• Harmony Day aims to spread the message of goodwill and multicultural success, but is it attainable? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
While the aims of Harmony Day were well-intended, Helen Razer questions whether total multicultural success is just a pipe dream anyway.
Helen Razer

21 Mar 2017 - 4:28 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2017 - 9:30 AM

Only an unpleasant person would question the aims of Harmony Day, a national event held yesterday, that seeks to spread the message that “everyone belongs”. But, perhaps, only a pleasantly deluded person could believe this message to be accurate. 

It is certainly true that everybody should belong. It is also plainly true that not everybody does.

At no time in my longish life have I seen so many of my fellows so actively excluded from social belonging. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal communities endure the ninth year of a cruel intervention based on a poisonous fiction. On the islands of Manus and Nauru, those seeking asylum from war in our “harmonious” nation are held for no reason better than the electoral gain of our major political parties. In our cities, Muslim men and women have been the target of regular abuse since Australian leaders declared their faith the enemy, again for reasons of cheap political gain, in 2001.

I am absolutely certain that those employed by Harmony Day to spread the message of goodwill and multicultural success do so in the best kind of faith. I am, however, a little cheesed by the implication that it’s up to you and me to address our current national divisions. If the Australian people had been explicitly asked at any point, “Do you think that it’s okay to keep those who live in remote communities under a constant and painful state of surveillance?” or, “Are you cool with the occasional death in a government-funded, privately managed offshore detention hell?” I venture they would have largely said, “no!”

It’s not easy for me to believe that my contribution at a multi-culti morning tea will mean much for my Muslim or Aboriginal comrades at all.

While it’s easy to affirm on the surface its benign statements about loving each other, understanding difference, celebrating diversity et al, it’s not easy for me to believe that my contribution at a multi-culti morning tea will mean much for my Muslim or Aboriginal comrades at all.

Don’t read me wrong. Acts of kindness at the individual level can be individually invaluable. I remember how my own Skippy parents’ friendly curiosity for all who moved to our 70s street from other nations was, generally speaking, very welcome. Possibly excepting the time that Dad ate the entire supply of ćevapčići from the Vuković family barbecue and claimed he did so in the interests of cross-cultural understanding. (We now call his stomach his “cross-cultural understanding”.)

To declare the obvious, it’s good not to be awful. An ethical position is one that accepts cultural difference as a fact of life. I agree to live near you and you agree to live near me and so long as we do not impinge on each other’s everyday practice too much and maybe even get together to share a laugh and a garlicky sausage, it’s okay. We can even follow the formal advice of Harmony Day and “celebrate” the other every year if we will. Personally, I elected not to “celebrate” the different cultural backgrounds of my friends yesterday,, because this would embarrass them and cause them to suspect that I, a person reluctant to acts of public delight, was on a dangerous new medication. But, if you feel you can applaud someone for their ethnicity or religion without condescension, you should go right ahead.

But, if you feel you can applaud someone for their ethnicity or religion without condescension, you should go right ahead.

But, what you mustn’t do, whoever you are, is accept an entire and personal responsibility for our current state of division. This is a time in Australia of income disparity and nationalistic propaganda both unseen since the Second World War. You, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, didn’t start using every media instrument at your disposal in 2001 to cause irrational fear of an entire religion. You, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, didn’t deem this nation’s truest owners as somehow responsible for their own social disadvantage. You were going about your business, possibly eating nice sausages with your neighbours, as a great dump of propaganda hit us at the same time as the greatest recession the West has borne since 1929.

If we want true harmony, we only have very limited power to enact it as individuals. As a united force that demands of its elected leaders to quit it with the political racism and social inequality, we have considerably more. 

Harmony Day is a state-sponsored solution to discord created by the state. Actually, it was introduced by the same people who gave us the NT intervention, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, anti-Muslim propaganda and the conditions for accelerated wealth inequality. To the Ministers of the former Howard government, we must say: Enough with your politically convenient, excruciatingly racist boat talk. We will decide which harmonious principles will govern this country. 

For more details on Harmony Day, visit harmony.gov.au.

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