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'Culture wars' and national identity

By Bill Calcutt - posted Monday, 20 May 2013

At a Sydney Writers Festival event at the Town Hall last year an audience member asked Hugh White whether his attitude towards China represented appeasement. White responded eloquently that the illusion to appeasement (with its negative World War Two connotations) was intended to terminate thoughtful public discourse on an important national policy issue.

Numerous contributors to this and other forums have noted that one of the consequences of a frenetic 24 hour media cycle (in conjunction with the diversification of information sources) is that the reporting of many issues is both superficial and sensational, lacking content, perspective and depth. Slogans, stereotypes and sound-bites replace knowledge and analysis, over-simplifying what can be complex and difficult issues. This article explores the use of the term "culture wars" to denigrate and impede public discourse on the issue of Australia's core values and national identity.

The term "culture" encapsulates the diverse elements that comprise a nation's unique character, with a set of core national values at the heart of a distinctive and enduring cultural identity. Elements of culture can include history, heritage, language, art, customs, institutions, beliefs, ideals and the physical environment. For many countries a national culture and a universal commitment to core values underpins a sense of common purpose and social cohesion, providing a continuity and consistency beyond short-term political expediency. In many countries core national values are enshrined in constitutions, treaties, laws (such as a bill of rights), symbols and even national anthems. The term "culture wars" is thus used to describe conflict between different segments of a society over core national values.


In a 2006 Australia Day address Prime Minister John Howard praised as a virtue the absence of institutionalised or codified values as "a test of Australianness". Howard referred to the importance of an "ethos of a fair go for all", an "egalitarian tradition" and a British/Judeo-Christian heritage as the foundations for a tolerant and diverse society, and inferred that explicit national values have the potential to impose unnecessary constraints on a multicultural society. Howard's address is an implicit defence of the principles of classical liberalism, including a conviction that power should reside in the hands of democratically elected representatives rather than state institutions.

If Australia's core national values are amorphous and largely inferred, what does a clash of values mean in an Australian context, and how is the concept of culture wars used in social and political discourse? Settled as a European outpost in the late 18th century through the displacement of an ancient indigenous people, modern Australia is now a relatively affluent and resource-rich developed country (6th in area but 50th in population) in a developing and dynamic Asian region. As a Western democracy, Australia's mainstream political spectrum ranges from a belief in the principles of classical liberalism (the pre-eminence of the autonomous, enterprising and self-reliant individual, free market economy and small government) to a commitment to elevate community, social justice and humanitarian considerations above individual economic self-interest.

In the absence of explicit and enforceable national values how is it possible for the community to identify and defend matters of fundamental principle (such as state's obligation to treat all humans equally with respect and dignity, or the state's responsibility to protect its vulnerable citizens, or the rights of all citizens to a minimum standard of living, or the moral imperative to acknowledge the nation's dispossessed indigenous people)? Are all issues to be resolved expediently in the political domain, irrespective of their national or moral significance?

This brings us back to the use of the term "culture wars" in Australia. In the political domain the term is used as a derogatory label to characterise any discussion about core national values as the deliberate exploitation of prejudices or divisions within the community for partisan political purposes. The term is specifically used to denigrate and dismiss the validity and legitimacy of the views of particular segments of the community by asserting their elitist and unrepresentative nature (the views of "latte-sippers" and "academic elites"). The term is also used to implicitly question the accuracy of recorded history by inferring that it represents a subjective and distorted interpretation of the facts. The most infamous example of the latter is the reference to a "black armband" view of the history of European colonisation and its impacts on the traditional custodians of Australia.

The term "culture wars" is thus used politically in Australia as a disparaging generalisation to dumb-down and hamper public discourse on a potentially vital national issue (not unlike the use of the term "appeasement"). Such derisory labels validate the outright rejection of challenging and alternative perspectives by questioning the motivation of the author rather than considering the merits of an argument. They gain credence and leverage in an often chaotic information environment where established facts and the application of thoughtful analysis have limited currency.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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