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Semantic surgery for a better Australia

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Thursday, 16 February 2006

You want a more peaceful Australia you can be proud of, with minimal hostility between groups? Well then, it’s time to remove a few trouble-makers from circulation in our society. It could be tough though, because we’ve grown pretty fond of these little devils. And it’s not people I’m talking about, it’s words: we need to perform major semantic surgery.

First, a word that we have tossed around endlessly in the last couple of months: “race”. What does it mean as a category of people? For the scientist, very little. Research in many areas has found no way in which race can explain biological variation. For example, many studies have supported Lewontin who in 1972 demonstrated this with respect to differences in blood-type. Genetic research has arrived at a similar conclusion: there is no genetic marker found in everyone of a particular race that is found in nobody of any another race. Biologically speaking, “race” is a fallacy.

A few scientists protest that, though the term is imprecise, it nevertheless facilitates sensible discussion in shorthand. The reasonable retort is that first, employing a concept because it has a monosyllabic name is bad science, and secondly, there is always a better way to characterise and explain biological variation. Particular human biological traits result from interactions between evolution and cultural history within geographical areas.


Race is a social construct. Sometimes, in legislation for example, the criteria for assigning racial type are public and explicit, yet quite different in different parts of the world. Any two individuals may allocate the same person to quite different racial categories, often using criteria that are confused and even unconscious.

What then of “racism” and “racist”? They are usually ambiguous pejoratives for branding what we believe is unfair discrimination against another person. Sometimes they might hint that the victim of the accused is of a biological “race”. Another accuser may be referring simply to a difference in skin-colour or thickness of lips, or to something vaguely about nationality, ethnic origin, native language or even religion. Frequently, each person in a dialogue may be attaching a different meaning to the labels. “Racist” and “racism” are such greasy words that they can slither around the debate letting no-one get an effective grip on meaning. They inflame rather than enlighten communication. Let “racist” and “racism” join “race” in our rubbish bin.

Along with them toss out “white”, “black” and “coloured” as typological terms. How white is “a white”? If “blacks” marry “whites” shouldn’t they produce “grey” offspring? Keep colour theory for your home decoration and oil-painting. It is useless for understanding people and society.

But, you say, we must choose immigrants who will maintain Australia’s national identity. I disagree. While the “nationality” of an individual may be a useful legal concept, “the nation’s identity” is not helpful. We need to revise prevailing ideas about the nature and role of a nation-state.

Like everyone else, I have notions about who and what I am, and how I am different from, or similar to, other people. Yet my perceptions and stories and understandings of myself - my self-concept - have varied radically throughout my life. Decades ago I wrote down musings about myself, attempting to clarify my sense of my own identity. As I read that journal now the author seems like another person. It would be sheer folly, all these years later, to try to adhere to those old ideas of myself. I must own my history, live in the present and be open to my future.

It is the same with a “national identity”. For each of us to love our land and community is a healthy thing. We may well perceive elements in our society that bind all or most together at a given moment. But try to encapsulate these perceptions and feelings in a public statement of “national identity” and it dies. Through verbal taxidermy we thus erect a false idol for sterile worship by the populace. Let’s opt rather for a living, fluid awareness of Australia’s rich and ever-changing uniqueness.


But that is not the only reason to discard the idea of “national identity”. Humanity across the earth is in a state of increasing flux. An evolving species, we are steadily loosening the bonds between identity and locality as our global awareness grows. While individuals may conceive of themselves as sharing in particular cultures, we are coming to understand that lines on maps do not limit a culture. The corollary is that a locality now is an intersection of various histories and cultures. It is utterly unrealistic, even absurd, to insist that a nation-state should have a single cultural identity.

“National identity” is tyranny. If you argue that all Australia’s citizens must accept a “national identity” you are espousing the primacy of one culture over others within our borders. Australia was, is and will be many different cultural identities, each morphing from one generation to the next. People who insist on the nation being “Anglo-Saxon”, “Anglo-Celtic” or some other mono-culture are up a wattle. Not that “multiculturalism” is particularly helpful either; from its adoption the word has always been troublesome. But for fruitful consideration of socio-political issues, “national identity” must join the pile in the bin.

We should next exorcise from our public debate any reference to an “Australian way” and “the Australian tradition”. Expunge “un-Australian” from our vocabulary. These belong to the lexicon of “patriotism” - another concept to be abhorred. Patriotism must be distinguished from love of, and loyalty to, one’s land and community. See it rather as aggressive espousal of a prevailing ideology or identification with a government. Dr Johnson’s dictum holds as true as ever: patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Behind these expressions are attempts to select (or concoct) a certain set of cultural traits as an expedient code to impose on people whose personalities and history may be quite at odds with them.
We must be concerned, though, about how we can develop a peaceful community that encourages each member to grow a strong concept of self while striving to understand and empathise with other members. Such a community requires certain basic principles. Assert that no individual is worth more than another, that all have the same rights and responsibilities as citizens. At the same time ensure that the state does not embrace, exclude or demean any particular culture or religion. Uphold a democratic legislature, a democratically elected government, the judicial system and law enforcement agencies, and the separation of powers. Accept and nurture a common public language. Support it all with a strong education sector, to enable people of many different hues, histories and beliefs to share the same country. This list is not exhaustive.

Immigrants must behave in accordance with the laws of the land, while enjoying with the rest of us the political right to try to change the laws if they wish. But at the same time the community and governments must strenuously avoid exclusion of any cultural group from the mainstream. This leads to poorer self-concepts among the group’s members and all the ills that flow from that - such as increased propensity to criminal activity.

To some extent we can work towards more peaceful and satisfying societies within the structure of the nation-state. Yet that will not be enough. Somehow we must work more effectively across the planet to give homes, health and safety to the swelling pool of refugees. We must also deal with triggers of mass immigration - poverty, ecological damage, political and religious oppression. These are global problems and must be dealt with as such. This may in turn help to ease the pressure of population movements around the world. Surrendering some authority and power is a necessary step for nation-states to take in order to establish some sort of world governance in this area. Once “national identity” is truly in the bin, we could consider a new term to replace it - “world citizenry” perhaps.

We can avoid much social conflict by not erecting a public code of the characteristics of cultures and identities and by avoiding shorthand and misleading terms that obfuscate communication. The words we use frame our understanding and so guide our behaviour. Semantics are crucial to the way we live together. If citizens use language more thoughtfully they will be better able to prevent another crisis like the Cronulla riot of December 2005.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Interview with Pilar Ossorio
Translated Spaces/Translated Identities, by Fiona Allon
Two Questions about Race, by Alan Goodman
Photo of Stephen Crabbe
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