd had in the New Year's celebrations on Copacabana Beach a few days before had already made me accustomed to the conviviality of Brazilians, such that Borat's experience on the New York subway system was shocking to me in its rudeness and unfriendliness.

    So I enjoy this rather somewhat unreal level of social cordiality and conviviality that exists in what is a city of millions of people, something one could only see in a small town in Australia, but only because everyone knows each other there.

    But then you see in the news here that someone was shot in a street that's not too far from where you are -- in Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon. Or an apartment block was invaded and apartments robbed, with some residents held captive during the ordeal. This is in the better-off South Zone of the city, you see, not in the poorer North Zone where you expect such things to happen, and maybe not even be newsworthy; the apartments facing the beach in Ipanema or Leblon are some of the most expensive real estate in the world. And yet these well-to-do and millionaires in Ipanema and Leblon can easily get touched by crime, if not get shot as well in the process of being robbed.

    Naturally, population density is generally much higher here than in Australia, so that where one household would exist on one space in Australia, maybe 20 will exist over here, people living on top of each other. So while things may happen nearby, the population in a certain space is much bigger. But the guy yesterday morning was shot off his motorbike on Vinicius de Moraes Street, the one where the girl from Ipanema would go walking every day on her way to the beach, and on which I've walked quite a number of times.

    So I find myself wondering which is worse ... getting bashed or getting robbed? If you cooperate in a mugging, you're left alone, right? But that motorcyclist just tried to speed off -- which I guess is not cooperating, is it?

    In Rio things started to get out of control with crime 15 years ago. In Melbourne the aggression is starting to get out of control, but I fear it's only starting, such that people relating how they got bashed on the weekend may become a normal occurrence in Melbourne.

    In the mean time, I'll enjoy the exceptional social conviviality here ... until I hear of something scary having happened nearby. But at least I won't get bashed ... which is some comfort.

  2. Thanks Peter. It's strange how violence occurs all societies, but to different degrees and in very different ways. For example, South Africa's incredibly high incidence of rape. Or Indonesia, where for the most part people are very well-behaved and not prone to random bashings; yet occasionally violence will erupt that is shocking in its mindlessness and scale.
    Just thie week I've read about 2 separate incidents in which elderly men in Melbourne were bashed for no clear reason. Strange that they are considered valid targets; for the most part I have not heard of women being bashed in this way.

  3. Looks like I am commenting on this quite some time after its been discussed. Anyway I wanted to leave some kind of comment because of the topic under discussion as I feel strongly about it all. I come from Melbourne also, and I completely agree with Peter.

    I have travelled quite a bit now, throughout Europe, America and south america. One thing I have noticed is the culture of violence in Melbourne, it's true that you go to places like Mexico or New orleans in America and there is the chance of being shot by some kind of cartel or gang member; or being robbed. There just isn't that masculinity and testosterone between a large majority of males though, you can go out and feel at ease, you can relax when you go out in these countries. In Melbourne I constantly watch my back and I am always on the lookout just for other guys having a night out.

    In other countries like America people can have an argument and it's just an argument, it stops there and people are fine with doing that. In Melbourne, immediately people are thinking about fighting each other straight escalates to a physical confrontation way too fast and over completely nothing most of the time in Melbourne. You walk past a group of guys in the street in the CBD and everyone goes quiet and becomes nervous, whereas in countries like...spain for example, people just keep on talking and laughing and not worrying about the other males in the area.

    I think it's why I travel a lot, and when I am in Melbourne I don't go out to the CBD anymore...I stick to certain areas where the crowd in much better and only go out there because I can feel safe. I am only 23 and even I have noticed a change in the night life over the past 5 years.

    Unfortunately to avoid all this in Melbourne you have to live a certain way, don't ever walk around the CBD on Friday and Saturday nights, find out where good areas are to go out and stick to them, catch cabs to and from the clubs/bars...and don't go out with idiots in your group because it always attracts trouble and in Melbourne you will get it.