The radical implications of 'they are us'



When Jacinda Ardern uttered the words 'They are Us', in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Christchurch mosques, a powerful vision hovered over the impending debates on the meaning of what had happened. Something hitherto invisible came into view and was repudiated: a conceptual structure underlying the operations of social power.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with Muslim community representatives in Christchurch on 16 March 2019. (Photo by the Office of the Prime Minister of New Zealand via Getty Images)The central point here was articulated in feminist theory of the 1980s — most trenchantly, by the legal theorist Catharine Mackinnon, in an essay called 'Dominance and Difference'.

It concerned the subtle ways in which the status quo conceals an implicit standard against which questions of difference and equality are judged. Mackinnon argued that issues of sexual equality are really issues of the social distribution of power — to be understood in terms of male supremacy and female subordination.

Mackinnon's analysis was offered at a period when feminist attempts to change an unequal status quo were readily construed as postulating unfair discrimination against men. Bringing to the surface the implicit sexual discrimination inherent in the status quo was a powerful contribution to feminist theory of the time. It exposed 'maleness' as the invisible benchmark — the standard against which both difference and sameness were to be understood. In this context, sameness was construed as being the same as men; difference, as being different from them.

The accompanying insight — which cut through confusion in debates centred on sameness, difference and equality — was that true diversity was difference among equals; and true equality was equality within diversity.

Feminists were quick to draw on those insights into the conceptual aspects of social power underlying sexual difference. Yet It went largely unnoticed at the time that similar structures and operations of power underlie inequalities of race and culture. It is especially worthy of note that, within Australia, an underlying assumption of dominant 'whiteness' has continued to shape the conceptualising of relations across the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Later feminist theory has been more nuanced in relation to complexities of hybrid, intersecting identities under conditions of inequality. Yet invisible 'whiteness' still goes largely unrecognised in contemporary Australian debates. Even where explicit doctrines of 'white supremacy' are rejected, those underlying structures can reinforce an anomalous privileging of non-Indigenous construal of Indigenous 'problems'. Voices which speak in the supposedly neutral tones of authoritative objectivity can nonetheless be suffused with unexamined assumptions, reflecting the distribution of power in an unequal status quo.


"What, in a supposedly multicultural society, warrants treating 'Western Civilisation' as 'ours'?"


Politicians' responses to the carefully reasoned Uluru Statement From the Heart have reflected that underlying structure. It is reflected also in debates on what should or should not be regarded as offensive in relation to cartoon representations of Indigenous people. A dominant — though invisible — 'us' is presumed to be the appropriate arbiter of what counts as reasonable for 'them'.

Something comparable to that implicit privileging of 'maleness' or 'whiteness' can also be discerned in contemporary debates on 'Australian identity'. Despite explicit acknowledgements of equality among all who 'call Australia home', there persists an unspoken normalising of British ancestry — or, at any rate, of descent from those sharing the supposedly 'foundational' cultural traditions and values which arrived with the First Fleet.

That prioritising of 'European' identity amid cultural diversity has surfaced in current controversy around proposed Ramsay Centres for the study of 'Western Civilisation' in Australian universities. Those debates have raised concerns about academic autonomy; about equity in student access; about the privileging of one 'civilisation' among others; and about whether there is indeed such a thing as 'Western Civilisation'.

However, there is also a more elusive issue at stake. What, in a supposedly multicultural society, warrants treating 'Western Civilisation' as 'ours'? What implications does that have for 'our' understanding of 60,000 plus years of Indigenous presence? What does it mean for the Australian identity of Asian Australians; of Black African Australians; of Muslim Australians? What is this privileged 'us' against which the status of 'them' is determined or evaluated? And on what basis do 'we' claim status as arbiters of inclusion?    

It was this cluster of unrecognised assumptions that came into focus in the challenge thrown out by Ardern's calmly impassioned assertion 'They are Us'. It would be good if the presence of that hitherto invisible structure could be kept firmly in view, rather than being allowed to disappear back into the falsely reassuring stability of 'us' and 'them'.



Genevieve LloydGenevieve Lloyd is an Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at UNSW.

Main image: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with Muslim community representatives in Christchurch on 16 March 2019. (Photo by the Office of the Prime Minister of New Zealand via Getty Images)

Topic tags: Genevieve Lloyd, Jacinda Ardern, Christchurch, feminism



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Existing comments

“However, there is also a more elusive issue at stake. What, in a supposedly multicultural society, warrants treating 'Western Civilisation' as 'ours'?” ES is a Christian journal (if Jesuit means Christian) which presumably means that underlying the efforts of its editors, authors and we the responders must be some sense that the purpose of the enterprise is to work out how God might possibly respond to a challenge posed by an author. ‘Western Civilisation’ being an outworking of Western European Christianity, perhaps we might ask what warrants treating Western Christianity as ‘ours’ given that Jesus’ command to evangelise himself to all was addressed to a classical Christianity contemporaneous with Greek and Roman intellectuality but itself not, or not yet, ‘Western’. Perhaps, logically, this question precedes and is needed to be answered (by Christian partisans of ‘Western Civilisation’, at least) before meeting the question posed by Professor Lloyd.
roy chen yee | 04 June 2019

...You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave. Plato. We misinterpret perceptions when we attribute our own thoughts and feelings as being those of others. Another thought: Had there never been an invention such as a mirror, glass, or any surface of an object that could reflect a human face back to the human face looking at it. The 'I' behind that human face, would never doubt the human face ( belonging to another human ) standing and looking straight at it 'was not (a) me'. But it would believe 'to be' of the One and the same thing. 'They Are Us': this high level of consciousness, was achieved by St. Peter Claver, the 17th century Spanish Jesuit and missionary. He knew how to discern and knew that God wanted him to spend his life among the black slaves. While all the time esteemed theologians were discussing whether or not they had a soul... Christianity is all about 'They Are Us'
AO | 04 June 2019

Genevieve, "They are us" is an very inclusive statement by Jacinda in the face of a craven attack by an Australian on a religious minority. Perhaps we have to remember that we were a penal settlement. British appointed overlords believed they were superior because of their breeding, similar to the Royal Family of today. "George Hull was posted at Hobart as the Deputy Assistant Commissary in 1819 and granted a large estate. He reported a favourite amusement was to hunt the Aborigines; 'that a day would be selected and the neighbouring settlers invited, with their families, to a picnic. After dinner all would be gaiety and merriment, while the gentlemen of the party would take their guns and dogs, and accompanied by two or three convict servants, wander through the bush in search of blackfellows. Sometimes they would return without sport; at others they would succeed in killing a woman, or, if lucky, a man or two'. Hull also wrote that a fellow European he knew had a pickle tub in which he put the ears of all the blacks he shot." The Sovereign April 2018. Seriously given our history what does a chair of Western Civilization Have to offer?
Francis Armstrong | 05 June 2019

You’re casting doubt on John Howard’s Weedicide Doctrine (“We decide who....”).
OldG | 09 June 2019

Christianity originated in the Middle East, a point which seems to escape many people. My wife and I have just returned from a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we followed the footsteps of St Paul in Greece and Turkey. It really came home to us what the background of Christianity is during that journey. As a local priest told us during his homily at Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Christianity is under siege in its birthplace. It faces extinction in the Holy Land in our lifetimes! Jesus was a Jew, He observed Jewish religious practice. His aim was to reform the outrageous practices heaped on his co religious by those in authority, loosely labelled "Pharisees" in the New Testament Gospels , although in practice the label should apply to political, social and secular oppressors of the ordinary people of his time. I agree with AO that what Jacinda Ardern was saying was that this peace loving minority, which sadly an Australian citizen attacked, are part of HER society , as they and our Indigenous brethren are, here in Australia. I fail to see the connections placed here by Genevieve about "oppressed groups" such as females, the disadvantaged , the mentally and physically impaired, the unemployed or social misfits in our society and the dominance of so called male white European oppressors in the Christian context.
Gavin O'Brien | 10 June 2019

The initial shock of the bombing of St Sebastian’s Catholic Church in nearby Sri Lanka, which reportedly killed 209 and injured 450 has quickly faded from ES interest alongside the continuing deification of New Zealand P.M. Arden which continues to surge following the tragic Christchurch massacre. Apart from the reported facts about the perpetrators and the victims in the two situations, ‘What’, dare I ask ‘is the deep philosophical difference between the response of Ms Arden (they are us) and the response of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, when he said I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong’ ?
Brianb | 10 June 2019

“They are us.” And so because of a precedent. The Word never being ineffective, that’s what the Trinity said to itself before sending out the Second Person to incarnate at cost a reunion between the fallen ‘them’ and the pristine ‘Us’.
roy chen yee | 12 June 2019

For in the sight of God all man is one man, and one man is all man.
Julian | 12 June 2019


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