Bare your hairy chests boys and get ready for good old-fashioned fisticuffs. The time for modern diplomacy is over, especially with two world leaders — both of whom are known for regularly making public, shirtless appearances — set to soon meet in Brisbane for the G20 Summit.
Those two leaders are Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the former declaring he’s going to ‘shirt-front’ the latter, over Russia’s responsibility for the downing of MH17.
Language is so easy to say, and yet so very easy to harm, damage, exclude and even to subtlety say certain behaviours and standards are ok.
Studies have found the language used in job descriptions will play a role in determining who will ultimately apply. Recent research finds that the language and imagery used even within our Department of Defence is partially responsible for why the organisation is still predominantly made up of white men.
Other studies find language can help determine the success of an organisation — it’ll play a part in determining which individuals stick around, who’ll put everything into supporting the organisation’s vision and goals, and how such individuals will speak about their employers externally.
And language too underpins the unconscious bias we know is present across Australian workplaces. Sexist, racist, exclusionary and assumption-ridden words and phrases can easily roll off the tongue without the speaker even knowing the damage they are inflicting.
Which brings me back to Abbott and his rather bizarre use of language on Monday when he told a press conference he was going to ‘shirt-front’ President Putin.
In Abbott’s own words: “I’m going to shirt-front Mr Putin. You bet you are, you be I am”, adding he will tell Putin that Australians “were murdered by Russian backed rebels using Russian supplied equipment.”
Now, if you’ve been following the AFL for a long time, you may know what shift-fronting actually means.
If not, then a simple Google search will tell you that ‘shirt-fronting’, in the AFL context, involves running into a player at full steam, hitting them so hard that they fall to the ground.
It goes a little like this:
Seems kind of violent, and aggressive. It’s no wonder such a move is illegal. However, in other codes of football to ‘shirt-front’ involves a move that’s a little less confronting, involving grabbing another player by the top of the shift, to signify a challenge — this may have been what Abbot meant, given he’s more of a Rugby League kind of man.
The level of aggression apparent in the different definitions of ‘shirt-fronting’ vary. But what’s present in all of them is the symbolism of just what Abbot would like to figuratively do.
So why on Earth would a world leader use such a term to describe what he’d like to do to another world leader? Especially at a time when, domestically, efforts are being made to counter violence — both on the street and privately, behind closed doors?
No doubt the good majority of Australians are angry at Putin’s response to the MH17 disaster and unhappy about the fact he will be arriving here shortly for the G20 Summit. Putin certainly has serious questions to answer. And, yes, a standard conversation is unlikely to provoke much of a response regarding just what happened. But no amount of shirt-fronting, chest-baring or other attempts at proving one’s masculinity is going to improve the situation.
There are many, many other language choices Abbott could have used, all explaining to the rest of us just how he plans to confront the Russian leader and the tone he intends to take. ‘Shirt-fronting’ was the wrong one, and not just because Putin’s advisers were highly unlikely to know what it actually means.