Celebrating difference


On the eve of his becoming Australia’s second longest prime minister, John Howard opined that one of his greatest accomplishments had been the turning of the ‘tide of political correctness’. Australia, according to the PM, no longer felt ‘the need to explain itself’. Part of this new self-assurance was a certainty that examining or debating the way the nation celebrates Christmas was unnecessary. This was not only the case because Howard himself had ‘never had a Jew or Muslim’ tell him they found Christmas celebrations ‘offensive’, but because other countries in the region had no expectation that ‘we would pretend to be other than who we are’.

Of course, empirically speaking, Howard’s assessment of the yuletide views of both Jews and Muslims is meaningless. This is because logically, in the same way that my failure to ever sight a black swan doesn’t mean black swans don’t exist, Howard’s claimed failure to ever hear complaints from members of these two groups doesn’t mean none feel like complaining. Another way of putting this point is to note that Howard’s survey methods are highly questionable. Not only do extremely few Jews and Muslims have direct access to the PM, but Howard’s longstanding and widely-spruiked intolerance of debate about Australia’s cultural and religious practice make it highly unlikely that any who did would feel there was much point in bringing their concerns to him.

As it happens, I tend to agree with the PM that few Jews or Muslims feel offended by the way Australia celebrates Christmas. However, I suspect a number do prefer some celebratory approaches to others. In particular, ones that focus on end-of-year office celebrations, school holiday parties, and cards proffering ‘greetings of the season’ rather than Christmas drinks, nativity plays and cards trumpeting Merry Christmas.

I certainly do. This is not because I am offended by being wished a Merry Christmas, just puzzled. Having grown up in New York, a city truly comfortable with its ‘melting pot’ identity, I was taught that like chewing with my mouth open, it was rude to presume that someone else celebrated the same holidays as I did. This meant that wishing someone a Merry Christmas if I didn’t know they were Christian constituted evidence either of thoughtlessness or an arrogant belief that if they didn’t celebrate Christmas, then they should (or at least pretend to do so to avoid making waves). In practice, this meant that most of those I knew received generic cards and greetings of the ‘have a wonderful holiday or ‘best wishes during the festive season’ type.

At the heart of this approach was a profound respect and valuing of difference that, in my experience, a number of powerful Australians, among them the Prime Minister, fail to fully comprehend, little less embrace. Perhaps this is not surprising, as New Yorkers also evidenced a somewhat tenuous grip on the concept at times. I’ll never forget the almighty battle that took place throughout my childhood over the placement of a nativity scene in the town square. While non-Christians insisted it violated the separation of Church and State and should be removed, Christians resented and resisted what they saw as the legalistic and petty mean-spiritedness of the anti-manger set. Peace only reigned when some bright spark came up with the idea of the Christmas scene sharing the space with a Hanukah menorah. Looking back, my only wonder is why “ having seen that inclusiveness was the clear path to multi-cultural happy-ever-afters “ no one thought to ensure that the December holiday symbols of other ethnic and religious community groups were thrown into the mix as well.

In contrast, too many Australians seem to believe that religious and cultural harmony is best achieved by either the elimination of Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas, or their religious toning down. This is why department stores have moved from nativity scenes to ones featuring Santa and the elves, and some councils have chosen ‘season’s greetings’ banners in preference to the Merry Christmas ones.

Sure, if such holidays are to be the only ones to be officially acknowledged and publicly celebrated then it may be necessary to strip them of their religious symbolism, as this is the only way for non-Christians, who are as happy to eat eggs and open presents as the next person, to be included or to be encouraged with a straight face to even take some ownership of them.

But my observation is that, with the possible exception of militant atheists, this approach satisfies no one. While many Christians mourn the loss of the religious values and practices that give Easter and Christmas their meaning, non-Christians are under pressure to feel grateful for the opportunity to participate as (almost) equals in celebrations they know have been (often quite resentfully) stripped of religion for their ‘benefit’.

A healthier and more functional approach to Australia’s multicultural reality would be for Christmas and Easter to be celebrated each year with whatever bells and whistles “ religious or otherwise “ are desired by a particular community’s Christians. However, in addition to public recognition of these major Christian holidays, the nation would commit to ensuring equal fanfare surrounded one important festive day of each of Australia’s religious and cultural minorities.

This already happens on the local level in some progressive and multicultural communities. In Parramatta, for example, the council supports the Chinese community’s celebration of the Moon Festival. In doing so, local government makes good on the oft-made assertion that we are all Australians. Unfortunately, without strong leadership at the State and Federal level, this sort of approach tends to be confined to geographical areas where particular minority groups reside in significant numbers, while the rest of the nation is allowed to continue to blithely assume that debate or discussion on Australia’s cultural identity is unnecessary given that “ as far as they can see and based on what their leaders tell them “ we are all Christian.

At the heart of such an approach is the celebration – rather than the thin-lipped ‘acceptance’ – of difference. One that says that the diverse racial, religious and cultural groups that make Australia home don’t have to speak English, dress ‘normal’ and barrack for a team in the AFL “ in a word, to assimilate “ in order to be ‘tolerated’, but should be valued for what they add to our ways of living, making sense of the world and ourselves, and the way we portray this to non-Australians.

In addition to the anxiety this approach incites in those who have simply enjoyed their cultural dominance in the past and are loath to relinquish it, two more legitimate concerns exist. The first is that cultural and religious difference, if stoked rather than suppressed, will lead to conflict and violence. The second is that cultures that celebrate diversity must accept a culturally relative moral code.

But neither of these outcomes is inevitable. My reading of history is that it is not difference per se but the cynical use by the powerful of difference as the basis for unequal treatment that has been the main source of conflict in multicultural and multi-religious societies. Further, while any multicultural ethic must reject the uncritical acceptance of existing, or the dominant group’s, social arrangements as superior to others, it must also endorse a framework of key moral commitments to which all Australians express fealty. Many of these values will be found in the democratic structures and traditions of the nation, though others may “ like mateship, and trust “ arise from powerful experiences shared by significant subsections of the population, like war and parenting.

What matters is that the criteria for selecting them is not their cultural lineage as ‘ours’, but because a representative, unbiased, deliberative and well-informed panel of citizens judges them to be answerable to both the demands of reason, truth and compassion.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.