MHC Forum 1999

Through the fly's eye

- a myriad of views, perspectives and angles.

Frank Panucci

The metaphor of the fly's eye came to me as I started to think about this presentation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fly sees things as a myriad of small images and flies do not have that single imagery in the way humans see the world. On the other hand, flies have the ability to see a wider range, almost 360 degrees - we humans, on the other hand, have limited peripheral vision. The fly sees the world though a range of angles and perspectives but does not have a single view. Often, when we talk about community/ities in a public policy context, we have these two diverse visions of "community": - one is the sense of an all inclusive single vision; and, another, of a fragmentation with a myriad of components that sees beyond the usual boundaries.

The same reality is being seen through different eyes.

Then, it is often the case, when the word ethnic is added to "community" in a public policy context it is translated into a homogenous blob that slithers along at the same pace within a uniform body and/or venerated as the holder of the final word on issues.

On the other hand, the word raises its ugly head when a "problem" arises and we need to hose it down and possibly having to tell someone that they should leave their un-Australian ways at home.

It is from this brief self-reflection that I would like to place this presentation in context. This paper is not some academic treatise, nor is it a public policy white, green, and yellow or whatever coloured government paper. After discussions in the preparatory meetings for this seminar, it was decided that we need to first identify the questions before we can go forward, and it is important to remember that this is the first step in a process. I have attempted to develop a presentation that challenges our concepts of community and, more importantly, challenges the way the people who assume and exercise power view the community. I have looked at what could be considered uncomfortable or radical views of community and also the views of the minorities in regard to the so-called centre.

To quickly contradict myself in terms of not following the format of an academic paper, I wish to start my by using a few famous quotes, from important intellectuals:

"Look, I don't want to be Anglo, I'm Latino and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. I don't wanna be blond and have blue eyes..." Antonio Banderas.
"I would not want to be a member of any club that would accept me as a member" ... Groucho Marx
"I do not aspire to have my work validated by people who assume that they have the power to so validate" - Spike Lee
"By saying that Mussolini had his good points, like making the trains on time, therefore we should re examine our attitude towards him, is like coming home one day and finding the electrician in the process of raping one of your family members, after having killed the others and you scream at him - hey what are you doing and he turns around and says sorry and then moves over to the light switch and turns it on & says but look I fixed the lights up really well." - Roberto Benigni

These disjointed quotes to me present in a nutshell where I think the debate around cultural change is placed in the discourse regarding community. They provide some sign posts for us not in terms of the "community perspective" but rather make us reflect on the way we perceive and define the concept of community/ities.

Firstly, do not commence with the assumption that everyone wants to be like everyone else or, more particularly, that everyone aspires to be part of the perceived hegemonic/powerful group. There are people in communities who do not wish to be homogenised but rather aspire to maintain what they perceive as their core cultural values. It is society that needs to be transformed, so that people from different cultural backgrounds and mores have the right to participate as equals and impact upon the cultural development of society as a whole.

Secondly, that "acts of acceptance" can have the unexpected effect. If we reflect on what is meant by acceptance, we are talking about someone exercising the power to either accept or reject. For some communities acceptance can be seen as someone exercising power in a benevolent and benign way. However, in the final analysis, that power will never be shared and acceptance is on my terms and the person who you wish to bestow your acceptance on does not necessarily share those terms.

Thirdly, don't assume that everyone is striving for your validation as having something to contribute or having done something well. Don't expect that everyone wants to come into the centre with you. They may actually be challenging the whole concept of your centre and striving to create a series of non-concentric circles that share the same geographical space and occasionally bump into each other's cultural space. The producers/owners of cultural and artistic products or traditions may actually be seeking validation from those who do not belong to the corridors of social, political and cultural power but members of their own community.

Fourthly, we can always find a positive if we work harder enough. However what often tends to happen is that you become blindfolded to the harsh realities that surrounded or were a consequence of that positive element. We can fall into the land of the good old days, those beautiful days when everything was simpler, there were shared common views and values, we all spoke the same language, blah, blah. It is just that such reminiscence forgets that in that same "community" there were those who were marginalised, ostracised and physically eliminated because they did not fit neatly into the white picket fence frame. I suppose what I am trying to suggest is that when it comes to reading history there are a range of views and perspectives.

This initial mantra may appear to some to be a pure diatribe, others may find it irrelevant and perhaps a waste of your time, and others may have different interpretations to mine. I only hope that what it has done is try and make us start taking the blinkers off and at least question that we come to this issue with our own preconceived ideas and perhaps prejudices.

I would now like to raise a range of issues that we need to keep in mind when we start trying to come to grips with community and policy development.

To start with semantics I find it difficult to apply the singular term "community" with any sense of comfort. I think too often that it is easily bandied around as an all-encompassing phrase, thus hiding the degree of complexity and heterogeneity that we need to deal with and develop. To start with an example I know well, I would like people to define for me what they mean when they say the 'Italian community'. I would assume everyone uses the term and thinks that everyone who is of Italian background living in Sydney shares certain common core values. For example's sake, I would argue that if I said the Italian community was Catholic, you would almost all accept this as a perceived core value identifying Italians. However, if I said to you that the majority of Jehovah Witnesses in western Sydney were Italian, you would not ascribe this as a core value to the Italian community.

Another test would be how we ascribe values to communities. For example, if I was to say that the Italian community was conservative on social issues such as drugs, pre marital sex or women's rights many of you would agree with that statement. There are two things that we need to consider when such affirmations are made. Firstly, that to tag a group as conservative means that we feel there is a benchmark against which it should be measured without understanding the cultural baggage of that benchmark. Secondly, to accept that statement would be to deny that there are a range of views, practices and beliefs. Just as a note, it should be remembered that in the 70s the Italian people voted in a referendum which gave women the right to free and safe abortions and still have drug laws which allow possession of amounts for personal use.

When we attach a tag to the word "community" like Italian, women or gay and lesbian, we are also ascribing our own biases to them. If we are to develop policies so that we work for a range of communities in productive and inclusive manner, then we need to ensure that we move away from the stereotypes.

Another issue when we use the term "community" is to avoid falling into an increasingly common view that "community" is the value free and positive grouping of people. At this point I would like to refer to a scholarly work because I think it encapsulates what I am trying to say so succinctly:

"... it is necessary to consider how 'community' came to be associated with the rhetoric of unity and harmony, of shared interests and directs and responsible relations. For as Raymond Williams (Little Moscows) warned, 'a term which everybody likes, a notion which everybody is in favour of should be regarded critically because 'if this reflected reality then we'd be living in a world very different to this one.' In short, the advocacy of all those 'positive' features usually associated with traditional communities, particularly by politicians and public servants, send an extremely conservative message. Emphasis on harmony, cooperation, mutual aid, personal responsibility, and local initiative ignores what McEwan described baldly as the 'nastier features' of communities. The denial of their oppressive tendencies, their capacity for intolerance and ostracism, the repression of individual identity, or at the very least its limitation by reference to group authority and the legitimacy of tradition, reflects a disjuncture between a 'reality' of social diversity and division, and an aspiration for unity."

(Forever Teetering Between Personal Interest and Collective Action: Considering the Importance of Community, Locality and Identity for the Study of Labour History, Taksa, Lucy, 1998 University of NSW School of Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour Working Paper Series).

The only thing I wish to add to this section is that this view is based on the situation where the defining of the "community" is being done from the outside. Which is more often than not the case for people working in the area of policy development or social science research. Therefore, it is important that when we do start using the term we are aware of the underlying premises and their shortcomings.

To continue in the vein of asking ourselves to cast a critical eye over how we use the term "community", I would also challenge the notion of the continual singular "community". In my view, one of the underlying themes coming through what I have canvassed up until now is that of a series of communities. For example, I would ask everyone to reflect on what is meant by the term the "Australian Community". Do we have a view of a single defining core element or do we see a range of various communities within communities that share the same nation state borders known as - Australia? I would subscribe that the second view is the one we need to investigate and utilise as a starting point for developing policy solutions to the complexity of relationships.

Another factor which would appear to make the mix more complex is that we need to be aware that the people could belong to a range of communities. That is, we all have multiple identifiers and, depending on the occasion or the situation, we could identify with a range of communities. For example's sake, I could say that I feel, at particular times, part of different communities, that is, a group of people who share some commonality in particular points in time such as the "tifosi romani', that is, the supporters of Rome football club. Then on other occasions I am part of the "migrant community in Australia". I use these examples to try and emphasise the point that a member or representative of a particular community more likely than not is also a member of other communities. The boundaries between these communities are often pervious and individuals move between their community identities with ease and times the boundaries and allegiances may be blurred.

I would now like to try turning to look at perhaps identifying diverse theoretical tools for trying to come to grips with the complexity of working for/with non-dominant communities, which is what we are really on about today. I think we have to go beyond the economic rationalist models or pure quantitative outcomes - even though these have been the dominant performance measuring paradigms of governments. If we do not challenge these norms or current tenets of orthodoxy, then I do not think we can effectively undertake the institutional cultural change which is required to achieve structural reform and thus actually have communities as active protagonists in our cultural life and institutions.

In recent times the theoretical tool of "social capital" has been used for assessing socio-economic conditions and measuring outcomes.

"In a sense this area of study has been about "social capital" or "relational goods", as a combination of cultures, relations, interconnections and synergy that enable an average social productivity higher than that obtainable by individuals with the same level of human and physical capital operating in isolation or in a different relational system." ("Social Capital? From Pizza Connection to Collective Action", Lenci, The Hague, April 1997).

The concept of social capital, however, has often been limited as a tool because studies had concentrated on existing realities and tried to identify "models" of positive social capital which could be imported into different situations where social capital was perceived as weak or non-existent. Thus the concept is of no relevance to someone like myself, who is striving to identify methodologies which will assist in creating space for all communities to participate effectively in all aspects of society and bring about structural and institutional cultural change. This objective is important from my point of view for building a strong and modern civil society.

In my view Lenci, who was studying southern Italy, has actually provided us with a methodology which allows us to both develop policies in regard to working within complex social settings and also measure outcomes. He goes on to say:

"An alternative to development stressing the relevance of social capital, should go together with a valorisation of diversities and a non-elitist approach to popular cultures and traditions. This may result in a greater level of self-confidence in 'one's own way of doing things', thus reinforcing the level of reliability and trust among the people and reworking in a positive way the web of social relations fragmented by modernisation. Moreover, only the awareness and confidence in one's own knowledge, capacities and rights, can provide a shift from a relational logic of subordination to one of co-operation and mutual respect, increasing also the sense of responsibility among people. A policy of recognition could easily slip into a romantic or even conservative chauvinistic discourse. Popular traditional cultures cannot be addressed in a museum like attitude, rather they have to be understood as open and dynamic, taking into account the role of contemporaneity and the dynamics between endogenous and exogenous elements." (Lenci)

The above quote from Lenci, even though he is talking about economic development, in my view provides further food for thought. Do we wish to go through the motions and subscribe to existing orthodoxies or do we wish to look for analytical and policy development tools which allow us to come to grips with notions of diversity and power relations that exist within in any society? If we start pondering the second option, then we may be on the road to the structural change we are aiming to achieve.

Before concluding, I would like to address an issue in the current debates around "ethnic community/ities," multiculturalism etc. The whole identifier of "ethnic community/ities" and "multiculturalism" has been contested, as has the term "multiculturalism". In fact it has been proposed that the term ethnic has become exclusive of people from Anglo and Celtic backgrounds. We should not delude ourselves that this is only an Australian debate.

"...white pupils seem like cultural ghosts, haunting as mere absences the richly decorated corridors of multicultural society.' There is now a need for ethnic and religious pride to be encouraged in all the communities of Britain. This includes the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish as well as all of the minority groups. The development of shared values and a core culture are essential and the recent debates about including education on citizenship values is a step in that direction." (True Colours - Public Attitude to Multiculturalism and the Role of the Government, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, London, 1999)

The above extract demonstrates to me both the real issue of identity/ities and on the other hand a contradictory response which is that of trying to develop core values of the community of citizens. The question of ethnic/ity as being a tag which only contains certain groups has also occurred in Australia and has become an area of increased academic and policy analysis. Basically the question has been: where do the Anglos fit in - are they excluded, is their ethnicity denied, are they second class less "cultural" people?

It is interesting that I have not noticed a push by community organisations of people from "ethnic" backgrounds who have argued for the term to be redefined or replaced. The request for change has come from other sectors of society who for some reason/s have become uncomfortable with the term - if the reasons are cogent or logical or even correct is not the focus of this paper. I would simply maintain that this is an area where complex power and social inter relations are being tested and redefined.

It is from this argument that I assume we arrive at the title of the plenary session "Beyond Ethnicity". I suggested that the title should be "Beyond Ethnicities and Skips". Because, if people consider that Anglos and Celts are to some extent excluded from "ethnic", then I can assure you that I and a whole range of other people are excluded from "skip".

Following on from this, I would like to conclude with what may be considered a provocative perspective.

There is no model or simple step by step manual on how to operate with communities. There are no standard formulas which we can pull off the shelf which tell us the dos and don'ts of a particular "community". We need to engage with the complexity of inter community/ities relations rather than seeking the lowest common denominator answers.

I do not think that the views of individuals or organisations who purport to speak on behalf of people from Anglo or Celtic background regarding their exclusion from 'ethnic or multiculturalism' carries any more weight than those of people who are still structurally discriminated against because of their ethnicity, language, background or race. I would argue that, given their position within civil society, they actually carry less sway with me.

In fact, if people want to stay outside in their splendid marginalisation of the mainstream and not wipe the power off their shoes and come into the house of co-operation and mutual respect then we will not achieve the cultural and structural change we are striving for.