Australia, like other nations throughout the developed world, is in the throes of crises of identities. Identity and its politics is the new political correctness. Its rise is said to explain the fracturing of contemporary politics worldwide. Movements for social justice, minority rights and recognition are said to be a scourge in Western societies, causing polarisation and conflict within nations. Social media is blamed for enabling or exacerbating the proliferation of identity blocs and the rise of a vehement, indignant political discourse based on identity politics.
There is no doubt identity politics and social and political fracturing are real. This is the next phase of the culture wars between Left and Right, the long conflict over political correctness that emerged in the 1980s and raged through the 90s across the Western world.
Although Robert Hughes, in his 1992 book Culture of Complaint, wrote of two forms of PC, the Right’s penchant for patriotic correctness was completely overshadowed by the Left’s political correctness. Pogroms against political correctness became effective weapons for the Right in the ensuing wars, as hapless leftists gave their opponents easy targets for their often silly on-campus predilections.
Just as PC started to run out of juice after the long Howard ascendancy, along came identity politics in its new manifestation in the latter years of this last horrible decade of Australia’s democratic chaos and dearth of parliamentary leadership.
The political Left is associated with identity politics and the political Right rails against it. Broadly, the Left seeks to exploit identity politics by marshalling its discontents and agendas into a progressive rainbow coalition, and the Right seeks to demonise it as a blight on national cohesion and a threat to liberal democracy.
The purveyors of leftist identity politics argue the liberal democrats themselves are an identity group, representing a hegemony of old white males who simply want to preserve their exclusive privileges. Isn’t John Howard and Tony Abbott’s Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation an identity politics project, they ask.
Meanwhile, the groups seeking recognition and rights seem to multiply and mutate. The fracturing and the loss of commonality across Western societies is real, but is the recognition of the unrecognised mere identity politics?
Sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone (2000)writes of two kinds of social capital in American society. Bonding social capital binds us to the ethnic, religious and other parochial groupings in which we are born and grow up. These are important bonds. However, if bonding social capital were all there was, the wider social and national fabric would be weak. This is where bridging social capital comes in; it ties strangers together through sporting, residential, recreational and other organisational memberships that are not confined to our narrow and exclusive ethnic and religious communities.
Strong societies have a rich fabric of bonding and bridging social capital. Indeed, fealty to the nation is ultimately the result of the warp and weft of this fabric.
Many years ago I argued for substituting identity for social capital in Putnam’s explanation. Strong societies are made up of strong bonding identities and strong bridging identities.
We enter a bad future if we equate liberal democracy with the erasure of bonding identities of groups seeking recognition and rights as a matter of human rights and social justice. Justice and recognition are not anathema to liberal democracy.
We also enter a bad future if we trash liberal democracy as the ultimate bridging principle of the Australian Commonwealth, in favour of the identity fundamentalism of its constituent groups.
Identity fundamentalism is the problem. When ideologues and culture war prosecutors from Left and Right argue their take on singular identities must be paramount, identities are raised as bulwarks against opposing identities and our shared nationality.
Identity fundamentalism takes two forms. The first demands we are all the same, there should be no recognition of difference and no recognition of rights that have been denied to groups because our liberal democracy is colour, gender and sexuality blind — and groups that seek to remedy injustice should just suck it up and pay obeisance to the one nation.
The second demands we are all different and our identity blocs are islands of exclusive indignation within society and diversity is more important than unity. What distinguishes us should prevail over our common bonds.
This conception of identity as singular is common to both forms of fundamentalism. They do not admit the truth that we all harbour multiple identities, even as individuals. We have layers of identity that bind us to communities close to us and to friends unknown across the nation.
There is nothing to be gained from trying to hector people to deny a layer of their identity in the name of shared nationhood, especially if that identity has been denied dignity and respect. Similarly, there is nothing to be gained from making one part of our identity the only thing that matters, and in the process denying and denigrating other parts, not least our common citizenship.
The Australian identities crises are playing out in the absence of leadership. Let me discuss three manifestations of these crises on this Australia Day.
First, take the issue of problems involving migrant youth of African descent. These youth are Australians, not Africans. They have a heritage in Africa but they are our Australian youth. Let us stop calling them Africans. Call them African Australians or Australians of African descent or just Australians, because these are our young people and they are part of our future. Let’s not deny the challenges faced by these youth and their communities, in the same way as we should never sweep the problems of Aboriginal communities under the carpet and deny the particular challenges my mob faces.
When will a white Australian political leader own these youth as our own and squarely face the challenges they endure and make clear the high expectations their country has of them? That they have rights and responsibilities, as surely as everyone else? That we want from them the best habits of their heritage and to avoid the worst of ours, so they can own the future as much as Australian youth of Aboriginal or Asian or European heritage?
Second, take the issue of diversity and unity. The traditional formula of tolerance and goodwill that underpinned the great success of our multicultural migration has been that we find unity in diversity. Let us not trash our achievement by trying to demonise multiculturalism as the bad source of identity fundamentalism. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen points out that it is not multiculturalism that is the problem but plural monoculturalism. Cultural ghettos have emerged in the West because multiculturalism has been distorted into a multitude of monocultures and the resultant decay of unity.
Last year I wrote to Bill Shorten urging him to understand this, and proposed the traditional mantra be reversed: that we celebrate diversity in unity. If the next progressive prime minister does not teach our nation on this fundamental matter of diversity and unity, we risk the decline of Australia’s greatest beacon to the world: our multicultural triumph. We show the world, in Hughes’s immortal words, “that people with diverse roots can live together, and see that we can learn to read the image-bank of others, that we can look across the frontiers of our differences without prejudice or illusion”.
Third, take this day. As long as we deny the pre-British history of this country and its legacy in the present, and we make James Cook’s east coast journey in 1770 and the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay the defining moments of this idea we have come to call Australia, then the idea will forever be incomplete and offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
But those who would change the date by reason of this exclusion and offence achieve nothing if we try to deny this fateful day. Inclusion and respect can never be achieved if it is replaced by exclusion and rejection. And if we want the country to never forget the legacy of Cook’s voyage and the First Fleet’s arrival, what sense does it make to deny it?
Scott Morrison has intimated that January 25 might be an appropriate day to commemorate the First Peoples of Australia.
On these pages last year I proposed Australia Day straddle these two momentous days, January 25 and 26.
January 25 is “the day before” the coming of the British on the 26th. From eyes on board the ships “the day after” was a settlement, and from eyes on shore an invasion.
We are not incapable of coming to terms with these two vastly different perspectives on these turbulent days. The Prime Minister should avoid trying to retrofit a narrative about reconciliation on these past events.
The kind of revisionist history that Cook Shire mayor Peter Scott and local federal member Warren Entsch are trying to promote in relation to Cook’s encounters with the Guugu Yimidhirr is bad history and should be abandoned.
There is no reconciliation myth to be found in the past.
It is what we do to make good in the future that will define reconciliation.
If the Opposition Leader becomes prime minister, he must understand that he will have to face history, as surely as the nation must. There are scarce bigger fish to fry than coming to terms with the crises of identities that roil the nation on this Australia Day, so that reconciliation is based on respect, recognition and unity of all Australians.
Noel Pearson is a director of Cape York Partnership and Good to Great Schools Australia.