Eddie McGuire: words matter, because words and actions are indivisible

Feb 4, 2021

Which bit was the object of the apology? The misinterpretation, the original sins or the reaction?

Words dissemble
Words be quick
Words resemble walking sticks
Plant them they will grow
Watch them waver so.
Jim Morrison, The Doors

I thought of these lines as I read the response from Eddie McGuire to the Do Better report that examined racism in Collingwood Football Club. This is the report that found “systemic racism with the Collingwood Football Club that must be addressed if things are to change”.

McGuire’s response wavered from “yeah there’s been mistakes”, “we’ll do better, but you know we didn’t have the processes in place to deal with it”. In other words, don’t blame us, we’re just kids, didn’t know right from wrong. But we asked others to look into us. And they did, and they didn’t like what they saw, but you know what:

“This is a historic and proud day for the Collingwood Football Club.”

Words dissemble … words resemble walking sticks.

Quite. A proud president showing leadership.

But then came Damascus and the road. McGuire had an epiphany. His words were not right. He apologised: “In my opening I got it wrong. I said it was a proud day for Collingwood and I shouldn’t have. I did not mean we were proud of racism and the hurt it caused. It has been interpreted that way, and I regret that deeply.”

Words matter. Which bit is the object of the apology, the misinterpretation, the original sins or the reaction?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said recently that Australians were people of action and that, in effect, they didn’t care much for words. That’s the tin ear to what a society actually is.

Words and actions are indivisible. How does racial abuse reach its target? It is thrown, it is insinuated like a cancer into the bones and flesh or it is blasted like a cannon shot. It is not plucked by the victim for their enjoyment. It is speared into their heart.

When McGuire spoke of a “historic and proud day” his words did indeed resemble walking sticks, carrying a crippled and crippling weight of understanding.

Former Magpie Heritier Lumumba, upon whom the report was predicated, said he had endured years of racism at the club, and called the club’s response “bizarre”.

Sports commentator Tim Watson said: “Eddie drowned in his own cliched dribble.”

Quite so.

Words matter is also a cliché. But it is one that should never lose its meaning through being overused. McGuire’s utterance also has followed the law of Newtonian science: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Did he not realise what he was saying or how it would be taken?

It took others to bring it home to him, which shows a tin ear, several layers thick.

Ex-US President Donald Trump was the prime example of using words to manipulate either the truth or events. He has been rightly excoriated, and perhaps punished, for the most egregious action in spurring his mob to storm the Houses of Congress and start an insurrection.

Of course, McGuire is no Donald Trump. But there is a commonality at work, and it is at work throughout politics, too. It is to forsake the truth, and the greater good, for the interests of less important motives. It is manipulation of meaning to serve the interests for which you are invested.

McGuire may have been benign in his choice of words. He may, to give him the fullest benefit of the doubt, slipped over syntax. Slippery thing syntax. But then maybe he missed the point. An apology may paint over the original transgression, but the words are still there. Unforgotten.

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