Current Issue #488

Are we all tomorrow's bigots?

Are we all tomorrow's bigots?

With rapidly changing social standards, are we all likely to be thought of as bigots in the future?

I recently found an old photo in a family album. It shows me atop Uluru in 1991. I was eight years old. When I found it my first thought was, ‘We’re all tomorrow’s bigots’.

I can’t speak for the other people in the photo, but, for me, climbing Uluru was a thrilling experience. I still remember my parents pleading with me not to go. They were saying something about the ‘right side of history’ as I broke away from their yoga circle and clambered up the rock. I was quickly intoxicated with the promise of unbridled conquest as I embraced my inner bigot.

Like me, Julia Gillard is another one of tomorrow’s bigots. She’ll be remembered as the prime minister who missed a perfectly good chance to usher in marriage equality. The same goes for President Obama and President Clinton who both opposed same-sex marriage, only to later find that their opinions had ‘evolved’ when it became politically expedient.

Maybe you think that you’re safe from becoming tomorrow’s bigot? Maybe you consider yourself to be ‘woke’ and on the cutting edge of social progress. But if you think that the contemporary notion of ‘progress’ has any rational limits then you’re really not thinking… and you’re also a bigot.

In case it’s not already obvious, I’m just stirring you up. I’m not a bigot, you’re not a bigot, and our former prime minister, Julia Gillard, is definitely not a bigot. So why does our culture allow me to trot out a plausible argument for near universal bigotry? The answer is complicated, but it begins with a discussion about why bigotry isn’t as dangerous as our age-old desire for purity.

Today we search for bigotry the way pre-enlightenment puritans searched for sin. The search is endless because there’s never any proof of purity. Just as the notion of sin preyed on our sexual compulsions, today’s secular version of sin preys on our compulsion to organise the world into categories. Today’s puritans tell us that we’ll have heaven on earth if we break down all these categories, and burn the bigots.

Today, young people are encouraged to adopt an ‘identity’ rather than a personality. Identity is political, so it’s adult. You can share it with your friends and win points online by saying the right thing and punishing the sinners. There’s a hierarchy of the oppressed. It’s all based on history, which is scientific, but not western science, which is oppressive. Such is the character of today’s Children’s Crusade.

When I was a little boy I was encouraged to paint dot paintings and learn about the Rainbow Serpent and other Dreamtime stories. I sensed a hope in my teachers that I’d retain a connection to Aboriginal culture in adulthood. I was happily their vessel for collective redemption. But when adulthood arrives we all discover power, and those notions of cultural healing melt way. We no longer believe that culture can transcend the political. Today’s culture is increasingly subordinate to politics. Today’s culture can’t be shared across political boundaries, because that’s ‘appropriation‘. Today, power is the prime mover. Power is the only thing that’s real.

If you think there’s something deeply ‘un-Australian’ about these nihilistic musings, you’d be right! We tend to import our big ideas from overseas and simply ‘go with the flow’. So I’ll spare you the contemplations and get to the point.

Culture is a necessary circuit breaker to politics. Only culture can express our universal sufferings that form the fabric of our universal bonds. By sharing culture across political boundaries, like the way New Zealanders share the Haka, we enact and embody our respect for tradition.

Maybe there are structural reasons why New Zealanders do it better, or maybe that’s just an excuse for our own lack of courage and imagination.

Somewhere within The Uluru Statement’s notion of Makarrata there’s room for inventing ourselves anew with an honest national mythology. That means memorialising the Frontier Wars and extending the honors of courage and sacrifice to the Indigenous resistance against colonial power. Ultimately, it means enacting a shared ritual of Indigenous pride and colonial remorse, sparking the slow and careful creation of shared Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture. This is the only real solution. We already know it’s the real solution because it feels like the hardest thing to do. We can barely imagine where to begin. Though I’d suggest that each side might do well to surrender its notion of purity, lest we all become bigots.

Peter Drew will speak on identity in Australia as part of a panel the Adelaide Festival of Ideas with Jennifer Caruso and Benjamin Law.

When a stranger calls
Saturday, July 14, 10:30am
Allan Scott Auditorium

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