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There's more to identity than flag-waving

  • 06 November 2014

In times of anxiety people often worry at questions of identity. individuals worry about sexual identity, Christians about church identity, football supporters about club identity, and citizens about national identity. Now in a time of anxiety about terror and cultural cohesion, we naturally fret about Australian identity.

Identity is often imagined through the image of territory. It has boundaries that separate people from others. It includes distinctive practices, histories and beliefs that distinguish people from others. If we see identity in this way we might think it reasonable that people wanting to become Australian should know what cricket is and who Don Bradman is. 

From this perspective, when people take on one identity they leave behind their former identities. Chinese immigrants stop being Chinese on becoming Australian citizens; Protestants stop being Protestant when they are received into the Catholic Church. Dual identities become problematic – can you really be Australian and Irish, or an Australian and a Muslim?

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Noel Pearson draws on a different image of identity. He describes identity as layered. We are human beings. We have a national identity, a regional and local identity, a religious or philosophical identity, a cultural and linguistic identity, a professional identity, identities associated with sporting clubs, recreational activity and social commitments. If we are asked what we are, we can answer that we are simultaneously human, Australian, Indigenous Australian of the Kulin nation, teacher, Collingwood supporter, Methodist, member of Rotary, and so on. All these things together shape our identity.

The image of layers suggests rightly that we should not understand ourselves as self-contained individuals given a homogenous identity by membership of a group. We are persons in rich and complex relationships, all of which shape our identity. Each layer of relationships formed through affinity, culture, language and other factors will be expressed in distinctive beliefs, practices and interpretations of history. So, for example, Australians of Indigenous, English and Vietnamese descent will have different ways of telling the Australian story. 

This approach to identity may seem centrifugal and fragmented. But in fact it is cohesive precisely because it is multilayered. At each layer of our identity we connect with people with whom we may share little in common in other respects. We may be devout Baptists, but in our bowling club we mix convivially with Catholics, atheists, Christian Scientists and so on. We may Indigenous with a history of being discriminated,