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Chapter 2: Social Contexts

4. Culture and difference

The next word that needs clarifying is ‘culture’, because of the way it is used within discussions of multi-culturalism in Australia. Kwame Antony Appiah cynically notes that

It hasn’t escaped notice that ‘culture’ – the word – has been getting a hefty workout in recent years. The notion seems to be that everything from anorexia to zydeco is illuminated by being displayed as the product of some group’s culture. It has reached the point that when you hear the word ‘culture’ you reach for your dictionary. Culture’s major rival in its kuzu-like progression is

‘diversity’, a favourite now of corporate CEOs and educational administrators, politician and pundits. And ‘cultural diversity’ brings these two trends

together (Appiah 2005, p 114).

In Graham Huggan’s view, the current usage of ‘culture’ in the Australian context points to “all cultural forms, interacting in a transnational context, as strands in a global, hybridised pattern of dis- and relocation” (Huggan 2007, p 38). Focussing on Australia, Huggan therefore wonders why the notion of a ‘core culture’ is still

prevalent in the Australian discussion, and what that term means. “To a large extent”, Huggan asserts,

it seems to correspond to what Jan Larbalestier calls ‘the imagined space of White Australia’: ‘the cultural centre from which all other ways of being in the world are evaluated, and understandings of assimilation, integration and diversity are accommodated’ (Larbalestier 1999, p 147). Core culture,

understood this way, has as much to do with older, reactionary ways of thinking about White Australia as it does with the cultural pluralism of a newly multi-ethnic Australia – not that these two apparently contending ideologies are necessarily opposed (Hage 1998, Stratton 1999) [...] Core culture isn’t just an ‘ethnic substratum which [...] underpins identity and community’ (Dixon 1999, p 55), it is also a distinctly moral entity that draws sustenance from a reservoir of allegedly shared values and beliefs (Stratton 1999) (Huggan 2007, p 76-77).

In referring to Ghassan Hage and Jon Stratton, Huggan points to two very vocal critics of what ‘culture’ in the Australian frame of reference has done to the debate about migration. Stratton signals the “assumption that there is a core

Australian culture, described by both Hanson and Howard as ‘mainstream’ Australian culture, and that ‘ethnic’ cultures exist somehow as peripheral adjuncts” (Stratton 1998, p 16). He also argues that “where previously race operated as a reductive

concept and was thought to determine culture, now culture is the more privileged term and race is thought to be a signifier of culture” (1998, p 11). In Hage’s view this implies that white Australians are still “at the centre of the Australian cultural map”, which to him “conjures the images of a multicultural fair where the various stalls of neatly positioned migrant cultures are exhibited and where the real Australians, bearers of the White nation [...] walk around and enrich themselves” (Hage 1998, p 118). All these ideas seem to lead to the conclusion voiced by Castles and Miller that

“culture is becoming increasingly politicised in all countries of immigration. As ideas of racial superiority lose their ideological strength, exclusionary practices against minorities increasingly focus on issues of cultural difference” (Castles and Miller 2003, p 38). In an age where the word ‘race’ is no longer usable, ‘culture’, and especially ‘cultural difference’ have replaced it, and with it comes the connotation of cultural difference indicating something that is ‘less than’ the cultural norm. Of

course, this narrows what this ‘difference’ can entail. If ‘cultural difference’ stands for race, this, again, means that people who are not deemed racially different are also not seen as culturally different. This is one of the issues this thesis raises. At the same time, people who are deemed racially different will always also be culturally different, whether they are or not. This obvious confusion forces a closer look into the next concept, that of ‘difference’.

In trying to define difference, Ien Ang insists that the word has “emerged as a keyword in cultural politics in the late 1960s”. This notion, “literally, the quality of

being unlike or dissimilar” has lost “its descriptive innocence” and has become “a highly charged concept”: “the expression of dissent or critique of the oppressive social homogeneity imposed by the dominant sections of society” (Ang in Bennett et al 2005, p 84). To Ang, difference is closely connected to binary oppositions, where

“the same and the different are often placed in a hierarchical relationship, as the different is purely negatively defined as that which is not-same, as deviant from the norm (or the normal)” (ibid). Ang goes on to point to the fact that, especially in the twentieth century, “difference is extemporaneously equated with (and reduced to) cultural difference” (2005, p 86). In the Australian context of multiculturalism as a bureaucratic idea, an “encompassing framework of the state” rather than a descriptor of societal make-up, “difference becomes the cornerstone of diversity: diversity is a managerial, bird’s eye view of the field of differences, which needs to be harmonized, controlled, or made to fit into a coherent (often national) whole” (ibid).

The first of Ang’s arguments to explore is the idea that difference only exists within a binary opposition. For difference to exist, something has to be different from something else, something that is defined as the norm. According to Avtar Brah, questions need to be asked:

How does difference designate the ‘other’? Who defines difference? What are the presumed norms from which a group is marked as being different? What is the nature of attributions that are claimed as characterising a group as

different? How are boundaries of difference interiorised in the landscapes of the psyche? How are various groups represented in different discourses of difference? Does difference differentiate laterally or hierarchically? (Brah 1996, p 115)

If difference is ‘that-which-is-not-the-norm’, then defining difference implies defining the norm. To be able to describe the other, it is imperative to describe the self, and if the self is the benchmark, the other, the one who is different, will consequently be at least a divergence from that benchmark. This means that difference is a term that is, as Ang states, value-laden, ascribed by the people who view themselves as the norm.

As Castles and Miller assert: “Other-definition means ascription of undesirable characteristics and assignment to inferior positions by dominant groups” (Castles and Miller 2003, p 30).

The other and the self need each other; they are interdependent. There is no self-definition, no self-identity, without an other-definition, an other-identity. In terms of the question of migration, as Papastergiadis contends,

The identity of the citizen presupposes the other, the migrant, the exile.

Identity emerges, not just from the identification of the common

characteristics for those who are included within the nation, but from the more visible difference of those excluded. The national question: ‘who are we?’ is largely answered by declaring: ‘we are not them’ (Papastergiadis 2000, p 59).

Dutton even argues that “The Commonwealth’s creation of a citizenry, of an

Australian ‘us’, depended on the deployment of effective means to divide people who belonged to that category from those who did not: on the erection of boundaries between citizens and strangers” (Dutton 2002, p 2). This implies that differences are always constructed and relational. Because they are based on binaries, the oppositions (both the self and the other) are in danger of “being reductionist and over-simplified – swallowing up all distinctions in their rather rigid two-part structure” (Hall 1997, p 235). Difference, then, is converted into otherness, in order to secure the “self-certainty” of the norm (Larbalestier 1999, p 150), and the “marking of difference” is therefore the basis of the “symbolic order”, the way society denotes its “classificatory systems” (Hall 1997, p 236). Gunew quotes Homi Bhabha to say that these

oversimplifications produce “‘otherness’ as stereotypes of the fixing of difference.

Stereotypes are seen here not simply as false images but as a process of constituting difference as though it were transfixed” (Gunew 1994, p 35).

So differences can become clichés, not necessarily related to reality, but to an idea of reality, prescribed by the people in power who construct a story of ‘them and us’. Looking at Australia, Dutton claims that

The architects of Australian civic and migration policies articulated all manner of ideas about how humanity was divided: these ideas never fitted with any coherent or meaningful theory of human differentiation. Nor did these policy-makers always speak in a shared language, for even when they used identical terminology, and this was not often the case, there were sometimes serious discrepancies in their understandings of human difference (Dutton 2002, p 20).

The consequence for Australian multiculturalism, Ang contends, is that now

“differences are carefully classified and organized into a neat, virtual grid of distinct

‘ethnic communities’, each with their own ‘culture’” (Ang 2001, p 14), which leads to

a measure of “prescribed ‘otherness’” (2001, p 30). The problem with that, according to Bennett, is that it tends “to freeze the fluidity of identity by the very fact that it is concerned with synthesising unruly and unpredictable cultural identities and

differences into a harmonious unity-in-diversity” (Bennett 1998, p 157). Internal differences within groups are deemed non-existent, and individuals are necessarily part of a clearly defined group. Seen in this way, multiculturalism turns into cultural separatism, a state of affairs where everyone, regardless of their own identification, is placed within certain rigid categories.

This can lead to major confusion. If the migrant has always been, as Castles insists, “the ‘Other’ of the nation” (Castles 2000, p 187), then surely white English-speaking migrants are ‘others’ as well? Not according to Dutton, who writes that “We are largely to blame for the difficulties English migrants encounter in Australia. We tell them we are no different (we can compare bootsoles) and, of course, they speedily find out that we are very different, and they are disappointed” (Dutton in Stratton 1998, p 179). Apparently, British migrants are told, by ‘we’, that they are largely the same, although they are and feel themselves to be migrants, and therefore logically part of the category of others. On the other hand, there are non-migrants, second or tenth generation non-white, sometimes non-English speaking Australians, who should be included in the category ‘us’ or ‘same’ on the basis of their non-migrant status, but are not. All this leads to the conclusion that to be part of the classification ‘different’

means to look and sound different from a white, English-speaking Australia that is constructed as the norm.

Hage also notes that difference is joined at the hip with the notion of

‘tolerance’. Seeing “multicultural tolerance” as “a strategy aimed at reproducing and disguising relationships of power in society”, he maintains that it is “a form of symbolic violence, in which a mode of domination is presented as a form of

egalitarianism’, and very close to ‘condescension’” (Hage 1998, p 87). “Tolerance”, Hage contends, “presupposes that the object of tolerance is just that: an object of the will of the tolerator” (1998, p 89). Hage argues that White Australia determines who is tolerated, when, and to what level: it also determines when it withdraws its

tolerance. Thus, tolerance turns into yet another practice of inclusion and exclusion, based on what is and what is not accepted difference. In Hage’s Australian

multicultural fair, difference is tolerated as long as it dishes up food, dancing and music, but it oversteps the boundaries when it encompasses values and identities that

deviate from the norm (and even worse if it is vocal or political about that). So not only do ‘we’ decide what difference is, but ‘we’ also determine if and when that difference can be tolerated.

Paradoxically, where too much difference is difficult for ‘us’ to accept, so is too little. From an objective standpoint, white, English-speaking migrants from countries like the UK, the US, South-Africa and New Zealand differ from white, English-speaking Australians who were born here. They were raised in a different country, with a different landscape, a (slightly) different language, different values, identities and backgrounds. Moreover, their migrant-experiences have added to their different life-experiences. Besides, the Cornish differ from the Welsh, New Yorkers from people from rural Texas, and even within those groups there are differences.

However, in the Australian context, they fall into the category of ‘same’. To steal a description from Stuart Hall, when he is talking about differences within black identity, this is a “sense of difference which is not pure ‘otherness’” (Hall 1990, p 229). This notion of difference is thus deeply unsettling. If the other can look and (almost) sound the same, this poses serious questions not only about the nature of difference, but also about the identity of what is ‘same’. If difference can be so similar, what does that say about ‘us’?