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Making societies more civil

By Eva Cox - posted Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Making a future requires us to solve, not just identify current problems. The recent official actions banning beaches and then advertising asking us to go, is indicative of our current lack of problem-solving ideas. The unwarranted and problematic levels of political and media hysteria, about some admittedly revolting behaviour by small groups of people, indicates that our capacity is at a low ebb. Moving into a new year, we need to find better ways of talking across divides that offers solutions rather than further name calling and fear mongering.

The reactions on this site to Greg Barns’ somewhat intemperate wail further illustrates the problems with all sides of this complex debate. As someone who is capable of using expletives and generalisations in debates, I am here offering myself and others a more temperate template for seeking solutions. There is nothing to be gained either by those who angrily oppose the status quo with blanket condemnation, or those who attack with similar vigour past policies or present policing. Both views seem equally locked into hyperbole so silence can often confuse those of goodwill who want to feel safer and more generous.

My following letter was published as First Word in the Sydney Morning Herald  (27/12/05), and the responses to it further confirm my views on the problem:


“Racism tag merely muddies the wider debate: Racism is a bad word to use. It raises hackles, confuses arguments and creates discussion impasses as people stop listening and become defensive. We should return to the simpler concept of prejudice as it is a much better description of the actual tensions we are seeing. There is no Muslim race, no Lebanese race, but many are guilty of judging people who can be deemed to wear these labels. By acknowledging prejudices, misjudgements, assumptions and generalisations about particular groups, we can focus on how these can be overcome. It is easier to recognise prejudices as we all have them to some degree, so we can move to remedies rather than self-flagellation or abuse of others.

“Grand accusations about Australians being racist, or equally aggressive defences, do not contribute to solutions, as both sides tend to see the problem as too hard to solve. Using a less emotive framework should lead to sensible discussions on reducing misapprehensions and the anti-social incidents that fuel these on all sides. There are always flaws in our social fabric, areas of tension and conflict, which can fray if certain circumstances occur.

“My question is: How do we convince public figures to take responsibility for reducing the climate of fear and assuage public anxieties without encouraging a toxic form of tribalism? Racism is too ill-defined a concept, and inaccurate in the present circumstance. The yobbos on both sides do not represent their self-identified group origins, any more than soccer hooligans represent Britain. The bad behaviour on all sides illustrates the extremes of prejudice when uninvolved people are injured because they are assumed to share some form of group guilt. This is the ultimate proof of prejudice: blaming whole categories of people for the faults of some members, assuming that a named group is in itself homogenous and therefore culpable for any sins committed by any one member.

“The misbehaviour of any individual or group is the responsibility of those participants. The clear marker of a minority group is that others attribute guilt to the group for the behaviour of any presumed member. This may be on the basis of race, religion, sexuality, sole parenthood, suburb lived in or football team/code, for instance. If these prejudices become toxic, it is often because other pressures are creating the need for scapegoats, so we need to stop the behaviour and tackle the wider causes.”

The day it appeared, my assertion was confirmed by two mayors defending themselves against the previous day’s inept research, refuting claims that the constituents of their local government areas were “racists”. One said that Mosman had a good record on reconciliation, and the other, that many Jews lived in Woollahra. But both ignored the possibility that they presided over relatively conservative municipalities that kept out problem populations with the high cost of real estate. Similarly the responses of many to the Barns’ article focused on his tagging Australians as racist and not on his questions on whether media, commentariat and politicians did display unfounded prejudices against Muslims in general.

One response to my SMH piece was from someone who claimed it was legitimate to blame a group for the sins of some members, if their numbers were high. Is that how most people think? How many is high? How do we define “members”? Is this only applicable to those groups where “membership” is explicitly defined, beliefs are expressed, rules imposed, disciplined and acknowledged? Otherwise how do we sort out attribution of collective guilt or innocence? Who are we responsible for and to? How can we blame others?


Prejudice is something we all share. It allows us to short-hand conversations, generalise and comment. Most of it is fairly benign and of little importance. It becomes toxic if it is sufficiently widespread and hurtful to those who become the butt of such attention. When a particular group is targeted consistently with damaging generalisations that translate into forms of public insult and discrimination, the outcomes can be very painful for the recipients. The current scope of anti-Muslim prejudices is wide and there will be few Muslims who have not felt the pain of misinformation and generalisations. Those who are easily identifiable through appearance or dress are subject to public commentary and sometimes attack. It is not surprising therefore that the response of some will be forms of resentment, bravado and sometimes vulnerability to extreme politico-religious beliefs.

These experiences do not excuse violence, thuggery or crime, but they should make us all more aware of the origins of such behaviour. The response to prejudice may well be more prejudice as the recipients of bad behaviour respond in similar style. As the dominant group, and as more accepted locals, we need to recognise that further anger and resentment on both sides does not solve the problems. Responses that mirror their thuggery and violence exacerbate the problems. Discussing both the prejudices and responses may make it possible to explore alternatives and to lower tension levels.

There will always be differences so debate is important because it offers ways of solving rather than just suppressing problems. The problems arise when the interesting irregularities, flaws and tensions in our social fabric tear apart rather than manifest the necessary resilience to hold together.

Hannah Arendt writes of human potential for thinking and judgment as the core attributes for the renewal or rebirth of human society. She was very wary of the emotive ties that tied people too closely and in ways that made it impossible for individuals to think for themselves and decide what to do. Mindlessness on either side of the argument adds little to our capacity to make societies more civil.

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About the Author

Eva Cox is the chair of Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia and director of Distaff Associates.

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