There's more to identity than flag-waving


Australian flag painted on fist

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, but in the local fire brigade we work cooperatively with descendants of the settlers who despoiled us. Australian identity is constituted by a complex network of interrelationships between people. 

The strength and variety of the layers of our personal and group identity contribute to a strong national identity. We shall be more cohesive as a nation if our citizens are passionately Indigenous, committed Muslims or Christians, active in our communities and social groups, strong in our convictions. 

But the strength of a national identity also depends on the strength and depth of the connections we make through these layers with people and groups different from own. If we are isolated in homogeneous and non-interactive groups, any larger national identity we have will be brittle. So it is important for national economic and social policy to enable inclusion.

Australian identity is constituted formally by living together in same territory, accepting the claim that the institutions of governance and law make on us, and accepting other Australians as a ‘we’ and not as a ‘they’. The strength of national identity will depend on the richness and variety of the layers of personal identity within Australia and the richness of the interactions between people who are different. Because this is so, Australian identity is always changing: it reflects the changing relationships between people and groups within society. 

Our identity as Australians does not trump all other forms of identity. The best political drama has always focused on adjudicating conflicting claims of religious faith and of national identity, on deciding what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. In such disputes people usually appeal to the wider identity and consequent responsibilities that all human beings share by virtue of being human.

When national laws and practices are inhumane, it is right to be ashamed of belonging to the nation and, if push comes to shove, to disobey the national laws in the name of humanity. That is why Antigone, Christian martyrs and conscientious objectors have been derided in their time and subsequently honoured, not only as individuals but as ornaments to their nations. They helped shape national identity.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Australian flag painted fist image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Noel Pearson, racism, identity, nationalism, prejudice



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Existing comments

As always from Andrew, a very important and well-thought-out article. Can I suggest that there's a difference between the nations of Europe and the various countries that have been built on immigration (Australia, the USA, Canada, etc.). In Europe, to be Italian, or Polish, or Irish is an ethnic or cultural statement. You can be a citizen of Germany without being "German". In countries that have been built on immigration, to be "Australian" or "American" is a civic statement. And this statement can co-exist with other ethnic or religious identities held with equal enthusiasm. A person can be a Canadian, a Frenchwoman, and a Catholic simultaneously (or an American, a German, and a Lutheran .... or an Australian, a Turk, and a Muslim) in a way that's much harder to do coherently in many nations of Europe.

Bob Faser | 06 November 2014  

I'm unsure if our identity as "Australians" does not trump all other forms of identity. This is the country we belong to - we may be Christian, Muslim or whatever religion, we may belong to clubs, societies or guilds, or we may be individualistic to the point of not belonging to a religion or club. I agree with the last paragraph though.

Pam | 06 November 2014  

I think, ultimately, when one really grows up and becomes mature - something which is not automatic and requires considerable effort - one moves beyond the many layers to a happiness in just being "Me". One of the greatest Australians, who, I think was like this was the late, great Gough Whitlam a man of gigantic stature whose like we shall, sadly, not see again for a long time. He had a great heart with an inclusive vision of what being an Australian meant.

Edward Fido | 06 November 2014  

When visiting my son in California, I have noticed a significant difference in how Californians (perhaps all Americans) refer to ethnicity, compared with Australians. In social conversation, it was clear that all citizens were referred to as Americans, and very occasionally a qualifier was added, such as Hispanic, African, Anglo, Jewish, Muslim. In Australia, I usually hear people referring to fellow Australian citizens by their country of origin, or even their ancestral homeland as Greek, Indian, Russian, Chinese, and occasionally adding 'Australian' as the second descriptor. With a firm commitment to cultural diversity, I think the American emphasis on 'American' rather than on any other group identity underlies a stronger national bond than is evident in the Australian usage.

Ian Fraser | 06 November 2014  

Newborns face a steep learning curve to establish their identity. Their initial assumption seems to be that their demands are the only thing that matters. Adaption, at least to some degree, is soon achieved, especially if they are part of a large family. There are many things they bond to, especially if they are encouraged to do so. Often, unless there is some other influence, this bonding can become bondage and it becomes difficult and unsettling to think outside its parameters. This is particularly true if some aspect of the group to which one has bonded comes under some kind of attack or disparagement for its colour creed or ethnic origin. A lesson can and should be learned from the way the limbs and organs of the human body cooperate for the good of the whole. If one part takes a disproportionate share of what is due, it is called a cancer, and must be curtailed or excised.

Robert Liddy | 06 November 2014  

Not sure about this: "We shall be more cohesive as a nation if our citizens are passionately Indigenous, committed Muslims or Christians". It might be better to wear these beliefs lightly - we're one of 7 billion and here for a very short amount of time - we're significant and insignificant at the same time.

Russell | 06 November 2014  

Russell: 'Not sure about this:: 'We shall be more cohesive as a nation if our citizens are passionately Indigenous, committed Muslims or Christians". It does seem to clash with St. Paul's 'There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.....' Of course St Paul thought the world was about to end, and that was that. But as the human race matures, it seems we are slowly moving, naturally, to the stage where those distinctions are becoming meaningless, and we are all Citizens of the One World and our identities are as members of the Great Body of the Human Race, and Children of God.

Robert Liddy | 06 November 2014  

This thoughtful piece and Pearson's piece open up the matter to a much more dynamic view of identity, which we Aussies love to discuss endlessly. If I understand the piece correctly identity is a personal responsibility to fashion from our many connections with home groups. The secure will accept the unsureness while fear induces a clip on identity like Team Australia, or I am for the mainstream. Working Thailand my identity is not threatened as much as my rigidities about it.

Michael D. Breen | 08 November 2014  

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