As a now bonafide multicultural nation, Australian society has seemingly never been so self-segregating.
The very idea of what is ‘Australian society’ is so contrasting depending on who one asks, the definitions of “true blue” and what constitutes as being an ‘Aussie’ are varied with active ideals of nationalism, tribalism and socialism of different groups.
When our so-called ‘Australian society’ differs from town to town, suburb to suburb, group to group, what of an overarching Australian society; a whole Australian community and Aussie spirit?
There is no such thing and there never was.
Historically, the Australian population has been segregated via. class, race and also purpose.
In the colonial era many came for gold, others as punishment and others to rule. As time progressed the social fabric became homogenised but only so much as it kept those of non-Anglo descent at the fringes. Clearly, this is continuing today.
It gave us the romanticised and rose-coloured notion of what Australia is, and who Australians supposedly are. We often look back on and regard the laid-back recreational traditions (beach cricket, backyard barbeques; a love of sport and bloke-culture) as the cornerstone Australian values and lifestyle. Of course, this was an idealised society, imagined and accepted by those privileged enough to experience recreational utopia.
It could be argued that contemporary Australia and the world changed come the 1990s; Apartheid was deconstructed and past wrongs were sought to be compensated. Native Title came into law and what was the lingering ebbs of the White Australia Policy came to heads in the face of a globalised world with a migratory workforce and the phenomenon of refuge-seeking.
Since the 90s, the facade of Australian-ness has continued to be exposed and rebuilt, showing us that there never really was much by way of community, spirit and society. Great strides have been taken moving forward… but also backwards.
As we stand today, Australian-ness has changed completely— despite reigning supreme in most conversations about national identity. It’s as though everyone either sees themselves as either patriots and everybody else as traitors, all of whom lay righteous claim to being the ones who exclusively exude the Aussie spirit, whatever that may be. And the difference between it all is by and large judged on where one stands on the argument of closed versus open borders.
This fight between nationalistic priorities of security and socialist priorities of brotherhood on matters of immigration and multiculturalism is so ongoing that it is becoming rather routine and also worrisome.
We are seeing these issues (stemming from deep-seated disagreement on what Australia should look like and of whom it should be made up of) come to a head— for the latest time, in Melbourne — with protesters essentially reclaiming their right to the dominate Australian society in the wake of African gang violence.
The protests to “reclaim” Australia and the counter-protests to condemn the alt-right both expresses the voices of what particular groups believe in, but also gives everyone involved, perhaps, a superficial way of feeling they are helping defend a society they are inadvertently demonstrating does not exist. While condemnation of dangerously absolute views on national identity is the duty of freedom lovers, undeniably when protesters meet, it only exemplifies how at odds Australians are on matters of Australian culture and ethnicity.
Put simply, I don’t believe the cause to reclaim St Kilda beach is truly in the best interests of Australia’s future and civility. Aggressive responses to race issues simply creates a revolving door of retaliation and marginalisation which ultimately serves nobody in any positive sense; thus, keeping divides in place.
Meanwhile, tackling the problems of ghettos, integration, racism, segregation and religious warfare go hindered, with our politicians choosing to respond to the symptoms by issuing moralistic decrees in defence or attack of whichever side of the riotous protests they feel votes for them. Our elected representatives do so love to gain political points from superficial grandstanding.
I fear that the dramas unfolding in Melbourne, at St. Kilda are only just beginning for 2019.
Twenty-nineteen’s political year has already begun with race politics having been set as the flavour of yet another year of policy-making and media commentary.
As for the rest of the country, we are nearing Australia Day. With 26 January looming ever closer, so too does the anticipated toing-and-froing over what this very well-known date means to Indigenous Australians (and their allies) and, for some reason, how it supposedly upsets the status quo.
Twenty-nineteen’s political year has already begun with race politics having been set as the flavour of yet another year of policy-making and media commentary. Everything that is Australia Day will no doubt soon be embroiled in the race-baiting which has already begun.
Here in this Australia Day conversation, we see an example of why Australian society does not exist.
Not because of activists’ desires for a culturally sensitive national holiday, or due to traditionalists who believe the date should remain as it is the norm.
It isn’t the fact that there are disagreements on fundamental issues regarding how our country is run or should be run into the future (or into the ground), nor is the fact that the history wars seem unabating— it's because the “he who is not with me is against me” paradigm deal is a gamble that has been made on our behalf without our consent and we are the collateral. We do not deign to have unity in spite of our differences.
The notion of what society is, how fragile it can be and how it is formed is one of the most important philosophical questions for humanitarians and politicians.
Former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was a leader who called much into question and was/is in turn, subject to it herself. In 1987, she infamously espoused to Women’s Own magazine that “…there is no such thing as society”. She went on to say, “…There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours”.
Society, as we have grown to expect it to be, is not a given just because there may be a mass of humans congregating on a land mass.
For all the varied opinions there are about Thatcher and her actions, in this particular instance, I would argue she was the recipient of much misunderstanding regarding her remarks. No doubt as I appropriated for the title of this piece, many people formulate the worst kind of assumptions based on a key sentence. I believe what Thatcher said was true: society doesn’t exist, let alone function, if individuals do not step up and take responsibility for their part within said ‘society’. Society, as we have grown to expect it to be, is not a given just because there may be a mass of humans congregating on a land mass.
Society doesn’t stop functioning due to differences and argument. It is this which helps society to build and thrive. Thatcher is right, in that, society isn’t achievable if amidst the collective the impact of the individual is not taken seriously. It isn’t the first time a leader has said similar remarks. In 1961, Former US President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to the people of his country, in what became his most famous line, said, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.
Both Thatcher and Kennedy’s quotes are similar in credence, but could not have had more contrasting reviews. This is in part what our political and social commentary today labours under; that the focus is on who-said-what, more so than what was actually said.
Society doesn’t meet to denigrate and prove wrong; it should meet in the middle to try and understand and progress issues and action. The latter, sadly, historically doesn’t seem to be the Australian way when it comes to race relations.
Our Australian society depends upon the interpretations of a diverse population, and as such, will never be concrete in definition. Such an understanding could be well served this month, in the weeks before Australia Day and the subsequent views on an Australian cultural fabric. Like we have seen before, this year's events and celebrations will be plagued with the same resistance, as seems to be the norm in Australia, when it comes to the ideas of others.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Aboriginal affairs advocate and artist from North Queensland. He is from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes.
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