THE FIRST TIME I recall being described by the term “people like us” I was quite taken aback. I did not think I had much in common with the man who was defining us as “us”. By accident we had landed in the same office at the same time, where we found ourselves competing for the attention and favour of a notoriously erratic boss. Most of the time the competition was quiet and calculating; success measured in column centimetres and bylines. The workplace was so unpredictable that our competitiveness soon yielded to a cooler, more strategic, approach – a temporary alignment that made us what my colleague like to call “PLUs” – and meant that we could at least occasionally outwit the boss.
Such is the shifting, evolving reality of us and them. Whether you are an “us” or a “them” often depends less on your personal attributes than the circumstances in which you find yourself. The rhetoric that categorises you into one camp or out of another is undermined by the common ground found in such chance encounters and temporary alliances.
Increasingly, though, the camp you are in can be tightly defined, based on where you live and work, your education, gender, ethnicity, age, income and preferred media. It is believed that we can hold about 150 people in our close circle – technology, affluence and time pressure mean that most of us surround ourselves with like–minded people. The data that define these little communities are measured and quantified daily as marketing companies and social researchers enthusiastically categorise us and derive reliable predictions about what we will buy, what we are likely to think and how we will vote. The benefits are a sense of community, security and happiness; the downside may be cultural iron curtains behind which the chance encounters that challenge preconceptions become increasingly rare.
“PEOPLE LIKE US” was once a term laden with class. There were people like us and the rest, who were not like us at all. It is still a phrase redolent with class, but now it is directed pejoratively at those defined as being members of the “new class” – that group of educated, informed, articulate and socially–liberal people whose political opponents skilfully blamed for the “ideological corruption of society”.
Over the past decade the journalistic cliché “wedge politics” became shorthand for a shift in focus from economics towards values, with “divisive social issues used to gain political support by fostering resentment and undermining your opponent’s support base”, according to Shaun Wilson and Nick Turnbull. The “new class” was the target. The raw politics was often overlooked, but as Marian Sawer and Barry Hindess write inUs and Them (API Network, 2004), “The claim that the most important problems in Australia can be traced to the machinations of an unrepresentative cosmopolitan elite offers a straightforward alternative to analyses that focus on the importance of class and other social divisions.”
What successfully deflected the public debate was the rhetoric that defined you and your camp. The issues used to characterise the “new class” – principally reconciliation and refugees – were important but not central to most people’s everyday lives, further evidence for those who sought it of the irrelevance of members of the “new class”.
So much energy and effort went into manufacturing the language of us and them that it became a proxy for politics. The terms – elites, chattering class, chardonnay socialists, mob, ordinary folk, people out there, resident, tourist, insider, outsider, whinger, decent folk – are slung around deliberately but with apparent abandon. Their use would be laughable, simple old fashioned political herding, had it not been so effective. The task of defining and dividing became a short cut to power, masking the reality as Martin Krygier, who writes here about the damaging impact of the “rhetoric of reaction” says, “Elites are people too.”
JUST HOW EFFECTIVE the politics of categorisation had become was clear in the 2004 federal election. Polarisation and mutual incomprehension reached new levels, a pattern that replicated the apparent divide in the United States. In the weeks leading up to the election I heard so many people – “I don’t know what is going to happen, because I don’t know what people out there think” – that it became a chorus to scores of conversations. It was as though geography defined attitudes and values; that those outside one’s immediate circle were a foreign species, a different breed, motivated by incomprehensible values and beliefs. The leader of the opposition gave credence to this divide by categorising inner–city dwellers as tourists and the real folk in the suburbs as residents – proof of how effective the long–term strategy of denigration had been.
At first blush the election results confirmed this distinction. As Margaret Simons reports in “Ties that bind”, the graffiti in the inner cities suggested a simple divide on party political lines and incomprehension that anyone could have voted for the Howard Government. The reality is more prosaic, more about political skill and exploiting real and imagined divides. The truth remains: to win office a political party must win the suburbs, the pragmatic middle ground where self–interest tempers values, just as it does in the inner–city and the country. Despite the scale of the election victory the divide is not as great as we may fear – those in the inner cities, the suburbs and the country are not different species, a point which is reinforced in many of the essays and memoirs in this collection which tell the touching and insightful stories of what happens when the worlds of people unlike us collide.
In her frankly personal report, Simons embarks on a journey to try to discover the difference between life in inner–city Melbourne and its sprawling suburbs, between Lygon Street and Fountain Gate. She finds that the public rhetoric used to castigate and undermine the confidence of the chattering classes is absorbed with a dose of scepticism elsewhere; that the divide is neither as wide nor as immutable as we have been encouraged to believe.
The suburbs as always remain the key to political success – they are where most of us live. Yet suburban life has been a lightening rod for intellectual criticism in Australia for generations. That the suburbs were dull, ordinary, predictable has been an article of faith, even as its accuracy diminished. The deep affection for the suburban satire of Barry Humphries, Kath & Kim and the scores of other suburban satirists, who populate the comedy circuit, shows that this critique has become a part of the Australian persona, a gentle self mockery that fills suburban kitchens with K&K paraphernalia, a phenomenon Simon Caterson and John Marsden explore. The resilience of this suburban critique helps explain some of the antipathy towards the current prime minister, an unapologetic champion and product of suburban life.
That like–minded people should cluster together may be creating a buzz in urban planning circles, the economic benefits of attracting highly educated, innovative and connected people to your city are regularly spruiked to city planners and economic development agencies, but it is scarcely new.
As Robyn Williams writes – based on his experience of growing up in a Communist Party household where “Party” membership was the ticket to being “one of us” – there is both a biological cap on the number of people we are able to comfortably hold close, and an evolutionary need for diversity and conflict, to broadening the circle. Extend the village beyond 150 people and there is a need for other means to create the social cohesion that a flourishing society requires – whether that is political rhetoric or its precursor, religion.
GEOGRAPHY, AMERICAN COMMENTATOR David Brooks has written, “is not the only way we are divided from people unlike us”. Shaun Wilson and his colleagues at the Centre for Social Research at ANU have researched the attitudes of Australians and found that education, rather than geography, is the best predictor of social attitudes. People with a university degree are likely to have different social attitudes to those who do not – where they live matters less than the extent of their education. To the degree that people with university educations tend to cluster in the inner cities, the values and attitudes there look different to those of the suburbs and the bush, but the polarisation is not simply geographic. Education is the key and remains a reliable proxy for class.
David Dale’s guide to Australia by numbers highlights the common ground and the crumbling of old stereotypes. He finds four vanishing Australians, the outback farmer, a blonde child with two parents living together, an Anglican minister and an Italian waiter and four Australians who may displace them, an Indian immigrant working in IT, an urban Aboriginal teenager, a 70–year–old woman living alone in a huge house and a single mother with two kids. Looking at the numbers, it is hard to see who is really one of us and who is them in a country where the overwhelming majority report being happy.
It is striking that over the past decade the sharpest divides should be drawn in an often spurious battle over values that has distracted our political attention and energies from questions of economics and equity. In his 1991 book, Culture Wars (Basic Books), American sociologist James Davison Hunter identified a struggle between progressive and conservative values in America. That this so quickly became the political battlefield both here and in the US had less to do with the inherent polarisation of society, than the readiness of political parties to exploit and amplify differences, sometimes distorting them beyond recognition. You can see it in the language of the most belligerent columnists and talkback hosts whose stock–in–trade of a divided, angry, unhappy society is at odds with the quiescent reality.
This “rhetoric of reaction”, born out of a desire to deny, divide and abuse, does considerable damage, as Martin Krygier writes. These devices – which preclude conversation, encourage people to retreat into like–minded communities, and lose touch with their shared humanity – may serve a political purpose, but are of little long–term social utility. It is striking that the biggest targets of this abusive rhetoric are education and the media, the two institutions which Hunter predicted meant it was likely that progressive values would prevail.
This is by no means still a certainty. The sustained assaults on these institutions have undermined public confidence in them. The defensiveness of those who feel attacked can easily sound strident. There are reasons, other than ideological indoctrination, which explain why a university education may make people more inclined to an empathetic view of the world. These are critically explored by David Burchell in his reappraisal of what he terms as the “empathy wars” of the past decade, in which attitudes towards indigenous people and refugees acted a marker of social divides.
THE REALITY IS that much as we may prefer to remain in our small villiage of 150 like–minded individuals, worlds collide around us all the time. The experience of these colliding worlds provides the substance of this volume of Griffith REVIEW. Melissa Lucashenko, Mark Mordue and Vincent Plush provide strikingly different takes on the numerous small collisions that define the nature of black–white relations in Australia today. Madeleine Byrne listens to the stories of those who worked at the immigration detention centres and finds the divide was as often between colleagues working there as it was between detainees and guards. Daniel Flitton reconsiders the relevance of old country stereotypes.
Learning to identify those who are like us starts in the family and extends into friendship, as Jay Verney, David Sornig, Kevin Bannon, Gillian Bouras, Kay Ferres, Bruce Elder and Stephen Moline recall. And it grows beyond this immediate circle in part because of the power of imagination – it is imagination which makes it possible to enter the world of others. It also provides the basis for creativity, as Merle and Sigrid Thornton and Frank Moorhouse explore in their reappraisals of the nature and importance of the creative process to imagining a world which is not solely populated by people like us. ♦
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