It seems to me that one of the significant causes of tension around Australia/Survival/Invasion Day is the increasing tendency towards narrowly defined (and increasingly aggressive) nationalism in majority Australian society.
Now, please let me say this clearly: there is nothing necessarily wrong with being proud of one’s nation or culture or identity. Having a positive (though not blinkered) view of one’s identity is fine; it’s when this identity seeks to define itself over and against the other in negative terms that we have the beginnings of the problem.
In the words of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, this type of situation ends up in exclusion, which can manifest itself either as a cutting off from interdependence (the other becomes the enemy), or as the disintegration of the difference (the other becomes assimilated).
This is the sort of thing, I think, we’re seeing around ‘Australia Day’ (as well as ANZAC Day and in general conversations that include discussions of ‘national identity’), in regards both to attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and towards ‘new’ Australians. The only options, it seems, are either full assimilation or (therefore necessary) separation. One can either (quite literally) lose themselves in the prevailing culture, or they can, as is so eloquently put in numerous social media memes, f@#k off!
Such a limited and aggressive understanding of identity is distressing in so many ways.
But is there really no other option? Are we Australians so small-minded that ‘sameness’ is really the best that we can come up with?
I don’t think so. Though the angry voices for ‘unity’-based-on-exclusion are usually the loudest, I am convinced both that there is a better way and that Australians, in general, are clever enough and big-hearted enough to embrace it.
In Volf’s words:
We are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.*
Surely we can be sophisticated enough to recognise difference within our larger category of what it means to be ‘Australian’. We can be different but still united; we can be united but still different.
(In another post, I may seek to explore the theology of this in more detail. I’ll say here simply that this is part of the very core of Christian theology.)
This, it seems to me, would allow us to recognise that Indigenous Australians can ‘be Australian’ in a different way than I, as an Australian of British heritage, am, and that different Indigenous Australians will do so in a variety of ways (i.e. there is not just one way of being an ‘Indigenous Australian’). In the same way, more recent arrivals to our shores should be able to embrace what it means to be ‘Australian’ without needing to lose what it is that makes them who they are.
Personally, I can’t see how ‘being Australian’ can mean anything else.
* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, p. 66.