Posted on December 14, 2005

Racism Is Repulsive, But So Is Self-Loathing

Janet Albrechtsen, Australian (Sydney), December 14, 2005

Yesterday a colleague emailed me from New York. The young lawyer — her family lives in Brighton-Le-Sands, a bayside suburb north of Cronulla in Sydney — wrote: “While I agree there is no justifying excuse for the violence and breakdown in order that occurred at Cronulla, it needs to be put in context. Unless you live in an area like Cronulla, Brighton-Le-Sands or Bondi, you have no idea what it is like to have one’s suburb regularly inundated with large groups of young Muslim men from the western suburbs who proceed to shoot people [as has happened in Brighton], intimidate people, regularly threaten people within their vicinity with violence, drive around in large groups screaming abuse at people from cars with their music blaring, regularly brawling, etc.”

This young woman recounted that all of the girls in her family (except the youngest) have been “subject to harassment inflicted by groups of these men — comments on our appearances, racist comments on our Australian background, unwanted touching, being followed while walking home by groups of men in cars (I was once followed all the way home — have never been so scared in my life), sexually explicit remarks while alone, with friends or with boyfriends, unwanted called-out invitations to have sex with groups of them, etc”.

Someone please tell Bob Brown. If ever you needed confirmation that the Greens senator is a disconnected, fringe politician who needs to spend time in Cronulla, it came yesterday when he blamed the appalling violence in Sydney’s southern shire on John Howard for having “mired the issue of racism in Australia”.

Suggesting that the nation is swamped by racists, that ordinary Australians need some fine moral instruction from the likes of Brown, is just the latest adaptation of the David Williamson school of thought that treats ordinary Australians with disdain. It’s a form of elitist self-loathing that gets us nowhere in explaining why thousands of people descended on to the streets of Cronulla in apparent retaliation against the attack on two surf lifesavers by men of Middle Eastern descent.

But as far as digging for root causes goes, this genre of reaction has been entirely predictable. Starting at the downright dumb end of the digging spectrum, sniffy journalists such as The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Marr pointed the finger at talkback radio host Alan Jones for stoking the vigilante violence at Cronulla. Never mind that the majority of Jones’s audience is older than 40 and the thugs at Cronulla were half that age.

Academic Amanda Wise from Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion blamed it on “John Howard dog-whistling on immigration” and “Bob Carr singling out the ethnicity of rapists”. And forgetting the old adage that if you find yourself in a hole, your best bet is to stop digging, Phil Glendenning of the Catholic Edmund Rice Centre went for the Howard quintet of apparent policy neglect: “Through Hansonism, the Tampa incident, children overboard, weapons of mass destruction and the unfair targeting of people of Islamic background over issues like terrorism and Iraq, Australia’s young people are growing up in a culture of fear of the other.”

Racism was on the streets last weekend. No doubt about it. White supremacists alleged to have links to neo-Nazis admitted they brought in more than 100 people to join the rampage at Cronulla. Young men used their bodies as billboards to read: “We grew here, you flew here”. This is racist and it’s wrong. Vigilantes bashing young men and women is criminal. But grabbing hold of Hansonism every time racism rears its ugly head and tarring the whole crowd with the same racist brush gets us nowhere.

There is so much more to this than racism. And we’re fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Britain has a much deeper experience of cultural tension. And that experience has thrown up some thoughtful debate missing in Australia right now. Last year, David Goodhart, editor of the progressive Prospect, wrote a controversial piece called “Discomfort of strangers”. It explored the tenuous fabric that binds us as a society. He pointed to the “progressive dilemma”: the conflict between solidarity and diversity. He compared the homogenous nature of British society in the 1950s with the present one, where individualism and diversity have produced a very different society.

He talks about us not just living among strangers but having to share with them. “We share public services and parts of our income in the welfare state, we share public spaces in towns and cities where we are squashed together on buses, trains and tubes, and we share in a democratic conversation about the collective choices we make. All such acts of sharing are more smoothly and generously negotiated if we can take for granted a limited set of common values and assumptions.”

Goodhart was hounded for suggesting that throwing people of different cultures together can cause friction. Not because of any latent racism, but because “we feel more comfortable with, and are readier to share with and sacrifice for, those with whom we have shared histories and similar values.” That friction is most evident in The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, societies that were once homogenous but recently have been confronted with immigrants from very different cultures.

As Goodhart says: “To put it bluntly — most of us prefer our own kind.” Even to raise such a notion will have the less thoughtful leftists crying racism. But the sooner we recognise human nature, the sooner we can work out where to go from that starting point.

Recognising human nature means that multiculturalism, though a fine sentiment, can only work if we unite behind a core set of values. Unfortunately though, that policy has become a licence for rampant cultural relativism. We are loath to criticise any aspects of cultures (except our own) for fear of sounding terribly judgmental and unfashionably un-multicultural.

Instead, culture is talked about only as an excuse for abhorrent behaviour so that the offender becomes the victim. Last week, a convicted gang rapist claimed he assaulted a 14-year-old girl because she was not wearing traditional Muslim dress and he thought she was promiscuous. Pointing to cultural differences, the 27-year-old Pakistani-born man said: “I believed at the time I committed this offence that she had no right to say no. I believed I’m not doing anything wrong.” A month ago his lawyer told the court his client was a “cultural time bomb”.

If this view, that culture can be used as an excuse, represents the views of even a subset of Muslim youth, then we have a problem. If we are not talking openly about egregious aspects of some cultures (except as an excuse), we have only ended up with a bigger problem. And, to date, we have not been talking. Multiculturalism has been synonymous with a rights agenda — addressing minority grievances — rather than a framework for talking about responsibilities. The violence that has been brewing in Cronulla, culminating in the disgraceful rampages in recent days, is a pointer that if we’re serious about social cohesion, it’s time we all demonstrated social responsibility.