Identity Politics

Our school year generally starts with a keynote speaker of some kind on the day that staff first return for the planning and preparation before the students come back. One of the nice things is that the speakers often have a big picture focus, which transcends schools and education, but also connects up with what we’re doing in trying to educate young people.

Yesterday it was Waleed Ali who spoke to the staff about identity and politics from  his perspective as a lecturer in Politics at the Global Terrorism Centre of Monash University. He’s also a writer, broadcaster and media commentator, and Muslim. It seemed particularly appropriate to that Australia Day was just around the corner and as I drove home I couldn’t help noticing several carloads of young mean with Australian flags flying from their cars, announcing something about their identity.

Ali spoke to us about the politics of identity and the emergence of modern global terrorism in that context. A key point he made was that in his opinion the processes of globalisation (and global economies) aren’t going to lead to a world of cultural assimilation (he differs from Tapscott here I think) but the very opposite: a splintering of cultures and the proliferation of divergent identities, all relating to issues of social inclusion and identity.

He argued that the most important social resource we have is our identity, and that a persecuted identity gives you just about the most powerful identity you can have. So, that attempts to assimilate, to enforce Australian ‘values’ and to try to codify “Australianism” might have the opposite of its intended effect: will force people to make choices and take sides. He gave the example of the Australian identity debate around five years ago having that very effect.

His conclusion was that society needs to be able to sustain multiple authentic identities and he made an interesting point about the difference between how the USA and Australia treated difference. The Australian message, he argued, was ‘fit in’. The American message was ‘participate’.

It was an interesting and thought provoking address, with consequences for our own classrooms and our own treatment of individuals, even beyond international students, but has ripples for me for the rest of the day: watching the car loads of patriots, thinking about Australia Day and even watching Hewitt play tennis on television last night.

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