Creating Outsiders


After the Cronulla riots, I was concerned that clashes between groups of out of control, stirred-up young men would be dismissed as examples of ingrained racism in Australian society.

As a child-migrant reffo (I arrived in 1948), I am very aware how views about strangers and the unfamiliar change. While targets change, the rhetoric stays fairly predictable and the formulations reflect the times. The anti-reffo, anti-Dago, anti-slab-faced-Balts epithets of my childhood followed the anti-Catholic, anti-Chinese prejudices earlier last century, and longer-term anti-Indigenous views.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

In all these cases, this prejudice produced assumptions and misinformation that allowed the out-groups to be demonised. It mixed biology, culture and religion in varying recipes for hate and exclusion but often applied it to ‘them’ out there and not to members of the same group who were known and liked. These latter members of out-groups were often accepted because they were seen as behaving ‘like us’. The prescriptions for acceptance were often made clear, labelled assimilation, and promoted by governments (Labor and Liberal), who selected people on the basis that they looked as much like locals as possible.

Things have changed. The 1967 referendum that increased Federal powers to serve Indigenous people, changes to the White Australia policy, officially endorsed moves to integration and multiculturalism, all these were part of major shifts in public attitudes. For a while, those who arrived here were welcomed for what they could bring and not just for being able to be absorbed. These changes made Australia the cosmopolitan, diverse society it needs to be for ethical, cultural and economic reasons.

I remember, back then, occasional official criticism of particular groups and some associated media hype, but never the extended demonisation that we have at present. There was pressure to bring out young Italian women for workers on the Snowy River Scheme in the 1950s, so ‘over-sexed Mediterraneans’ would not impose their needs on local girls! In the 1970s, there was flak about the Mafia during the Nugan Hand scandals, with predictable assumptions about Sicilians. And there were similar connections made between Chinese people and Hong Kong triads not so long ago. But apart from Arthur Calwell’s comment about ‘two Wongs not making a White’ in the 1940s, some anti-Yugoslav terrorist accusations in the 1980s, and Howard and then Hanson on Asian migration, most politicians have avoided these types of public statements.

Maybe this was political correctness, but those targeted groups could, at least, feel they were not subject to official public humiliation.

It is naïve to claim that, because such racist comments are only directed at ‘some’ of their ilk, then others will not feel targeted. The recent events at Cronulla and the regularly reported incidents of abuse of obviously Muslim women show that the public does not distinguish between ‘good and bad’ Muslims.

Such assumptions also fail to understand how such experiences affect the members of those designated out-groups. I draw on my own experiences as a secular Jew. I still flinch when people make assumptions about Jews which generalise on characteristics, both good and bad. I feel responsible for some of the stupid acts of the Israeli Government although I am not a Zionist. I worry when people in conversation casually mention that some failed businessman was Jewish because of the assumption that his Jewishness may have affected his behaviour.

These experiences indicate how easy it is to feel that acceptance is in some way contingent on behaving well on terms set by others. A good Jew is defined in terms of the majority view, and failure to comply may result in exclusion from both the dominant group and maybe their own community. This analysis comes from political theorist Hannah Arendt, who stated that outsiders seeking acceptance needed to become ‘parvenus’ that is, they needed to meet the standards of the majority group or risk remaining pariahs, accepted only in their ghettoes.

This is what the Howard Government is demanding from Australian Muslims: they must take on our values (whatever they may be) to become acceptable, or (in some extreme cases) risk loss of residency. Give up all signs of being different and maybe still be seen as an ‘impostor’. It is this type of formulation of acceptance that causes enormous damage to those already feeling that they are the butt of prejudices.

We risk alienating many because they share some characteristics with a few hot heads. And the response may well be that fear of rejection will force some to retreat from the broader community and conform to out-group (pariah) mores.

Part of the solution is to stop feeding prejudices by association. I have no problem in saying that supporting violence and revenge is not appropriate but violence and revenge are not the characteristics of Muslims, or even some Muslims. There are plenty of other ratbags who spout similar nonsense. Comments about God’s laws over-riding Parliament come from many directions — just read the recent debates on RU486.

Why always mention Muslims? Why name the particular groups as though they are somehow collectively responsible?

The present debates on ‘some’ Muslims is without precedent in that it is not just the Coalition involved, Labor has again squibbed and joined in with the approach.

This dog-whistle political atmosphere abandons the principles of bipartisan support for not playing the race card, and reinforces mob prejudices that can spill over into violence on all sides.

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