It’s interesting to observe how time moves on and fashions change. Multiculturalism was once accepted wisdom but has become subject to significant criticism, particularly since the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC.
According to its critics, multiculturalism is based on relativism and the compartmentalisation of cultures. It is said to have provided a protective wall for fundamentalist and extremist thinking and practice. Rather than uniting the community, it has created division and conflict based on religion and culture.
The solution advocated is either the strong assertion of secularism and the values associated with democracy and human rights, or the renewal of national identity, which in Australia's case is associated with a fair go, mateship and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Two features of this attack are worth noting. In the first place there is an eerily theoretical and otherworldly quality to much that has been said about the shortcomings of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism wasn't just a general philosophy designed to guide governments working in pluralistic societies, it was also a much-needed and direct attack on racism, discrimination and other forms of social isolation and exclusion.
Many who migrate to Australia find it hard going. Like Aboriginal people, migrants often face hostility and prejudice in their social interactions and job applications. Multiculturalism was all about equal opportunity in a new country and about educating people to respect their neighbours. In this sense it could, and did, feed off the values associated with democracy (equality and human rights) and the Australian tradition of a fair go.
This leads me to the second observation. How did it happen that a creed that was consistent with and based on values associated with democracy and human rights came to be seen as their enemy?
There are a number of answers to this question, one of which is the politics of populism. About that plenty has been said. The other relates to the inability of conservatives to imagine social unity based on liberty and democracy alone. In other words, human beings need more glue than that provided by the Rawlsian social contract. This they have created over the centuries through their religions, cultures and traditions.
Like it or not, say the conservatives, but some degree of social control through socialisation around specific rather than universal values is necessary. Take away those controls and the worst-case scenario is a war of all against all. At best, then, differences can be tolerated but certainly not embraced.
Multiculturalism has always relied on a commitment to democracy and human rights as the foundation for unity, with culture and religion being matters for personal reflection, healthy dialogue and political advocacy, but not requirements for citizenship. It was all about learning to live with difference in an increasingly globalised world.
This opened up the nation to new people and new influences and has been without doubt a factor in our success in the final decades of the 20th century.
However, by describing Australia as something more than its past, our modern-day multiculturalists disturbed the foundations and unsettled the locals. Real divisions opened up over national identity just as they did over the national economy and protectionism. Reaction and uneasiness set in among those wedded to an Australia that had long passed.
This feeling of loss was given a healthy measure of intellectual and political legitimacy and the fact that the past involved legislation for White Australia, a stolen generation and healthy doses of sectarianism was conveniently ignored or downplayed by the new culture warriors.
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