In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre in which 50 Muslim worshippers were killed by a white supremacist terrorist targeting the city’s mosques, some of the country’s Maori leaders objected to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s adoption of the phrase ‘this is not us’ in her references to the atrocity. It’s a fair objection: just like Australia, New Zealand is a colonised island(s) nation that has a long history of settler violence. To say ‘this is not us’ is to erase the uncomfortable fact that mass white violence is very much a part of New Zealand’s recent history.
‘The fact that we are saying “this is not us” is denying the fact that it has happened in our nation before,’ said Ngati Rangi leader Che Wilson, recalling some of the violence visited on Indigenous bodies by the Crown in New Zealand’s past. The Maori Council executive director, Matthew Tutaki, added, ‘I don’t want to see the opportunity pass us by that we don’t have an honest conversation about the fact that racism is alive and kicking.’
In Australia we have a similar mode of discourse when it comes to discussions about nationhood, the body politic, characteristics of the so-called ‘patriot’ and, most disturbingly, race. Like New Zealand, Australia’s status as a new-ish settler nation means leaders, philosophers, writers and pundits of the past and present have spent hundreds of thousands of words attempting to carve out an identity for our nation. Beyond the very real and pressing questions about what makes a nation and whether one needs an identity at all, this ongoing project to define ‘Australia’ seeks only to define a certain kind of Australia—white settler Australia.
Never mind that the country we call Australia was occupied long before the First Fleet sailed in, complete with its own cultures, communities and histories; or that many of the descriptors used to categorise our nation are, in contemporary times, increasingly dubious indeed. Still, Australia’s cheerleaders, most commonly its politicians (on all posts of the political spectrum), are obsessed with the notion of what, or who, ‘Australians’ are.
‘Australians are generous,’ Bill Shorten said, when proposing an increase in donations to the UNHRC to resettle asylum seekers outside Australia (though recent figures would suggest this generalisation isn’t entirely accurate, or at least is less accurate now than it once was). Richard Di Natale once said that ‘Australians are sick and tired of the old parties’—rhetoric that suits his standing as leader of the agitating Greens party, and which evidence from the most recent state election does support. And in the shadow of Senator Fraser Anning’s xenophobic tweets erroneously blaming Muslim immigration for the Christchurch attacks, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was out assuring the media that, actually, ‘Australians are not anti-migrant nor racist’.
This last one is especially bizarre, because Morrison’s sweeping generalisation is not only patently untrue, its wilful repudiation is also dangerous. As a white person, even a progressive (especially a progressive), it may feel comfortable to deny the realities of racism, perhaps in an effort to distance ourselves from direct input into extreme instances of racist behaviour. But the denial of racism is, in itself, an inherent foundation of white supremacy—not only is whiteness the norm, perceived race-related issues or racialised injustices are also mere contrivances in the eyes of the white majority.
Of course, it’s in the best interests of a politician like Morrison to make a coercive generalisation about Australians that denies an explicitly harmful and insidious aspect of our culture. Morrison is a conservative leader who’s concocted for himself a ‘no-fault’ record, and who clings to the frayed ends of power now by courting the racist vote. To hum the tinny tune of ‘patriotism’, while condemning those who fail to fall in line behind him as ‘tribalists’ is an especially insidious way of dividing while appearing to unite.
For if ‘tribalism’, in the pejorative manner used by the Prime Minister, means simply to identify fiercely with a part of your identity, then surely the pro-Australian jingoism encouraged by politicians of the past and present is ‘tribalism’ of a most pernicious kind.
In English grammar, inclusive or exclusionary use of the article ‘we’ is regularly studied through the framework of political rhetoric. You could be a politician like Ardern, using the inclusive ‘we’ in an attempt to distance her chosen group (contemporary New Zealanders) from the atrocity of Christchurch; or you could be Scott Morrison, using the exclusive ‘we’ to separate the individualistic (but patriotic) Australians from the so-called ‘tribalists’.
This coercive, exclusionary language is often admonished by those who read political rhetoric, as it is intended to divide between the real and not-quite-real: ‘real’ Australians are individuals (who implicitly value their Australian identity above all else), whereas perhaps ‘not-quite-real’ Australians belong first to another ‘tribe’ and then to Australia after. And it’s no accident that Morrison has invoked ‘tribalism’ to describe allegiance to, or pride in, another identity besides ‘Australian’. ‘Tribe’ implies the other, the native; it has strong links to (often subjugated) Indigenous cultures. It is intended to alienate from the dominant nationhood that is Australia.
There’s an obvious ethical dilemma inherent in the coercive division of Morrison’s exclusionary rhetoric—you’d expect nothing less from a politician who produces an election budget aimed at race-baiting white Australians. But, in fact, both modes of rhetoric described above are problematic. Even if, like Ardern, the inclusive ‘we’ seeks to unite a group in support and positivity—that is, to say, ‘this is not us’ or ‘we’re better than this’—the coercive ‘we’ creates an ‘us’/‘them’ divide. This is not ‘us’, but it is ‘them’, and those who do ‘this’ are the problem. There are two issues with this: first, as Wilson and Tutaki point out, the ‘us/we’ to whom Ardern refers have certainly had a hand (either directly or historically) in the kind of mass racialised hate that underscored Christchurch; second, to invoke ‘we’ when speaking of a whole nation, such as New Zealand or Australia, is to assume that any one nation is a monolith, and therefore prone to uniform action or thought.
The greatest fallacy of so-called patriotism is that any group is homogenous. No group, even the most extreme fringes of relativity, acts as a monolith, so the coercive ‘we’ is always a divisive trick of grammatical rhetoric. If you’re not following the standard-bearer of the coercive ‘we/us’, you must be a ‘them’, and thus wrong. (In the most radical cases, this is how cults operate: you’re indoctrinated as part of the monolithic ‘us’, and any individual thought is discouraged, even punished, as ‘them’ behaviour.)
I’m not picking on Ardern in particular, because use of the inclusive ‘we’ is common among progressive patriots with a view to binding the nation to more positive outcomes, or what Tim Soutphommasane calls ‘nation-building’. In Australia, this inclusive, coercive ‘we’ rhetoric is often bandied about when discussing the refugee crisis and offshore detention. ‘We’re better than this’ and ‘real Australians say welcome’ are two phrases that have become the catch-cry of pro-refugee campaigns, which hope to make a persuasive case to be included as part of the ‘we’ implied in ‘real Australians’. Which is admirable, and all very well. But the problem, again, occurs on the other side: the ‘not-quite-real’, or ‘them’, feel further alienated, and dig their heels in deeper. And so the divide grows.
It certainly seems like we’d be better off doing away with this rhetoric altogether. Whatever my personal opinions of patriotism and the nationalist’s thirst for identity and homogeneity, it seems that, even when attempting to unite, the coercive ‘we’ will only divide. Perhaps it would better to appeal to constituents as individuals whose thoughts, though they may diverge, are generally attuned to contemporary ethical considerations—like the impact of a racialised massacre in a house of worship.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance journalist and cultural critic from Melbourne. She tweets from@mdixonsmith.