By Stan Grant
Who are we? What does it mean to be Australian?
It’s that time of year again when, amid the barbecues, beaches, citizenship ceremonies and protests, we turn our minds to questions of national identity. But can we define national identity at all? Should we even try?
Let me flirt with heresy: We don’t need national identity. In fact, history teaches us to be wary of national identity.
Values and cultures — yes. Good governance, accountability, rule of law — most definitely. Kindness, tolerance, empathy, respect all help.
A bit of humour is a good thing. Faith still works for many of us even as we accept we are a secular country. We can cheer on our sports teams and support our artists.
But who decides what is Australian or, even more troublingly, un-Australian? Where is the individual in this national identity?
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A shared sense of citizenship is crucial to a functioning democracy but the prevalence of a debilitating, censorious, tribal identity politics is the enemy of a shared citizenship. It has proved a cancer on democracy.
Capturing identity is a fraught and perilous exercise.
Personal identity is always in flux. As poet Alan Shapiro wrote in a recent edition of the Hedgehog Review philosophy journal, identity is a “lifelong pas de deux between nature and nurture, self and tribe, self and world”.
The challenge of identity is to live free of the claims of the tribe. Why should any of us feel compelled to define ourselves solely by race or religion?
As Franz Kafka famously said, “How can I identify with the Jews, I can’t identify with myself.”
The world is too readily divided into ‘us and them’
Writer Mark Dunbar says identities are “dangerous and paradoxical things. They are the beginning and the end of the self.”
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has written about identity’s pursuit of the “spurious notion of psychological wholeness”. He has warned about the “Medusa syndrome”. Recognition of identities can come with their own rigid strictures, as if there is, for instance, only one way to be black or gay.
Like the mythical Medusa, one look can turn us to stone.
Appiah advocates for healthier, layered identities — a cosmopolitanism that doesn’t dissolve difference but softens the contours and allows for entry and exit from identity boxes.
That is not always the world we live in. Identity at its worst can be toxic. We are torn apart with too much identity. Think of the conflicts of our time: Hindu versus Muslim, Shia against Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, the wars of the Balkans.
The world is too readily divided into “us and them”. Right-wing extremists, white supremacists or Islamist militants all drink from the same poisoned well of identity.
Nobel laureate economist and philosopher Amartya Sen calls these “solitarist identities”. He says they kill and kill with abandon.
Given how identity makes our world inflammable, why would we aspire to national identity?
Nations are not made in peace
National identity is what Xi Jinping in China cultivates with his narrative of national humiliation and mandated teaching of Xi Jinping thought in schools. National identity is part of the reason Vladimir Putin has 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, poised to invade.
National identity inspires Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and persecution of Muslims. Political strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro all exploit national identity.
National identity is too often the refuge of scoundrels and populists feeding on fear and anxiety. Australia is not Brazil, Turkey, Hungary or India. It isn’t Xi’s China, or Putin’s Russia or even the patriotic but bitterly divided United States.
But politicians here exploit identity, wrapping themselves in the flag or the ANZAC legend or Australia Day when it suits.
While some brook no criticism of Australia, others can find nothing but fault. National identity quickly becomes a zero-sum game. It is bound up in culture and history wars.
History can’t be measured like weights on a scale. Nations are formed by — but not trapped in — the past.
Nations are not usually made in peace. Nations are likely formed in war and revolution. The whole idea of the modern nation state emerged from the Treaties of Westphalia to end Europe’s bloody Thirty Years War that killed up to 8 million people.
The challenge of Indigenous recognition
What became modern Australia was born in invasion and colonisation. We are a product of the Enlightenment — a time when the idea of modernity was taking shape.
The First Fleet arrived between the American and French Revolutions, which reset the notions of rights and a social contract. The challenge of modernity is how we structure society to live together with all of our difference and history.
It is a quest for a place beyond history. The quest has often failed with catastrophic consequences. Australia is not immune from this.
As an Indigenous person with mixed heritage and descended from Irish convict stock, each Australia Day, am I to be at war with myself?
Our history is too complex and contradictory to be captured in slogans, white blindfolds or black armbands.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart has offered a road map to a more just settlement: truth-telling, agreement-making and a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous political voice.
It asks us as Australians to walk together on the journey to a new future. Would that forge a national identity?
What of those Australians who don’t support it? What about Indigenous people who reject the Uluru Statement and would prefer sovereign treaties — where would they fit in this national identity? Aggrieved and excluded, I would suspect.
A republic is another flashpoint
Indigenous recognition is one challenge to our national image, the republic is another. Australians have already rejected that at a referendum, now they are being asked to consider yet another model.
We will never get unanimous support for recognition or the republic. In any case, national identity cannot be legislated. National identity isn’t defined in a constitution.
Indigenous power-sharing and sovereignty are about better outcomes for First Nations people. The republic is about who sits as our head of state, how we elect that person and the extent of their presidential powers.
These are mechanisms of government — they are not in and of themselves identity.
Those decisions will help set our sails but we, as a people, must decide our course. At best, they could deepen a sense of belonging — and isn’t belonging a better idea than bastardised, weaponised, politicised identity?
Stories free us from the rigidity of identity
We negotiate our belonging — who we are as a people — every day. We do it by living alongside each other, by working, loving and laughing together. We do it on the sports field and in the classroom.
We do it by challenging each other, by protest, by voting, by discussion and debate. We do it by sharing.
We don’t have to agree. We don’t all have to mark Australia Day in the same way.
Nations are never complete unless they are totalitarian dictatorships. Talk of completing the nation is more about politics than people.
The 19th century French historian Ernest Renan said it best: A nation is a “daily referendum”.
Australia does the daily referendum better than most nations. We don’t need a national identity any more than we need a national faith.
Living abroad for many years convinced me there is an Australian character, a way of walking through the world. It is shaped by shared memories but not collective memories. Shared memories are about belonging, collective memories are about a totalising identity.
Collective memories are found in authoritarian regimes.
We can jettison identity but aspire to belonging. With all of our difference, our faiths, our colours and politics. We all bring our stories. With our stories we meet each other. Stories free us from the rigidity of identity.
Laws may regulate the nation but stories make the nation.
As the 18th century Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher said: “If a man were permitted to make all the laws he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”
*Stan Grant is one of Australia’s most respected and awarded journalists, with more than 30 years experience in radio and television news and current affairs.
*This article first appeared on the abc.net.au website.