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The underdog
underdog

During the 2003 Rugby World Cup, many commentators were surprised by the level of support Australians reserved for the underdog teams. For example, despite not winning a single game, crowd noise in support for the Japanese team was equal to that ever heard for the Wallabies. In their Townsville base, locals dressed up in Geisha costumes, kids got the Japanese players to push them around in shopping trollies and one local even dressed up as Santa Claus to show his support for the red and white. Similarly, when Georgia played South Africa and Samoa played England, the vast majority supported the minnows even though they had little hope of winning.

There is nothing unique to Australia about supporting the underdog. After all, the plot of virtually every American movie is that of an underdog doing battle with anything from an evil empire to a super human boxer that can't be beaten. However unlike Hollywood movies, the Australian support for the underdog is not conditional on the underdog emerging triumphant in the end. To the contrary, if the loser has tried their utmost and never surrendered, Australians still consider them to be a success.

It should be pointed out; however, that while Australians often support underdogs, they rarely claim to be underdogs. As stater by Robert Tremoboland:

"It also takes some time to realise that while you must always claim to take the side of the Underdog, you should never admit to being one. Do not be tempted to tell your audience, in the middle of a story:

'It was terrible - there we were fighting outside the pub, with a big crowd around us, and I was the Underdog.'"

Av'a go ya mug!!

Support for the underdog and maintenance of that support after failure has a long history in Australia. In 1854, 120 miners built a stockade, raised the Flag of Stars. Against the might of the English empire, it was an act of defiance that had little hope of success. Sure enough, a few days later a military force of 300 men attacked the stockade and tore down the flag. Yet despite being a failure, the flag is still used today as a symbol of republicanism and solidarity in defiance. 

In 1880, Ned Kelly led his fabled last stand in which he tried to take on the empire. Inside the Glenrowan Inn, he and his gang exchanged fire with the police outside. After some hours, he burst through the police cauldron under a hail of bullets. Realising that his mates had not made it out as well, he then turned back into the line of fire, advancing until his legs were shot-out from beneath him.

For those watching, whether he was a good man or bad didn't matter. What mattered was that he was one man who had the courage to face many. He was man who suffered 28 separate bullet wounds but recovered to face a trial that he had no hope of winning. Yet despite everything going against him, and the lack of hope in the future, Ned never lost his spirit. His courage inspired the saying "as game as Kelly" and in death, he has become one of the very few Australian icons that isn't a sports hero. 

In World War I, the British landed the Australian Diggers not on an open plain but on the scrub-covered hills of Gallipoli. It was a stupid decision which gave the Diggers little hope for a victory. Even so, they persevered until nine months later the campaign was abandoned without the objectives being met. But despite being a failure, Gallipoli is the most celebrated battle in Australian folklore.

Aside from being supportive of failure, another curious cultural trait is the Australian willingness to support people from outside their social class, race or nationality. In 1961, the touring West Indian cricket team performed well above expectations. Although they lost the series, 90,000 Australians lined the streets of Melbourne for a ticker tape parade biding the team farewell.

In the 2000 Olympic games, the Sydney public watched Eric the Eel, an African swimmer who was barely able to swim 50 meters. Even though most people in the stands were better swimmers than he was, they cheered his every stroke as if he was on his way to a gold medal.

An even more curious trait is the tendency for Australians who are attacking the underdog, to admire them when they stand up for themselves. For example, the all conquering Australian cricket team is noted for sledging and destroying the opposition. However when players such as Sachin Tendulker and Brian Lara have taken the best the Australians could throw at them and punished or abused Australians in return, they have won great admiration.

During the Bodyline series of the 1930s, Harold Larwood put Australian players in hospital with his short-pitched bowling. English authorities later pressured Larwood to apologise to Australians for the way he bowled. When he refused, he was banned from playing for England ever again. He subsequently immigrated to Australia and rather than find hostility, he was surprised that Australians greeted him with open arms.

This cultural trait is replicated in some of the tougher Australian pubs where an individual may be singled out for abuse over their race, class or type of clothing they are wearing. If that individual not only stands up for themselves but returns the abuse with interest, they gain respect of the antagonist. They may even score themselves a free beer from the very person who was just attacking them.

The social psychology

Social psychology finds it difficult to explain the Australian behaviour. Most social theories propose that people support winners from their own social group in order to share in the positive esteem of the winner's glory. By the same token, losers are demeaned or pushed into another social group as people try to distance them from failure. Such a pattern was noted by Albert Einstein who once said:

"If my theory is proven correct, the French will say I am a citizen of the world and the Germans will say I am a German. If I am wrong, the French will say I am a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew."

Perhaps Australians don't conform to such a pattern because they don't need to be victorious in order feel like a worthy person. When Australians cheered for the Japanese Rugby team as it fell to each of its losses, seeing other human beings having the courage to take on adversity, was the only emotional gratification they needed. 

Thus if Einstein were to have included Australians in his quote, he may have said " If my theory is proved correct, the Australians will say I'm a good bloke because I upset the status quo of the establishment. If it is incorrect, they will say I'm a good bloke because I tried to upset the status quo of the establishment. "

Why?

It is not clear why Australians define success by the attitude rather than the ability or the outcome. Perhaps it is a legacy of Convicts who had no hope of winning, but developed an attitude that they hadn't lost until they surrendered. As one commentator noted:  

'The convict flagellator at this time felt a gratification in inflicting and witnessing human misery. There were many prisoners who would bear any punishment rather than complain; I am certain that they would have died at the triangle rather than utter a grown'.

The Convicts that looked on admired the never-give-in attitude in a battle that could not be won. As one Convict wrote:

"Some exhibit an incredible power of enduring all these inflictions, which however, killed or greatly debilitated many of them. "

One commentator used this Convict history to explain support for Larwood:

"Most Aussies in the 1950s when Larwood joined their nation were descended from convicts - often men sentenced for political offences rather than crimes - or the soldiers and warders sent out to run the prison system and they respected any man who stood up to the master class. "

Others have speculated that support for the underdog comes from the harsh Australian environment that has consistently punished Australians with droughts and bushfires. With little hope of triumphing over nature, farmers instead redefined their goal as trying their best and never surrendering. Again, they can not be defeated unless they choose to give up:

"The true Aussie battler and his wife thrust doggedly onwards: starting again, failing again, implacably thrusting towards success. For success, even if it is only the success of knowing that one has tried to the utmost and never surrendered, is the target of every battler "- Michael Page & Robert Inapen

 

Activity1 - Benefit or liability?

Assessing the worth of the celebration of the underdog

Read the following and take a critical stand

The Australia support for the underdog is a double edged sword. On the positive side, it encourages the underdogs to believe in themselves and have a go. In any society, the majority of people will be underdogs so in a sense, the celebration of the underdog is very good for community motivation. This is particularly beneficial in sport, where self belief has resulted in Australians being argubly the best individual and team sport nation on earth. Australians don’t really care if they win, but they will always try to win and always believe they have a chance. This hunger for victory is good for competition and eventually leads to the cream rising to the surface.

On the negative side, the support for the underdog is disastrous in the cultural industries when support for an underdog leads to an underdog being promoted over someone who has more merit. Unlike sport, the subjective nature of culture often prevents the truly gifted rising to the surface. Much like the Chinese government placing uneducated people in official positions during the cultural revolution, the Australian support for the underdog has resulted in underdogs being given exposure and opportunities when really they have not had the talent or character to warrant the exposure and opportunities. To put things into perspective, if criteria other than speed were used to select Australia’s swimming team, lots of underdogs might make the team and the likes of Ian Thorpe and Liesel Jones might not have. Although some underdogs would gain an opportunity they would not have otherwise got, the inevitable failure of the swimming team would decrease the appeal of the sport. Opportunities for thousands of swimming underdogs at various levels across Australia would then be reduced.

One example of this was the 2004 Australian Idol singing competition where Casey Donovan won largely because she was seen as an underdog. Her subsequent singing career failed, she was dumped by the record label and the industry as a whole suffered an opportunity cost. Although her underdog story was good for gaining votes, her complete package was never going to resonate with the market. People voted for her because they wanted her to win, not because they wanted to buy her songs. A similar problem was seen in the Australian movie industry during the late 90s and early naughties. Underdogs had perhaps been put in charge of funding bodies, made critics and given opportunities to make movies. One stinking movie after another was made, yet instead of criticising the movies, the underdogs in charge cheered them on like the crowd cheered Eric the Eel during the Sydney Olympics. Although individual underdogs had benefitted from gaining an opportunity to make a movie and receiving praise instead of the warranted criticism, the thousands of other underdogs that wanted to act in a movie were denied opportunities because one stinker after another turned the public off going to movies, which in turn resulted in the industry failing. If success stories had been promoted instead, then Australia would have had superior cultural industries that would have in turn benefitted everyone within them. Ultimately, when it comes to culture, it is far better for the community to promote an elitist wanker that makes the industry successful, instead of a good-natured underdog liked by all, but has no real talent. In such circumstances, it is better to give more nutrients to the tall-poppies (Paul Hogan, Peter Weir) than the nobodies that want to be somebodies. In a final example, all of Australia's government-funded galleries have rejected Pro Hart, Australia's most commercially successful artist. Instead, they have bought underdog art, that includes such things as an artist's name in Italic letters. The actions of the galleries have alienated many Australians from the art world and so reduced the potential market for underdog artists. In a nutshell, underdogs need to be encouraged, but never promoted over someone with more ability. All underdogs suffer when that occurs.

  1. Do you agree with the author? Why?
  2. Social justice often promotes the idea that individuals from underdog ethnic groups should be favoured in recruitment over other candidates who could do a better job. What is your view?
  3. If you support social justice for underdog ethnic groups, would you also support it for underdog socio-eonomicgroups, such as bogans?
  4. Affirmative action policies are sometimes justified on the grounds that underdog groups need role models. Do you agree? Why?
  5. Which ethnic groups would you define as underdogs in Australia? What criteria did you use?
  6. Are you personally an underdog?

 

 

 

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""Shouting", or rather its meaning, is peculiarly Australian. The shortest and most comprehensive definition of "shouting" is to pay for the drink drunk by others." Drinking

"Australia has been hailed as a saviour of our soi-disant movie industry. So it could be, irrespective of its box office earnings, if it leads to recognition that we don't have a film industry, despite expenditure over 20 years of $1.5billion in subsidies and perhaps another half billion in tax concessions." Movies

"Australians are very difficult to impress; even if you do manage to impress them, they may not openly admit it." Social Rules

"a confused mix of landscape, animals, and Aboriginal culture, with a kind of Bible overtone." Painting

"A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop" Wisdom

"Gallipoli tends to seem strange to outsiders, as it appears to be a celebration of Australia's greatest defeat, but in essence it is rather a commemoration of those who died serving Australia in battle, be it warranted or not." Anzac

“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.” Australia Day

"He declared, confidently, that an immense number of women were dying for his diminutive highness, but became terribly angry, when an ugly, red-nosed publican with a hump-back, pretended to recognize him as an organ grinder strolling about with a monkey." Egalitarianism

"Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
" Poetry