No Shame in His Game

The emotional politics of Howard’s aspirational nationalism

There’s a difference between guilt and shame. When you see yourself as a good person who’s done a bad thing, you feel guilt. But when you see the bad thing you’ve done as evidence that you are a bad person, then you feel shame. Shame undermines self respect and makes pride impossible. A bad person who does good things is still a bad person.

For many people, their sense of pride and identity comes from belonging to a group — a family, tribe or nation. According to American philosopher Richard Rorty: "National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement." The Prime Minister seems to agree. In a speech to the Sydney Institute he described Australian as "one great tribe." In the past he has argued that the narratives of history are important because (as John Stuart Mill wrote) they tap into the "grander sources of collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret."

Notice that there is no room for shame in the Prime Minister’s idea of collective identity. No nation can survive for long if its people see it as essentially flawed or immoral. According to psychologists June Price Tangney and Ronda Dearing, shame is associated with self-destructive behaviours such as alcohol abuse, promiscuity and suicide. Shame drives out aspiration and undermines hope for the future. Some people fear that what is true for individuals is also true for nations.

The Prime Minister’s hostility towards reconciliation and the ‘black armband‘ view of history stems from his belief that it encourages Australians to feel ashamed of their national identity — that to be Australian is to be racist, sexist and imperialist. And as he said at the Sydney Institute "I could not accept that reconciliation required a condemnation of the Australian heritage I had always owned."

When individuals act badly, they often claim that they acted out of character. When they act virtuously, they say that their true colours are shining through. In their own minds, they are who they aspire to be. Similarly, Mr Howard wants to define the Australian character in aspirational terms. While he genuinely regrets the terrible things that non-Indigenous people did to Indigenous people in the past, he refuses to accept that these reveal anything about the national character. They were aberrations.

There are movements on both the left and the right that would prefer to put an end to nationalism. Old-style communists were internationalists, while today’s cosmopolitan left-liberals look at flag-waving, talk-back listening Australians with suspicion and disdain. On the right, many libertarians associate nationalism with collectivism and the ‘atavism of social justice.’ They want people to take responsibility for their own lives and draw their sense of pride from their own achievements. Both groups worry that nationalism leads to war and intolerance.

But nationalism isn’t going away. So perhaps the opening move in reconciling the Prime Minister with his critics is to reframe the past in terms of guilt rather than shame. With guilt we might find a way to come to terms with the past that will allow Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to move forward into the future with their pride intact.

In contrast to shame, guilt is associated with regret and a desire to make things right. If a person does something that’s wrong, the most honourable course of action is to admit the wrongdoing, make amends and try to do better in the future. But perhaps Mr Howard is afraid that the wrongdoings of the past are so serious that it may be impossible to ever move on. Maybe he worries that the humiliation of admitting past acts and the process of making amends will go on forever and that our national pride will never be restored. The prospect of this never ending humiliation makes some conservatives so angry that they attack. This anger is what motivates stories about Indigenous cannibalism. In the minds of enraged conservatives, admitting what took place in the past somehow makes Indigenous Australians morally superior to non-Indigenous Australians. They find this intolerable and react by attacking the grounds of Indigenous identity and self-respect. Shame and guilt are powerful and dangerous emotions.

The Prime Minister describes Australia as "one great tribe" rather than two separate nations. He argues that a treaty would divide rather than unite the nation. But surely he would acknowledge that individual Australians can have more than one group identity. A person can be both Roman Catholic and loyal Australian, for example. One cultural identity crosses national boundaries while the other is defined by them. And nobody today argues that Jewish Australians are somehow less Australian than those with a different heritage.

Nationalism becomes toxic when it demands complete cultural or ethnic homogeneity. Totalitarianism reigns when individuals are not permitted to have any other loyalties other than to the nation and the state. In a culturally and ethnically diverse nation like Australia, a sustainable nationalism needs to embody liberalism. Individuals will always have loyalties to family, faith and community, and the nation will protect and respect them. Not all collective pride has to be national pride.

Conservatives understand better than most thinkers how important these collective identities are for a healthy community. So it seems strange that so many conservatives fail to understand how important Indigenous identity can be for individual self-respect. Some treat anything short of complete cultural assimilation as a demand for ‘separatism’ and a declaration of civil war. Perhaps the reason conservatives are so keen for Australia’s Indigenous people to give up their ethnic and cultural identity is because they find it so difficult to construct a historical narrative that simultaneously promotes their own sense of national pride and tells the truth about what happened to the ancestors of today’s Indigenous Australians. They think that if only Indigenous people could be persuaded to see themselves as non-hyphenated Australians then we could all focus on inspiring stories about the diggers at Gallipoli and pass over awkward events that — how do we put this? — reveal less about our national character.

But this kind of narrative assimilation isn’t a workable strategy. To grow strong and take control of their lives many Indigenous groups will need to hold on to their own distinct cultural identity. And the stories they tell to strenthen this identity may be confronting for non-Indigenous Australians. There will be villains as well as heroes and some of the villains will be other Australians’ own ancestors and relatives. We will all have to learn to live with competing narratives about the past where the same individual can appear as both hero and villain (some Indigenous people will find that they have ancestors on both sides).

Mr Howard claims that what he is interested in is history. In fact what he is most interested in is political myth. Myths are not necessarily untrue but they are not dispassionate purely factual accounts of events either. In singling out the events that define a nation, political myth not only tells us who we were but who we are and who we want to be. And in describing what happened in the past, myths also tell us what to look forward to in the future. If a myth portrays us as something we do not like and something we do not want to become, then we reject it. Because debates about myths are really debates about values, they can never be settled by empirical evidence alone.

Some societies are unable to agree on a single set of myths — political, cultural or religious. If such a society embraces the institutions and practices of liberalism, is the lack of agreement a problem? If we agree about how to behave, does it matter if we disagree about why?

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Doctor Patient
Doctor Patient
16 years ago

If were going to quote psychologists (June Price Tangney and Ronda Dearing) we should also include psychologist Professor Marilyn Bowman who tells us that truth is not considered ascertainable. She said that each personal, particular and subjective interpretation of an event, a text or an observation, is considered equally valid. Wouldnt that mean that no one is right or wrong. Wouldnt that also mean that John Howard has no more claim to truth than Don Arthur?

16 years ago

Interesting post thanks.

I too see shame and guilt as being negative emotions and as you suggest Don, powerful and potentially inflammatory. However I do not believe that guilt per se, is associated with any desire to make things right. Guilt is a narrow, constricting emotion, it is the knowledge of self-damnation. Agreed, it can lead to regret, but I don’t believe regret is a particularly growthful state either, or necessarily able to be transformed into something higher/better/greater. What I think is more pertinent to growth and ‘moving on’ is the feeling of remorse.

I don’t believe that Australians as a whole should feel guilt or shame about what our forbears did to indigenous peoples. However I do believe we should feel some and certainly express remorse. Remorse requires a degree of self-reflection. Guilt often leads straight into rage in order to be rid of it as it is for any one not bent on complete annhilation, an intolerable state for very long. Collective shame would seem to be negative and destructive too. I’m not so big on the pride thing, as I see it tied in closely with the more negative aspects of ego. Pride is comparative and competitive, a puff-chested state. Dignity and confidence (con fides) is for me far more appealing than personal pride. I once heard some little kids saying in a classroom that they were aboriginals and ‘glad’ not that they were aboriginal and ‘proud’ I thought that was really nice.

Many Germans who lived through Nazism will come down on you like the proverbial a ton of bricks with regard any kind of promotion of Nationalism and I tend to agree.

I think Howard’s ‘one tribe’ schtick is just that. And in some ways it is a backhand at Indigenous Australians who think of themselves as being one of many ‘tribes’.

Australians are unique in the world, something of which we should be not proud, but glad.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
16 years ago

DP – I’m not familiar with Marilyn Bowman’s work but I suspect that the term “subjective interpretation” isn’t meant to have the same meaning as “objective fact”.

16 years ago

Personally I think the ‘sorry’ crowd are a bunch of hypocrites passing the buck to another generation grossly unfairly. A more smug, sanctimonious bunch of delusionals now, I couldn’t imagine. We, largely the post war baby boomer generation, have totally stuffed any practical reconciliation, compared to our forebears’ generation. It was our parents, the twenties baby boomers who saw squalour, neglect and abuse, particularly for half caste children and simply took them away to be placed with caring families, or religious institutional care. The overall results of that are an absolute blessing compared to the current horror their offspring have produced, in deferring to tertiary educated experts and their belief in the Dreamtime of self-determination for neglected children. What a sick nightmare that is now. A generation were led to believe that all they had to do was pay their taxes and leave it to the tertiary educated, producer group that poured out of their free universities and all would be well. The new socioligists, psychologists and social workers would wave our magic wand with our taxes and leave our parents amateur bumblings in their wake. The only guilt, shame or sorrow I feel now, is having allowed it to happen and to allow my parent’s generation to be grossly besmirched for their superior good sense and outcomes. We meant well is our bitter epitaph now.

16 years ago

I think Caroline’s comparison to Germany is apposite. The difference between Australia and Germany is that there was no apotheosis to our vision of a White Australia (no Hitler or ‘final solution’). As a consequence, we carry the baggage of unresolved issues stemming from our adoption of the White Australia Policy which we discarded in a sort of embarrassed half hearted fashion in the twenty years after WW2. I’m not sure about guilt versus shame but I do think that the problem is ‘unresolved issues’ from our past that we would gladly sweep under the carpet as we did the White Australia Policy. Our past treatment of Indigenous Australians was intimately tied to the history of this policy.

derrida derider
derrida derider
16 years ago

Observa, some (not most) lefties do take a romantic and simplistic view of idyllic tribal aborigines cruelly and arbitrarily oppressed by wicked child-stealing authorities. But their stupidity doesn’t justify yours. Your idea that all would have been well if only we’d taken all the half-castes away and brought them up to be domestic servants and farm labourers is simultaneously hilarious and sinister.

On nationalism, don’t get me wrong – I like my country. But any dispassionate view of the effects of nationalism over the past three centuries over which it has evolved must conclude that it has been “objectively reactionary” (as the Marxists say) and has reduced human welfare.

Politicians pushing national myths should be treated with grave suspicion. They have an agenda.

Judith M. Melville
16 years ago

John Howard’s flag waving, ethnocentric nationalism would make my forebears, arriving in Australia between 1788 and 1825, cringe with shame.
Howard forgets that many of those British-Europeans who helped create modern Australia were marginalised strangers in a strange land.
Unfortunately they were also the perpetrators of much of the on-the-ground injustices against the indigenous population.
Mr. Howard might like to forget the historical reality – I do not.
I can happily live with a collective identity which acknowledges the past and makes reparation.
Say “Sorry”, John.

kev fors
kev fors
16 years ago

Ancestral guilt is quasi mystical self-flaggelation. If you weren’t alive, it wasn’t your fault. The humane thing to do, for yourself and for those who require assistance due to past injustace, is to simply and without clouded mind, work the problem.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
16 years ago

And if “Ancestral guilt is quasi mystical self-flaggelation” then ancestral pride is…?

16 years ago

And if Ancestral guilt is quasi mystical self-flaggelation then ancestral pride is?

Answer: Onanism.

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

Thanks, Don. Most interesting post.

Caroline’s suggestion that “remorse” might be a useful substitute for “guilt” seems a good one. Many people, perhaps even most, probably just don’t feel right saying “sorry” or assuming guilt for something with which they had no involvement. I don’t think this need indicate either racism or insensitivity. It may simply feel awkward, artificial, even patronising. To shift things towards the need to acknowledge what actually happened, and to express heartfelt remorse for the pain and suffering that resulted might, I suspect, not only be more palatable and more natural but would also feel more real. To both sides.

Distinquishing between the effects of guilt and shame on the individual or group burdened with those feelings strikes a strong chord. I’ve often wondered if the source of at least some of the terrible self-destructiveness that seems to characterise many Indigenous communities and individuals may not be rooted in a deep sense of shame. As you say early on in the piece, “shame is associated with self-destructive behaviours such as alcohol abuse, promiscuity and suicide. Shame drives out aspiration and undermines hope for the future.”

I have neither the knowledge or experience with Indigenous Australians to give me any right to speculate on where the roots of such a shame might lie, assuming it in fact exists. Still, if it does, I think two conclusions follow. The first is that a generous acknowledgement of the wrongs done, of the truth in other words, together with a true expression of remorse, would surely assist in lessening that shame. The second is that, just as with an abused individual, in order to find “dignity and confidence” (once again, in Caroline’s words), mustnt Indigenous Australians take possession of their own power in some way? Some things can’t be given, however well meant.

Its with these sorts of thoughts in mind that I was so disappointed with the NT intervention. The monumental disrespect demonstrated by its authoritarian nature, complete lack of consultation and sheer impulsiveness speaks louder than almost anything else could about the real view held about Indigenous Australians by the powers that be. Its not a pretty sight, in my view. Of course the abuse of any child is a horrendous matter but were I an Aboriginal, I must say the manner of that intervention would have made my blood boil.

16 years ago

There is a bit here being spoken of individual guilt/remorse.
Individual citizens are not being asked to say sorry.
John Howard is not being asked to say sorry as an individual, but as the holder of the office of Prime Minister on behalf of the Commonwealth Government in its capacity of natural and legal successor to previous governments and adminstrations.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
16 years ago

I think Clarencegirl is right that "John Howard is not being asked to say sorry as an individual, but as the holder of the office of Prime Minister on behalf of the Commonwealth Government…"
The Prime Minister has no difficulty expressing sentiment on behalf the nation or of acknowledging what has happened to Indigenous Australians. In April 2000 he honoured Australians who served in the Korean conflict:

It is an occasion for me on behalf of the nation to express its gratitude and its honour and its respect to the 17,000 who fought in that conflict.

And in October 1996 he told the Parliament:

I regret as an Australian the appalling way in which members of the indigenous community have been treated in the past and I believe the truth about what occurred in our history should be taught in an unvarnished fashion.

This statement of personal regret hasn’t satisfied those who are calling for an apology. I’m guessing that even a statement of regret on behalf of the nation would still fall short. What some people want is an acceptance of moral responsibility for the events of the past. From Howard they will accept nothing less (although they may lower the bar for someone else).
In his Redfern Speech, Paul Keating accepted responsibility on behalf of non-Indigneous Australians in an ‘act of recognition’. Keating didn’t just say that children were taken away or that people were dispossessed from their land. He said:

…it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

An apology is bound to be politically divisive. For many on the left there is no real difficulty with an apology because their sense of identity and pride is grounded in a mythical future — a world after a revolution or process of renewal and rebirth. The rejection of the past is part of what left wing politics is all about. But for conservatives, identity and pride is grounded in a mythical past. To repudiate that is to destroy the grounds of collective self-respect.
Part of how some Americans deal with the legacy of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans is to identify their nation with the declaration that "all men are created equal" and to portray what followed as the nation falling short of its ideals and its destiny. Australian conservatives need something similar.