Cultural Diversity

- the text of Vic Say's comments to the U3A March 2011 coffee morning -


Last year about the middle of November and just before I left Australia - leaving Felicity my wife and my family to fend without me for Christmas - I was asked by Sally Kaptein to speak at the U3A coffee morning on Cultural Diversity - at that stage I was in the midst of preparing to leave for Africa, and from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya - my plan was to fly into South Sudan with a young Sudanese man who we had offered to take back to Sudan so he could meet his family after 24 years. He had escaped as a 9 year old; we had known him for about 3 and a half years.

I suggested to him, over about a two year conversation, that we would pay all his fares - something over 3 thousand dollars - if he would take me with him so I could see his homeland and be part of his family reunion: his reunion with his father, 2 brothers and three sisters who would gather at the place from which he had escaped as villages burned, people were killed, cattle were stolen, women were raped, and children, including one of his 7 year old twin brothers, were stolen and taken to the North as slaves. We would meet, including the brother who had been a slave for 20 years - and it would be the first time the rest of his family, scattered for all that time, had all been in that place together - and of course I would bring Akier home, who they had thought dead for many of the 24 years of his absence, until a friend located his father for him about 3 years ago.

Grabbed by Northern militia men at the age of 7, Makuach (pictured) spent 20 years as a slave in the Arabic north of Sudan. Vic met him when he went to Sudan with his brother, who returned to his village 24 years after escaping the same militia, & walking with a group to Ethiopia as a 9 year old, then later to Kenya, and who came as a refugee to Australia.

And then, I wanted to meet a young South Sudanese doctor who Felicity and I had sponsored during his medical studies and who was now working in the far north of South Sudan, near my friend’s village - I really wanted to see his work and get some sense of whether the $13,000 we had sent to him over the years was, in a way being repaid, by the sort of medical work he was doing which would help his people.

Prior to working with the Sudanese of Castlemaine, the first of whom arrived here about 4 and a half years ago, some of you will know that I spent the last 20 years of my teaching career teaching Indonesian language and culture and building on my love of the peoples and cultures of Indonesia during nearly 30 trips to that part of our region, after first visiting there in 1962 - then again, Felicity and I have been committed, in various ways, to working with Aboriginal Australians and to taking a journey of learning about the Aboriginal cultures and peoples of our country and the difficulties they face as part of our shared community.

So you can see that for me, cultural difference is something attractive - it excites me - it engages me - it challenges me - and it teaches me a lot about who it is that I am, and about my culture and country as a 5th generation white Australian.

I would never go to Canada or New Zealand, the UK or USA if I had an equal opportunity to go somewhere much more different from Australia than those places - and of course being on an Aboriginal community can be a very different place to be - sometimes more different than being in Indonesia or South Sudan.

So my immediate response to the concept of cultural diversity is to declare - “celebrate the differences” - EMBRACE CULTURAL DIVERSITY!!

But I came home from South Sudan to a fairly shrill debate about multiculturalism - not just here but across Europe: our parliamentary representatives were quoting German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was seen to have condemned multiculturalism as having “utterly failed” Germany - and quoting British Prime Minister, David Cameron as accusing “state Multiculturalism” of fostering division rather than unity.

But here the Federal Labour government had just reintroduced, in a very deliberate and explicit way, a government commitment to the word and concept of multiculturalism. Minister Bowen declared: in Australian and in our experience, multiculturalism “has worked”.

Now I am sure many here will say that we are a very tolerant community. I would agree in general - but I would contest that in the case of Aboriginal people - there I would argue our community is not without racist attitudes. I will give just one example: my daughter and her partner were on the train going to Alice Springs and in their carriage there happened to be a group of Aboriginal people - she describes the clearly racist attitudes of many of the White Australians allocated seats in that compartment who tried to have their seat allocation changed to another carriage away from the Aboriginal group - and who spoke to my daughter and her partner as if they had the same attitudes and prejudices, unconsciously co-opting them, by their inclusive language, into the racism they were expressing.

The guard commented to my daughter to watch out for her belongings lest they go “walk about”.

Now these reactions were blatant reactions to the race of those Aboriginal people - not to their culture and not to their behavior which was totally appropriate to their situation - they happened to be a group of women and children who had been down south for a Christian convention of some sort.

I think some Islamic people feel just as alienated and as marginalized by some community reactions to their visibly distinctive clothing, as those Aboriginal people must have felt.

And of course, it is not surprising if youth growing up subjected to that sort of abuse and prejudice, develop a sense of alienation which can sow the seeds of anti social behavior and dangerous attitudes - attitudes dangerous to the health and well being of the individuals reacting that way, and dangerous to our shared community.

Now it is interesting to note that when I say I am attracted to cultural difference - I need to be careful - because you will find me with people from those cultures who are not religious fundamentalists - they wont be people who think 4 beers or a poker machine will solve all their problems - and they probably wont be rev-heads - they WILL, probably, be people interested in exploring their culture and religion with me - and open to spending the time and energy it takes to get to know people across cultural divides. They will probably be happy to spend hours discussing the things about life, religion and culture that I am interested in - and so I need to ask: do I really embrace difference?? - or do I actually look for similarities in the CORE VALUES of these people, values which I find attractive and close to my own, albeit in a culture which also has many differences ?? In fact I clearly look for people with a certain type of temperament, some common interests and those similar core values - and so I need to challenge my first easy claim to embrace cultural difference, when in fact like all of us, I am selective - and generally I have to exercise tolerance in the company of those whose values and interests and temperaments I find alien, no matter what their background - and so I have to admit, I find more in COMMON with some of my friends from these other culture than I do with members of my own extended family.

And so all of us in fact, DO look for the similarities and commonalties which we find most important amongst the people we spend time with - and when people have thanked me for spending the time and energy I have spent supporting the Sudanese people of Castlemaine over several years, I have always replied that I enjoy it hugely and the involvement is its own reward.

Although never, did I imagine it might lead to the sort of journey from which I have just returned.

Vic leaving one of the African huts in the bush community where he stayed

Now to return to the issue of Australian multiculturalism: the minister said that multiculturalism here is built around a different model to the multicultural models in other places around the world - and he claimed that here, multiculturalism has “strengthened our culture”.

Let me illustrate his claim with two examples - now I know examples can be like statistics - you can prove anything with them, but they can also point to core truths: the same daughter who had the experience in the train to Alice was also cycling around Europe on her own for six months - and wanting to sit in a park in Berlin, she chose to sit next to a mature \ middle aged black African man and strike up a conversation with him about his life there and his experiences. She tells me that in 20 minutes they were approached 5 times by white German folk: one woman came up and ranted at him in German telling him to go back to where he had come from - someone else merely approached them and asked her if he was harassing her and if she was safe - they were typical of the five approaches made by locals in just 20 minutes, she was dumbfounded.

Now In South Sudan, I stayed for 5 weeks in remote villages. To get to them we waded through swamps for hours and walked through the African bush -

Vic learning to wade the swamps to remote villages - armed man at hand -

but I also had 1 week staying in the capital of the state where those villages are located, in the home of the Minister of Finance for that State. I had met him in Sydney at a Sudanese wedding I attended two years ago - he said one day when I thanked him for the generosity of his hospitality which was just SO fantastic:

“Vic - I spent 2 years in your country - mostly in Adelaide, and my family is still there - in all that time I never felt other than welcome - and I only ever once felt insecure, and that was because of some drunks. Vic you are welcome to stay here, and to stay longer if it suits you.”

I think we can all feel some pleasure in those words of his.

So what is different between multiculturalism in the UK and Germany and Australia?

Well, certainly one significant difference from Germany is that migrants in Australia have always been invited to be permanent residents and encouraged to become citizens and so develop the SHARED CORE VALUES which Australians hold to be important - in Germany, very differently, I think guest workers have been the model. This breeds a very different mentality of come and get what you can while you stay - or over-stay.

In the UK I understand that the rights of citizens from Commonwealth countries meant that at times Britain has not had the same capacity to control the pace of immigration and adjust it to the needs of the work force and the capacity to absorb the immigrants healthily, as we have had in Australia.

Malcolm Frazer recently said that in Australia, multiculturalism meant “ diversity not division - interaction not isolation. It is about cultural and ethnic differences within a framework of shared fundamental values which enable us to live on a complementary rather than a competitive basis. It involves respect for the law and for our democratic institutions and processes. Insisting on a core area of common values”.

Australia has also rejected two discredited models - we have rejected separatism and we have rejected the straight jacket of assimilation in which conformity is forced. Unlike Australia, many European versions of multiculturalism fail to stress integration, where as much as possible can be shared, while differences can be celebrated. Sharing as much as possible while nevertheless preserving aspects of different cultural practice allows us to stress responsibilities and core democratic values and the shared use of the English language.

It mirrors my capacity to most easily spend time with people with shared core values and common interests despite and because of differences, some of which might be attractive - some of which might be challenging.

In terms of emphasizing central core values I look to Indonesia in 1945, this then new country with the biggest Islamic population of any country in the world, adopted as their motto, across the 250 different languages and 250 different cultures living on 13,000 islands, “Unity in Diversity”.

They chose a minority language from one of the less populated islands and not the language of the majority Javanese as the national language. This chosen language was the lingua franca of the ports in many of the islands - it was the egalitarian language of trade - it was adopted as the national language. They chose a “common language” of a wide spread minority which was originally the mother tongue of a relatively small group on the island of Sumatra.

And again, looking for those shared core values, this biggest of all Islamic populations which wanted to stress their belief in God, said in their constitution something which we might want to argue with, but which appealed to the commonalities of the different religious groups which existed across the archipelago. Despite the huge Islamic majority, they said in their constitution that there is one God, but there are recognized five equal paths to God - Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and because of the history of the colonial forces and proselytization of different islands, Christianity and Catholicism. A case of clearly appealing to unity through a shared core belief, despite a diversity of religious faith.

Multiculturalism is something that is strengthening not just Australia but our nearest great neighbor, Indonesia - that does not mean there are no problems - but that on balance it is working very, very well.

Returning to Australia, let us look briefly at some recent statistics - in a recent publication by the  University of Western Sydney, a survey of 12,500 people over 12 years indicates that 86.8% of Australians feel it is a good thing for a society to be made up of people from different cultures, 6.5% disagreed.

Now if you think that these diverse cultures are a source of problems and we could get rid of those problems by becoming monocultural - beware - think of the Theocracy of Spain where Christians burned other Christians at the stake because they were not exactly the sort of Christian they wanted to see - the powerful persecuting the less powerful - often men burning women - or look to France where my family was not Catholic when the king of France was killing all who were not Catholic, and so my family fled, Huguenots, to England, where no doubt the non Catholic Crown was killing everyone who WAS Catholic.

It happens today in some Islamic societies where a more powerful form of Islam will set out to try to destroy the Islam of a less powerful group - too often by killing people. It is sadly happening in Indonesia itself, right now, to a minority Islamic sect.

So while there are clearly problems to deal with in handling the complexities of multiculturalism, mono-culturalism does not provide an easy solution either to the majority culture or to existing minorities. It is often a more dangerous thing to be pushed to the edge of a mono culture than it is to be pushed to the edge of a diverse culture, as the Aboriginal and Islamic people of Australia sometimes are today.

In the Benalla of my youth “Catholic dogs jumped like frogs in and out of hollow logs” and the Catholic priest would reprimand parishioners if he found medications from our “non Catholic” pharmacy on their bedside table during a hospital visit.

Give me the complexities and difficulties of cultural diversity any day - which is not to say we don’t need to address its problems as they arise. Policies relating to multiculturalism need to be implemented carefully and intelligently - and migrants’ support systems need to be funded adequately as they acquire our shared common values, often through learning English as our shared language.

Thank you

Vic was in South Sudan for 9 weeks over December and January, a period which included the period of the recent referendum on the separation of South Sudan from Sudan; he will share the story of that journey later in the year with U3A with slides and movies and extracts from his diary and reflect in more depth on the experience at an Agitation Hill lecture at the Anglican church, probably in July.