Tim Soutphommasane’s “Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From” : Feminism, food, federation and laboured alliteration

Tim Soutphommasane has written a defence, or more accurately, a vigourous promotion of Australian Multiculturalism. I have opinions, which, with effort, are forced into the alliterative framework in the title.

Of course, by way of disclaimer, I am absurdly fond of multiculturalism out of any proportion. So I am unlikely to dispute the simplified thesis that “Multiculturalism is A Good Thing”.

What is Multiculturalism? 

Unlike the authors of the last book I reviewed, Soutphommasane has little problems defining his topic properly. That said, I’ll put his definition in my own words.

Multiculturalism means policy (and I guess society) that does not privilege the customs or heritage of one culture practiced at a private level over another, so long as they are consistent with a set of civic virtues. The civic virtues in Australia’s case include rule of law, democracy, egalitarianism, use of English as at least one language and, I hope, multiculturalism itself.

You could equally call this a cultural liberalism, in both negative and positive forms of liberty. For the former, policy would not discriminate on the basis of culture or race, or promote assimilation. For the latter they can provide support cultural aspects where market failure, private sector myopia or small numbers mean that the practical ability to maintain a culture is impaired – for instance by funding SBS, or supporting community festivals. As such, a multicultural policy seeks to allow people to retain their own culture, if they so choose, so long as civic universals are preserved.

Not surprisingly  Soutphommasane does couch his philosophical defence in terms of liberalism. Multiculturalism is desirable because it is a logical result of liberalism, which has a philosophical basis for being right. This has the advantage of being logically consistent with other achievements over the same period, such as LGBT rights, but does not really deal with multiculturalism in a distinct way.

What’s in a name?

One might ask who could disagree with this liberal notion. It’s a very good question, because reading Soutphommasane’s book one is tempted to answer “apparently next to no-one”. The critics he quotes are always criticising “multiculturalisms” that do not conform with the definition above. These “multiculturalisms” involve pillarisation, cultural relativism, abandonment of civic virtues and separatism. Soutphommasane would consider these all straw men. The liberty to practice culture personally seems less questioned, if at all.

In which case he is not conducting a defense of  multiculturalism so much as a defense of the word “multiculturalism”. Is it worth fighting to defend a definition of a word rather than fighting for its substance?

This is where my first F comes in, because Feminism faces a similar problem. Those who continue to call themselves Feminists are consigned to exasperation with young women who declare themselves in support of every part of the definition of Feminism, but declare that they themselves are not. Apparently because they are of the mistaken belief that being a Feminist necessitates misandry, ugliness, the absurdities of critical literature or Germaine Greer.

However the term does need reclaiming. The feminist program, for all its successes, clearly has so much more to achieve. Whilst  universally accepted, the principals lack in practice, and the term does help (in a way that “women’s lib” does not) by making these principals concrete, and challenging us to live up to our creeds.

I’m not sure that “multiculturalism”, as defined, has the same importance as a term. If the substance is maintained under terms like “citizenship”, “diversity” or even just “liberty”, should will spill ink over semantics?

I am an economist rather than a philosopher, so I care much more about revealed preferences than stated preferences. Stated ideas are also less important than what policy actually does and was intended to do.

How narrow a conception?

A few times Soutphommasane laments celebrations of multiculturalism centred around how much it improved the food (second F) of Australia, or how it might aid business relationships with Asia. How narrow a conception of something so important! Unfortunately the way this book is written makes an even narrower conception, and one that I’ve complained about before. It’s one that stresses the primacy of a minority of people saying things in public debate rather than ordinary life.

In his history of multiculturalism he describes the challenges to the ideal that began in the 1980s, but these are inevitably politicians or columnists saying mean things, not saying enough, renaming offices or departments. It is not at all clear that any of these challenged the substance of multiculturalism. Even under a Prime Minister so unfond of the concept as Howard there isn’t much sign that the cultural liberalism of multiculturalism was inhibited or rolled back – the most one could say is that the positive liberties were not expanded as much as they could have been. The only thing rolled back was the word “multiculturalism”.

Then there is a great deal on the media portrayals of Australia as well. It is true that the ethnic homogeneity of the media and it’s failure to reflect Australian cultural diversity is a dismal performance. But the media also fails to reflect diversity in sexuality. Fails to reflect diversity in regions. Fails to reflect socioeconomic diversity. Fails to reflect diversity in interests. It fails in almost every aspect of reflecting Australia, and this is a major part in why it fails at selling papers or running profitable TV stations as well.

Soutphommasane states that it is important not to underestimate the importance of media portrayals, but doesn’t really back the statement. It is unclear whether the vast majority of Australia who are alienated by their media (including 7th generation, Anglo, heterosexual, middle class men like me) are especially harmed by media shithousery, so the sub case of non-Anglo-Celtic Australians may not be in any major way either. It would be nice to have a more reflective media, but perhaps not so important.

This alienation and irrelevance is also true for his intellectual antagonists. They include men like Gerard Henderson, Guy Rundle and Paul Sheehan. These men could not be more divorced from the lives of Australians outside the chattering ghetto were they to stand on pillars on the desert (where they would attract no pilgrims).

The question of media that supports negative stereotypes is much more important, but I would note that the nastiest and pernicious stereotypes against Indigenous Australians thrive without reinforcement by the media 1. Again, the media might be less important than we think.

Compared to the material on media and politician’s words (which is the bulk of the material in the book), the food and business conception of multiculturalism seems much broader and enlightened. Everyone engages in the economy, and sharing food is the most basic of human interactions, and the most primal – even more than sex, for which it is a prerequisite.

Partially this is simply because it is easy to study the media, or politicians. One need not leave the office, merely fire up a database. Studying everyday life on the street is much harder, and requires some anecdotal evidence or years of on the ground research.  Soutphommasane  does include such work – and other work on political representation and workplace discrimination. I just wish there was more of it. The every day life stuff, and the chattering classes stuff, are included in inverse proportions to their importance.

Civic multiculturalism and monoculturalism

Soutphommasane makes a point of distinguishing Australian multiculturalism from other attempts in Europe that have been decried as failures. The difference, as he sees it, was that Australian migration was always nation building and, consistent with his definition, stressed the incubation of the central civic virtues of Australianism. This was distinct from the tolerance, live and let live or guest worker tactics in Europe where no such attempt was made.

I am unsure about this (as I am always wary of the effect of ideals, or declared ideas), but let’s play with it. If this is true, why didn’t  Soutphommasane deal more with the longer history of White Australia.2

Wedded as he is to the term and the world of stated ideas, he starts a history along the lines of “Australia was racist, white and monocultural, then in 1973 Al Grassby said the word”. Not only does this neglect a long history of diversity before the White Australia interregnum 3, but ignores clues about the success of Australian multiculturalism present in the White Australia Policy itself (initiated just after Federation, hence my laboured alliteration).

The WAP was racist, and undoubtedly based in every form of nasty and pernicious racism there was out there. But the formal, declared justification where a civic racism. The fear was that non-white (and indeed non British) races were more prone to hierarchy and submission, and thus less likely to support egalitarianism and defend the rights of democracy and labour. As stupid as this belief was, it was probably much more plausible when democracy was rare, and labour rights even rarer.

This civic racism, the stated basis for the policy all the way to Calwell (the last major supporter), is much different from blood and soil racism in Europe, or cultural nationalism that rests on every aspect of culture. It was limited to only a few virtues – and these are the ones that  Soutphommasane thinks Austalian multicultural policy was dedicated to incubating. The multicultural policy targeted the stated reasons for the monocultural policy.

If this is true, then it is no wonder then that traditional resistance from organised labour evaporated as non-whites showed themselves just as jealous of their rights as others. This would also explain why unions are so hostile to 457 visas that without these rights and civic virtues.

Conclusion (?)

I like this book. I particularly liked a proper attempt to define the topic.  Soutphommasane is a philosopher in the Anglophonic tradition after all. But I do think it was limited in scope and in hisotry. It was a good read on a hot day. The End.



4 Which does reinforce some less, but still nasty ones

5 Which is truly fascinating, and even includes the positive liberty of Macquarie supporting St Patrick’s day celebrations in Sydney when in Britain Catholics lacked even negative liberties. But I digress…

6 I stress, if we are talking about stated ideas.


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About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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11 years ago

Australians don’t need to be afraid of cultural supremacism, but it’s a classic wedge issue because of the heavy preconceptions and assumptions around race and culture.

Secular social democracy is the best societal setup attempted so far, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with forcing those values on those who would reject it – including immigrants.

Unfortunately, the concept of multiculturalism is used by the left to justify a moral relativism that excuses barbaric behaviour (e.g. Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali), and by the right to promote paranoid invasion fantasies (e.g. anything published by News Ltd), and any attempt to explore a middle ground is attacked by ideologues until everyone retreats back to the familiar trenches.

Australia needs to have a sophisticated discussion about this stuff, because mass migration is a global fact that isn’t going away, but it’s hard to see how we can do that under the current circumstances.

11 years ago

the concept of multiculturalism is used by the left to justify a moral relativism that excuses barbaric behaviour

No it’s not.

The only people I recall defending Al-Hilaly’s “uncovered meat” comments were those who agreed with the substance of what he’d said – not merely his right to say so.

Progressives and conservatives were mostly unified in their response – the guy’s an idiot, but has a right to express his opinion.

To make shit up about Teh Left (or Right) like you’ve done is to commit the precise sin your comment points out.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Hi Richard,

you certainly put a lot of effort into these reviews! And I certainly agree that it is a pity that people side-step the real fights by re-defining what they wish to defend as something no-one can reasonably disagree with. It is a rhetorical trick that is normal though as it allows people to do and think whatever they wanted to without having to really engage with anything. It is the road of least resistance.

What I miss a little in this review, and hence would probably miss if I read the book, is a more honest look at what our societies do regarding cultures. It is clearly untrue that our society ‘lets cultures be’. We do not ask if people want to learn English: we force them and their kids to do so. We do not ask when they should have their public holidays: they have them when the rest have them. We do not ask them whether they agree with monogamy: by law we require them to limit themselves to one wife. We do not ask what level of noise people find enjoyable at different times: we enforce a cultural norm that noise is ok on, say, New Years eve but not ok on, say, a working weekday.

In very many ways do we hence enforce a cultural norm, not just ‘minimal civic virtues’ (which will sound to almost everyone as another word for culture). In that respect, the word multiculturalism is a fig-leaf word: letting certain aspects of cultures be whilst enforcing conformism on many other aspects. And to a large extent this fig-leaf as well as the reality of forced conformism is seen by most (including myself) as a good thing.

11 years ago

it is a pity that people side-step the real fights by re-defining what they wish to defend as something no-one can reasonably disagree with

Yes, the reverse-strawman. Asbestos man, I suppose. Very annoying.

But to be fair to Tim S – this only need be done with the word ‘multiculturalism’ because it was hijacked in the last 20 year to provide a figleaf for people who just don’t like darkies.

11 years ago

That was basically my point Richard; that Tim S isn’t really building an asbestos man, he’s attempting to remind people of what we used to mean by multiculturalism – a blend of conformity to civil norms with the liberty to do privately whatever else one wishes. As with all muddy continua, it’s hard to write headlines about, or put in tattoo form, or on a bumper sticker, but that’s what it means.

And that’s what it will always mean to most people, despite efforts to abuse the term and provide cover for racism/xenophobia. Too much positive usage of it exists in living memory, and still in current conversation, for those efforts to succeed.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

“where we end up drawing the line on the core civic values vs. cultural freedom”

This smacks of sophistry to me. I struggle to think of any definition of culture that would not include ‘core civic values’. Enforcing core civil values is a form of cultural imperialism and there is nothing wrong with that IMO.

“Anyway, I don’t think we need to “force” or even encourage most of the core Australian civic values on migrants”

Does this mean you disagree with the quite large extent to which in fact we force people into a similar culture? Going to school is compulsory and it increasingly comes with a compulsory curriculum. So is paying taxes, citizenship tests, compliance with the law, voting, etc.. And if you want a life worth living you cannot really avoid joining in with lots of cultural norms (do not cheer for the wrong side on Anzac day!).

Tim D
Tim D
11 years ago

Richard, on the topic of the word versus the thing, this piece from a while back might be of interest.

I have Tim’s book on the e-shelf to read, so appreciate the review.