If any two words embody the Left’s moral claim to power, they are “cultural diversity”. No single moral, ethical or cultural system, we are told, enjoys privileged status in modern Australia. As a generic phrase, it abounds in the vision statements and objects of our cultural institutions, not to mention the workplace policies of our state and federal bureaucracies. It’s the general notion of which familiar terms like multiculturalism are specific instances. The United Nations even declared it a universal goal, dutifully acknowledged by our government in 2009, when it acceded to UNESCO’s Cultural Diversity Convention. In short, it’s the nearest thing we have to an official ideology.
Like similar expressions of worthy sentiment, cultural diversity eludes definition. It belongs to a species of political language, dubbed “meaningless words” by George Orwell, which “not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader”. They mean whatever the powerful need them to mean. Such definitions as exist are a failure. UNESCO resorted to the circular “manifold ways in which the cultures of groups and societies find expression”. Domestically, there is no more substance in the National Museum’s formula: “the expression of life in Australia through ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, politics, philosophy, religion, disability, community identity and subcultural activity”. Clearly, though, the idea reaches beyond national, ethnic and religious groupings to “minorities” liberated by the 1960s social movements.
Meant to convey a sense of moral purpose, these abstract platitudes, and the theories they abridge, are essentially sterile. No popular ground-rules for the co-existence of cultural differences can come from them. Nor can they come from law in a liberal democracy. Only the arbitrary use of power will avail. At heart, cultural diversity is beset by a contradiction. While no single moral, ethical or cultural system is assumed to have privileged status, efforts to promote diversity have drawn on a single ethical perspective. Most western societies turn to the secular progressive outlook for policies on race, gender and sexuality. Patently arbitrary, this choice raises persisting questions of legitimacy, at least for mainstream opinion.
Anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws and tribunals represent one dimension of that choice. They are designed to restrain certain categories of behaviour, rather than launch cultural upheavals. This is not to say they are always just and harmless, as assaults on free speech like the Bolt case demonstrate. For progressives, however, they fall short of sustaining a broad movement of ideas, media, administration and politics, the precursor to a culturally diverse polity.
As a matter of simple demography, these shortcomings of anti-discrimination law, from a progressive point of view, can’t be redressed within the constitutional order. In a system of popular franchise, majority or mainstream values act as a brake on elite causes, even if common rights are extended to minorities. Since fostering diversity means suppressing the mainstream, electoral politics are a stumbling block for progressives. They are driven to pursue their agendas in the shadow of the formal state, exerting informal, ad hoc, but coordinated pressure from vantage points in the academy and media.
The new cultural arbiters are self-appointed networks of academics and commentators, often joined by like-minded spokespeople and politicians. They exercise power on terms devised by themselves alone, without public assent. Targeting those who violate some canon of political correctness, their weapon is the 24 hour media campaign. They are adept at aligning their language and timing on multiple platforms, filling the airwaves with “white noise”. One denunciation leads to an outbreak of “piling on”, ratcheting up pressure to breaking point. Hapless targets enjoy none of the due process or civil liberties afforded by the formal state, despite incurring real penalties like reputational or financial damage.
This highlights cultural diversity’s second inherent contradiction. If it’s true, as progressives contend, no one moral, ethical or cultural perspective holds sway over others, public boundaries of acceptable behaviour can only be defined by law. Unless our parliaments and courts declare certain conduct illegal, there are no valid grounds for public disapprobation, whatever the private implications. And yet progressives side-step this conclusion.
Some of the most egregious cases of “trial by media” involve sporting identities, cultural icons for the mainstream.
In May 2009, the ABC’s Four Corners featured a woman who participated in group sex with members of the Cronulla Rugby League team in 2002, including Nine Network personality Matty Johns. The woman, whose identity was disguised by Four Corners, claimed she felt degraded by the experience. Police investigated the incident at the time, but no charges were laid. Johns admitted to group sex but denied any wrongdoing, insisting the woman’s involvement was consensual. The material presented by Four Corners was not sufficient to support a fresh investigation or charges against him.
For many, Johns’ behaviour was odious, regardless of its legality. On what basis, though, was it a matter of public controversy? The world is full of odious behaviour. Without any reliable evidence of lawbreaking, Four Corners unleashed a drumbeat of virulent attacks across the media, mostly from feminist pundits. Johns was forced into a public apology, and the Nine Network cancelled his contract to host The Footy Show. The question remains. According to whose standpoint was Johns virtually a criminal, deserving severe sanction? All the elements of due process were denied him: no presumption of innocence, no right to test evidence, no criminal standard of proof.
More recently, olympic swimmer Stephanie Rice endured similar treatment. Reacting to a Wallabies rugby victory over South Africa, she twittered “suck on that f**gots”. Almost immediately, she was vilified on social media, ridiculed by a succession of commentators (invariably called a “twit”), and even sent up in cartoons. Like Johns, she was forced into a teary apology, and major sponsors withdrew their backing. Rice’s choice of words was poor, but they weren’t directed at homosexuals, and she broke no law. According to whose standpoint did she merit public humiliation and financial loss? Her comment was indistinguishable from the common run of vitriolic language. Less fashionable groups have long had to suffer it. Yet the penalties inflicted were worse than had she committed a real crime, like shop lifting.
Johns and Rice weren’t convicted of a crime, but they committed political offences against diversity, in Johns’ case “misogyny”, in Rice’s “homophobia”. That these are public transgressions for only one ideological perspective in our “diverse” society, and not others, doesn’t seem to matter. The impulse to enforce a shadow code of correctness by public censure is now pervasive. Carping questions like “will you apologise?” or “will you resign?” echo across the media landscape. Calls for offenders to “apologise now or be sacked” are routine.
On issues like gender equality in the workplace, the government itself has resorted to a shabby “name and shame” regime. Absent political support for quotas, “spot checks” and mandatory reporting have been introduced instead. Since neither “equality” nor other outcomes are prescribed in legislation, firms going about their lawful business can still end up on a list of miscreants. Acting on a false moral prerogative, politicians too are creeping beyond the bounds of their authority.
Progressives have a different take on crime, law and the state than the mainstream, not to mention the Judeo-Christian ethic or classical liberalism. Much of the difference concerns autonomy of thought. The churches have a chequered history when it comes to intellectual freedom, but a contrast between interior and exterior permeates the New Testament spirit. The heart (or mind) is known to God alone; people should be judged on their outward conduct. “By their fruits shall ye know them”. It’s not for us to impugn a person’s thoughts, and displays of pharisaic piety are no window into the soul (or mind). Classical liberals had a similar perspective. John Stuart Mill put it this way: “This, then is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling …”.
For their part, progressives claim insight into the mind, and judge behaviour accordingly. Mass opinion is a socially constructed artefact, fashioned by the imperatives of an economic system, more particularly “late capitalism”. The contents of mass culture are broadly predictable in line with ruling class interests. The unreconstructed masses are not autonomous beings, but pawns of cultural determinism. Taken as a given, the economic order will generate racism, misogyny and homophobia for the benefit of a privileged few. Lapses from “correctness” fuel the machinery of oppression. This becomes a social issue, an opportunity to “educate” society in the cause of “cultural change”. Whether a person actually feels sorry, or deserves to be made a spectacle, is of no consequence. The apology is a show for public consumption.
Formed over time by biblical and liberal influences, English common law never countenanced apologies, except in mitigation of sentence. The law had no business peering into men’s souls; in any event, forced apologies are a sham. Common law penalties were exacted on an offender’s person or property, but not their mind. “Thought crime” was unknown. Only in the case of political crimes, or open dissent from a regime’s legitimacy, do forced apologies figure, and typically in authoritarian societies. They are less about contrition or genuine feeling than conformity with the ruling power.
Discontent is stirring in the Australian electorate. More are coming to resent this arbitrary power lying in the shadows of their political, legal and constitutional arrangements, ready to arise and lay waste to civil liberties and due process. More are demanding that it be confronted and exposed to sunlight. If only their politicians were up to it.
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