Faine: I’m getting intolerant of tolerance

Good commentary from Australia’s Jon Faine:

It is time to retire the T word from the vocabulary of multiculturalism. I do not want anyone to say that they “tolerate” me. It is patronising and condescending.

Tolerance denotes a reluctant acceptance, a begrudging recognition of something unpleasant that will not go away. Why be so negative about one of the greatest assets we have – our diversity?

Smilingly encouraging “tolerance” for those who used to be described as “New Australians” is actually a backhander, a well-meaning but confused commentary on our almost universally shared commitment to social cohesion.

It is usually invoked by established figures comfortable about their place in our nation, but uttered rarely by anyone insecure or struggling.

I flinch when I hear it, whether from the lips of a government minister, a faith leader or various commentators who regularly pepper it through their offerings.

We live in one of the most socially cohesive, peaceful, multicultural societies on the globe. Although we can and must do better, let us be frank about our successes.

We speak nearly 300 different languages, according to Victorian Multicultural Commission data, and claim almost every known ancestry and every imaginable variation on the human race. More than 25 per cent of Australians are born overseas, and about 50 per cent of us have at least one of our parents born overseas.

Schools, workplaces, marriages, friendships and public and private enterprises are more diverse than ever before. Belatedly, we are beginning to validate and celebrate the unique culture of our First Nations communities and at last have adopted militancy in tackling the entrenched racism to which they have and continue to be exposed.

Australia without generations of migrants and their cultural contribution is unimaginable. But it is also a historical truth that many migrant communities, once established and settled, express reservations about the next wave.

Instead of feeling affinity or empathy, they question their legitimacy — dubbed the “drawbridge” phenomenon. Once a new arrival becomes established and secure, the “drawbridge” is lifted to prevent others from enjoying the same benefits.

It would be nonsense to try to argue that contemporary Australia is the mythical fairytale melting pot, that we all sit around together harmonising Kumbaya. It is equally wrong to portray Australia as a hotbed of racial or ethnic strife.

Last month, a handful of neo-Nazis performed on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House, scoring the attention they craved along with their goal of saturation media coverage.

Reassuringly, their parade was swiftly condemned by almost all community leaders. Zero tolerance was confirmed at nearly every level. This is how standards are set.

Choosing to turn a blind eye or to stay silent about overt racism is in effect to support it. Saying nothing signifies everything. Not condemning is assisting – the nod, a sly wink, a slight hint of approval is oxygen to racists and assists their recruiting.

The annual monitor from the authoritative Scanlon Foundation, which researches social cohesion and helps migrants transition to Australia, notes a recent change in the value we place on migration. Since the foundation began more than 20 years ago, it has measured and tracked consistent support for immigration as a source of strength for our culture and economy.

That steady support over many years has stalled during the pandemic. Suddenly, our sense of national belonging has declined, according to the foundation, although local belonging has improved. Lockdown and isolation achieved something.

At the same time – and surely, related – fewer Australians think we are still a land of equal opportunity, both economic and social.

It ought not surprise that in times of financial stress, multiculturalism is vulnerable. Growing economic inequality exacerbates social inequality which puts stress on social cohesion.

Fear of “the other” is driving repression and racial tension all over the world, as it has throughout history. Although we have a continent to ourselves, with no land borders to spark friction, we are not immune.

For many years, I was honoured and humbled to be an Australia Day ambassador and to assist at citizenship ceremonies across the state. There are few more moving moments in public life than to witness first-hand the emotion, excitement and sincerity with which new citizens pledge allegiance to their adopted home. I recommend it as a tonic for even the most hardened of hearts and jaded of souls.

Many of us take for granted what for others is a profound privilege, the priceless reward for unimaginable hardship and struggle.

Immigration and diversity add strength to our society and counter the ossification and stagnation that impacts many countries that turn their back on the fresh ideas and energy that comes with welcoming new arrivals.

We must repel the efforts of those who try to exploit and inflame community tensions instead of resolving them, who see an opportunity for power or profit by poking a stick into an ants’ nest, and then wondering aloud why the ants have become so agitated.

Jon Faine is a regular columnist and former ABC Radio Melbourne broadcaster. He is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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