Skin in the Game: Adam Goodes, the dynamics of racism and acoustic violence

The Roar of the Crowd

"Anyone listening to those boos who is familiar with the dynamics of racism can hear it in the boos.  There's a certain quality to them.  There's something about it that sounds markedly different from the other boos that players get"  -Waleed Aly on ABC Radio National, 30June 2015

At the height of public debate last week about the sustained booing of Indigenous AFL footballer Adam Goodes, perhaps the most insightful comment came from Waleed Aly, who drew attention to what we might call the acoustic violence of racism.  While there was one brief mention in print about the fact that Goodes has played over 300 matches and has enough experience to read the mood - or tone - of the crowd, and therefore distinguish between standard rowdy behaviour and racially motivated verbal abuse, this aspect of racism - its particular sonic or acoustic quality, and the wounding that it causes - was largely absent from the debate. 

Some commentators, like former Victorian Premier and Hawthorn club president Jeff Kennett, initially defended the crowd's behaviour by making likening the footy field to a modern-day Roman Colosseum.  These attempts seemed, in part, to downplay the booing by highlighting the theatricality of booing one's opponent.  Setting aside the fact that these commentaries rarely acknowledged the subtle distinction on the dynamics of the crowd that Aly points to, there is something in the Colesseum analogy that is somewhat apt.  Let's not forget that in Roman times, when the Colesseum was used for Gladiatorial fights, the roar of the crowd was the barometer by which it was decided who would live and who would die.  This was not just sport.  It was blood sport.  And the stakes were very viscerally, and immediately, real.  

The Untrained Ear

How might we think about Aly's acoustic critique in the wake of this incident?  And how might this line of analysis push discussion about racialised violence beyond predictable liberal, rights-based arguments about the limits of free speech (or in this case, the freedom to 'boo'), the rights of minorities, or discourses of tolerance and diversity?  Clearly, Aly's analysis reveals that he himself has a keen awareness of the subtleties of acoustic violence, while conceding there is categorical difference between the booing targeted against Adam Goodes and the 'pantomime' of booing as part of the spectacle of sports (and he made reference to the recent Real Madrid soccer match in Melbourne to illustrate this point). But it is the distinction itself - in terms of a politics of listening - that has remained largely unexamined beyond pointing out that there's a difference in intention.  But intention doesn't fully capture what is going on here.  

It is the affective quality carried in the boos that reveal themselves as the acoustic artefacts of racialised violence.  These sounds, then, embody far more than what is at first apparent to the untrained ear.  Encoded into the cacophony and dissonance of the boos of the crowd are the echoes of a history of subtle and systemic forms of discrimination and racial abuse that continue to haunt inter-cultural relations in this country more broadly, and settler-Indigenous relations in particular.  These echoes have a sound.

Acoustic violence

On my reading, at the heart of Aly's analysis is the claim that those who are subject to systemic forms of racism are attuned precisely to those qualities that - to the untrained ear - are otherwise rendered silent.  What Aly seems to be getting at is that those who are subject to systematic forms of racism become experts in what Lawrence Abu Hamden might call "forensic listening".  To sections of the the population not exposed to regular sonic or acoustic violence, the boos heard in recent weeks whenever Goodes went near the ball on the field might seem to be no different than the boos of the crowd at any other game, or in any other sporting arena.  But the assault felt by Goodes, and other prominent members of the community who expressed solidarity with Goodes (such as Stan Grant in a deeply moving and personal account of his experience of systemic forms of racism) registers at a level that comes prior to words.  Which is why it cannot be defended by recourse to ideas of free speech alone.  

Do not mistake, this sonic and acoustic violence performs a real wounding.  Sound waves physically come into contact with the objects and targets they hit - sometimes rebounding off them, sometimes penetrating them.  Let's not forget, we can be slapped in the face by a boo.  The sounds of racism - their particular tone, register, acoustic quality - exist prior to any kind of word or verbalised thought.  But they can have no less real - no less corporeal - and embodied effects that resonate long after the echoes have died down.

Forensic Listening

By thinking about how we listen, and what we hear, we might be able to develop a more complex and nuanced picture of the granular and permeating registers of racially motivated violence and abuse work.  How certain populations - exposed to sustained and targeted campaigns of discrimination that involve acoustic or sonic violence - develop a particular kind of skill for listening that equips them, as well as makes them vulnerable, to hear the signal hidden in the noise.   

I want to turn to a recent keynote address on the Politics of Listening given by artist and researcher Lawrence Abu Hamdan - who explores the relationship between politics, human rights, international law, and the act of listening - and think about how his work might also help us think through the acoustic violence directed against Adam Goodes.  

Abu Hamdan conducted an acoustic analysis of the sounds of gunfire unleashed by members of the Israeli police on a group of Palestinians, resulting in two fatalities.  He analysed recordings of gunfire shots fired into the crowd - both lethal and non-lethal - using spectrogram analysis, which visually represents different sound frequencies with bands of colour.  To the untrained ear, the lethal and non-lethal shots sound identical.  But spectrogram analysis revealed a distinct difference between the sound of live ammunition and live ammunition fired through a rubber bullet extension.     

Image credit (c) Abu Hamdan

Image credit (c) Abu Hamdan

When he synced up the sound of gunfire with visual news footage of the incidents, the Palestinian crowd instinctively reacted in dramatically different ways when a rubber bullet extension was used from when there was live ammunition.  Abu Hamdan persuasively argues that for these Palestinians, constantly exposed to this kind of sonic - and very real - threat of violence, they become 'expert listeners' able to distinguish between the sonic characteristics of live gunfire and gunfire masked with a rubber bullet extension to sound like a rubber bullet.  For this crowd, forensic listening is the difference between life and death.  Sorting the signal from the noise is what keeps them alive.  

Perhaps in similar ways to the Palestinians who develop skills as expert listeners, those populations subject to the sounds of racism and racialised violence become finely attuned to the difference between a boo and a 'boo'.  These are distinctions that we - as those who are lucky enough not to be made vulnerable to the damaging effects of the acoustic violence of racism - struggle to hear.

"It is the sound that needs to enter our acoustic consciousness, because in all cases across the world it is the sound where the tools of institutional violence cross the threshold into acts of wanton bloodshed" - Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The Signal and the Noise

Signal-to-noise ratio is a measure used in science, engineering and other fields of inquiry, including speech pathology.  Noise is the term for unwanted or background interference that negatively affects signal strength or clarity.  What I have attempted to unpack in this short essay is to think through the ways that racialised violence is not always self-evidently visible, or audible, to those who are not finely attuned to registering its wounding effects.  That sometimes the signal becomes lost in the noise; in the cacophony of boos  that were otherwise registered as harmless forms of jeering and theatrics.  

Adam Goodes' temporary withdrawal from the game last weekend - his retreat into momentary silence, his refusal to speak - was his strongest action against racism yet.  As Judith Butler (2005: 12) reminds us, the refusal to narrate, in some instances, can “call into question the legitimacy of the authority” by attempting to circumscribe a “domain of autonomy” for the subject.  What Goodes' silence in response to a sustained and repeated sonic attack drew attention to the need for an account of the violence of racism, in part, through a radical politics of listening that goes beyond simply "speaking up" and "being heard".  Goodes' temporary silence wasn't a silence against speech.  It was a call to hear the signal beneath the noise.

Radical Listening

What might a radical politics of listening sound like, when it comes to registering the acoustic violence of racism in this country?  I do not have the answer, but think it is an important provocation, and what I have attempted to do in this essay is to think through what is involved - and what's at stake - when we want to seriously address the dynamics of racism and and the many forms that racially-motivated violence can take.

Also posted on my blog