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.