About a decade ago, I finished up a stint of bar work. I left when the boss sobered up sufficient to stop paying us all twice the award as he had accidentally been, but also at about the time our young patrons had started to behave like Presbyterian grandparents.
The first time a kid asked Rosie, our barmaid-of-a-certain-age, for a sulphite-free white wine, she told him to fuck off twice -- once for speaking publicly about a food allergy and once for ordering white wine, which we did not serve. “This’ll put hairs on your chest,” she said, and passed him a Kentucky whiskey.
About the 20th time someone mentioned sulphite or gluten or fructose, Rosie’s sass wasn’t playing so well. Kids of the mid-noughties had started to complain that the bar staff were insensitive. We were insensitive, of course, but this insensitivity had been a brand attribute beloved of dive bars since a barmaid first spat in Papa Hemingway’s Bellini. We played Sabbath, we free-poured bourbon and we delivered disrespect in equal measure to all. Once, that was why people liked us.
On what would turn out to be my last night, I wrote on the chalkboard sign “If You Can’t Fucken Rock, Don’t Fucken Come”. When a millennial complained that the sign was not “inclusive”, I knew that I had become old and confused. I retired my door bitch uniform and repaired to my home where I could stay in at night and remember a time when food sensitivity would never have been mentioned and banjo music never requested in a punk rock bar. Thank goodness I left before social media arrived; my chalk and I would have likely become an unfortunate headline.
Yesterday, on the NSW South Coast, artist and business proprietor Matt Chun met such a fate. For the use of his chalkboard sign, owner of gallery space and cafe Mister Jones, widely held to serve the region’s most potable coffee, is currently facing what news outlets call “outrage”. Perhaps “the idiot reflex of an enfeebled mass” describes it better.
On Monday, Chun had notified customers that his store would be open for yesterday’s public holiday with the chalked words, “Yes, we’re open on national dickhead day”. Apparently, this was too much for those with the now widespread affliction of humour intolerance and a tiny cafe in a tiny town was the subject of a very many very abusive Facebook posts.
Sections of the cultural right were quick to distribute a picture of this sign and it seems that groups including the Canberra chapter of Reclaim Australia exhorted their followers to contact the business and leave “feedback”. The suggestion box of the internet is currently full to overflowing and many Proud Aussies left so much “feedback”, that Mister Jones has now withdrawn from Facebook.
To date, Chun, described to press as a “non-conformist” by Bermagui’s Chamber of Commerce president, has not apologised. Good. I hope he maintains an attitude of if you can’t fucken rock, then don’t fucken come.
But in the era of the empowered consumer, small business owners often face no choice but to perform an act of public contrition. If Facebook and other social media impose a mob standard, grovelling apology can be one’s only recourse.
It’s relatively easy -- for me at least -- to be stubbornly on Chun’s side. I happen to both despise Australia Day and enjoy good coffee prepared by “non-conformists” with chalkboards. I am not, however, much of a fan of homophobia -- having been subject to it myself -- so when a strategically identical but ethically dissimilar social media battle was waged on a Melbourne bar, I wasn’t sure what to think.
Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshments, which is just as self-consciously hipster as its name suggests, displayed a temporary sign that read “no poofter drinks” last finals season. Upon being called “homophobic” and worse for his failed irony, Handsome Steve was gracious and ample in apology.
It did the proprietor no especial harm to apologise, but, within its particular context, the sign hadn’t really done any harm either. This mock-masculinity is a staple of Melbourne bar culture and every weekend, weedy guys of all sexual orientations play with the language of a dying patriarchy while wearing football scarves around their bespoke western shirts. To take a statement that was very clearly intended as a critique of such homophobia and force its author to apologise for satire is a numb vigilantism.
But that’s what we’ve got going these days. Whether culturally right or culturally left, every other twit is accusing someone of drinking a charm to kill Goody Proctor. So sensitive, we cannot brook the signs that advertise bars we’ll never visit or coffees we’ll never drink, we’ve become the middle-managers of Salem.
There’s an old view on the radical left that the presence of censorship in a nation is a good sign. If there’s some kind of communication that the state feels the need to control, so the logic goes, then dominant state ideology is threatened.
What we make of a society in which we continually impose our own limits on speech, I’m not quite sure. I do know, however, that from Fitzroy’s hipsters to Reclaim Australia’s extremists, we are very eager to detect the unacceptable. We can no longer fucken rock.
Burnside, as you likely know, is a barrister, a refugee advocate and a man with an honourable alphabet of letters appended by others to his name. He's also a fighter and dogged correspondent who seems to thinks a lot about death.