Lakemba and Werribee lessons for the media

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Lakemba and Werribee lessons for the mediaThis last week has seen two stories about the treatment of women. One focused on young men who had made a DVD depicting their humiliating abuse of a young woman. The other focused on a Muslim cleric who had said that if women did not dress conservatively, they could provoke rape. The conjunction of these two events raises questions about Australian cultural life, and not simply about the local community at Werribee, west of Melbourne, or the Muslim community in Australia.

The best response is to ask ourselves the questions that parents in Werribee and Sydney's south-west will have been grappling with. In conversation with our children, what would we want to say to them about the way in which they should relate to other people? And what should they keep in mind as they shape their dress and appearance?

I would want to say, first, that they should respect others, and that there is never a valid excuse for showing lack of respect. This means that the way in which women or men dress, speak or look never entitles us to make assumptions about their intentions or desires. Still less does it entitle us to treat them abusively. Nor should these incidentals of dress and appearance be considered a mitigating factor in the guilt of rape and sexual abuse.

To put it concretely, if we pass on the street corner a woman who is scantily clad and heavily made-up, we should treat her with the same courtesy and respect as we would treat an elderly and conservatively dressed woman standing nearby.

I would want to make that statement without qualification, not allowing it to be undercut by this next point. I would want also to say that we communicate something about ourselves by the way in which we stand, sit, dress and behave. People will read our character and dispositions from our external appearance, independently of what we intend to say about ourselves.

In a society like ours where these signs are not strongly coded, I would want my children to be aware of the range of signs that we present, and of the ways in which they may be read. I would particularly wish them, both boys and girls, to be aware of the way in which some styles of dress and appearance will commonly lead others to identify their persons with their sexuality, rather than their sexuality with the person. I would want them to expect and demand respect however they dress. But I would also want them to be realistic about the existence of people who show no restraint in indulging their sexual urges.

Lakemba and Werribee lessons for the mediaI would also encourage them to be open-eyed about what they can expect of the media if they find themselves involved in these firestorms. The media make money from their advertisers, many of whom promote their products by aggressively identifying men and women with their sexuality.

It is to be expected that the media will also treat people with disrespect in order to titillate their audience or to confirm their prejudices. Young people should know that if they are serious about demanding respect and treating others with respect, the media will generally not be their friends.

Both in Werribee and in Lakemba, among Christians and Muslims, respect for human beings always needs encouragement. In the media treatment of the recent events, it has been notably lacking.



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Existing comments

Is Eureka Street part of that amorphous group known as "the media"? It would seem to be. It's all very well to blame advertisers for driving TV's insatiable desire for sensation, but advertising as we know it has grown out of the society in which it has been nurtured.

Piers Johansen | 31 October 2006  

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