18 December 2005

Bad Santa(s)

My home town, Auckland, has made the front page of the BBC news website today, but once again it's for all the wrong reasons. It would appear that a bunch of around 40 drunken men dressed as Santas have been creating havoc in what they see as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas. Dickheads!

Calling themselves 'Santarchists', these 40 idiots worked their way through Central Auckland over the course of Saturday afternoon, raising what the New Zealand Herald has dubbed 'merry hell'. Their particular brand of merry hell included, but was not limited to, urinating on cars from an overpass, tagging, throwing rocks and beer bottles, theft of alcohol and soft drinks from a shop, assaulting security guards, vandalising a Christmas tree and, in one case, climbing the mooring line of a cruise ship. A classy lot, these Santas!

The police were only able to make three arrests, due to difficulties in, ahem, identifying the men involved. ("Well, Officer, he was quite fat, with white hair and a beard, and wearing a red hat, red coat and trousers, with a wide black belt around his substantial middle.")

A quick scan of Google News reveals that this story has been reported not just on the BBC and in New Zealand, but also in Germany, the US, Japan, Australia, etc. etc. etc. Oh dear, oh dear!

What's even more unfortunate is that a police spokesman has been widely quoted on this incident as saying it was "fairly average behaviour" from an "organised group of idiots." I do wish they'd train police spokespeople to choose their words a little more carefully. I know it's not what he meant, but what that quote communicates to the world is this: "It is unremarkable behaviour for a group of 40 men to get pissed and rampage through town, breaking laws, breaking things and generally causing mayhem. That sort of thing happens all the time here in Auckland."

While the sad truth of that interpretation might be up for debate, what is actually going on here is a linguistic issue. It's common in New Zealand English to use 'average' with a distinctly negative connotation. It's a type of sarcastic understatement, a rhetorical device which is heavily favoured in NZ English in all sorts of contexts. So, for example, if you have the 'flu and someone asks how you're feeling, you might respond, "Pretty average mate, to be honest," though you actually mean: "Mate, I feel like death on a stick."

I know this; New Zealanders reading the story in the Herald will know this; but somehow I suspect it'll be lost on most of the readers of the BBC News website, unfortunately.

Still, it could be worse: I could be Australian and have to put up with my Prime Minister publicly denying that race riots on the beaches were an indication of underlying racism in our country, when it's patently obvious to all concerned that that's exactly what they are an indication of. I'd take drunken Santas over that sort of carry on any day of the week.