About a year ago, a video of a language-related altercation on a Melbourne bus was widely reported in the media and went viral on social media. The video and associated reports document the following sequence of events: Three French tourists, white women in their 20s, sat at the back of a late-night bus and sang a French song. This annoyed an Australian woman of similar age and racial appearance who began to shout “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.” Another bus passenger then told the French women to “speak English or die.” From around there, the video starts and shows a quickly escalating ugly scene dominated by a middle-aged white Australian male pushing a pram with a baby and with a bewildered four- or five-year-old kid in tow: the man is ranting abuse at the French women, including grotesque violent threats. After he gets off the bus, the window closest to the French women is smashed, presumably by something he throws.
The video is a shocking example of mob hysteria and continues to exert viewers, as the ongoing discussions on social media demonstrate (at the time of writing, the latest of over 28,000 youtube comments had only been posted ten hours earlier).
What interests me is the way in which the incident has become labelled as “racist” in the media, where it has been described as “racist abuse,” “racist bus attack,” “racist rant,” or “racist violent bus abuse.”
However, the incident was obviously not triggered by race but by language, as the Sydney Morning Herald was one of the few to recognize with their headline “’Speak English or die’ – terror on a suburban bus.”
Once the abusive rant is underway, most of the swears uttered are sexist insults (the c-word figures prominently as does ‘bitch’) and most of the threats of violence are also specifically of sexist violence such as the threat to cut off the woman’s breasts. The only explicitly racist label used by the main agitator is ‘ding,’ which according to the Macquarie Dictionary is a derogatory term for Italian migrants used in Western Australia. Some contributors add that the term is used in Melbourne, too, and that it is sometimes extended to other southern and central European migrants, particularly Greeks and Yugoslavs.
In sum, the abuse is triggered by language and is mostly expressed in sexist terms. Even so, what the public sees is racism. There is no doubt that racism was an important part of the event: in addition to the use of ‘ding’ in the main speech act, another white middle-aged male bus passenger, seemingly taking his cue from the main abuser, starts to rant against black people. His tirade is not addressed at the French girls but the person who took the video on his mobile phone, stand-up comedian Mike Nayna, whose parents are from the Maledives and the Netherlands and who describes himself as “brown” while the media were a bit more coy describing him as having “light-brown skin.”
Where it gets really confusing is in the fact that all the reports I have read identify one of the French women, Fanny Desaintjores, as the target of the “racial abuse.” By contrast, the evidence suggests that Desaintjores became the target of abuse because of her linguistic difference and her vilification took mostly the form of sexist insults. The expression of linguistic and sexist prejudice against Desaintjores then ‘licensed’ the expression of racial insults to Nayna in a bigoted melange where various prejudices fed off each other.
Does my insistence on distinguishing linguistic, sexist and racist prejudice matter? At one level, it doesn’t because bigotry usually comes as a package. However, at another level, the distinction I am making is highly important: the injunction to “speak English” is ubiquitous in Australian society and expressing intolerance against linguistic diversity in this way is not usually seen as problematic. On the contrary, telling someone to speak English may even be seen as an expression of good manners.
As the Melbourne incident shows, all kinds of intolerance feed off each other. Expressing linguistic intolerance is ‘cheap’ – it can be expressed without even being recognized as intolerance. By contrast, it is much more ‘costly’ to come straight out with sexist or racist abuse – everyone recognizes these as discriminatory and there are social sanctions against vilification. Would the man on the Melbourne bus have racially insulted Nayna if he hadn’t felt the expression of racial intolerance was ok because other bus passengers were also expressing intolerance? Unlikely.
While linguistic intolerance may be expressed where racial intolerance is sanctioned, the two must be recognised as connected, with linguistic intolerance becoming both a pretext for racial intolerance and enabling its expression.
It is worth remembering Ovid’s injunction in Remedia Amoris: Principiis obsta. Sero medicina parata, cum mala per longas convaluere moras. (‘Resist beginnings! It is too late to intervene when evil has grown strong through delay.’)