And so we arrive at another Australia Day, a national holiday affixed with such contrasting emotions as to be one of the more confounding days on the calendar. Coincidentally, my last post on this blog was exactly a year ago, where I lamented the history attributed to this day. (2013 was a very busy year for me, but I feel this is a good day to recommit to my writing here.) However, with this post I would like to look at something different.
During the past 12 months I took a sociology class at a university that is perhaps best known for its prestige and tendency to produce pretentious wannabe academics. In the midst of some disappointing conversations on social issues, the idea was tossed up by the lecturer that the quest to name cultural values, and the pride that a nation can have in them, is misguided and exclusive. Inevitably, she said, cultural values would leave people out and draw a line between those considered “Australian”, and “non-Australian”. She stopped just short of saying that it is wrong to have cultural values in Australia.
I find this a strange notion. I wished I had voiced my disagreement, but maybe I was too flummoxed and challenged by the idea to speak my mind. I guess now I have had a chance to reflect.
The first point I would like to make, is that I understand the argument. Proscriptive cultural values have the potential to exclude, especially when they are founded on narrow interpretations of how a life should be lived. Think societies based around religious dogma – such as in Iran – or those that embrace definitive personifications of nationalism, such as with our own “Aussie Battler”, a white Australian (usually male), who toils with their hands, remains stoic, and takes pride in the sacrifices they make. In Australia, such proscriptive images impact mostly on our Indigenous population, as well as our vast culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
But the exclusivity of these cultural values aren’t inherent to the concept of having cultural values. They have merely been poorly chosen and reflect a racially narrow tribal mentality of national belonging.
The second issue I have is that our laws reflect our values, and lay them out for all to see. Sociologists are eternally fearful of saying or believing anything which could remotely be construed as ethnocentric, but even a cursory look at our laws reveals that we are not as accommodating of others’ cultures as we think. Whilst the arranged marriage of young girls to older men is something that is practiced in several cultures around the world, in Australia, we have a law against the practice. This is because we value a child’s right to a childhood, as well as their agency in choosing their own partners at an age when they are able to make the decision for themselves.
Similarly, Australia upholds the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in relation to a children’s right to an education. Our law states that young people must be engaged in some form of education until the age of 15 or 17, depending on the state. Even though some cultures around the world do not support this right – at least not as an often enforced and focused upon facet of their society – this is compulsory in Australia irrespective of the culture a child citizen has originally come from. It is compulsory because we value education and a child’s access to it.
Finally, I believe that many people who come to this country as new Australians, do so because of our values, not despite them. To claim that we shouldn’t be proud of these values may come as a shock to those who have immigrated here to enjoy the freedoms we have, the equality we (attempt to) realise, and the agency we value. If not for our cultural values, then why did more than a quarter of our population (at the 2011 Census) leave their country of birth to live here?
The French have liberty, fraternity, equality. In America they appear to value freedom and bravery. But in Australia, we seem to have head-in-the-sand boganism, and a progressive intelligentsia that derides this, while championing a post-modernist sense of ambiguity. I feel we are missing out.
I don’t want Australia to have values that exclude large swathes of people from feeling like they are an Australian. But I do want some national values to be proud of. They can also have the effect of binding those of us from disparate cultures with a shared journey. Ultimately, I read once – in a Sam de Brito column of all places – the words of John Raulston Saul: “alienation at its most essential level is not poverty or unemployment. It is the inability to imagine your society and therefore to imagine yourself in it.” What makes us all Australian if not for a shared vision of what it means to be an Australian?
I really wished I had put up my hand in that sociology class…
And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.