Tag Archives: culture


Ghassan Hage, chair of the department of anthoropology at the University of Sydney, in this Friday’s AFR Review section (which I’ve only just read this morning), neatly and eloquently sums up much of what I’ve been clumsily trying to think and write my way to.

He brings in the following concepts:

1) the multiculturalism contract where the state extends recognition and support to the existence of minority cultural identities and practices but with the requirement that minority cultures extend attachment and commitment to the general structure of the state. He points out also that Australia creates culturally specific institutions to integrate cultural minorities into the political mainstream while using those institutions as a means of communication into cultural minorities through which data can be gathered and policies dessiminated.

2) this brings him to the difference between a multiculturalism of coexistence and a multiculturalism of interaction. Coexistence is not enough as mere tolerance is precarious. He makes the nice point that the ‘respect of other cultures’ is nothing more than an empty phrase if the respect is not based on interaction and communication, on true understanding that comes with dealing, communicating and negotiating with people from another culture. The implication of a multiculturalism of interaction is that it goes both ways, it is the responsibility of all parties to interact. Of course, the question is how. Institutions and policies only get so far but people will always choose where they live and who they socialise and interact with.

3) he then talks about the hardening attitudes in societies where interaction is being replaced with permenantly defensive positions replacing the multiculturalism of interaction with that of co-existence. He points out rightly that defensiveness creates more defensiveness and that as debate and thought focusses increasingly on cultural differences and the need for assimilation, minority cultures become more defensive and majority cultures become less accepting and interaction collapses.

The position he takes is pretty much the position I’m at – there are always going to be people of different cultures, the greater a drive to assimilation, the more those cultures become ghettoised and defensive. The only way forward is with greater interaction, greater fluidity between cultural groups.

But how? The terrorist attacks have sown a lot of distrust in the majority culture of muslim minority cultures. The relationship, being relatively new, was never very resilient anyway. Not enough time had passed for a lot of interaction style relationships to develop between people (for eg: oh yeah, i know ahmed, went to his place for his idil-fitri feast – bit like a big barbie really – good bloke) and so it is easy to demonise on one hand and feel persecuted and afraid on the other. For example, a person in a minority who doesnt know many of the majority culture would not find it so easy to dismiss media commentary as that is the only channel they have. However, a person in a minority culture with more interaction with the majority culture would be able to draw on other channels and experiences. (for example, that alan jones is a dickhead, none of my aussie workmates think the same way at all)

Unfortunately, building trust through the development of grassroots style relationships and networks in the populace takes time and its one of those things that government cannot easily legislate for. However, by continuing dialogue, by maintaining a firm commitment to the multiculturalism of interaction, by explaining the multiculturalism contract to the public and by not discriminating and demonising, the government can go a long way to setting down the foundations for it.

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Ranting aside and earlier complacency aside as well, the fears of the populace with regard to the dangers in our midst are real. People have very real fears of society changing into something unrecognisable and undesirable whether as a result of cultural osmosis and gradual demographic shifts or through violent reaction to violence.

As I’ve written earlier, I have no wish to live a country where religious beliefs are forced onto me through the legal system whether those beliefs are from Islamic groups or religious aligned parties like Family First. However, I also do not wish to force my ideology and philosophy onto others no matter how irrational, self-destructive and downright stupid I feel they are being. At the very least, consistency requires that I maintain this position.

The problem with this stance is that it leaves one open to the argument that even if you are able to foster a respect and tolerance for the ways of others within these sorts of [insert favourite marginalised and demonised group here], population growth is going to outstrip us decadent western liberal types and eventually using those very same democratic instruments, vote in an entirely different system or at least legislation of some other sort. In short, your country and the very institutions that allowed such a group to flourish will eventually be irrevocably changed and you would become a minority (presumably a persecuted minority).

The other point often made is that even if through gradual population expansion, they will eventually form a sizeable enough minority to create ghettoes which will only result in greater conflict and distrust amongst the major groups. Proponents of this argument then cites Bosnia, Rwanda, Macedonia and Indonesia as examples of ethnic conflict. There is no shortage of examples there.

These are powerful arguments. Powerful enough to be used in justifying the white Australia policy and now powerful enough to be the shadow that lies under the current toeing around multi-culturalism. It’s also the fear that is evoked whenever politicians talk about strong border protection.

But it is because they have such power that it is important to examine the arguments in a little more detail.

First, the population outgrowth argument. This is basically an argument that taps into fears of cultural change. I dont have a counter because I believe it is going to happen one way or the other. Live with it. As a society, you could try to legislate for certain values and attempt to outlaw others but like it or not, if there is an underlying cultural shift occuring in the population, it is going to happen either painfully and with much abuse and hatred on all sides (Falun Gong, Iran revolution etc) or in a controlled fashion. Trying to shortcut potential cultural change by implementing assimilation measures, IMO, only postpones the inevitable and in the meantime impinges on the civil liberties of everyone. As in an earlier post, I believe the only way to influence cultural change is to provide the population with choice, freedom and a stable society as free from hatred, poverty and distrust as possible. In other words, a bottom up process. And I believe that if we are able to this successfully, cultural change is going to head towards the western democratic free(ish) market type situation.

Second, the ethnic conflict argument. The problem with ethnic conflict arguments is that they tend to be self-fulfilling and tend also to be perpetuated by people who get into power by playing on those fears and using those arguments. It assumes that communication is not possible, that everyone who is not like oneself is implacable and uncompromising and that conflict in impossible to avoid. It forgets that in reality, there will always be more moderates who just want to get along and live their own life peacefully and that the implacable and uncompromising are always in an absolute minority. It also hides the real reasons and causes of conflict which are often to do with inequal opportunity and mutual distrust.

Finally, and this is what I’m really getting to is that we have no choice and I mean this as a collective we as in all participants. As globalisation continues, we are always going to be a country with people holding different beliefs whether due to ideology or culture or religion or sexual orientation. There are always going to be flash points and conflict areas.

So, now to actual policy which I believe will help (but not guarantee) peaceful cultural transitions any which way are as follows with the caveat that I havent done enough research and reading in this yet.

1) A common language. To communicate, people have to speak the same language and so it is essential that government subsidised language schools are provided and people encouraged to learn as much of the common language as possible. Here I’d go further and actually legislate that all schools private or otherwise must have the common language as its primary medium of instruction (ie > 50% of school lessons).

2) Civics. Migrants and school children from a certain age onwards should have a civics course that teaches the current political system, explains the whole liberal acceptance of difference position that is cultural diversity is to be respected and accepted and is in fact an enriching asset for the country. At the very least there is an expectation that in the general population that they respect difference if only because everyone is different.
As well, an understanding of political process can empower minorities and migrants which is always a good thing.

3) Hate speech and anti-discrimination laws (even if I do have problems with some of that) and a strong and consistently applied criminal code.

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Pamela Bone in the Age today is calling for the setting of limits in multiculturalism, especially with regard to Islamic cultures, the exact nature of which are unclear except that there should be some. The only clear suggestion she does actually give is that ‘we have a right to know what is being taught in schools and mosques’. Presumably this means also that we have a right then to censure what is taught and hence thought.

Here is once again the old tune of assimilation. If we all think the same or believe in the same things then everything will be good. When framed in this form of debate then an obvious cause for all evil in society is multiculturalism.

It irks me that people like Pamela Bone who bring this up forget that there are already limits set in place. There are criminal laws, there are laws about hate speech and vilification, there are laws to counter terrorism some of which are questionable, there are a whole rafter of laws to protect people and to punish wrong doers of every sort.

It is especially disappointing that Pamela Bone and no doubt most talkback radio hosts and listeners fail to see that to jump from terrorism to an entire culture and religion is already a stretch (and one would be tempted to call it a prejudiced step) but to then jump from that to multiculturalism which affects ALL cultures in Australia is a terrible failure of rationality.

Heck, using the same logic, I can say that because of anti-abortion terrorists in America, all Christian activities in America should be rigourously controlled and what’s more, all religious freedom should then also be held suspect. Religious freedom in the sense of the freedom to have any religion at all.

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I was reading Scott Burchill at the AFR Review section (comes out every Friday and is pretty much the only part of the paper I read). He’s got an online version of his article here. He puts forward a common argument that we (as in much of the Western world) should recognise that we bear part responsibility for Islamic extremist terrorist activity due to “the occupation of Palestine and Iraq, to the puppet government we installed in Kabul and our ongoing collusion with repressive tyrannies across the Arab world and beyond”.

He doesnt actually go on to say what we should do about the terrorism although a good starting step would be to stop “asserting of the superiority of our values” which presumably does not at the same time acknowledge the superiority of their values.

Anyway, it also got me thinking. What does Al-Qaeda want?

I started looking through the net hoping for a page with a mission statement, clearly lined out objectives (in dot point form preferably) and maybe some kind of timeline as to when each objective should be fulfilled. I wasnt too surprised to find no such thing.

However, I did discover this excellent site which collects translations of statements and interviews from Osama Bin Laden as well as a whole host of other papers and analysis from the west. Of note is the statements and interviews section which details every statement and interview issued by Bin Laden.

Even though I had read some of them before, reading the source material was still worthwhile and I would recommend it to anyone as background reading on the current Islamic extremist terrorist issue especially if it’s a question of values.

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Let me state my prejudices.

I have a visceral dislike for Wahabism although I can dilute this statement by saying that my dislike extends to any puritanical, fundamentalist religion. I am especially unimpressed by its non-secularism and growing up in Malaysia, the thought of any form of religious court sticks in my libertarian craw. Of course, western laws themselves still bear elements of religious values, some much more than others. And religion-associated parties and lobby groups try assiduously to influence policy making. I probably dislike their attempts to push their poorly-disguised religious beliefs as societal values as much.

Having said all of that, a person’s religion is their business and I have no real problem with vibrant Islamic communities (even if they happen to be wahabis) coalescing in Australia, instituting their own schools and places of worship and persuading local authorities to institute segregated bathing nights at local swimming pools.

In my free market way, I view multi-cultural communities (or ghettoes if you will) as a great way of creating competition and innovation in culture. The more cultures, the more choice there is for individual citizens. And if it happens that a developed western liberal democracies (complete with materialistic individualism and free-ish market capitalism) cannot compete in this popularity contest (or alternatively population growth contest), then so be it.

My only caveat is that competition, of course, should be limited to non-violent means, something which some particularly devout adherents of certain puritanical fundamentalist religions and certain political ideologies seem unable to do.

But given that, I suppose that part of my position is that I believe that the western liberal democratic (complete with materialistic individualism and free-ish market capitalism) way is inherently superior in both appealing to the selfish and slightly hedonistic side of most people and delivering the goods to that side. Plus, I believe that the simple message of “So long as I’m not hurting anyone, there’s no reason why I cant do what I want to” is inherently more appealing to variants of “Don’t do such and such because the elders/god/supreme authority said so.” which puritanical religions all seem to push.

OK, so maybe the latest spate of bombings in London have shown that it’s not a guarantee but I maintain my own particular brand of faith in that eventually, bombings or no, provided that poverty can be alleviated and inter-cultural rivalry remain on the simmering but polite level, then most people are eventually going to move towards a more relaxed and tolerant liberalism.

I’ve seen it happen in the more prosperous Muslim population within Malaysia and I think it’s likely to happen here as well. So long as not too many bombs go off and revenge mosque burnings happen that is.

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