Although we can never really know, it is believed that after birth, as soon as it becomes aware, the baby believes it is the universe. But after a time it notices that as it is moved around some parts of its world change. This will cause it to realise that it is only part of the universe. Normally, at least to begin with, there is one constant, and that is mother. Surely then baby and mother are one. Mother is just a comforting extension of itself. As time progresses, even mother absents herself and the baby starts to comprehend that it is a separate entity among others. It is a rather disconcerting thing to find that rather than being the universe the baby is just a small part of all that is within its purview.
As it grows the child then commences a process that will be manifest throughout the rest of its life. That process is the balancing of the tension between self and others.
Man is a social animal. Excepting for some psychologically damaged people, each of us to some degree, seeks to have relationships with others of our kind. Children learn at an early age to relate to others – mother, father, other family members, playmates and so on. Under such influence the notion of “I” will at various times morph into the notion of “we”.
Yet, at the same time we are also competing for attention and approval. Often our prime strategy in doing this is to differentiate ourselves to demonstrate we are somehow special and therefore warranting special attention.
We are then torn between our need to identify with others in order to meet our social needs but also to differentiate to meet our ego needs.
Considerable effort has been made by psychologists to understand how these forces play out to shape us as individuals. I am not an expert in the field, but it occurs to me we have not made the same effort to understand how these shaping factors play out on our collectives.
Some extraordinary human beings seem to be able to come from the initial realisation of separateness through to a fully blown profound feeling of shared humanity with all other humans. Most of us can only manage a part way along this journey.
Typically we can transcend our individuality firstly by identifying with family. Then the sphere of inclusion widens from there to include such collectives as our friends, those of similar belief, and those of same nationality and so on. But in doing so many can’t shed their need for specialness. The ethos becomes, perhaps I am not particularly special but certainly the collective I identify with is. My ego needs then are transferred from me as an individual to the group I identify with.
Some of these issues are now being manifest in nations around the world who are being forced by the social dislocation resulting from conflict to accept into their societies large numbers of people who identify as a collective due to their national, ethnic, religious and/or cultural backgrounds. But of course this is not a particularly new phenomenon. There have been such migrations in the past as well. As a result most of the emerging issues are not particularly new. And there is a long history of countries discriminating against such refugees and immigrants on the basis of their diverse and different backgrounds.
Even as societies became more liberal they still often practised such discrimination.
The English philosopher, John Locke is often identified as the one who provided the original philosophical foundations for liberalism. Locke’s treatise Letter Concerning Toleration has been held up as a precursor of modern Western notions of freedom of worship and freedom of speech. But he refused to extend such tolerance to Catholics.
The Indian born, English writer and lecturer, Kenan Malik explains:
[Catholics] were a threat to English identity and security [Locke] argued, because in accepting the Pope as head of their church, they ‘deliver themselves up’, in Locke’s words, ‘to the protection and service of another prince’- an argument echoed today by many critics of Muslim immigration to Europe. Until the nineteenth century Catholics in Britain were by law excluded from most public offices, and were denied the vote; they were barred from universities, from many professions, and from serving in the armed forces.
Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European societies were deeply divided. Conflicts between communists and conservatives, liberals and socialists, monarchists and liberals became the hallmark of European societies. Of course, we don’t think of these as conflicts as expressions of a diverse society. Why not? Only because we have a restricted view of what diversity entails.
In reacting to the incoming refugees and immigrants many are concerned about maintaining the integrity of their national cultures, assuming that such cultures have been stable and ubiquitous within nations, when in fact they have usually been unstable and far from uniformly accepted.
In our own short history, there was an extraordinary resentment of Asian peoples, especially Chinese – an enmity that seemed to stem from the Chinese successes through diligence and perseverance at winning gold from Australian goldfields. Prior to Federation the Australian colonies had restrictions on the immigration of Chinese and labourers from the South Sea Islands referred to as Kanakas.
In 1901, the new federal government passed the Immigration Restriction Act which ended the employment of Pacific Islanders and placed tight controls on certain other immigrants. This became known as “The White Australia Policy”. The policy was warmly applauded in most sections of the community. In 1919, Prime Minister Hughes, hailed it as “the greatest thing we have achieved”.
During the Second World War, Australia accepted refugees from many countries. Whilst at the end of the war the government sought to remove these people, by then many had married and assimilated into the Australian community and many Australians resisted their deportation. Support for the White Australia Policy began to wane.
High levels of immigration from non-English speaking European countries helped contribute significantly to the economic development of Australia. These immigrants also assimilated well and contributed to a broadening of Australian culture that was generally welcomed. In 1949, the new Immigration Minister, Harold Holt’s decision to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be admitted, was the first official step towards a non-discriminatory immigration policy.
Over the next twenty years, Australia’s immigration policy was further liberalised. In 1978 the government commissioned a comprehensive review of immigration in Australia. Far-reaching new policies and programs were adopted as a framework for Australia’s population development. They included three-year rolling programs to replace the annual immigration targets of the past, a renewed commitment to apply immigration policy without racial discrimination, a more consistent and structured approach to migrant selection, and an emphasis on attracting people who would represent a positive gain to Australia. At this stage the White Australia Policy was effectively dead.
I only relate all of this to show restrictions on immigration and acceptance of refugees have been quite widespread, with Australia being no exception. In general however, in liberal democracies, discrimination on the basis of race and religion as far as immigration is concerned, has largely been removed. The issue of cultural compatibility and assimilation has become more of an issue, along with a developing trend toward the promotion of multiculturalism.
In my youth there were still many examples of tensions between Catholics and Protestants. These extended to the political arena where Catholics aligned themselves with the Labor party. Today there are few remaining areas of conflict between the two religions. Indeed if the current debate on same sex marriage is any indication the rift is not so much between religions but between secularists and religious adherents.
But it seems evident that overall our society is becoming more tolerant.
As an aside it is worth considering the thoughts of the French Philosopher, Andre′ Comte Sponville.
You tell me that if we don’t transform people first we cannot transform society. We have behind us two thousand years of historic progress that proves the opposite. The Greeks were all racists and slave owners; that was their culture. But I don’t feel as if I am better than Aristotle or Socrates simply because I am neither a slave owner nor a racist. So there is a progress of culture and societies but not of individuals as such. If someone says today, “He’s a great guy because he’s not a slave owner,” that’s idiotic, since that person is not that way for no reason; it’s his culture that’s responsible. Today someone who is neither a slave owner nor a racist is simply someone of his time.
Andre′ Comte Sponville argues that whilst Man evolves slowly, our cultures evolve quickly, and generally for the better. While there seems to be little basic difference between men and women today and those of historical times there have been major advances in our societies. Our societies have become more tolerant, more caring and less violent over time.
But let us now look at the composition of our societies.
To begin with it might be useful to familiarise ourselves with Arthur Koestler’s notion of a “holon”. A holon is something complete in itself but can be part of a greater composite. For example an atom is a discrete entity in itself but can be a part of a molecule. A molecule is also a discrete entity but can be part of a compound, and so on. Societies too comprise a nesting set of such holons.
A society begins with an individual. But a person is part of a family, a club, a society, or some other composite allegiance that subsumes but also contains the individual. These subgroupings collectively make a society. And any of these sub-societal groupings can be the source of sought after identity and ego confirmation.
Our tendency as humans is to identify with such groupings as we belong to. As a result we create “in-groups” and “out-groups”. In European history (and elsewhere as well) those groups were also often formed on the basis of class. For example the elites viewed the working class and rural poor as inferior.
The French Buddhist scholar and geneticist, Matthieu Ricard writes:
The feeling of belonging to a group or a community in which everyone feels close to and responsible for everyone else has many virtues. It reinforces solidarity, valorizes the other, and favours the pursuit of common aims that go beyond the individual framework. It allows us, certainly, to grant more importance to we than to me.
But the strong feeling of belonging to a group also has effects that are detrimental to the harmony of human relations. Privileging members of our group is accompanied by a correlating de-privileging of those who do not belong to it, those who are foreigners or who belong to a rival group. This partiality leads to different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance.
The accepting into our country of immigrants of other races, cultures and religions has created greater diversity, and in general diversity is beneficial to our society. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. In this respect we should encourage multiculturalism. But whilst we want to take advantage of diversity, we must beware of locking people in too tightly into their cultural enclaves.
Unfortunately the political processes, instead of allowing us to prosper from the inherent diversity, often institutionalise diversity by putting people, as Kenan Malik maintains “into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes they have been put into”. As a result the borders so defined impede intercultural sharing and perhaps more importantly, assimilation. It would be easy to argue from our history that this has defined the way we have managed our indigenous population as well.
In previous decades our concern has been to ensure that the minorities represented in our immigrant population were treated equally with the rest of us. We now seem more focussed on their rights to maintain their differences. In the language with which I began this essay, our efforts seem more to promote separateness rather than to seek unification. Racism, for example, which we once defined as the denial of equal rights to particular minorities is now seen as being a denial of their rights to be different.
Now one of the reasons these difficulties arise is, instead of appealing to the individual members of these minorities, the state looks to particular organisations and community leaders to bridge the gap on its behalf. This is a process fraught with danger. The nature of the individuals in such minorities is almost as diverse as those of the population at large. Consequently many in these communities are effectively disenfranchised. I wonder, for example how the Australian community might react if the government nominated George Pell to speak on behalf of all Christians, or Billy Gordon to speak on behalf of all indigenous folk or Bronwyn Bishop to speak on behalf of all women! All these things artificially define the borders we put around these minorities.
As intimated above, layered on top of these concerns, is a fear that somehow, if we are not careful, our immigrants and refugees will usurp our cultural norms and consequently diminish the values and institutions that we believe make our country such a wonderful place to live.
Now net migration into Australia is running at approximately 200,000 per annum. The majority of Australia’s immigrants have come from the UK, New Zealand, China and India. With an aging population and a falling birth rate immigration has greatly assisted Australia’s growth and provided a useful source of skilled employees. Whilst immediately after World War II Australia received mainly European migrants in recent times Asian migrants have dominated.
Culture is not fixed. As we noted earlier, Australia’s culture has already been strongly influenced by our immigrants and largely for the better. They will continue to modify our culture but the rate of immigration seems hardly large enough for the changes to occur quickly.
Currently it would seem that we are unduly worried about the influence of radical Muslims on our culture. But most Muslims who have arrived in Australia have assimilated well and wear their religion as lightly as most Christians do. And in fact only something like 2% of Australians identify as Muslim. We would do well not to build the fences around their communities (or indeed the community of any minority group) too high. We need to coax them gently out of their differentiation and into the unification of assimilation. We must always treat them as Australian citizens first before we think of them as a differentiated minority.
So as we move along this journey towards unity our world successively expands. But remember each expansion does not remove the differentiation it just subsumes it. If I reach the goal of unity I can still be Christian, Muslim or Buddhist; I can still be Irish, Chinese or Malaysian; I can still be Labor, Liberal or Green. It is just these minor parts of my identity will not be as important as being a human being.
Despite frequent disappointment and occasional reversal, I think Andre′ Comte Sponville is right- human civilisation is developing in a positive direction*. That development will be facilitated if we can help our fellows recognise their oneness with all humanity and not cling too closely to those differentiated states that we used along the way to assuage our fragile egos.
*[Perhaps the only caveat I might have, and this is to be expected from an old reactionary like me, is that the increasing pervasiveness of social media is diminishing our ability to properly relate socially to each other.]