In honouring those who are prejudiced, the Australia Day awards perpetuate bigotry | Ghassan Hage

The government has valorised Margaret Court’s opinions at the nation’s expense because her sporting and political lives can’t be separated

The leaking of the news that Margaret Court is receiving a Companion of the Order of Australia has generated the controversy the leak aimed to provoke. Court’s reported laudatory pronouncements about apartheid South Africa and her views about sexuality have made her a darling of the far right of Australian politics.

As such, having already received the Officer of the Order of Australia award in recognition of her unquestionable achievement in tennis, and given that it follows on the heels of the controversy generated by her well-publicised and clearly prejudiced views concerning homosexuality, the new award is seen by its opponents as a Trump-like move by the current government aimed at pandering to and mobilising an extreme-right, bigoted and religiously conservative population, marked by low educational capital and low cosmopolitanism, and which has proven to make a big difference in the fortunes of conservative parties come election time.

The overinflated sense of national entitlement of this part of the population makes them think that not only can they unproblematically live in a world where discrimination against racialised people, against women who refuse to see themselves in patriarchal eyes, and against homosexuals and trans people is acceptable, but that they are also morally justified and nationally sanctioned to enforce it as a norm on all of the nation. Because of the above, it is mainly the politics of the award that has occupied commentators. There have also been some interesting sociological discussions concerned with the class and gender biases that govern the choice of the Australia Day award recipients.

Academics in my discipline, anthropology, have a lot to say about giving and receiving awards. It is an integral part of what we describe as systems of reciprocity rooted in the economies of gift exchange. Seeing the controversy from such a perspective can give us further insights into its nature.

An inquisitive mind might immediately wonder why should giving someone an award be considered an act of exchange. After all, it seems like a very straight forward one-way traffic act of giving something to someone. In his classical work on the topic, the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss argued that gift exchange can be neatly perceived as the sum of three moments: the moment of giving, the moment of receiving and the moment of giving back. What makes for the complexity is that sometimes these moments are not clearly delineated in time and space.

Most importantly for us in terms of understanding awards is that sometimes receiving and giving back are one and the same. Let me give a quick example: I am “offering” my students a lecture. When I finish, I tell them “thank you for listening”. That’s because in agreeing to listen, that is, to “receive” what I have to say, they have already given me back something: the gift of considering that what I have to say is worth listening to.

When people exchange gifts, they don’t only exchange economic value, they exchange recognition and worthiness. When we offer an award, we consider the recipient worthy of receiving it, and when they accept it, they consider us worthy of giving it. The awarding institution and the recipient co-valorise each other. This co-valorisation is not an exchange between equals, however. Sometimes the recipient is far more valorised and honoured by receiving an award that the awarding institution is honoured by them accepting it. Sometimes the opposite is true.

A colleague of mine working on literary awards has drawn my attention to how a small organisation can try to boost its own reputation by awarding an honour to a well-known author. A recipient can insult an organisation by refusing to accept an award they have offered. But likewise, organisations can insult a whole group of people if they are seen to systematically exclude them from being recipients of awards. This is why looking into the pattern of biases of the Australia Day honours is important.

This logic of gift exchange is clearly operative in the way people have objected to Margaret Court’s award seeing that in choosing her the government has chosen to valorise her and her opinions at the expense of the nation. Some, nonetheless, have tried to argue that the award has nothing to do with Court’s socio-political opinions. It only highlights Court’s achievement in tennis. Something everyone does or should recognise.

In his analysis of the gift, Marcel Mauss argues that the gift is “a total social fact”. One of the things he meant by this is that, unlike when buying a commodity which can appear as a strictly economic transaction, a gift exchange always involves all dimensions of life (economic, political, spiritual, moral, etc) and likewise, the total person. Award givers know this only too well. This is why organisations feel justified to strip someone of their award if they do something that is morally compromising.

Seeing sport as a total social fact, and sportspeople as more than just sport performers is quite crucial in Australia. For there is still a willingness among the general population to approach sport and sportspeople with a sense of strategic purity. When people say “I am here for the sport” it does not mean that they are naive and can’t see the sexism, racism and homophobia that are part of the sport’s scene. Rather, they are stating that they strategically choose to bracket the total social fact so that they can enjoy the sport as a sport and nothing else. This strategic purification, while useful to enjoy a game, ends up being one of the key ways in which racism has continued to circulate in sport despite the many attempts at combating it.

By making similar claims of bracketing the political from the sporting achievement the Australia Day awards end up functioning in the same way.

  • Ghassan Hage is a professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne

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