In a radio interview in London today, it was put to me that people don’t normally associate race riots with the sun-blessed, happy-go-lucky lifestyle of my homeland, Australia.
Australia has a reputation worldwide for providing its citizenry with a relatively carefree way of life. Here in Europe the thinking is that somewhere as remote as Australia can’t possibly be tainted by the same ills as other Western societies.
Three points need to be made about the recent, apparently racially-motivated upheavals in Sydney.
First, media reports these days feature a whole lexicon of words designed to shock. Words like ‘crisis’ are thrown around with such abandon that they’ve almost ceased to have any concrete meaning at all.
‘Riot’ is one of those over-used words.
There is no benchmark to establish when a disturbance can rightly be called a riot and when should not. ‘Riot’ is, it seems, in the eye of the beholder (i.e. the media editor).
Hearing the media’s hyperbolic reports on the Australian situation would seem to paint a picture of national disquiet.
When the only quotes we hear are from the Prime Minister of the nation, we’re left to conclude that this is an event of national dimensions, with a bearing on every area of life in the nation.
This is far from true. The riots, if that’s what they should be called, occurred in one area of Sydney – an area, incidentally, which has seen its share of unrest in the past.
They have also featured localised groups of people, most of whom are young and male. There is no need to read into these events any national crisis or an expression of nationwide xenophobia.
Many of the young men involved with the unrest have been acting under the influence of drink. This is sad but, if you know the young Aussie male psyche, hardly surprising – especially in the middle of summer, near the beach, which is where the rioting began.
Australia has long had a problem with young people and drink. A list of other social ills has been linked with this culture of drink, including violence, destruction of property and, most of all, drink-driving.
None of these problems are exclusive to the young male population, but drink is especially a problem for this group.
Where drink is combined with the powerful Aussie male drive to mateship and standing up for the underdog, a relatively small event can spark a major brawl.
Most of the time, however, once tempers have cooled, people return to the normally laid back approach which has saved Australia from many a potential social crisis.
The second thing to note is that few nations on earth have managed as well as Australia to provide a safe and peaceful haven to people of many cultural groups.
Despite an often apalling record in the treatment of its aboriginal nations, which white society all but exterminated in one way or another, Australia has tried hard to earn its image of openness and a ‘fair go’for all.
Almost two decades ago the UN declared Australia to be one of the most multi-cultural nations in the world, after the likes of Israel. The drive to become a multi-faceted, multi-ethnic nation began with a conscious political decision.
Abandoning the so-called ‘White Australia Policy’ which had shaped social thought for decades, community leaders threw open the doors of opportunity to previously excluded people groups.
They recognised that diversity can encourage creativity and breed a certain kind of tensile strength – provided that diversity built around a common cultural ideal.
Australia’s social experiment has not always been a raging success. The aboriginal peoples, for example, are still not always given proper recognition. But it has largely avoided the dire predictions of many early opponents. For the most part, it has produced a nation which is the better for it.
The third point worthy of note is that racial tensions are not so much a product of local culture as of human nature.
Regrettably, even in a nation as deliberately and proudly multi-cultural as Australia, tensions are bound to surface from time to time. People of different cultures are prone to stereotype each other, especially if they have no meaningful involvement in each other’s worlds.
What we stereotype we can so easily come to fear.
When it comes to racial unrest, we should not look first for a wider cultural explanations, but peer deep within our own souls for any signs of fear or negative stereotyping.
As Martin Luther King Jnr and others have shown us, there is only one thing which kills the fear and bitterness at the root of racial unrest. That is a spirit of reconciliation and a determination to respond to hurt in the opposite spirit.
We must, in short, go the extra mile, doing the unexpected in the name of a higher cause than mere expediency, cultural mypoia or narrow self-interest.