Thursday, July 12, 2012

too hot for the age

(This is an op ed piece I submitted to The Age on spec earlier in the week. They didn't respond, which is their prerogative of course. They responded three days later with a rejection email, which is their prerogative of course.)

Over the last few weeks, I have been having a public stoush with a man called Peter Olney. Olney, who is the secretary of the Whitehorse Ratepayer’s Association, believes that Asian businesses in his area – and I suppose by extension everywhere in Australia – should have English signage explaining what it is they sell.

The mayor of Whitehorse has described Olney’s idea as crazy. If I had to choose one word to use, I might pick that one. But perhaps another word – futile? – might be handy for an idea whose inventor is ‘not really interested’ in whether he gets ‘much support’ – or so he told the Melbourne Weekly Eastern a few weeks ago. Which begs the question that if he’s apathetic about the follow through, why raise it in the first place?

But the Olney concept is more complicated than that. When I had the pleasure of being interviewed for A Current Affair about Olney’s concept, I was told in advance the four questions I’d be asked. When the camera was on, a fifth emerged: ‘Is Peter Olney racist?’

I doubt he is, and said so, but of course the Olney protest is the touch paper for racists. Racists are by definition people unable to see a complex view of society. Such folk are not smart enough to have even crazy ideas of their own – but quick to support anything that supports their own narrow, nasty world view. Many of the online comments on both the MWE and ACA websites were along the lines of English being the ‘official language’ of Australia and how political correctness had gone too far. Political correctness – such as it is – is actually not that interested in how shopkeepers advertise their wares, but let that pass. In an argument about clarity, let’s call racism by its real name: racism that bases its argument on the unlikely possibility of the mainstream being discriminated against by the minority is, similarly, still racism.

The bigger issue, though, is what passes as normal and comprehensible. Clearly, if Peter Olney doesn’t know what’s being sold in any shop in Whitehorse, he can go inside and ask – though he seems like a smart chap and it’s probably pretty obvious before he goes that far. However, I wonder if Olney has thought about the other ramifications of his request?

It has never really bothered me if a shop does not have signs in English. But it has bothered me, from time to time, when it is not clear what outlets are actually providing. The boutiques of Chapel and Brunswick Streets, to give a for instance, are often labeled only by a solitary word. Hairdressers have long run out of names using puns on the word ‘hair’. Cafes and restaurants might easily drop off the descriptor in their signage; why bother? Their clientele knows. Peter Olney might not always be able to pick out which shop sells what on Lygon Street Carlton – or, for that matter, in Whitehorse Plaza – even amongst the ‘anglo’ retailers. I haven’t heard him complain about this, however, and I wonder where he feels truth in signage should stop?

Because, when it comes down to it, what Olney is objecting to – even within the proviso that he’s not really interested if his objection has any effect - is that not everyone knows what’s being sold in particular outlets. Which leads me to a very obvious, but still very pertinent, example of the same: McDonald’s.

We’ve had McDonald’s in Australia for close to forty years now, and most of us know what we’re in for when we enter its doors. If you didn’t know, you could go in and assess the situation pretty fast. But that hardly fits the Olney objection: McDonald’s do not label their premises ‘McDonalds Cheapish Fast Food With a High Sugar and Fat Content’, and indeed they’ve been spending a motza in recent years to try and pretend that’s not what they’re pushing.

Indeed, over time, McDonald’s have been moving to uberminimalism in labeling and signage: the big yellow M, the golden arches, is their beacon on the hill. Fine if you know what it means, as Peter Olney might say, but very discriminatory if you don’t. Last I heard, McDonald’s, English was the official language of Australia; the hieroglyph of those big curvy golden arches doesn’t mean anything in that official language. By the way, who is McDonald? Oh, that’s right, there is no McDonald – it’s a name purchased by the Czech-derived Ray Kroc to market a product to Americans in the 1960s. But we can leave truth in possessive apostrophes for later.

This is not political correctness gone mad, as much as Olney’s supporters might suggest. In fact, it’s exactly what they want: one rule for everyone. I demand to know, via external signage, what is sold in a McDonald’s outlet; what KFC stands for; if the Rooster really is Red. We’ll then move on to things like ‘Bunnings Warehouse’, which I gather is not so much a warehousing operation as a large supermarket for hardware items; and a little business concern called Coles which I have on good authority does have even one cole, whatever that might be, in stock. Fix these up and then – and only then – we can get started on the little traders, selling to an exclusive clientele, who know what’s being sold within by big signs. Yes, they may be in a language other than English. But they are, at least, in a language. 

1 comment:

Petticoats and Chrome said...

I had never thought about McD's and our signage like that.