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?