When first reports surfaced the humiliation-assault DVD allegedly made by a group of teenage Werribee boys, Today Tonight must have been thanking their lucky stars. But their reckless approach to journalism reminded me of Alan Jones’ behaviour in the days preceding the Cronulla riots.
In both cases, an ugly and abhorrent social underbelly is exposed, and outrage is the appropriate response. Or is it? Outrage features prominently in Internet responses and vox pops. “They need seven shades of sh*t kicked out of them”
In both cases an abhorrent injustice is alleged to have occurred. But a sensationalist response neither assists the course of justice, nor does it attempt to explore the question of why boys would engage in the acts of which they are accused.
Such responses simply reinforce a two-dimensional view of society, which is precisely the perspective that makes programs like Today Tonight and A Current Affair thrive. It’s a footy game of Us v Them. Battlers v Bludgers, and popular targets are “out of control youth”, “the ripoff merchant, still trading”, and “the crazy chauvanistic Muslim imam”. Pick a team and barrack like hell.
Channel Seven made the connection between the boys’ behaviour and the program Jackass on MTV. The response from Johnny Knoxville to the Seven Network, "No, they're not inspired by us - they're animals". Good. He’s on our team. Not one of them. Jackass is all about silly fun. Boys being boys. Not anything like this.
If we are interested in an authentic response to the reported acts of these Werribee high school students, and reported dispute between Lebanese youth and lifeguards in Cronulla, then we have got to go beyond Us and Them.
Is it so horrible that the seeds of such acts of childish cruelty might actually be resident in each of us? Absolutely. But is it so outrageous and abhorrent that we might have the same capacity to act so recklessly and violently as we have to act with such innovation and selflessness that inspires our fellow citizens to greater heights?
The Today Tonight dichotomy between heroes and villains simply projects the war of conscience that exists in each of us. The boys are alleged to have humiliated a teenage, mentally challenged girl for their own amusement and the amusement of others. Yet the process is repeated if our response to them is to vent our outrage in a public naming and shaming. In both cases, a scapegoat is identified and injustice is inflicted.
We have a very sound system of justice in this country. That these teenage boys showed no understanding of their teenage victim is either proof of their evil madness, or it is a sign of their immaturity. And it is precisely their immaturity that merits the need for a just consideration of their fates, which accounts for both natural justice and due process.
Their stupidity in identifying themselves on the DVD cover and credits, and the listing of the video on YouTube, makes it easier for the public to bypass the legal process in favour of a less just response. And you can bet the members of the mob won’t each sign their name on the DVD. Cronulla?
Perhaps Today Tonight, through their reckless approach to journalism, will be complicit in any acts of violence or self-harm that may emerge from this sad episode. Will the locus of shame and scapegoating extend to them? Should it?
The theological response I feel motivated to offer is through a simple story in John 8. Jesus comes across a group who are about to stone a woman who is caught sleeping with another woman’s husband. His response is to offer this advice, “Whoever is without sin should throw the first stone.” And in the story, the crowd disperses.
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