Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Essay - national symbols in a pluralist society

National celebrations are tricky things because views and structures change. Both affect thinking.

Empire Day was established in Australia in 1905 and was a pretty big thing. By the 1950s it had turned into cracker night, still a big thing but for different reasons.

Older Australian still remember cracker night with nostalgia. Some, a smaller and fast diminishing number, remember Empire Day. Their children and grandchildren do not. Empire Day went as the sun set on what was once the world's largest empire. Cracker night vanished because of changing official attitudes towards fireworks in which safety came to override enjoyment.

This year marks 150 years since the start of the American Civil War. There were celebrations in the United States, but in many ways the anniversary passed without notice outside the US. It would not have done so fifty years ago.

In The problem of (American?) politically correct history, Nigel Davies looks at the way that the American Civil War has been simplified. Nigel's view is revisionist, addressing the way the US interprets its own history. The problem from my immediate perspective is that if the war is simplified to just slavery and nothing but slavery, then large slabs of the US population, those connected in some way to the south who still empathise with aspects of the southern cause, cannot participate.

We talk about Australia as a multicultural society, and indeed it is. However, we don't always realise that this requires us to shut up on certain matters, that you can enjoy celebrations and other views without necessarily agreeing with them, that even if you do not. you have to exercise politeness.

I grew up in a socially stratified and indeed divided society. I have written about this, about divides between town, gown and country, about sectarian divides. Each group believed that it's own views were right. To cross divides, I had to exercise discretion in what I said.

A little later, I came across divides elsewhere.

Take Malaya, now Malaysia as an example. My Aunt has served with the British Red Cross during the Emergency and had fallen in love with the country. I listened to her stories. I knew Chinese and Malayan Malaysians.

Personally I was a supporter of the Malay side. The concept of bumiputera  was coined by Tunku Abdul Rahman. I was strongly sympathetic to the idea that Malays were entitled to special treatment until they caught up. It was their country, after all. But then, I had Chinese friends who came to be adversely affected by the policy. So I listened.

I wasn't always as quiet as I should have been.

I knew a number of people who had come to Australia from the Federation of of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Then one of my house mates was from Southern Rhodesia. In 1965 Rhodesia had declare unilateral independence, leading to civil conflict. Personally I was opposed to the Smith regime, but was also worried about the nature of transition arrangements.

During this time I attended a dinner party in Canberra. A black Rhodesian woman was the main dinner guest. The conversation was virulently against the Smith regime. As I sometimes do, I attempted to present a counter view. Our guest of honour got upset, then angry and finally came close to tears as she talked about oppression.

I was mortified. My line of discussion was completely inappropriate. This was another time that I should have shut up and listened.

I could give many other examples. However, my point is that if people with different histories and views are to live together, then discretion is required.

Let me now link this back to my opening point.

I said that national celebrations are tricky things because views and structures change.

Empire Day is an example of a celebration that lost meaning because of changes in institutional structures (decline of Empire) that led to changes in views. Cracker night declined because of changing views on safety issues. The US Civil War celebrations struck some problems because of changing social attitudes, including stereotyping.

My point about mixing in a world of social and ethic divides was twofold. The greater the divisions, the harder it can become to select or promote specific national symbols. More importantly, diversity requires politeness, if not tolerance. This includes the capacity to join in or at least enjoy other's celebrations even if one has reservations about them. 

I am not saying anything especially profound in this essay. I just feel it important to make the points because of what I see as a growing intolerance, a growing certainty that our individual views are right, in Australian society.

If Australia is to be a truly multicultural society in the way that term is commonly used, then we have to understand cultural and religious differences and the historical divides that have made the relations between ethnic groups so bloody for much of human history.

Maintenance of links to the past is central to a multicultural society. This does not mean that we should not demand acceptance of at least the minimum commonalities required for this society to function, nor does it mean that we should not oppose practices that are against our evolving values. It does mean that we need acceptance of, or at least politeness about, difference even where we disagree.

This goes both ways, of course. It applies (or should apply) to both existing established groups and new arrivals. 

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