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(Don't) dare to be different

By Georgina Dimopoulos - posted Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Global population movements continue to accelerate the fluidity of national borders and the ever-changing cultural composition of societies. As migrants and refugees move between countries, so do a myriad of languages, customs, religions and cultures. The regulation of difference in culturally and linguistically diverse Western societies, including Australia, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada, has resulted in the promotion of multiculturalism, a mosaic of various ethnic groups and cultures.

According to Federal Government figures, 43 per cent of Australia’s population is born overseas, or has at least one parent born overseas. We originate from 150 to 200 different countries, and speak approximately 200 languages between us, including 15 indigenous languages.

Supporting a strong national culture, and concurrently managing immigration and accommodating cultural difference, are considerable challenges for Australia. The Federal Government’s current multicultural policy statement, Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity, is an attempt to ease the tension between these two seemingly contradictory positions.


In theory, multiculturalism enables all individuals and groups, regardless of their cultural background, to participate fully in a society which promotes racial tolerance and acceptance, social harmony and cultural diversity. Everyone supposedly possesses the ability to articulate their concerns, challenge popular and institutional discourses, exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.

The problem is one of being “heard”. As a prescriptive legislative policy, multiculturalism advocates the celebration of diversity within the boundary of conformity to a set of common values. Voices, practices and displays of cultural difference which may contradict the dominant culture are domesticated and assimilated into the modes of recognition of the exclusive discourse.

Australia’s official multicultural policy is littered with conditional statements which impose restrictions upon the expanse of difference. Premised upon the ideology of civic nationalism, including the social contract theory (which suggests that our political and moral obligations stem from an implied agreement with the State), Australian multiculturalism emphasises the responsibilities of, and respect, fairness and benefits for, all members of society. It identifies a unified, single culture - committed to the nation, its democratic institutions, principles and values - that emanates from cultural heterogeneity.

Multiculturalism requires that we embrace “our Australian-grown customs” and values, which include freedom, tolerance, inclusion, responsibility, mateship and “a fair go”. The definition of Australian values raises the question of whose values, particularly as the celebration of cultural diversity requires an “overriding commitment and loyalty” to the nation. Homogeneity of societal values jeopardises the genuine implementation of multicultural policies, as incommensurable cultural differences are viewed as a threat to social cohesion and order.

Indeed, critics of multiculturalism are swift to point the finger when racial and ethnic conflicts erupt. The most recent illustrations of such violent outbursts include the Cronulla race riot in Sydney and the Birmingham riot in the United Kingdom. These riots involved members of immigrant populations and sentiments of racial vilification. However, race and ethnicity are just two factors in the broad spectrum of identity politics which contribute to social unrest.

Earlier this year, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello criticised citizenship premised upon “mushy, misguided multiculturalism”. He asserted that migrants who do not share Australian values should be stripped of their citizenship. Australia’s stronger anti-terrorism laws, and the proposed changes to the nation’s citizenship requirements, such as testing applicants on their English skills and knowledge of Australian values, history, customs and laws, are further examples of upsurges in nationalist expression and identity.


Similarly, the rhetoric of “fundamentalists”, “extremists”, “terrorists”, and the “war against terror” which has invaded the global media since September 11, the Bali bombings, the London bombings and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has generated the overarching binary oppositions of “Us” and “Them” throughout much of the Western world. These international events have also operated to reinforce Australian nationalism in our global climate of anxiety.

Pluralism, as a liberal model of social organisation, claims that individuals and cultural groups are equal, free, choice-making members of society, with the right to pursue their self-interest, to the extent that they do not impinge upon the rights of others.

But Western liberal societies tolerate plurality to the extent that it does not conflict with the values and institutions of the dominant culture. Multiculturalism is just as much about the institutionalisation, normalisation and entrenchment of networks of power, as it is about fostering the right of all people to maintain their culture, religion or language. Broader discourses intersecting with such a policy - including political ideology and the tacit defence of civic nationalism - impact significantly on its implementation and operation in practice.

The recognition and valuing of diversity in multicultural societies assumes that all differences are commensurable, and can indeed be subsumed into the overriding culture and its values. The efficacy of Australia’s multicultural policy requires that cultural and racial differences subsist within pre-existing social, economic and political frameworks, if they are to be recognised and accepted.

The basic premise of multiculturalism appears paradoxical - feel free to celebrate diversity … just don’t dare to be different!

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About the Author

Georgina Dimopoulos is a Media and Communications-Law student at the University of Melbourne. She is a 2006 Goldman Sachs Global Leader, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Medley Mag, an online magazine sharing the diverse cultural experiences of Australia’s youth.

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