Monday, May 03, 2004


Humanity has undergone a number of social transformations over the years. Starting of with the tribe, a collection of like-minded, familial persons, graduating to the kingdom, a larger collection of like-minded, familial tribes, rulers began to come into contact with the 'other,' often being possessed of a different language and belief system. Very soon however, it was realized that being 'other,' was not intrinsically bad, as long as the 'others' were under one's thumb, did as they were told and acknowledged the mother culture as superior and the ruler as paramount. That particular invention, is known as Empire. Empires have had a very bad press in the modern era as having rested on flimsy ideology. The bankruptcy of empires and the rejection of the idea of an absolute ruler gave rise to the idea of nation states, whereby each 'nation,' is entitled to build a fence around itself, proclaim its culture superior to all others and engage in interminable wars with its neighbours as to where the fence should actually be. That was what the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and 1992-5 were all about.
Enlightened governments sought to look past the intense fragmentation that nationalism caused and tried to find ways and means of providing an ideology for ruling larger groups of people, without having them kill each other. Thus it was the Soviets who actually first institutionalized multiculturalism in the 1920's. In accordance with Soviet policy, the cultures of all the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would be respected and promoted. This in itself was a revolutionary concept. However, it did come with a caveat, as the Pontic Greeks, Tartars and Chechens soon found out, that is: that one was free to practise their own culture, as long as the displays of that culture were not religious, capitalist or any way contrary to Soviet ideology. How hard this was to achieve is exemplified by the fact that the vast majority of the Crimean Tartars, Chechens and Pontic Greeks were deported from their homelands by Stalin, as 'suspect peoples' and their culture severely circumscribed, to the extent where a new alphabet was developed for the Pontic Greeks to retard their communication with their cultural metropolis.
Ultimately, multiculturalism seems to be whatever the government of the day defines it as being. In Australia, we are blessed in that successive governments since the seventies have actively promoted a benign concept of multiculturalism within a responsive society in which ethnic tension is almost non-existent. Arguably, they cannot afford to do otherwise considering the vast population of migrants in that society and the important and active role they play within it. However, there appears to be no official consensus and certainly no social consensus as to what multiculturalism actually means.
My first indication of the societal confusion as to the definition of multiculturalism was at the age of seven, being accosted by an elderly gentleman for speaking in Greek to my grandmother, at the shops. As he curtly informed me, "we speak English here in Australia." The advent and initial large acceptance of Hansonism and the way many monolingual Anglo-Saxon speakers tend to pull faces and feel threatened when in the company of persons who are speaking another language, tends to suggest that despite the official rhetoric, ie. "a celebration of diversity" is not widely adopted in the mainstream. Instead, migrants and their offspring are expected to 'become Australian.' This tends to mean that while a migrant's culture may be tolerated, for after all he starts off with no other, he and his children are expected at some stage to 'share cultures' and partake of the greater Australian societal construct.
Mark Latham's recent speech on multiculturalism is indicative of the policy-maker's confusion in this regard. In that speech, he sought to "give new meaning and depth to our multicultural identity." From the outset, his critique of the way government policy handles and defines multiculturalism tacitly outlines how hard it is to define it. According to him "we spent a long time trying to prove our diversity and then celebrate it…a celebration of diversity for diversity's sake." The official jargon quoted by Latham is interesting. Attaching words like celebrate to multiculturalism tends to connote a concept that shouldn't be taken seriously. It’s a party for Pete's sake.
Latham rightly and sensibly goes on to state that people should not be immediately pigeon-holed in accordance with "ethnic markers." There is a lot more to a person's identity than their place of origin or the culture they subscribe to. Instead, as he says, attempting to define multiculturalism in one sentence, multiculturalism lies "in the habit of living one's life through many cultural habits" and in being wary of a policy that "separates people from each other, rather than bringing them together to share each other's cultures and the goals of a good society."
Thus, if the crisis of defining multiculturalism can be defined as picking whether we should be a mosaic or a melting-pot, from this speech it appears that Latham is turning heavily to the side of the melting-pot. If so, this is something that is cause for concern. One would have thought that multiculturalism was not at all about celebrating diversity for diversity's sake but a deliberate step away from the assimilationist policies of the past that demanded cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for social cohesion. Does Latham really believe when he states that "in a diverse nation, social cohesion is as important as respect for difference," that social cohesion can somehow be threatened by multiculturalism? How can one justify this comment in the light of the fact that in the past 50 years in which immigration has transformed Australian society, ethnic tension has never been a serious issue in this country? What have we to be afraid of? Does this indicate that after thirty or so years of official multiculturalism, that Australian society still feels threatened by what is "different?"
Hopefully not. Nevertheless, the melting-pot definition of multiculturalism is one which foists upon cultural groups the burdensome responsibility of 'sharing their cultures,' before it even establishes a framework as to how existing cultural groups can be assisted to retain and develop their culture. It is a most presumptuous definition in the context of Australian society. The fact of the matter is that in today's society, no one is stopping anyone from 'sharing culture.' This comes about as a daily consequence of mixing with a diverse range of people. What policy makers need to understand is that migrant interest in multiculturalism is primarily based in retaining the mother culture without hindrance. Sharing is an inevitable consequence of this.
Ultimately, Latham stops short of advocating a 'hybrid' but homogenous in its application culture made up of various shared influences that should be adopted by all, determining instead the following commonalities that all Australian citizens should share: " respect the law…recognize the Indigenous inhabitants…understand our national language (English) and to learn from each other." However, he comes dangerously close and the psychological undertones of having to spell out what our national language is in brackets (yes, we do speak English in Australia, thank you for pointing this out) suggests what in fact is envisaged: a toleration and acceptance of all cultures, as long as finally, and inexorably, all cultures are subsumed into the melting pot of English-speaking mother Australia, USA-style.
Proof of this is successive governmental policies on foreign language learning. While government funded schools and courses exist, these have all been gradually scaled down over the years. Non-"ethnic" Australians have never seriously been encouraged to learn community languages and foreign language students rarely attain the level of functionality in foreign languages that students in other parts of the world do. Latham is unclear on how he intends to provide a framework for the 'culture-sharing' he espouses.
In an election year such as this one, all parties, and especially the Labour Party, being the party primarily responsible for brining Australian multiculturalism into existence should take the time to reassure ethnic communities that their approach to multiculturalism is one which permits communities to retain and develop their own cultures with the minimum of government interference and intervention that could conceivably see ethnic communities at the mercy of policy and to convince them that the aim of multiculturalism is not assimilation but an active promotion of the retention of community cultures. After all, mosaics and melting pots can coexist and the astute politician will perceive that the mosaic, is for us much more intrinsic to our Australian identity.

first published in NKEE on 3 May 2004