It's a Culture Thing


What’s the difference between being whacked with a baseball bat by a street gang made up of members of a single ethnic group, and being hit on the head by a beer bottle thrown by a beach-loving suburban local surrounded by his drunken mates? For the victim, not much.

While government and community leaders have wisely stressed the common ‘criminality’ of violent acts committed before, during and after the Cronulla riots, it is only a matter of time before deeper causes are sought.

In fact, this is already occurring in the soul-searching beneath the surface of media reportage.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Sadly, however, a familiar polarisation among intellectuals may not only be missing the point, but also staking out turf in a posture similar to that of the street thugs who have drawn a line in the Cronulla sand. The opposing sides of this intellectual turf war have the potential to evolve into a kind of ‘history wars,’ and have the same debasing effect on public life that Stuart McIntyre pinpointed in his book of the same name.

To bridge this divide I am not proposing a middle way, but an argument that uses overseas experiences of violent conflict to make our own experience less mysterious, less frightening and more manageable.

The division between intellectuals is based around, on the one hand, the charge (aired in the Sydney Morning Herald on the weekend after the riots) that the flaring of conflict is tied to the dismantling of multiculturalism which has led to a narrowing of national identity and splintering of social cohesion. Mary Kalantzis of RMIT is quoted as saying that a deliberate political strategy of fear is promoted to win the votes of the aspirational working class.

On the other hand, Keith Windschuttle in The Australian on 14 December takes the polar opposite position, arguing that the promotion of multicultural policies since the 1970s by emphasising difference has bred ethnic ghettos and prevented some groups from integrating into mainstream society. From this point of view, what happened at Cronulla were ‘multicultural’ riots, not race riots.

No-one questions the ability of opportunistic politicians or community leaders (self-appointed or otherwise) to exploit fear for their own advantage (electoral or otherwise). Nor can we deny that in recent times, perceptions of personal safety have declined, and are linked to a pervasive sense of danger from an unseen enemy. This intangible sense of danger is punctuated by chilling moments when the face of the ‘enemy’ momentarily materialises (for example, the Bali bombers) and victimhood is experienced less vicariously.

Invariably, that face is etched with cultural markers. Distant global turmoil becomes less remote when menacing faces reappear in the suburbs, threatening our way of life (beach culture).

But the Cronulla riots had their own dynamic that took the various leaderships by surprise.

Kalantzis may be right about a political strategy, but that does not make politicians responsible for the social breakdown. While some may chose to play politics with the new circumstances, we should discover the roots of the violence first, before we speculate on how Machiavellian politicians might exploit it. And those roots are to be found in the communities where the fighting erupted.

Similarly, Windschuttle’s familiar, anti-multiculturalist polemic need not have been published as a post-riot commentary. One moment, it’s the corruption of multiculturalism that’s the problem, the next it’s multiculturalism itself, which he equates with tribalism. All very confused. Whatever the line of attack, he does not make any case to link multicultural policies with the clashes at Cronulla. He appears to blame the ‘M’ word for the concentration of Lebanese in the western suburbs, their unemployment, welfare dependency, crime, violence; you name it. Please explain.

In this version of reality, craven bureaucrats are also responsible for the failure of Lebanese to marry outside their ethnic group a measure of their failure to integrate. But Windschuttle doesn’t factor in the most obvious variable: religion. Muslims don’t do inter-marriage. This methodological sleight-of-hand gives readers the misleading impression that in the absence of the multicultural social engineers, Lebanese Muslims would be falling over themselves marrying people of other faiths. Crazy stuff.

From Cronulla to Kalimantan
Although Cronulla is a million miles from an Indonesian kampung, their history of communal violence can teach us about the dynamics of inter-ethnic conflict that commentators here seem to struggle with.

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Indonesian memoir, In the Time of Madness, backgrounds the sporadic bloody eruptions between indigenous Dayaks and migrant Madurese farmers in West Kalimantan:

Madura was a dry, barren island off the coast of Java, the frequent beneficiary of the government’s programme of subsidised ‘transmigration’ to the more fertile territories of the outer archipelago. Its inhabitants had a national reputation for coarseness, armed violence and an uncompromising form of Islam Everywhere they settled, the Madurese had become the neighbours that nobody wanted.

I was in Indonesia in 2000 when one such flaring of communal violence between these two groups left a deadly trail of Madurese heads in that province. What was startling about the local media reports was that I couldn’t find any that condemned the Dayak rampage. It was as if the Madurese had it coming to them. Foreign media were even less revealing about motives, and instead focused on the ritualistic nature of the killing by ‘barbaric’ headhunters.

Some academics tried to explain how the Dayaks had been pushed to breaking point when economic tensions over the distribution of spoils from plantations spilled over into ethnic hatred. But this was disputed by a Dayak researcher who insisted the conflict was, at its heart, a cultural one.

Dayaks had clashed with ethnic Chinese in the 1960s, but in that case there was a strong suspicion of military meddling to stoke the anti-communist fire. The deadly clashes in Kalimantan in 1997 and 2000, however, did not appear to be a site of elite manipulation they were a communal battle driven by violations that spiralled into mutual reprisals. One thing that the Dayaks found particularly offensive was the Madurese habit of flaunting their weapons in public. They regarded it as a violation of adat (traditional) law, more so because the Madurese were quick to draw their sickles at the smallest provocation.

There is evidence too that non-indigenous Malay Muslims and Chinese assisted and even joined in the slaughter. What was it about the Madurese that made even fellow Muslims turn against them?

I found the answer when I traced their history back 300 years to the Dutch colonial period.

To summarise, Madura’s princes sought the protection of the Dutch after breaking away from the Javanese kingdom. Unlike direct colonial rule in Java, the Madurese princes were given a free hand to run their own show, as well as being afforded external protection. In return, they supplied troops to the Dutch to put down various uprisings.

The princes preferred court life to governing and parasitically took as much tribute and crop yield as the peasant population could scratch from the barren earth. This led to all sorts of abuses.

The corrupt rulers resisted protests and forfeited the trust of the peasants. Security and safety declin
ed as confidence in traditional law collapsed. Madura was an extremely violent place and awash with weapons throughout the 19th century. With a weak and corrupt central authority, Madurese developed what anthropologists quaintly called ‘violent self-help.’

Criminality did decline as the colonial government and later the Indonesian central government intervened. But this did not eliminate violent self-help especially in matters of personal honour. The cultural practice of carok (violent revenge killing) became engrained. The practices persist to the present day, especially over issues that are unlikely to receive speedy justice in a legal court.

And Back Again
I use this example to suggest that cultural beliefs and practices should not be out-of-bounds when trying to explain the basis of anti-social and violent behaviour among the gangs in Sydney, or any other place. The fact is that some transplanted values do not play out well in the new environment, and young men come under huge pressure to meet competing obligations. Attitudes to authority variously persist, die out or adapt to new realities, not always in harmonious ways.

Getting to the bottom of conflict in this manner is not an attempt to excuse bad behaviour, nor is it designed to tar everyone with the same brush.

The media has already started to explore the historical roots of some migrant groups, including Lebanese Muslims who fled civil war in the 1970s. The Sydney Morning Herald has usefully referred to research from a doctoral student who used to interact with Lebanese in Sydney as an undercover cop. The local member in Bankstown has been quoted saying that the mindset of aggrieved, illiterate war refugees has been passed onto their children. The Lebanese have long been involved with the Sydney drug trade. Until the generational cycle is broken, relations with police authority are likely to be frosty at best.

These are the beginnings of identifying where cultural adjustments have been blocked, and they help explain why some groups have been unable to straddle cultures when others have been successful.

Rather than ditching multiculturalism, it would be wiser to carefully monitor political and community leaders to ensure they ‘walk the walk.’ Solutions, many of which I guess are already happening, need to be nurtured, not co-opted by government PR departments. It’s now more important than ever to identify and isolate opportunists and provocateurs both from the extreme Right, and religious radicals.

In addition to religious freedoms, the government should recognise institutions of secular socialisation as agents of social cohesion, the most important of which is the well resourced State school with competent teachers and religious and sex education for all.

The ugly alternative is lockdowns, no-go zones, segregated beaches a kind of social apartheid so deeply resented that it would only beget more violence.

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.