Friday, April 4, 2008

Not natural or harmless, just stupid and dangerous

Sydney Morning Herald, Adele Horin, April 5, 2008

FAR from dying out in the era of the "sensitive new age guy", pub brawls and fist fights are on the increase buoyed by widespread public acceptance.

The terrible injuries suffered by the swimmer Simon Cowley (see picture above), and the ironman Tim Peach, as a result of bar-room assaults - allegedly by the swimmer Nick D'Arcy - should be a wake-up call. There is no excuse for fighting.

For too long Australians have taken an indulgent view of men punching men. It's what blokes do and have always done, it is argued. It's natural, it's a way to let off steam, preserve honour, it's a form of entertainment and it's usually harmless.

While male-on-female violence is widely condemned, parents make excuses for quick-tempered sons who punch other men; wives rationalise the drunken brawls of their husbands; and sports coaches divine signs of high spirits in the violent altercations of their charges.

You only have to look at the photos of the smashed face of Peach, splashed over daily newspapers this week, who suffered a broken nose and two black eyes, and to recall Cowley's injuries - broken jaw, broken nose, fractured eye socket, crushed cheekbone and fractured palate - to realise the damage that can be done in a bar-room brawl.

The human hand when made into a fist can inflict considerable damage. Facial bones are delicate and hard to put back together once they have been smashed. When fists start flying, disfigurement, blindness and death are possibilities.

Yet the common misconception is that no serious harm is done. Fights in movies and on television bolster the view that real men survive well-enough to fight another day. They rarely capture the pain and damage done. The risks inherent in a fist fight have been greatly underestimated.

The cricketer David Hookes died after he was felled by a punch and hit his head on the footpath outside a Melbourne pub. A Woolloomooloo publican, Shane Miles, died after he was hit by a bar stool. A teenager is facing years behind bars in NSW for manslaughter after the victim of his single punch, a Sudanese refugee, who had survived years of trauma, hit his head on the road and died.

Usually it is eyes, nose or teeth that come off second best in collision with fists, elbows and feet. Delivered with enough force, blows to the head, neck, spine, kidney and groin can cause permanent damage. And it only takes one punch to do incalculable harm and end a life.

Last year several Brisbane surgeons, sick of trying to fix collapsed eye sockets and fractured cheekbones incurred during drunken fights, went public in an effort to alert pub brawlers of the serious consequences of their actions.

But assaults - usually male on male - are on the rise. While other crimes have fallen, the number of assaults has surged over the past decade, according to police statistics, hospital statistics and victims surveys. The head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, calls assault the "modern epidemic".

Men are twice as likely as women to be victims of physical assault, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found in its 2005 Personal Safety Survey. (click here for the full details of this report) An extraordinary 21 per cent of young men, aged between 18 and 24, had been physically assaulted in the previous 12 months. This included being pushed or grabbed but a high proportion had been kicked, bitten or hit with a fist.

Minor incidents can set off lethal violence, a Melbourne study of homicide found. A spilt drink or a glance at another man's girlfriend can precipitate a fight that ends badly. As in the days of the duel, contests over male honour can end in death.

Yet while people complain bitterly about perceived rising crime rates, there is huge indifference to assault, the crime that really is on the rise. Unless it involves a stranger throwing a punch in the process of stealing a wallet or handbag, assaults, in the form of fist fights and street brawls, are regarded as normal, not criminal.

People who bitterly condemn car thieves and burglars can always find an excuse for a sports star who smashes someone's face or dislocates a shoulder.

Twenty years ago some feminists thought they could change male attitudes to violence, starting with how they raised their sons. Some even went so far as to ban toy guns, violent television and rugby league. While individual successes were chalked up, and a smattering of new-age men emerged, the wider culture was largely left untouched by these doomed efforts.

Now the warriors - male and female - have shifted focus from changing attitudes to changing the alcohol industry, which is deeply implicated in the rising tide of male violence.

Violent confrontations are common features of late-night pub and club life, and the binge-drinking culture of the young. More than one-third of men assaulted were on licensed premises, the 2005 bureau survey revealed.

It may prove easier to change alcohol consumption than attitudes to male-on-male violence. Reduce drinking through changes to pub closing hours, and increased alcohol taxes, and other measures, and the violence is bound to fall.

But it is still important for community and sporting leaders to take a stand, and promote zero tolerance of fighting. Fighting is not manly. It is not sporting. It is stupid, immature, dangerous and potentially fatal.

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