AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
How the words prejudice and racism are misused
, March 2, 2013
“Prejudice” can be legitimately criticised in many contexts — the law, character assessment, practical matters of uncertainty — as inimical to logical and rational decision-making.
If one’s premises are unsound (which pre-judging, or judging without evidence, implies), then one’s conclusions are at risk of serious error. However, the word “prejudice” is today most commonly used as a term of ethical, rather than rational, condemnation in the context of cultural difference.
This use can be appropriate. But in Australia today it is used far too one-sidedly and indiscriminately to invalidate virtually any expression of unease or criticism of our immigration policies, or of our recently-arrived immigrant peoples and their cultures, without regard to whether the opinions are in fact pre-judgements, or based on observation and first-hand experience.
The pejorative use of the word “prejudice” in common parlance today, rather than denigrating pre-judgment in itself, denies the possibility of justifiable dislike or rejection of aspects of another culture. That is, it denies that there can in truth be behavioural and personality differences between cultural groups that are abrasive or problematic for their respective members when brought into contact, and asserts that any expressions of doubt or discomfort in this context are sheer prejudicial “racism”.
It asserts that if peoples/cultures actually interpenetrate there will be no genuine clashes of opinion, behaviour or personality, and each has no real grounds for not finding the other entirely to its liking.
To deny the existence of differences in behaviour and personality between cultures, embodied in their individual members, is both to assume uniformity across races in the genetic basis of behaviour (nature) and to assert its total dominance over lived experience (nurture). Further, it makes “culture” a tautology, and the academic discipline of anthropology superfluous.
I do not wish to suggest, here, that the behavioural and personality traits that characterise cultural groups are in any significant way founded in biology. Rather, that with the same genetic substrate, personality and behaviour can be culturally shaped on divergent lines. In this article I shall therefore use the word “cultural”, rather than “racial”, advisedly; and if the word “racism”, aping common parlance, is used, it should be understood to refer to culturally rather than genetically-based antipathies.
If we admit the reality of cultural differences between racial, national and regional societies, is it really an impossibility that different cultures could be genuinely discordant at the level of daily living and/or, more importantly, at the deeper level of threatening the integrity of one or the other, or both, as harmonious and efficiently functioning systems supportive of the health, wealth and happiness of their members?
The choice of the word “prejudice”, rather than the alternative possibility “judgment”, disallows that the desire in one group or another to be protected from these cultural abrasions can possibly be based on observation or experience. Thus we have a situation in which protective responses of one culture in the face of another’s impact are never admitted to be just; and expressions of preference and praise of one’s own culture are condemned as ipso facto racist. Anachronistically, academic discourse, while stressing the relativity of “truth” and “knowledge”, does not allow that a negative judgment can be legitimate relative to one’s own culture and need not imply the absolute invalidity of the other.
It is unfortunate that attempts to describe the experience of cultural friction are usually couched in terms of certain “undesirable” characteristics of the foreign culture rather than of their undesirable impact on one’s own.
Let me give a fairly mild example. I was living in London in the 1960s, when Jamaicans and Indians were relatively newly arrived cultural groups. When I walked home from the bus at night, most houses were drenched in silence; but from two houses loud and happy sounds of human conviviality regularly poured into the street — both occupied by Jamaicans.
Now I have no objection to human joviality, and Jamaicans were quite an appealing presence in public places with their easy good humour, which was more readily appreciated than the closed reserve of Indians (or perhaps Pakistanis).
Despite this, I would certainly have avoided taking a flat in close neighbourhood to a Jamaican family, while an Indian family would have been unexceptionable. Jamaicans’ exuberance would have been severely disruptive of my quiet, studious occupations — in fact, would have made my life a misery. Was this judgment or prejudice? Did it make me racist?
Of course such judgments cannot be made exhaustively of members of a particular group, for the behaviour identified with the culture may be exhibited only mildly or not at all by some of its individual members. It is the extreme instances of the abrasive characteristics of other cultures that create a perception of threat at the prospect of enduring contact. As a result, legitimate judgment of the group as a whole may indeed be prejudice as applied to the personally unknown individual. But in the absence of knowledge of the individual when action is required in advance, it is only sensible, and common practice in all areas of life, to respond in terms of average.
Easy to underestimate as compared with the obviously abrasive aspects of multiculturalism, and harder to pinpoint, is the loss, subliminally felt, that comes from the daily shouldering of the blank wall of an unshared past — the futility in conversation of references to what in a stable population is common knowledge; the wordless commonalities of life having to be put into words and even then not really understood; the impossibility of taking the deeper structures of familiar intercourse for granted (as witness the multicultural nightmare of the barbecue scene in the ABC’s drama The Slap).
All these things diminish everyday encounters with neighbours and neuter friendships, on both sides. What used to be normal, the monocultural environment, has becomes strangely luxurious. This is why immigrants cluster together and in the process mark out no-go spaces for the native-born, and the host population experiences it too on a milder scale.
The complexity of the integrated functioning of the many components that make up a culture or society undoubtedly lies behind the passion with which tribal, national and religious groups seek to defend and to preserve their cultures intact when they experience them as under threat of change from others, even if only by the osmosis of proximity.
Though each functions benevolently for its own as a unified system, might not each have the capacity to, so to speak, throw a spanner into the other’s works? If aspects of the one culture significantly contradict or negate the culture of the other, there is bound to be trouble, from the high of moral outrage expressed as violence to the low of anomie expressed in rising rates of depression and suicide.
The defensive response is not intrinsically a vice, but, within limited terms, desirable as a defence of the health of one’s own culture. This is why patriotism (like nationalism, now out of favour in the shadow of two world wars) was so long held to be a supreme virtue.
How does such harm occur? The contagion can be subtle and nobly dressed. The weight of non-British immigration to Australia, following World War II, probably contributed to the virtual elimination in the 1970s of British history and English literature from the primary and secondary school curricula, with little of equivalent value to replace them.
The high standard of our pre-multicultural education was the outcome of a long British tradition of finding what was important and suitable for children in preparing them for the understanding of their society’s cultural and political life, and developing effective ways of presenting it. Once this was cut away, the difficulty, even impossibility, of producing relevant and stimulating material de novo became apparent. Although the loss has been recognised, attempts to redress it repeatedly come to nothing.
This suspicion was substantiated when, in a radio address in the 1990s, the so-called father of multiculturalism, the late Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki AO OBE (1920-2009), with incredible hubris implied that Australia, before the post-war European influx, had lacked a sophisticated science, law, literature, history and system of government and expressed the hope and expectation that, with the influence of European culture, we might in the future achieve something admirable.
I can only think that, confronted with the profound differences between the British and European traditions in all these areas, he assumed that our versions were primitive, or that we had got things wrong, and needed to be inducted into central European institutions and traditions of thought — which, given the 20th-century histories of the two cultures, can hardly be considered a sound argument.
Leaving aside the issue of its misapplication, it can be argued that prejudice in its proper meaning has an important function in promoting caution towards the unknown. This innate adaptive response to the unfamiliar is demonstrated in many situations, a well-studied one in animals being in relation to novel flavours.
On first encounter, rats will ingest only a very small amount of a novel food, and then, as it were, wait to see if they suffer any adverse effects. If nothing occurs on a second encounter, they will eat rather more, and so on, and soon that flavour becomes a signal for safe food. It is an adaptive response to new foods in that it protects against poisoning.
We can recognise something of this response in ourselves, too. Similarly, like other animals, we exercise caution in keeping our distance from unfamiliar species, such as snakes and spiders we don’t know to be harmless.
Thus caution in the face of a sudden influx of another culture may be adaptive, as well as xenophobic. An interesting example of this caution in operation was the brief episode of vocal hostility to immigration policy (identified with Queensland politician Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party) that erupted in Australia in the early 1990s.
There had been no strong disquiet at the change from largely European to Asian immigration in the 1980s, so long as growth in population by immigration remained lower than by natural increase (excess of births over deaths).
It broke out in the years following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the balance was reversed. Then, annual migrant intake rose to the level of one of our smaller capital cities instead of, as previously, to that of a dozen moderately-sized country towns.
It quickly subsided when (deceitfully, without public advertisement, and under cover of continued vituperation of Pauline Hanson and “redneck” concern — a term used to the abiding shame of those who employed it), intake was reduced by the presiding Labor government to well below its former level, and natural increase was again dominant.
This brief episode did not demonstrate an ingrained racism, but rather a sensitivity to what the culture could healthily absorb.
For a nation heavily involved in cross-cultural immigration, it is provident to damp down excitable discussion of cultural differences; but to insult and denigrate those who give voice to so necessary a survival mechanism for both individual and culture is both unjust and reprehensible.
The most blatant intolerance in Australia today comes from the middle-class political Left and is directed against those on the frontiers of cultural invasion, who can feel, as it is often expressed, “strangers in their own country”, and who voice their concerns. The need for slow accommodation, like the response to new foods — a small taste, wait, then bolder consumption — is given scant consideration by those who are self-shielded in their privileged domiciles where the newcomers are little in evidence.
It is genuinely problematic that in public discourse it is not just pre-judging, but expressing a less than positive opinion at all of any aspect of another culture, that is outlawed. Open criticism of individual behaviour, too, is allowed very little scope. The expression of a genuine grievance becomes so easily an actionable offence if its target is a member of an immigrant group. At the same time, virulent denigration of our own culture, and of the Christian religion in particular, is permitted without remonstrance.
Current discourse to the contrary, it has not been primarily foundational Australians, with their British inheritance of tolerance for, even fascination with, different cultures, who have been the major perpetrators of cultural hostility in Australia over the decades of multicultural immigration in the post-World War II years. Rather, it has been certain immigrant groups who have brought with them the internecine hatreds of their mixed-culture homelands.
Our policies of multiculturalism have attempted to deal sympathetically with the stresses and griefs incurred by the major relinquishment of culture experienced by the immigrant. However, sympathetic attention to the cultural stress experienced by the Australian people themselves under policies of immigration is now long overdue.
Native Australians deserve congratulation, not the aspersions of prejudice and racism, for their extended tolerance under these pressures, and our to-date successful imbuement of each generation of “New Australians” in turn with the tolerance of Australian culture.
Dr Lucy Sullivan’s most recent book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church (available from News Weekly Book), discusses, among other key topics, aggressive multiculturalism in Australia in the last three decades of the 20th century.