Like all zealots, those who peddle the notion of group identity as the paramount measure of the individual’s worth are determined to make everyone else talk and think as they do. As with communism, for which it is a posthumous surrogate, identity politics is underscored by the authoritarian urge
They tramp in mateship side by side—
The Protestant and “Roman”—
They call no biped lord or “sir”
And touch their hats to no man!
—Henry Lawson, “The Shearers”, 1906
Almost from its beginnings in 1788, Australian society was marked by an absence of deference. This was long recognised as something that distinguished the Australian colonies from their parent culture in England, where deference from the lower classes to those above them was deeply rooted. In contrast, nineteenth-century Australia quickly became an egalitarian society. This did not mean that it dispensed with ranks and titles or that the pursuit of wealth was any less important. Rather, Australian egalitarianism originated in the many opportunities the country provided for those on the lowest rungs of society to rise in the world. At the same time, most colonials, whether they advanced their status or not, had a low opinion of those who inherited wealth rather than made it through their own efforts.
As a result, the first attempt to establish a closed system of privilege in our political system found popular opinion its most formidable opponent. In 1853, when William Charles Wentworth tried to emulate the British House of Lords by inserting clauses in the New South Wales constitution that would effectively create a hereditary political class, he was laughed out of the debate by Daniel Deniehy, who derided his proposal as an attempt to give Australia a “bunyip aristocracy”.
This column appears in the April edition of Quadrant, now on sale.
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In the 1880s and 1890s, Henry Lawson and other bush poets helped create a popular form of Australian nationalism based on a romantic view of the common people, especially those who worked in the pastoral industry. Historian John Hirst has written that in this time, when employers and employees from the top to the bottom of the status hierarchy toiled in the same enterprise, English and Continental habits of status were quickly abandoned. In the pastoral industry:
Gentlemen worked with their hands; they worked alongside their men; and in pioneering days at least wore the same clothes as their men. An age-old inequality disappeared as employees took to horses and met their masters eye to eye.
The egalitarian manners of the pastoral industry were carried by the poetry and other bush literature into the schools and homes of the middle class. “Its acceptance has grown with time,” Hirst writes:
and becoming as it were the Holy Writ of the Australian nation, it must be rated as one of the most powerful forces sustaining the view that Jack is as good as his master, a view that sustains in turn the egalitarianism of manners … an egalitarianism that does really exist in modern Australia.
Hirst wrote this in 1986, and what he said was true then, as most of us who had then grown to adulthood in this country could readily testify. That is why it is simply amazing how it has been turned upside down since then.
It is almost impossible to find any of these manners being discussed in a positive sense by our major institutions today, let alone practised. Any talk in public about Jack being as good as his master would now be instantly rebuked as sexist because it omits any concern for what is happening to Jill, and sustains the assumption that only men are in authority. In educational quarters, it would raise complaints that it not only ignores historical discrimination against women but also against gays, lesbians, queers, transvestites, indigenes, ethnics, the disabled and refugees, who together constitute a persecuted underclass of minority groups.
In short, the notion of a historical legacy of Australian egalitarianism is regarded with cynicism by most young people who have grown up in the three decades since Hirst wrote his essay, because it omits the numerous layers of discrimination and oppression that have purportedly characterised Australian social life. Today’s generation of graduates have little interest in what was once known as the struggle between capital and labour and the egalitarian manners that emerged from the contest.
Instead, the heads of our youth have been filled by identity politics, by the idea that all these minority groups have long suffered under the rule of those people that Henry Lawson and Co lauded: the straight white males who worked hard for a living. These young people are also convinced that by making identity discrimination the political cause du jour, they are on the right side of history.
Identity politics did not emerge recently. It has been embedded since the 1960s within leftist hostility to Western ideas and institutions. Most of these movements, especially multiculturalism with its celebration of diversity, radical feminism and its rage against masculinity, and post-colonialism’s hostility to Western culture, took on a new life in 1989-90 after the fall of communism in Europe. Identity politics became a surrogate for the utopian longings once absorbed by communism. These new movements were substitutes for religion, a means of pursuing a moral and spiritual quest that transcended the impatience with society felt by self-absorbed young people who thought the world owed them a living.
But like all the utopian and millenarian movements of the same intellectual heritage, identity politics could never escape its propensity to authoritarianism. Because utopians find most people are content with their existing way of life, or at least have accommodated themselves to it, the only way they can make history take the direction they want is by imposing it upon everyone around them, by both propaganda in its favour and the moral suppression of dissent. When push comes to shove, they will use the law and the full force of the state to get their way. Like all the zealots of history before them, they are determined to make everyone else within their social ambit talk and think as they do.
This is why speech codes, which originated in the 1990s in universities in the United States, have gained such influence. The radicals who control the academic committees that produce them have persuaded not only their own institutions that they are on the right track but also government bureaucracies, often peopled by policy pundits of the same persuasion. The Diversity Council of Australia, which recently wrote the much publicised, and much mocked, speech code for in-flight Qantas staff, was founded in 1984 by the Business Council of Australia with the support of Susan Ryan, the then radical feminist Minister for Women in the Hawke government. Today, the bureaucracies of corporate Australia are fully on-board. The Diversity Council counts among its leading members a number of Australia’s biggest employers and investors, including ANZ Bank, AMP, Boral, Coles, IBM Australia, Myer, Orica, Rio Tinto and Westpac.
Among other things, the Qantas speech code forbids staff from using such common terms as husband and wife, or mum and dad, and requires instead the use of the terms spouse, partner and parents. The logic of this is weird. The banned terms must not be used because they contain some sexual referent and this might supposedly offend people who don’t identify with the sex they were born into. This is absurd, since even men who undergo a sex change do so in order to identity as women, not as some genderless being—proof again that these speech codes derive not from the real world but are simply clumsy deductions from ideological theory. (Miranda Devine’s column on the Qantas code adroitly observed it was so badly done it even neglected to rename the pilot’s cockpit.)
Qantas flight staff are also told to refrain from calling the British arrival in Australia a “settlement” but to use instead the terms “colonisation”, “occupation” or “invasion”. In other words, our national airline is subscribing to the left-wing version of Australian history favoured by the current Aboriginal political class rather than the long-established legal opinion of the New South Wales Supreme Court and the UK Privy Council, not to mention popular Australian opinion that until now has overwhelmingly rejected the term “invasion”.
One thing beyond doubt, however, is the tenacity of those who share the narcissistic moral quest that defines identity politics. They will never give up, no matter how mistaken or absurd their efforts are shown to be. They want to impose a regime that obliges the rest of us to perform verbal curtsies whenever we talk about anything with the slightest connection to the identity groups they champion. The moral superiority of these groups is conferred by their victim status, no matter how dubious the claims of those who identify as victims and no matter how rigged are the social statistics that quantify them. Moral one-upmanship is their goal for themselves and deference the role they prescribe for the rest of us.
While there are still some journalists who are good at satirising these politics, it is doubtful how much longer these dissidents can hold out. Since the Australian news media now models itself so much on trends in the United States, a new development there is ominous. In December last year, the New York Times, in the aftermath of the #MeToo campaign, appointed a “gender editor”, Jessica Bennett. In a series of questions about her new position, Ms Bennett was asked whether she will be siloed away somewhere in the paper where she only discusses gender questions. Ms Bennett assured her questioner she was not about to revive the paper’s women’s pages of five decades ago:
Gender coverage to me means more than simply producing new content, though that is a huge component. It also means thinking about things like tone, visual display, representation in that visual display, who is writing articles, who is being photographed in those articles, sources we quote, and so on and so forth.
In other words, she is intent on remoulding the entire content of the paper to the limited perspective of her own version of identity politics. It is a safe bet that the local editorial executive ranks of the ABC, SBS and Fairfax are already studying this New York initiative and working out how they can emulate Ms Bennett’s example.
But this is mild stuff compared to what has been going on in our universities and the rest of the education system for more than twenty years now. There are now so many examples of bizarre academic speech codes they could fill a large book. The most audacious are those about Aborigines—though the term “Aborigines” itself, which has been common in this country for some 200 years, has now been declared out of bounds by the new speech code of the University of New South Wales because some people once identified by that name now find it offensive.
Here is another example: In this edition of Quadrant, Marc Hendrickx discusses the recent decision by the local people to ban tourists from climbing Ayers Rock. At the University of New South Wales, the speech code warns students that even by using the old name for this monolith they are thereby in breach of the natural law of social justice:
Local Indigenous Australian peoples named all of Australia in their languages before the invasion. Uluru is the Aboriginal name for this significant site in Central Australia which should be respected and recognised. This recognition of Indigenous Australia is fundamental to social justice. Part of the process of colonisation has been the European renaming of places and natural features all over Australia. Ayers Rock was a European name imposed on a section of Aboriginal country.
The logic of this argument extends well beyond the central Australian desert. It means we should rename every place in Australia that does not already retain its original Aboriginal name. It is a claim that anyone who does not comply is not just being disrespectful but fundamentally unjust. It is also, however, a demand that its authors must recognise would be difficult to fulfil. Nonetheless, for now, such a demand will serve as a useful generator of continual grievance, so that a nagging finger of injustice can always be pointed at white society, no matter how many locations we rename, how many apologies we make, or how much money we hand out.
If any reader thinks I am exaggerating the effect these ambitions are having on the Australian national character, look at the current demand for an Aboriginal voice in parliament. Its proponents say that, because they got here before the rest of us, they therefore constitute a hereditary class that deserves special political privilege, with their own representative body, elected by them alone, to be a permanent constitutional fixture within the Australian parliament, conferring benefits decided by themselves. If Bill Shorten delivers this, as he has promised if he wins the next election, Australia will get its bunyip aristocracy at last.