Friday, July 13, 2007

Manners and Society in Modern Australia

Musing about varying social structures in New England got me thinking about the role of manners in society.

I was brought up at the tail end of a period in which we were taught to stand up if an adult entered the the room, to call male adults sir (I went to a boys school with an all male teaching staff), to give up my seat on a bus for women and older people, to walk on the outside (road side) of a girl, to hold the door open for other people.

My immediate world was quite a complicated world in social terms, far more complex I think than modern Australia. Some of Judith Wright's writing presents part of that world, the grazing families, if sometimes in very jaundiced terms.

I was fortunate in that my particular family circumstances - son of an academic, a townie, but with country and city connections - gave me real freedom to mix across groups without worrying too much about the formalities of social divide.

Most of the writing that I have seen on class in Australia is, like Rick Kuhn's March 2006 paper, written from a Marxist perspective. This can be useful, but does not help much if you are interested (as I am) in the changing structure and nuances of Australian life and society. Here you have to try to identify, disentangle, the elements.

In mixing across groups the way I did I had to adjust to the particular manners of the group in question, to fit in, to learn the lingo so to speak. This did not mean giving away my own views. It did mean not arguing about things about which there was no point.

Sometimes this was difficult, requiring me to bite my tongue, when views were expressed that I disagreed with quite fundamentally.

Despite the differences between the various groups, there was still a unity brought about in part by what John Hirst as described as a democracy of language. This constrained the pretensions of some groups, influenced the behaviour of all.

Linked to this was a commonality in underlying core views. By this I do not mean quite what are called today "values". Expressed values could vary quite dramatically. Rather, I am talking about a common frame of reference created by common language and shared experiences.

We see ourselves most clearly through the eyes of others. The overseas students I mixed with could see both the weaknesses and strengths as well as our idiosyncrasies.

Because manners are a reflection of society, they change with changes in society.

The high point of Women's Liberation put a bullet straight through many of the things that I had been trained to do. I was firmly instructed not to walk on the outside, not to hold the door open, not to get up in buses. Women were equal and I had better get used to it.

I am not being critical in saying this, just observing the way in which social trends - in this case gender equity - manifest themselves in changes in manners.

Today I find that I have less understanding of the complexities of Australian society than in the past. Certainly many of the varying social structures that I knew have been swept away. But it is unclear to me at present just what has taken their place.

Part of the problem here may be that I simply have access to a smaller number of groups than in the past, so that I am less able to compare and contrast. Part of the problem may be that Australian society has simply become more fragmented.

In all this, I find two things of particular interest.

The first is the apparent resurgence of interest in manners and questions of etiquette. I have no scientific basis for saying this. Rather, I am responding to the apparent frequency with which these topics come up on radio or in the press. There seems to be a yearning for what used to be called common politeness.

The second is the apparent consistency over time in the core Australian character.

As I write, John Hirst is being interviewed on radio about his latest book on this topic. I have yet to read it, but based on the interview I both agree and disagree with him. I would agree with his core point, that there is something uniquely Australian that has been passed down over the generations.

I think that I can demonstrate this rather easily.

In 1957 John O'Grady writing as Nino Culotta published They're a weird mob, the often hilarious account of the experiences of a new Italian migrant fitting into Australian society. The book was a huge success.

Currently the Living Abroad web site carries an article providing advice to US people on the Australian character. The core elements are clearly the same, despite the passage of fifty years and the enormous changes that have taken place in Australia over the period.

I can see the same thing in my daughters and their friends. They have a clear picture in their minds as to what it means to be an Australian. This is not expressed in terms of broad visions or values, simply in the continuing capacity to recognise what's Australian and what's not. "That's an ozzie". was eldest's response to one TV story.

Just as is the case today, when I was at school and university this "Australianess" made many of our intellectual elites - Donald Horne and Germaine Greer come to mind as examples - very uncomfortable.

This is not a criticism.

While I have been critical of the role of our intellectual elites, I think it important to remember that one of their key roles is to question, to criticise, to present views that challenge.

When, as has happened a number of times in Australia's short history, one view becomes dominant, an alternative view will rise to challenge it. In all this, I think that the character of the Australian people provides a solid core.

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