Identity and Belonging: what’s this about being ‘unAustralian’?

9 Jul

A decade ago I wrote that I think the search for identity and for belonging are central to so much of the what is termed ‘Australian culture’. It has become a tactic of some of our political leaders to label various behaviour, ideas or people ‘unAustralian’. This is really a way of saying that such people or groups do not belong.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts on this concept of being ‘Australian’ or failing to fulfil whatever that might mean. In doing so I want to bring together two things that I’ve encountered recently.

First, in a talk I heard recently someone very helpfully named a phenomenon many of us will have experienced in all sorts of situations: it’s about ‘the rules’ by which any and every group proceeds. This can apply to a household, to a footy club or a formal company, a church or a workplace.

The speaker outlined the fact that there are really three different sets of rules. First there are the written and overt rules. This might be a constitution and bylaws, or a set of principles agreed when the group was set up. New members will be given these rules or taught that this is what we are about and how we proceed.

Then there are the unwritten rules, which are more like assumptions and expectations which shape the ethos of the club or group. Sometimes these are very broad, or very specific. ‘Men in this household put the toilet seat down after them’ is a very specific example. ‘We all go home for Christmas’ might be an unwritten rule of a family. But then there are others that carry expectations: ‘We all pitch in and work extra time when someone is sick.’ That is not a universal work practice, and when someone comes to work in a new situation they might not know this until the situation arises.

Still further, there are secret or unrecognized rules, which can in fact be very powerful precisely because they are unspoken, unwritten and often not even acknowledged as such. Here we move into the area of power and influence, more than formal procedures and requirements. ‘Don’t question what Henry says,’ might not be a rule in any sense except that if you do that you will run into deep trouble. Henry may not be in a position of authority, but he does have very considerable power. These ‘rules’ we usually only discover when we transgress them! A person once moved a piece of furniture in her office and was severely told off for doing so, not by her boss or anyone who worked in that office: apparently she had broken a rule established by someone else who should have been consulted … How was she to know?, she wondered.

I think when people use expressions like ‘That’s unAustralian’, they are certainly alluding to unwritten rules but more likely reflecting such secret or unrecognized rules. What on earth does it mean to be ‘Australian’ such that citizens of the nation who challenge the dominant values of the government or media commentators are judged not to belong? It seems to me that good leadership needs, over time, to articulate or at least help us, in ongoing conversation, to articulate our understandings of identity and what it means to belong in this community, in such a way that at least some of these rules and values are both recognized and more broadly agreed upon, rather than assumed.

The second thing that has come to me, which is I think very helpful in pursuing this need, is the insight that such ‘rules’ are in fact more like stories than they are prescriptions or statements. What holds a community together and establishes that sense of identity is not a constitution or a set of principles so much as a common story. It may be a story about the past, but usually it is a continuing story.

This is crucial, first because it is so clear that our current political dialogue is so devoid of any sense of narrative or story about where we have come from (we are afraid to engage with that story, because it might lead us to acknowledge first the rights of the indigenous peoples of this land and second the fact that all the rest of us are in fact ‘boat people’!) But then also if we ask ourselves what stories shape who we are and where we want to be going, in the future, that would take a while—like, more than a thirty second sound grab, more than a three week election campaign, and it would be complicated! We’d have to listen to each other, not just tell ‘them’—those ‘others’, new comers, who they now are because this is who we are.

I’m reading a most intriguing book written by Adam Nicolson about Homer. He’s an English writer who has discovered through both experiences at sea and reading and reflection that Homer matters greatly. The book is called The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters. (Collins, 2014) Nicolson introduces his work with some basic ideas about how stories shape who we are and argues for a reading of Homer that goes hundreds of years earlier than much scholarship has imagined.

The point I want to draw from Nicolson, at this stage (I reckon there will be lots to share as I work further into the book) is his use of the idea of epic. The argument is not just about when Homer was written or what it’s ‘about’: it’s the role such stories played and play. Nicolson writes:

This is also a book about epic poetry, and the value of epic in our lives. Epic is not an act of memory, not merely an account of what people are able to recall, since human memory only lasts three generations … Nor is it a kind of history, an objective laying out of what occurred in a past to which we have little or no access. Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: it is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now. (Preface, xix)

So many things arise from this. There’s an important insight here into what has become of the Anzac story in popular Australian culture: it has moved from history into epic. There are insights here that biblical scholars have tried to help us understand, in not forcing stories into the modern ideas of ‘history’ but nonetheless seeing the profound truth conveyed in these stories.

And there is also the challenge for us to consider what are the stories, perhaps the epic stories and poems, which shape our identity and belonging. The indigenous people know the answer to this question. And those who come to us from other cultures, often as old as Homer in their cultures and traditions, also know about ‘epic’ and its power. Perhaps we need to invite them to help us not only to hear their stories but to help us to discover our own unwritten and even unacknowledged stories, and the rules that go with them. Perhaps this discovery, together, might help us to know what it means to be ‘Australian’.

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