When two people are in a room, psychological theory tells us that there are really six people present. There are the perceptions that both people have of themselves and their companion as well as they way they really are. It is a reminder that our realities are built entirely in our minds and that in a diverse community, there will be hundreds of perceptions for the same events or comments.
The heady, non-stop debates around race in the past month surrounding Adam Goodes have once again raised questions whether Australia has a racist underbelly. While I have never subscribed to the idea that Australia is any more racist than comparable countries, especially given we score so highly on measures such as social mobility, mixed marriages and migration demand, it is difficult to argue that the subhuman implications of calling someone an animal or telling them to ‘go back to the zoo’ as many spectators have done, can have anything other than strong racial overtones. The fact that many fans could not see the connection suggest that there has been a failure of both education and empathy. Despite the marked split in public opinions, the saga will embolden those who see racism as explanatory for many of Australia’s social ills.
It illustrates another trend where the argument that the opinions of the majority are null and void when it comes to the experience of minority groups continues to gain traction. This is a position argued by feminists when it comes to sexism or domestic violence, ethnic groups when it comes to racism and homosexuals when it comes to gay marriage. It was at the heart of the failure of Brandis’s attempts to change the Racial Discrimination Act. This is an argument that prioritises the perceptions of one group or one set of individuals above another.
In this respect, as Clive James argued in an essay for the London Review of Books this year, Australia is the strongest example of the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s assertion that multiculturalism is the racism of the anti-racists. Australia’s dominant culture is increasingly seen by ethnic leaders and their supporters as an insult to its minority groups. Likewise, the problem of integrating Muslims is highlighted by the fact that despite Australia’s history of many ethnic groups integrating relatively smoothly, sections of the Islamic community are representative of the first wave of migrants that despise Western civilisation as much as left wing intellectuals always have.
Part of my work involves assessing psychological claims for either legal representatives or insurance companies. Arguments, claims and counter-claims around bullying are a common source of conflict. Perceptions are a critical factor in such assessments.
For example, a worker who may have suffered a degree of bullying as a teenager in the playground and may have long had difficulties with assertiveness, is far more likely to experience the criticism or feedback of a boss as akin to the bullying. This is partly why bullying claims so often overlap with negative performance reviews. Likewise, the person who has had difficulties with abusive relationships is more likely to experience robust interactions with colleagues as intimidating or threatening. This is not say there aren’t plenty of instances of unacceptable bullying, but that perceptions can vary wildly.
When applied to racism, there are some interesting trends that help explain Australia’s perennial problems with being accused of racism. Moral psychologists argue that a key area of variation among different cultural groups is their norms surrounding authority, hierarchy, perceptions of what is sacred and attitudes towards care and harm. When assessing claims about racism, the differentials in views about authority and hierarchy are particularly striking.
For example, I have met several English doctors over the years who have complained they are surprised by the lack of hierarchy on occasions in Australian workplaces, illustrated by requests from nurses to do the photocopying or handed over routine administrative work usually reserved for secretaries. The English are more likely to experience such behaviour as rude and as evidence of the rough, blunt edges of the Australian egalitarian character.
The same behaviour when applied to doctors from the subcontinent however, is often experienced as a blight on their racial background. It is quite paramount for Indian medicos where attitudes around status and hierarchy are much more stratified. But those from an ethnic minority background are more likely to experience what in some situations can be the endearing Australian traits of being overfamiliar, egalitarian or blunt as being racist.
The accusation that Australia has high rates of so-called casual racism has strong overlaps with these variations in attitudes surrounding hierarchy and authority. It is something that, over time, ethnic groups come to appreciate and emulate, but the unique behaviours are not so endearing on first contact. We more closely resemble a nation of sledgers than racists.
There is an even greater complexity with regards to the indigenous experience – which does not entirely overlap with the experience of ethnic groups. It is wrong to make extensions about the national character from the Goodes episode, not least because the anonymity, escape and disinhibition sporting crowds can provide mean they function as their own beast.
Debates about racism are surfacing strongly across the Western world in parallel with the unprecedented flow of irregular, migrant arrivals fleeing either conflict zones, poverty or a lack of opportunity.
But the Goodes episode, while displaying some uncomfortable features, is evidence that the perceptions of individuals from minority groups are being increasingly treated as the only, relevant reality and that the self-loathing of Australian progressives surrounding race is without peer.
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, media commentator and author.
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