Spurious notions of ‘national character’ aren’t helping

Are Australians racists? Well, yes. And no. Some are, some aren’t. It’s a mind-numbingly circular question, but just the sort of mind-numbingly circular question that those in the social commentary business love. (Six idiots dress up in blackface on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, and that’s the first half of Q&A over with, two weeks’ worth of columns in quality broadsheets, and a comfortably full switchboard on ABC radio talkback.)

Let’s try to wrap up this question now. It would be fair to assume that somewhere between one and 22 million people within Australia’s territorial borders are racist. It’s faintly ludicrous to attribute any sort of character to a collective group of people. Either the characterisations end up as utterly banal — Australians like barbecues! — or completely nonsensical.

A columnist trying to get to the bottom of the recent spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne writes that Australia ‘has a cultural tradition that in large part is underpinned by aggressive opportunism’. Michael Leunig reckons: ‘Our culture has thrived on the stabbing impulse.’ But on the other hand John Brumby has argued that ‘Victorians are committedto tolerance’ in an article condemning racially motivated attacks by some of those apparently tolerance-committed Victorians.

Maybe ‘we’ are racists, but ‘we’ also must be pretty cluey. A recent article discussing the Howard government’s environmental policies says that ‘the Coalition’s new-found eco-friendly initiatives were deemed greenwash by the electorate’. Very perceptive. Makes you wonder why a full 22 per cent of the electorate believe in witches, at least according to a Nielsen poll late last year. Headlines in the National Times declare that ‘we will forget Haiti’, that ‘we give our kids names fit for puppies’ and that ‘we love to click on’ Naomi Robson. I don’t plan on doing any of those things.

The idea that Australia has any sort of national character obscures our understanding much more than it facilitates it. Individuals, actions, and laws can be objectively racist. Nationalities cannot. After all, even the clearest example of racism in this nation’s history, the White Australia Policy, had its opponents, particularly among the free trade movement.

Of course, national circumstances — politics, history, geography, religious belief, sheer bloody luck — can influence the cultural attitudes of individuals within that nation. But you only have to watch our Prime Minister’s awkward attempts at Australianisms to see how artificial these national tropes can be.

Personalities do not change at national borders. How many times have you been told by recently returned overseas holidaymakers that ‘the people were just so friendly’? There are more than 3,000 hits for ‘the people are friendly’ on the Lonely Planet website. There is just one for ‘the people are unfriendly’ — you won’t want to go on holiday to Rome.

A 2005 study in Science sought to test views about national character against personality traits of individuals within that nation. The study found that ‘Perceptions of national character are not generalisations about personality traits based on accumulated observations of the people with whom one lives’; in other words, there was no correlation between a belief that Australians are extroverts, and the number of Australians you’ve met who are actually extroverts. And the study found that people vastly exaggerate what little differences do exist between countries. There is much greater variety of character within a nation than between nations. If you don’t believe that, compare Mark Latham with Kevin Rudd. Hard to believe they’re from the same party, let alone the same country.

It would be nice to believe all Australians recognise that democracy should be tempered by the common law, political power and judicial power should be in constant opposition, and human rights need constant and aggressive defence. But once again: 22 per cent of Australians believe in witches. This isn’t just a complaint about vapid rhetoric. When faced with reports of attacks on Indian students, it would probably be better to avoid all this empty navel-gazing about the possibility that racism is inherent in our national character, and focus on what concrete political failures may have tolerated those attacks.

Victoria has the lowest number of police per capita in any Australian state. That is surely more a factor in the state’s urban violence problem than any ‘cultural tradition [of] aggressive opportunism’. A psychological profile of Australia’s national character — if it’s even possible — is of absolutely no use when we can’t get basic policing right.