The new conformity: why 'rebels' like Shaun McNeil no longer stand out

On beautiful Bondi Beach over the holidays there's always an ugly influx of blokes similar to Shaun McNeil, the man charged with king hitting and hospitalising 18-year-old Daniel Christie.

Heavily muscled, heavily tattooed, often heavy with attitude, some of these blokes walk pit bulls and staffies on the promenade or lead their bikini-clad girlfriends along the hard sand - all with a similar air of ownership.

The great irony of the stage-managed strutting emerges when a person dares stare a little too long at the jiggling muscles and mammaries and is asked aggressively, "Whatta ya lookin' at?"

The answer, of course, is we're looking at the image these men have carefully crafted and advertised in ink on their bodies, as well as online on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere.

If it's possible to measure a person's self-absorption, surely the percentage of their epidermis illustrated as autobiography is a good metric.

On a certain modern man's body you'll now commonly find appropriately sentimental dates, as well as names and faces of dead relatives or newborn children.

Quotes and phrases are ripped screaming out of context from literature, scripture and film, while foreign words and symbols - the owner's captioned cartoon of their trip to Thailand or Bali - are awkwardly added to the skin-billboard.

The mistake we make, however, as observers of this display is to think the McNeils of the world are attempting to communicate or connect with us with their derma-doodlings.

Kings Cross, the honey pot that drew McNeil and Daniel Christie on New Year's Eve, is where Pastor Graham Long of the Wayside Chapel has spent years watching and wondering at the messages sent by these men.


"It's not relational. It's promotional," says Long, who has written and spoken at length of the "privatisation of the self", the illusion so many people have that "I" comes before "us" in the human alphabet.

There can be no more graphic image of this than the "selfie" - where one turns the camera on oneself to take one's own picture; the world narrowing from infinite to individual.

As we now know, Australia has been credited by the Oxford Dictionary with coining the term "selfie" - so it should surprise no one we also produce gross fanatics of the form, such as McNeil, who managed to generate an online archive of more than 3000 public photos of his 25-year life.

Like many of his ilk, I have no doubt Shaun McNeil considers himself an "individual" and in one regard, argues Long, he's probably right.

"An individual comes to know themselves as different from others, while a person comes to know themselves in relation to others."

Individuals are in competition, people are in a community. An individual is focused (camera in hand) on "my car", "my body", "my Facebook feed", "my girlfriend ", "my night out", "my protein shake", "my dinner".

"A person knows themselves in light of others," says Long in his recent book Love Over Hate.

Neither rock nor sports star, McNeil nevertheless stole their swagger. His personal PR created an image of a "hard man", a mixed martial arts proponent who seemingly longed to be seen as a rebel.

That's the final irony of the almost endless droves of these new "rebels", their bodies painted and puffed in sometimes comically identical style; it's the new conformity.

When I see a 25-year-old man at Bondi without a sign of ink on his body, maybe walking his grandma or mother, perhaps - quaintly - even wearing a shirt, I often say to myself "now, there's your rebel".

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