Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From

Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From

Tim Soutphommasane, NewSouth

The Uniting Church is a multicultural church. The Assembly said so in July 1985 and renewed that commitment in 2006.

What does it mean to be multicultural and why should we be glad that we are? Read this book (shortlisted for the 2012 Human Rights Literature Award).

Multiculturalism, says Soutphommasane, requires us to confront the matter of social justice — to reflect upon how we collectively live up to ideals of fairness and equality.

In this book he presents a brief history of Australian multiculturalism, an examination of contemporary debate, and chapters on population, immigration and asylum seekers and refugees.

He looks at mis- and under-representation in politics, the defence forces and the media (news and TV soap operas) and the concept of “racism”.

Soutphommasane defends a “liberal multiculturalism”, one that is bound by civic values and strengthens national communities.

He argues that equal cultural recognition requires that society recognise not only the distinctive identity of the individual but also their cultural group identity. That doesn’t mean cultural practices are immune from judgment.

Because we owe respect to all cultures, because we presume all cultures may have something important to say to all human beings, any refusal must be done the right way; through a process of public dialogue.

But there are limits to what we should recognise as cultural identity worthy of our respect and endorsement, he says. Multicultural policy in Australia has been circumscribed by the civic values of liberal democracy.

Religious or traditional cultural practices are limited by liberal values. Underlying any diversity is a commitment to parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, equality of the sexes, and freedom of religion.

“Cultural recognition isn’t a one-way act of a mainstream adjudicating on a minority’s request for some differentiated treatment. It involves a two-way process of interpreting and re-interpreting a national identity.”

Giving people a fair go is about as authentically Australian as it gets, he says. “For the newly-arrived immigrant a small dose of generosity can often go a long way and in ways you mightn’t contemplate.”

Though the battle in the realm of political culture is far from won, our society is diverse but cohesive.

“When critics point to Europe’s troubles with immigration and integration as a warning of what is to come here, they are simply drawing the wrong lessons. They commit a form of cultural cringe, failing to remember that on matters if diversity Australia has been an international exemplar.”

Stephen Webb


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