Kids and divided loyalties: what we can learn from the Sydney riots

Should children be involved in protest actions? AAP/Marianna Massey

It is the season of tribal loyalty in Australia – weekends are parades of painted, jersey-wearing, flag and placard-waving fans. This is a loyalty we accept and foster in a sporting context, indeed it is considered part of being Australian.

Not all loyalties, however, are treated equally – some connections threaten our imagined nation, some loyalties are questioned. Religious loyalties, in particular, with an allegiance which can be seen to be stronger than that to country, have always been fodder for public argument and dispute in Australia.

Traditionally it was Protestant versus Catholic, in particular played out in the vicious fights over conscription in World War One. The new religious loyalty battleground has become Islam. The mantra, “how can you be a loyal Australian when you have loyalty to the Vatican?” has changed to Mecca – with questions raised as to who or what people are loyal to if it is not Australia and its values.

Defining loyalties

Our loyalties are about who we are – they shape our identity and existence and give us reason to act and engage in the world. The relative strength of loyalties lies in the social processes that embed us in life.

If I profess to be a particular sporting team fan, follow their progress, argue the referee decisions, go to games, purchase the merchandise and interact with others who follow the team and sport then I am loyal to that team – I have demonstrated my loyalty to it. This loyalty is strongest when others both recognise and support (fellow fans) and challenge my loyalty (the other teams).

We rank our loyalties in a hierarchy. Family is nearly always first and our shared history of literature attests to the conflict that comes with our nearest and dearest, be it Romeo and Juliet, King Lear or True Blood.

The next set of loyalties are ties of association like place, team, club, hobbies and perhaps even occupation and work. A broader category of loyalties are the more vexed concepts of nation, ethnicity and religion. It is healthy to have a range of competing loyalties and inevitably they will be instilled in us from our birth onwards – our families, then wider social forces shape our connections.

The problem occurs when our loyalties are challenged, either by our own competing loyalties or when our connection clashes with the dominant loyalties of our society. What is acceptable with others who share my passion may not be acceptable more widely – indeed the distrust, aggression and finger-wagging serve to separate my group, my loyalty, from everyone else.

Creating loyalty in children

The inculcation of a child into a sports team is the same as into religious activity – the eight-year-old calling for Jihad or the younger child holding a placard are merely reflecting the loyalties of their family and circumstance.

Children in Northern Ireland posing as IRA volunteers with replica guns earlier this year. Facebook

What offends the majority is the target of the loyalty – a loyalty that stands at odds to the dominant discourses of Australia, despite multiculturalism. We are also offended by the supposed loss of innocence because we romanticise children.

Seeing them engaged in war-like activity and violence offends our deep beliefs around childhood being “special”. Children glorifying terrorists (or freedom fighters), writing messages on artillery shells or themselves fighting in war all discombobulate our sense of “child”.

The bonds of loyalty

Groups become self-re-enforcing entities where loyalty to self is paramount over all others. Over-integration with the group leads to malfeasance. The police and military are prone to this effect whereby group loyalty and membership overwhelms other loyalties – to the organisation or wider social forces.

This hyper-attachment to the small group creates the conditions for corruption and abuse. The same can occur with people who feel marginalised from wider social structures and find a common rally point – that of religious extremism.

This leads to a cycle of radical activity as the group attitude becomes the norm, then to prove unwavering loyalty members have to engage in ever-increasing displays of attachment. To the outside world this looks like and has increased radicalisation and extreme fringe views – even to the point of violence.

Self reinforcement

The outcry against the “riot” in Sydney regarding a certain film is the most powerful motivator for those involved – for them it will prove their outrage and distrust of wider main-stream society.

This is because our loyalties need a threat, we need another person or group out there trying to destroy it – so that we can defend it. That threat to our sense of self and our loyalties does not need to be real – it can be imagined and even unviable. This drives that group together even more strongly as they define their existence and loyalties against those outside.

Our condemnation of their loyalty will only drive further radicalisation.