Sunday, May 15, 2011

Australian Multiculturalism: Is There Tolerance or Racism in Australia?

Tolerance is the ability to withstand difference of opinion, plurality of culture, race and religion in a society. It presupposes patience towards any clash of interest arising out of this plurality and diversity. Tolerance is an approach that aims to develop a society bereft of confrontation and conflict. Tolerance is neither an agreement nor an acceptance of a particular culture or way of life rather it is an attempt at agreeing to the reality of its existence anyways.

Multiculturalism
Tolerance expects a person to accept such cultural differences without a public display of agitation or resentment. It boils down to the theory of live and let live where everyone is supposed to grant one another space to exist and progress within a socio-cultural framework.In spite of seemingly good concept, tolerance has its detractors. They feel that the term is not as plausible or practical as it may seem.

According to its critics, the call for tolerance has in itself the undertones of intolerance. Tolerance is required when there is intolerance towards something or against something. It clearly states a condition where one who has been urged to be tolerant has the inherent power to be intolerant.Interesting thought indeed! While one sets out to explore the true nature of Australian multiculturalism, one can't miss the presence of lurking intolerance and racism towards migrants, especially racism in Australia against Indians. Lately, Australia has been in news for all the wrong reasons. It has earned huge flak for not being able to contain growing instances of severe & violent intolerance towards students migrating from India.

Hage emphasizes, “Rather, it is that those who were and are asked to be tolerant seem to remain capable of being intolerant, or to put it differently, that the advocacy of tolerance left people empowered to be intolerant” (21). Thus, an insistence on tolerance is also an acceptance of the fact that there is intolerance against something and the intolerant have the power to retaliate when they choose to do so.

Before 1970, Australia followed the policy of assimilation rather than tolerance towards migrants. The country, at that time, followed the ‘White Australia’ policy and expected migrants to relinquish their distinct identity and to follow the Australian culture, values and way of life. Since, this policy of assimilation did not yield the desired results; the Australian government had to look for a suitable alternative. Multiculturalism became a state sponsored policy in mid1970s. It provided the migrants cultural and religious space in Australian multicultural society. It envisioned social justice and equality for the migrants.

Tolerance became the ruling word to promote freedom of all religions, cultures and social entities. Australia’s policy of tolerance aimed at developing a pluralist cultural egalitarian society based upon mutual respect and regard. The government wanted, “to turn the classrooms of the nation into crucibles of tolerance” (23) in the interest of the nation.

Undercurrents of Racism
Although, multiculturalism and tolerance have made the lives of Australian migrants far conducive than ever before, the fact remains that a lot is still desired to be done. Undercurrents of intolerance and racism are far too obvious to miss or ignore. Continuing attacks on migrants and students from India have resulted in grievous injuries and also deaths in several cases. undoubtedly, this is a indeed a cause of grave concern. Such murderous racial attacks smack of growing intolerance among certain sections of Australians. This indeed is a clear threat to Australia's multiculturalism.

Prejudices, racism and social inequality continue to dog the Australian multiculturalism. Tolerance has proved to be a mere slogan that has failed to check racism and prejudices against the Non English Speaking background people. The social equality and social justice can only be promoted through something far more concrete and practical than a call for tolerance. In the absence of any strict action against discrimination and racism, the appeal for tolerance remains meaningless. The principle of tolerance clearly puts the victim on the receiving end as he is at the mercy of the tolerant.

Tolerance is unrealistic in expecting the intolerant to be tolerant and charitable. Hence, tolerance can neither change the power structure nor can it bring real equality in society. Actually, the idea of tolerance serves the purpose of the dominant culture more than that of anybody else.

In such a scenario, the principle of tolerance becomes a fa├žade to hide domination as a form of egalitarianism. This also provides the majority culture in Australia with a chance to have the best of the both worlds. Hage quotes Bourdieu, “In short one can use the objective distances so as to have the advantages of proximity and the advantages of distance, that is, the distance and the recognition of distance that is ensured by the symbolic negation of distance” (28).

Hence, Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) Australians, many hailing from India, are thus positioned in a particular social space where they are deemed to be equal but remain unequal. Hage feels that this creates a situation in Australian multiculturalism where the migrant culture doesn’t exist on its own rather it exists only because of the generosity shown by the dominant culture. Thus, tolerance becomes the discretion of the mighty dominant culture. It places the Anglo-Celtic Australians on a high pedestal wherefrom they choose whether to be tolerant or not towards other cultures.

Racial Attacks on Indian Students in Australia
This robs Australian multiculturalism from calling itself an egalitarian society based upon the principle of equality and social justice. Marcuse clarifies, “The highest point which man can attain is a community of free and rational persons in which each has the same opportunity to unfold and fulfill all of his powers” (101). The dominance of the Anglo-Celtic culture puts the migrants in Australia in a precarious position where they exist till those who tolerate them decide against it. Thus, the dominant culture sets unreasonable limits of existence on the migrants within the hegemonic order in Australian multicultural society.

Had the Australian society been truly multicultural, there would have been no reason for the Anglo-Celtic Australians to keep harping about the need to tolerate the NESB people. The very reminder of tolerance towards them positions the migrants in a position of disadvantage and on a weak ground. The repeated reminder about the migrants that ‘they’re Australians too’ is an affront. It puts a visible question mark on their status in Australian multicultural society as a citizen.

Otherwise, why Anglo-Celtic Australians should be reminded time and again that migrants are Australian too! Is the same thing done in the case of the dominant culture ever? Never, because the Anglo-Celtic Australians consider themselves to be the unchallenged owners of the Australian land and its resources; what to speak of the migrants, even the natives are denied this status! The very reminder of tolerance towards migrants unequivocally points to their flawed positioning within the socio-cultural boundaries in Australia. In spite of the policy of tolerance, the Anglo-Celtic Australians still largely control the lives of the migrants and call the shots in Australia.

Hage is particularly intolerant about the meaningless polls about Australia’s immigration policy held so often in Australia. The fact that scant regard is accorded to the opinion of the masses reduces the entire exercise to, “a ritual of empowerment, a seasonal festival where Anglo-Australians renew the belief in their possession of the power to talk and make decisions about NESB- Australians" (29). Hence, the tolerance towards the migrants in Australia is only in a limited sphere and the limits for the migrants are set by the Anglo-Celtic Australians. These limits are deliberately drawn in an order where the control continually rests with the dominant culture.

Cultural and Racial Divide

This business of setting limits on other cultures is to deny the true meaning equality and justice. In spite of a shift in policy, the Anglo-Celtic Australians have not relinquished their domineering role at all. They still decide what to appreciate in migrant culture or not. This grants them the power to value the ‘Otherness’ of the ‘Other’ negatively or positively, as per their whims and fancy. Such a valuation of the ‘Other’ can never be correct due to the inherent element of bias involved.

While talking about culture Marcuse underlines the importance of idealism and higher values in life. A society based upon narrow mindedness is imperfect, incomplete and unjust. We can realize our desire or demand for a happier social existence within Australian multicultural society only when the flawed policy of tolerance gives way to sincere dispensation of true equality and respect to the migrant cultures on all planes.

Marcuse emphasizes, “By their very nature the truth of a philosophical judgment, the goodness of a moral action, and the beauty of a work of art should appeal to everyone, be binding upon everyone. Without distinction of sex or birth, regardless of their position in the process of production, individuals must subordinate themselves to cultural values” (94). This goes to prove that goodness begets goodness, justice breeds peace and equality creates an atmosphere of bliss and happiness. The Australian multicultural society has yet to meet this ideal model. The Australian dominant culture has yet to show true magnanimity and sense of accommodation that comes from within. Mere tolerance can’t put an end to racism or social injustice rather it reproduces it; while it appears to mitigate it.

Hage finds ‘tolerant racism’ in Australia no less objectionable or dangerous than ‘intolerant racism’. While the ‘intolerant racism’ is direct and predictable, ‘tolerant racism’ is indirect and subtle. The tolerant racism is in a way a government supported racism originally born out of intolerant racism of the past. Hage points out, “In Australia.........tolerant racism is far more pervasive historically and has constituted, and continues to constitute, the core of most racist regimes, from slave societies to societies structured by the exploitation of ethnic/racial industrial, domestic and cultural labour and 'value'” (33). It emanates from post-colonial intolerant racism and still suffers from that crude mentality.

As a result of it the positioning of the migrants and their value in the limits set by the dominant culture can never be praiseworthy. According to Hage, Australia’s “tolerant racism is the racism of the government of Otherness” (34). Tolerance as a state policy has failed to guarantee Australian migrants their fundamental right to occupy a position of equality in Australian society. Their position in the socio-cultural boundaries is indeed less than that of a full fledged citizen.

Visible Intolerance in Australian Multiculturalism

The condition of the migrants in the multicultural Australian tolerant society is similar to that of the proletariat at the hands of the bourgeoisie who were merely awarded abstract equality. The absence of equality in capitalistic terms denied them material gains that the bourgeoisie craftily wanted to keep for themselves. Thus, the universality of happiness could not be realized due to this concrete inequality prevalent in a bourgeoisie society. Similarly, the Anglo-Celtic Australians have provided the migrants only abstract equality through their policy of tolerance and multiculturalism. The NESB people still don’t enjoy the true happiness of social existence that emanates from complete and concrete equality.

The bourgeoisie wanted to keep a plausible face by superficially upholding the principle of equality for all. At the same time, they didn’t want to make it obvious that nothing much has actually changed on the ground for the proletarians since the exit of the reprehensible feudal system. On the same lines, the Anglo-Celtic Australians due to similar mindset can’t afford to seem discriminatory towards the migrants; hence the need to practice the self-serving smart gospel of toleration.

Australian policy of toleration tends to kill two birds with one stone; the migrants are kept subservient to the dominant culture and the tolerant don’t sound racist even when they are in reality. The fact remains that practically little difference has occurred in the thinking or working of the Anglo-Celtic Australians since the end of the ‘intolerant Australian’ era of pre 1970s.

It is interesting to compare Australian policy of toleration with the bourgeoisie art of deception and diversion. The bourgeoisie wrested power from the feudal lords with the help of the proletariat by raising the slogan of ‘equality for all’. Once they achieved power, they kept most of the material and concrete privileges unto themselves. To the criticism of injustice, the bourgeoisie advanced the lame principle of ‘affirmative culture’ which essentially happened to be a smart diversion than anything else.

Tolerance Australia Style !
They gave passionate slogans regarding the welfare of the general humanity, beauty of the soul and freedom etc. These slogans were carefully designed to achieve ‘self-justifying exaltation’ and didn’t provide any real succor to the common man. Marcuse points out, “Man does not live by bread alone; this truth is thoroughly falsified by the interpretation that spiritual nourishment is an adequate substitute for too little bread.” (109). The Australian slogan of tolerance is equally hollow and the tolerated within the hegemonic order continue to remain marginalized and underprivileged.

The idea of happiness works at two levels; one ideal and the other worldly. The happiness through material comforts and possessions is tangible and belongs to the physical world. The happiness of the soul and spirit pertains to world of idealism and happens to be intangible and abstract. The Australian policy of tolerance secures the tangible happiness for the dominant culture and leaves the migrants to suckle on the intangible and the abstract. Hence, the migrants are left to continually search for the elusive happiness and striving for the unattainable.

Marcuse points out, “False philosophy can, like theology, promise us an eternal happiness and cradling us in beautiful chimeras, lead us there at the expense of our days or pleasure. Quite different and wiser, true philosophy affords only a temporal happiness. It sows roses and flowers in our path and teaches us to pick them” (100). True happiness, thus, can never spring from a flawed philosophy or a doubtful ideology. The policy of toleration is flawed and deliberately designed to meet a particular objective of the dominant culture.

The ultimate objective of all human existence is happiness. This happiness cannot be achieved through mere pursuance of material goals. Australian multicultural system heavily banks upon material considerations and it can never guarantee true happiness. Marcuse says, “But in the affirmative culture, 'the soulless' regions do not belong to culture. Like every other commodity of the sphere of civilisation, they are openly abandoned to the economic law of value. Only spiritual beauty and spiritual enjoyment are left in culture.”

Australian policy of toleration never loses sight of the material interests of the dominant culture. Such a culture in tends to be ‘soulless’ and hence essentially ‘joyless’ for most. Marcuse further clarifies, “Schiller says that the 'political problem' of a better organization of society 'must take the path through the aesthetic realm because it is through beauty that one arrives at freedom'” (117), and the lasting happiness that comes with it.

Real culture aims to establish a nobler world rather than a merely better world. It is a world based upon true freedom, equality, goodness and genuine respect for one and all. Although it doesn't desire to overthrow 'the material order of life’, it aims at an equitable distribution of material resources and fulfillment of an individual's soul. It is based upon internal realization rather than mere external show off.

True Multiculturalism: Need of the Hour
True culture spreads and prospers through 'proper behaviour: exhibiting harmony and reflectiveness even in daily routine (Marcuse 103). Hence, true culture is common to all. It is all embracive and sustains all through spontaneous spiritual bonding. It is such a cultural policy that can really bind and bond Australia together.

In such a society, there would be little room for domination or exploitation of one culture, race or ethnicity by another. The unity and harmony of such a culture would be Australia’s ultimate guarantee of perennial peace and long lasting happiness. No doubt, Australia has to do lot of introspection and put in lot of sincere effort to achieve such a noble goal.


Works Cited
Hage, Ghassan. “Locating Multiculturalism’s Other: A Critique of Practical Tolerance”. New Formulations 24:19-34

Marcuse, Herbert. “The Affirmative Character of Culture in Negations”. Essays in Critical Theory, trans. by Shapiro, J.J. (1972): 88-133.

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