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Time to recognise the reassuring sameness of the human condition

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Wednesday, 4 January 2006


The unbridled bigotry that fuelled the 5,000 misguided voices chanting anti-Lebanese slogans on Cronulla beach before Christmas and the ensuing violence is deeply disturbing.

Given Australia’s large multicultural mix, the hatred and resentment that stems from unyielding racist attitudes probably constitutes a bigger risk to our collective security than the threat of terrorism.

Racism can only be defeated if we understand its root cause and come to accept the reassuring commonality of the human condition.

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The spark from the riots seemed to be the attack on two lifesavers the previous week. This occurred, supposedly, against a backdrop of other incidents of violence by people of Arabic appearance. While we should be perturbed that people in our community engage in violent acts, we should not allow the anxiety stemming from this to fuel erroneous generalisations and stereotypical views about the hundreds of thousands of Arabs with whom we have forged a rich, diverse and harmonious nation.

To stigmatise and alienate groups within the community is not only morally repugnant, but would be self-defeating - it would increase the risk of more violence in Australia.

Worldwide empirical research shows people from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds commit a disproportionately high number of criminal offences. Social disadvantage not only prompts rebellion, but people from such groups have less to lose from being imprisoned.

A sure fire way to increase the chances that a person will commit a criminal offence is to limit their opportunities for social and economic flourishing. This has been graphically demonstrated on an even bigger scale in France recently. The participants in the two-week riots were disaffected youth who felt that they have been shunned by the mainstream community and could not obtain meaningful employment and educational opportunities.

The key point to note from the events in France is that it does not openly discriminate against any sectors of the population (except in relation to citizenship laws). There are no laws providing, for example, that the good jobs or high level educational places are confined to people from certain racial or religious groups.

Yet large sectors of the French community felt so alienated they lashed out by engaging in widespread civil disobedience. This is not surprising. Discrimination and a sense of being left out of the “club of opportunity” is often subtle but can be highly damaging. It comes in the form of a distrusting sideways stare, a disinclination to provide goods and services to people from certain backgrounds and proposed bans on religious attire, which disproportionately affect certain groups in the society. It also comes in the form of qualified expressions of tolerance: “Not all Arabs are bad but …”

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It is time to drop the “but” and acknowledge that the recent violent incidents leading up to the riots relate to a relatively small number of people who are not representative of the broader Arabic community.

In potentially highly charged times like this it is important to bear in mind the sameness of the human condition. This can only serve to unite us.

Recent scientific studies into human wellbeing, while noting the diversity in the range of activities through which people choose to express themselves, show that at the base we are very similar. At the core, humans are wired pretty much the same. While some people prefer singing in a choir as opposed to boxing in a ring, and others prefer repairing motor vehicles to writing poetry, we should not allow these superficial differences to divert us from the fact we have the same basic needs and our wellbeing is promoted by the same type of things.

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A version of this piece was first published in The Canberra Times on December 15, 2005.



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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.

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