Machiavellianism, slave morality and Australian Rules Football


This is possibly my longest post, ever. So if you aren’t turned away yet, grab a coffee or a tea or something.

If I were to write a chapter in an autobiography, it would probably look similar to this. It’s somewhat personal, so much so that I’m revealing things about my past that most of my family aren’t even aware of.

I didn’t intend for this to be so close to the chest, but I probably would have had to have gone out of my way to contrive it otherwise. I’m being candid for an ends, not so that people can engage in voyeurism. I’m really quite a private person by nature.

My point isn’t to write about myself, I simply serve as an example and I hope my experiences resonate. I doubt my experiences are entirely similar to what most people have had, but in the essential detail, I think, or rather I hope, there will be commonality.

The following narrative is quite real, and involves real people. That being said, out of charity, the names of a couple of people haven’t been mentioned. Those that would be shamed the most are the ones that I’m protecting, including a minor football celebrity I had a run-in with and a guy I knew as a kid who was later charged with murder.

Others who brazenly flaunt their stupidity in public remain named, although they aren’t really a part of the autobiographical side of things. Others still are named, who are out there in the public arena, who have had some influence on this tale, but who’s mention should cause them no harm.

I do use strong language in parts, feeling that if this was to be unavoidably personal, I should remain true to my own language (swearing will be tolerated in the comments thread of this post, if not abusive). I discuss unpleasant topics, including violence but there isn’t any gore depicted. The really visceral details, not that there are that many in this case, just don’t help me the message get across.

Read on over the fold for ‘Machiavellianism, slave morality and Australian Rules Football‘.

Earlier this week, in discussion with a friend (who it has to be said, is somewhat more cynical than I), the topic of default, first and lasting impressions was brought up. Said friend opined that people automatically assume the worst these days, then wait for things to be proved otherwise.

Specifically, that I had to make more of an effort to get to know my neighbours because they probably think in the absence of proof to the contrary, that I’m no good.

What a juxtaposition this makes to a point raised by Neil a little while back (which ironically, seemed to precipitate the worst in one of his readers); the kindness that humans are capable of showing each other. Kindness for the sake of being kind.

The two positions would clearly seem to be at home at opposite ends of a MACH-IV continuum (the psychological notion of Machiavellianism being something I have a little difficulty with as the questions in the test would seem in conflate is-and-ought through the mixing of observational and value statements – but that’s another story).

I dare say that I’m probably closer to Neil than to my friend in this respect. Not that I’m naive. My MACH-IV score is at the low-MACH end of the spectrum, but it really depends on how you interpret the terms used in the questionnaire. The questions seem horribly loaded.

As I told Neil in response to his post, I currently live near (but not in) a rough area that for reasons of employment (3am wake-ups I am glad you are gone), I used to live in during the last years of the recession in the 1990s. When travelling through my old stomping grounds, I’ve had a chance to reflect upon the nature of my fellow working-class Australians.

During the first two months that I lived in the area during the 90s, there were three murders in the neighbourhood (and yes, I’ve heard that joke – ha-de-ha – it wasn’t me) and I currently shop at the shopping centre where one of the victims (a little old lady) was kidnapped from before being killed. I like the service – down to Earth and friendly.

Some guy in the block of flats I was in, deliberately reversed his car into his bedsit and wound up in jail as a result. One morning, while walking to work, I was followed by a police helicopter across a soccer oval after the eighth hold up at the local servo in as many weeks (there were cops in bullet-proof jackets at nearly every corner).

Despite this, I find myself seeing good in most of the people in the area. The “usual suspects” at the train stations have only ever been friendly to me (really, I don’t see why some people get so intimidated so easily – they aren’t that likely bite). The most that I usually get asked for is the time that the next train to so-and-so comes along, and other times it’s just to have a chat.

Not uncommonly, it’s even to help out. Just as I was about to board a train, I managed to drop my MP3 player and wasn’t going to make the doors without probably loosing it off the side of the platform. Instantly, one of the “usual suspects” made a running dive for the door to prevent it from shutting, saving me from missing my train.

I barely got a “cheers mate” blurted out before I was off on the train. Without any sign of a reward, consideration came quickly. This isn’t uncommon. I see people watching out for others in these “rough” neighbourhoods all the time.

These aren’t the roughest people I’ve been around though. For one, none of them have taken a shot at trying to kill me, which I can’t say of a couple of people I used to know in my earlier years in Port Lincoln (one was a genuinely pathetic attempt and the other one was rather more serious, but botched due to an error that with hindsight seems comical – an error that gave me a slim chance to live that obviously I chose to take advantage of).

A number of the friends I had outside of High School back in those earlier days, aren’t around anymore. Misadventure was the biggest killer of course – two from being thrown from the back of a ute (both really good blokes who I still miss), one hit by a train (admittedly not the best bloke) and a couple of drug overdoses. There were a few suicides as well, which is sadly par for the course.

My Father, not entirely unfamiliar with Port Lincoln’s underbelly, was a bit concerned about the company I kept but for some reason didn’t pull the reigns as hard as he did when my next youngest brother started hanging around the same crowd. I didn’t quite understand the depth of my father’s concern, not crediting him with understanding my friends (what teenager ever does!) and not realising the depth of his experience (I knew my Dad was a bit “clandestine” but not all of the details).

The year after I first left Port Lincoln, one of the guys in my extended social circle, a fellow who used to borrow a mate’s de-facto-step-father’s (families are diverse things!) car to go and water his plants (yes those kind of plants) outside the city limits, shot two of my father’s friends – killing one and giving the other brain damage.

He was later convicted for murder and not knowing the case intricately, I’m not entirely sure where I stand but with a certain, small degree of trepidation, I trust the court’s ability. Others were quick to defend the accused. I can recall a friend of my father who didn’t believe a word of it, who thought that “he was always kind and polite” (I paraphrase) and making various excuses stemming from his experience in the army and calling it all an accident.

I’m not a credulous sort of person, so you would expect with this kind of up-bringing (plus the other bits I’m not telling you about), I’d be at the high end of the results of a MACH-IV test. The reality is, that while not impossible by any means to see good in people, it is for me rather difficult. Not rationally difficult, but emotionally.

It would be so very much easier for me to discount humanity and use some of the nastier things I know about to get ahead in life. Even being a big-bleeding heart lefty who as a child had an early onset of theory of mind, doesn’t make it easy.

Indeed, people make it difficult for me and I’m quite sure, my ilk as well. If it’s not unfairly presenting the low road as an option by challenging us to take it (say by expecting us to fight for what’s rightfully already ours), it’s by retracting opportunities because we are in some way “the usual suspects”.

The thing is though, as someone tainted with the scent of one of “the usual suspects”, I’m pretty considerate. I haven’t murdered anyone. I don’t attack people unprovoked, nor am I easily provoked nor am I the first to throw a punch. I care about other people’s well-being and quite frankly I care more than most Australians do.

I’ve seen it in my working class peers as well. In the face of elusive social justice, these people for the most part, aren’t cynical no matter if it makes the vulnerable (and it does).

Deep down like me, my Father was a softy. He evaded conflict more than most people realised and he was always concerned about the welfare of others. It’s why he took up coaching young men at football for Marble Range Football Club back in the 1970s – my father knowing what kind of troubles young men could face.

While a fallible man, the impetus was genuine compassion and it is one of the things I respected and loved about my Father. His concern for others, his capacity for selflessness was profound.

The problem though, or at least my problem with my Father’s approach was that it was all steeped in slave morality.

Nietzsche has done Christendom a dis-service. Christendom, he has held up as the exemplar of the slave morality, either implicitly or explicitly. Islam, he gave contrary and bizarre lip-service (albeit probably rhetorically and as juxtaposition to Christianity).

Nietzsche lived in the wrong time and in the wrong place.

If we look at mainstream Islam and mainstream Christianity in Australia, sure we see slave morality. But not always. Pentacostals telling Catch the Fire Ministries to get bent for telling them who to vote for isn’t slave morality. Neither Neil’s religiosity, nor his inclusion into a Christian community are examples of slave morality.

Master morality wouldn’t allow it!

Nietzsche’s head would have exploded if he got to see the Australian Rules Football, a hot-bed of Master-Slave relationships. Like gladiators working their way up to citizenship so that they can own other people, the rookie slave does what they are told with mandatory respect for their authority figure (the coach). The membership, uber-slaves, pay their fees and show their (more or less) mandatory respect for the players (unless they let down the coach of course).

My father made it a little way up that hierarchy. He was best and fairest in under 17s at Marble Range, waaaay back in the day and wound up in Adelaide being coached by Neil Kerley in the SANFL. Upon returning home to the Eyre Peninsula, looking for work, my father returned to play for Marble Range wherein a certain un-named half-wit from the Boston Football Club caught my father unaware on the field with a king hit and broke his jaw.

I was born shortly afterward, and it was out to Wangary and the Marble Range Football Club for my father, as mentioned before, as a coach.

My upbringing and relationship with my father could never be described as exemplary of the Master-Slave morality. My father did give me orders early on.

These however, usually focused on me staying safe. I seemed to run a real-time re-evaluation of my father’s morality, being rather selective in what I chose to obey.

Stay in the circle my father made in the dirt (so as to not step on rabbit traps); done. Stop calling my father “poofter” so as to avoid a walloping with the wooden spoon; done – for about the twenty seconds it took for him to cool off.

I didn’t know what the word meant of course. I wasn’t even in kindy at that stage. All I knew is that my father had an irrational response to the word and I was curious and amused at his arbitrary outrage.

So on it went at dinner times, “Poofter! HAHAHAHA!!! OW! OW! OW!…………..  Poofer! HAHAHA!!!”

I imagine a tough guy like Neil Kerley wouldn’t be amused. He would have copped the same treatment of course, if he had showed a similar response.

Later in life, I realised my father was homophobic when he took exception to me having a gay friend. As you can expect, I told him to go and get fucked. Repeatedly and over a range of other slave morality issues (usually surrounding my failure to arbitrarily respect people who quite reasonably didn’t deserve a display of respect).

I got a punch in the face for one of those, which served merely as punctuation between unequivocal defiance.

I’m not a slave.

That’s not to say that I wanted to dominate my father. He was his own person and was always (and still am) my own in as far as we took ownership of ourselves.

It was after this face-punching futility that my Father (somewhat cryptically and laconically) voiced his afore-mentioned concerns about my social group. This was around the time that I was hanging around people, some of who weren’t really fit to be around (in addition to the mentioned murderer, two of the group later threatened to kill my grandmother if my Father’s firearm wasn’t handed over to them – an affair I wasn’t involved in).

I really wish my father had been a bit more engaging with his concerns. But this aspect of my relationship with my father is a symptom of the inculcation of slave morality.

Of late on Adelaide television, we have a repeating advert featuring Neil Kerley (somewhat of a legend in South Australian football it has to be understated), prompting people to support “local footy”. The latest in a long campaign.

I’ll say one thing about Neil Kerley – I like his vim. He seems very much alive.

As for that half of the gormless Gowans that utters “there’s nothing wrong with a bit of niggle!”, well he just seems half brain-dead. Seriously, what the hell is this guy’s malfunction? Is he totally unaware of the problems football has in as far as its anti-social behaviour?

Has the man got no self-interest? I wouldn’t advise he “niggle” too many people living in the vicinity of his adoptive football club (incidentally the very same working class peers I referred to earlier). While I can see the good in these people, while this good is my overriding impression and while they aren’t the nastiest people I’ve encountered, some of them just won’t step in-line.

While the Gowans drafting from interstate isn’t exactly a case of class tourism, Pulp’s Common People does come to mind. “They’ll tear your insides out. ‘Cos everybody hates a tourist“. Not literally everybody of course. There will be the slaves in the membership and there will be those who would tolerate “a bit of niggle”, but geez how stupid would you have to be?

I’ll not lay too much blame at Mr Gowans’ feet though. His fully cognisant and PR Savvy master’s had to let this gaffe pass through to the public, which is really a bit exploitative of the youngster.

I have no respect for either of the Gowans brothers. Football achievements aren’t much in the way of achievements. I happen to think that my holding onto my life when someone wanted to take it away is somewhat more of an achievement than the enterprise of holding onto or disposing of a ball when someone else wants to take it.

Even then, I sure as hell don’t want the fanfare because whatever I achieved, it was nothing compared to the battles people put up against things like cancer. I wouldn’t swap my nastier experiences for cancer, and I wouldn’t trivialise the suffering of those who have had to deal with it, nor the triumph of those who have beaten back an aggressive cancer by suggesting that my survival is more of an achievement.

Oddly enough, most of those who have battled cancer don’t want the fanfare. Nor do many people who have faced these kind of odds and stakes. So why exactly do some of us venerate footballers? What makes them worthy? Why do they bignote themselves?

Why do we celebrate football “achievements” more than the far, far, far more important achievements of say the victories of kids in the Women’s and Children’s over afflictions like Leukaemia?

Aside from cynical marketing and slave morality (the former possibly being a part of the latter), nothing.

An AFL anthem went “It’s more than a game”. No. Actually It’s not. It’s just a game. What sheer arrogance and self-deception to apply so much reverance to something so utterly trivial.

I don’t hate the Gowans brothers. I don’t hate footballers. I don’t hate anyone actually. Hating outgroups is slave morality as well and I’d rather not.

I wish the Gowans well in life and I wish them to be good people. Slave morality won’t deliver it.

Slave morality will teach the Gowans brothers to trust their masters when they broadcast stupid one-liners over Adelaide television. Slave morality will tell the rank and file of the club to make exceptions for players who do drugs, sexually harass women and otherwise act like mysoginists.

Slave morality will teach the rank and file to gobble down bullshit apologies. Slave morality demands that they accept apologies, no matter how unfaithful. So the rank and file will support the Gowans brothers in their course towards being worse people.

And what happens to the Gowans brothers when they have kids? What happens if those kids don’t grow up to be slaves?

Despite our rather strong differences, I got closure with my father before he died. Most people don’t. Crappy songs about what was never said between Father and son can do well on the charts, but don’t resonate with me.

What if a younger Gowans has a similar conflict without closure? Not a nice legacy. I’m especially lucky in having closure considering my Father died young, which really makes me appreciate it.

All the same, a slave of the SANFL did taint events surrounding the passing of my father. But in a more coincidental fashion.

It wasn’t when the president of Marble Range spoke at the spreading of my father’s ashes. That was sublime. It wasn’t when he recounted my Father’s football under Kerley.

At the time of my Father’s death, It was early in my studies of a Bachelor of Education for primary/junior primary teaching. I was studying, amongst other things, Physical Education that semester.

With hindsight, I should have pulled out of a couple of subjects (even though I still passed them all and still managed to grab a couple of distinctions on the way) – particularly Physical Education. Not a week after my father died, during a gym session, our tutor put on an album that oddly enough, my father used to play a lot of.

Too soon for tears, I was still in shock really. My tutor was surprised that I was still turning up to my lessons.

We had an assignment with a practical component – we were to give a class and our given topic was bullying. We were to be assessed on our delivery and so forth. It was a group assignment and I was grouped with one very competent and confident young lady as well as one who while nice, was a tad too nervous.

Understandably, I was somewhat cold and removed. Things were difficult.

Our peers in the class were to approximate a primary school class to whom we would deliver the lesson and receive feedback. Amongst our number was one of Gowans’s peers in SANFL slavedom.

You could tell by the body language all semester that we weren’t likely to get along and there were a couple of glances he sent me during the semester that made me wonder what I’d done to offend him. There was a chip of some description upon his shoulder.

During my part of the presentation, during which I was quite obviously vulnerable (lets face it, football trains the players to seek out vulnerabilities) our slave friend decided, in quite a change of tone, from out of the blue and in rather a dubious approximation of a primary school student, started to quite aggressively run advocacy of bullying. It was quite disruptive, it was obviously confrontational and it was directed at me with quite some venom.

This was quite soon after my father’s death, and as I said, I probably shouldn’t have been there. But I was paying my HECS fees so it’s not like I had no right. If he had a problem with me, why did he wait until I had my guard down? Why not just come out with it at a more appropriate time?

It’s pretty obvious that the man is, or at least was, a coward. Hell, if either of the Gowans are reading this, they probably know quite well who I’m talking about, so they can pass it on.

For all the good it will do. This incident being yesterday’s news is only one reason why I’m somewhat apathetic about an apology or any other kind of superfluous closure.

While I think it fair to leave it open for cowards to redeem themselves, I can’t say I find the idea of forgiveness, at least of slaves, quite so easy. Apologies are after all the done thing and forgiveness is expected.

Apologies, in as far as slave morality is concerned are a display, and they are a display of simpering deferal. To be bigger than the problem by making yourself small.

First of all, I don’t like displays. When I am sorry to or for someone else, it’s because I feel sorry if I’m displaying it or not and I don’t need to confect anything.

Secondly, no matter what someone has done to me, I don’t want simpering deferral. I don’t want someone to be humiliate themselves for my supposed benefit, to gain faux-dignity by debasing themselves. I don’t get pleasure or comfort through the suffering of others, be it for real or a trite display.

I’m not a slave, and I’m not appointing myself master.

This makes it hard not to descend into the Machiavellian. If I find it hard to forgive, then clearly I’m leaving myself somewhat more open to paths less altruistic. Finding the good in people becomes that little bit harder, the nastier options become easier and all the more attractive as a result.

Seriously, picture it. I’ve got some adult-cum-brat in front of me who was having his first kiss while I was shift-working my knuckles bloody (sometimes literally) in his very hometown. A brat who is arguing for bullying from a background where a bit of niggle is acceptable, whereas I’ve seen niggle taken to the extent of someone trying to kill me (on more than one count). He’s challenging me to show him why bullying is wrong.

Can you see the rather obvious temptation? Hell, some of you probably wish I had succumb.

But this is the kind of thing that I have to suck down every now and then. It challenges my tolerance the same way that crackergate tests my tolerance of uber-Catholics. Like the way crap like female genital mutilation invites me to damn humanity.

My low-MACH score isn’t because I’m naive (I’m not that low-MACH), it’s hard won. It takes effort and without trying to toot my own horn, I think I manage it a bit better than some people who have had it a whole lot easier.

While football bores me, I want to see the best in footballers like I try to find the best in other people. On a case by case basis, I may waiver out of sheer necessity, but not before giving people a chance.

I don’t think my Father’s inclination to help develop youngsters through football was without merit. Just deeply problematic (through no great fault of his own).

When I see Ron Barassi fighting against racism in the AFL, I can feel for him. I can see his sincerity and his passion. In as far as Barassi wants the best for those put through his beloved sport, for his sport to give something to the community, I can see a bit of my Father’s better qualities.

I can also see futility.

This isn’t to discredit Barassi. His efforts haven’t been small. It’s just that he’s sitting on the wrong side of the Zeitgeist to see what he’s up against. Racism doesn’t infect Aussie Rules, it like the other authoritarian diseases that plague it (abusiveness, double standards, misogyny, homophobia etc) are a product of the slave morality of Aussie Rules.

You can’t just forcibly remove racism or any of the other slave-woes from the game, you need to change the game. Campaigns, superficial training and special events at the periphery won’t do it.

The Ron Barassi’s of the AFL are an inspiration to strive for betterment, while at the same time, frustrating in their support of the system that prevents it. Barassi’s motives are humanist.

Nietzsche never got to undertake his re-evaluation project, the re-evaluation of slave Judaeo-Christian values. I’m not sure that it would have been fruitful, either through the failings of Christendom, or that of Nietzsche himself (pick, choose and attribute the failings as you please). I’m not sure Nietzsche was ever the person for the job.

It’s not just Christendom that could do with a re-evaluation though. Really, I don’t see any reason why any tradition can’t be subjected to the process and from the social woes football is riven with, it clearly could do with a revamp. Not just administratively but from deep down in its culture.

I think these woes of Australian Rules Football and how they have rubbed me up the wrong way since day dot, are just an instance of an oft repeated phenomena. Australian Rules Football isn’t the wellspring of all authoritarianism, it’s just a source amongst many and I doubt, I really do doubt, that there are few people that haven’t encountered the same kinds of challenges that I’ve seen.

Indeed, has anyone not been challenged by slave morality?

~ Bruce

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