Passengers on Train Australia
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Ien Ang
Download the complete article PDF
Ien Ang's biography and other articles by this writer
Eighteen-year-old Ritika is a first-generation Indian Australian who lives in Sydney's west. Asked about her views on Australia, she described her response to a school assignment on multiculturalism. ‘I wrote that Australia is like a train picking up passengers from all these different countries, but it doesn't really have a destination, because once you have people from all these different countries they try to separate themselves out. I know I feel more a sense of belonging to the Indian community because I'm originally from India and I participate more in those kinds of things. So I don't know if this train is going somewhere, or if it's just going to keep on going around and around.'
Ritika's sense of uncertainty can be blamed on an old multiculturalism, which encourages the separatism of ethnic communities with little to bind them. It needs to be replaced with a new multiculturalism that copes with our increasingly complex diversity.
In recent times multiculturalism has fallen from favour, rapidly overtaken by strident calls for integration. Former prime minister John Howard said in 2005, ‘Our celebration of diversity must not be at the expense of the common values that bind us together as one people. All sections of the Australian community [need to be] fully integrated into the mainstream of Australian life.' This was Howard's way of providing Train Australia with a destination. His government replaced multicultural affairs with citizenship as the other part of the immigration department and introduced a citizenship test which migrants must pass before calling themselves Australians.
These developments were controversial. Critics denounced them as heralding a return to the ‘White Australia' policy. Such criticisms are often impotent politics of outrage, preventing analysis of more important issues. The emphasis on ‘integration' has re-emerged throughout the West, yet its meaning at a time of pervasive global transnational migration needs to be redefined. It raises a question about the implications of the new focus on the legacy of multiculturalism.
This much is evident: no citizenship test or other integration measure, however Draconian, will successfully force all the passengers on the train to become ‘one people' with a single set of common values. The plurality of our identities is irreducible: we live in an irrevocably diverse world.
This doesn't mean that we should dismiss the desire for integration as bogus – far from it. The present concern articulates some real uncertainties about the condition of contemporary Western societies, and should be taken seriously. But in doing so, it is unhelpful to treat integration and multiculturalism as diametrically opposed. If integration were conflated with assimilation, we would be in trouble, because it wouldn't work. Instead, we need to think about integration – about living together in harmony – by making multiculturalism more cosmopolitan. Living with difference is an unavoidable part of social experience in the twenty-first century, everywhere.
Multiculturalism deserves bad press when it becomes what the Indian-born, Nobel Prize-winning development economist Amartya Sen calls ‘plural monoculturalism' where ‘ethnic ghettos' create a society that is a ‘federation of cultures' and individuals are put into rigid boxes of inherited identities. Such a model makes identity and difference absolute, and denies the significance of a shared humanity. In Identity and Violence (W.W. Norton, 2006), Sen rejects this federated model of multiculturalism. He argues that it promotes isolation rather than interaction. The alternative is not insistence on a common identity, ‘some unreal claim that we are all the same ... The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterise the world in which we actually live'. For Sen, that plural and diverse universe should be reflected in a multiculturalism that is defended, not as a legitimisation of cultural separatism, but in the name of cultural liberty – the freedom of individuals to choose their own identities and lifestyles through reasoned choice and self-examination.
Sen's perspective is in line with that of his colleague, the Ghana-born American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006), insists that we don't have to agree on our values and identities to live in harmony, as long as we agree to make living together work. Appiah prefers the term ‘cosmopolitanism' for the principles that allow us to ‘to live together as the global tribe we have become'. But he admits that cosmopolitanism is also a problematic term, often associated with abstract, rootless notions of ‘citizen of the world', as if cultural traditions and ethnicity do not matter.
Let me settle for the clunky term ‘cosmopolitan multiculturalism' to promote an ethos that starts with the knowledge that people are different, but also recognises that there is much to learn from our differences. Cosmopolitan multiculturalism strengthens interconnections across our differences rather than simply affirming the differences that divide us. It emphasises our multiple identities and the changing and dynamic character of groups and communities. The term is alert to the potential of cultural synergies and opportunities for cultural renewal through interaction. In short, cosmopolitan multiculturalism promotes, to speak with Appiah, the habits of co-existence: ‘conversation' in both its older meaning of living together and its newer meaning of dialogue. By cosmopolitanising multiculturalism, we can arrive at a new, non-assimilationist mode of integration. Conversation plays a central role in this.
THE DESIRE FOR INTEGRATION has resurfaced in a massively different world to the 1950s, the high point of national sovereignty and unity. In Australia, this was a period of unprecedented immigration from countries of very different cultural and linguistic makeup, but migrants were expected simply to assimilate into the predominant, white Australian culture. Difference and diversity were made invisible.
Almost fifty years later, things have changed. It is impossible to return to assimilationism – despite ferocious attempts by some to pursue such a reactionary line – precisely because difference and diversity have become an inexorable part of everyday life. Since the end of the ‘White Australia' policy in the early 1970s, Australia's migrants have come from a growing range of countries, and in the era of the Howard government the number of migrants rose to a record high: more than 175,000 in 2007, a number that would be closer to 300,000 if it included those on temporary visas. The number of migrants from Asia and the Middle East has increased steadily as a proportion. To assimilate them into a single category of ‘one people, one culture' is simply unrealistic. Difference and diversity have become part of our way of life.
Much integration rhetoric is a response to the real and perceived security threat posed by Islamist extremism. But the anxieties have a deeper source. They relate more profoundly to the social disorientations and dislocations created by neo-liberal capitalist globalisation. In the past few decades, the world has entered a state of what the eminent Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity': pervasive uncertainty is generated by the ever-greater emphasis on flexibility, mobility and contingency in contemporary life – the increased precariousness of work and personal lives, the rise of instantaneous communications, and the increased disposability of everything. As Bauman puts it: ‘These days patterns and configurations are no longer "given", let alone "self-evident"; there are just too many of them, clashing with one another and contradicting one another's commandments.'
So, while immigration and multiculturalism are often blamed for crumbling social cohesion, the very logic of neo-liberal globalisation which underpins the world economic system encourages – even demands – increased trans-national flow not only of goods and images but also of people. The rise of global migrations – legal and illegal, permanent and temporary, skilled and unskilled – is an irreducible part of this process. Contemporary Western societies are caught in the contradiction underlined by the yawning gap between the economic and the social. National governments and people want the prosperity that global capitalism brings, but they are ill-prepared for the social consequences, including the intensification of everyday diversity – especially in the large cities. To deny the intimate connection between wealth and diversity would be to indulge in political hypocrisy or sociological naiveté.
This is an important reason why most Western countries have allowed their cities to be transformed into cradles of racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity in recent decades: an unintended by-product of economic expediency. In Australia, immigration policy has always been motivated by the economic benefit it was expected to bring. The recent record high migration intake was a product of business concern about ‘skills shortages' as the economy boomed.