The tribal nature of Australian society

By April 30, 2014Other

Anzac Day and football and what is happening in the Ukraine made me think again about the tribal nature of human societies, ours especially. ‘What holds us together?’ asked someone in a letter to the editor recently, and deplored the decline of organised Christianity. I’m not at all sure that organised Christianity ever did hold us together, but the sights of an ecstatic football crowd on television, then of the young people out there at dawn on Anzac Day, and then of the insurgents in the Ukraine with their girlfriends on the tank or armoured personnel-carrier — all that points to the tribal instinct, and more basically, the need to belong.

We human beings need to be with and near one another for all sorts of functional reasons — work, friends, mating, protection, support, even the perceived energy of a large city. Our preferred environment,  I think, is a human ant-heap. But to gain the benefits of the environment we need to ‘belong’, to be accepted by others as part of them, and to feel emotionally secure because of their acceptance. Sometimes the price demanded by others is too high, and we leave, to find another possible environment. And there is always a price: there is no such thing as free membership of a human society.

We start as infant members of a family, then, for many, of an extended family. We progress to being members of a tribe, or a village. Above that there is the region or province, identified by geography, political economy, language, religion, or all of these. Above that there is membership of the nation-state. A few, internationalists and some religious, see a common membership of the human species as being the most important form of belonging. I’m not one of them.

We need to belong, but sometimes we want to go somewhere else, not just because the current price of belonging is too high, but because we want to look around. So we head off overseas, or to the big city, or to marriage (relationship), or to work. And worse, sometimes people don’t want us to belong, or we feel that no one wants us, or that we wouldn’t want to belong to such a lot — like Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member. Camus’s L’Etranger and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider express variants of that feeling of dissociation or dislocation.

I mentioned graffiti in a post the other day about trains, and it seems to me that graffiti daubers, taggers, and those who rip seats in trains or set fire to schools are expressing, among other things,a feeling that they have no place in the society in which they live — they don’t belong, or want to belong. Three adolescents broke into our coast house the other day, stole a few things, did no other damage, were apprehended, pleaded guilty and will face sentence next month. Two were on bail already for other offences.

What were they about? School doesn’t work for them, and there is high youth unemployment in that area. Thieving from another house provided excitement, and perhaps some money (there was not much to steal in ours). Who should do what for them? Where are the Police & Citizens’ Boys Clubs of yesteryear? You need the HSC to enter the Army and a degree to become a copper. What about those for whom family and schooling have been ineffectual and work in unavailable?

Villages and tribes could expel people they did not want, or send them to Coventry (refuse to acknowledge their presence or existence). At the larger levels of belonging, like the state and the nation-state, it becomes increasingly difficult to know just what one is belonging to. We disagree about all sorts of things, which is why it is so hard to agree on what might be ‘core Australian values‘. I would like to think that one of the core values is that we recognise the need for us to disagree, and that we can do it peaceably in our society but, as I was arguing in my last post about free speech, I’m not sure that we can.

In any case, while I am not a great Anzac Day person, I am glad that the young people are turning to it in the search for what it means for them to be Australian. With any luck they will find a new reason for celebrating what we are and what we have done in our country, and I will learn from them. ‘Belonging’ leads to a feeling of entitlement, and I’ve written about that before, and at the level of the nation-state, it is the focus of disagreement about who is entitled to what, and why — but that should be the topic of another post.

Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Hard to comment on this post Don, but once nations could transport their felons and political agitators. Nowhere to do that anymore, even Castro’s Marielitos would probably have been turned back now, so maybe prison is the best place for your vandals – before they kill someone.

    During Giuliani’s mayorship of NYC, the ‘Broken Windows’ approach to enforcing laws did seem to correlate with a drop in crime. Demographics may also be part of the story, but I’m inclined to believe (science free here) that fair and strict enforcement of laws is likely to lead to better compliance. Yes, Newman’s bikies laws border on fascism, but the bikies are criminal thugs responsible for much of current crime. I find it pretty creepy that the ABC seems to support the bikies and only slightly less creepy that I find myself agreeing with Newman.

    Australia may have tribal elements within it, but it is a nation state with a rule of law and it should enforce those laws fairly or get rid of them. It should definitely get rid of the Racial Discrimination Act – perhaps more Orwellian than traditional fascism, but they have their roots in the same authoritarianism – but controlling violent, property and white collar crime (and political corruption) seem basic requirements of good government.

  • Gus says:

    Shared culture, shared tradition, shared religion, shared history, shared language, shared interest. This is what defines a nation. The younger the nation though, the less sharing, thus the less stability. The UK, for example, is really a quite young nation. The English, of course, are an old one, but the UK is not just the English. The last Scottish rebellion unfolded in 1745, 269 years ago. This is not long in terms of a nation. The UK itself was formed in 1800 only, and split already once between 1916 and 1922 (in three acts: declaration, ratification and recognition). Today it looks like it may well split again as Scots are to vote on this on the 18th of September.
    Why do countries split? It’s simple: not enough sharing. The Irish did not see their culture as common with that of the Anglo-Saxons of Britain. The Irish did not abandon Catholicism. Some Irish still spoke different language, even though it was nearly extinct by 1916. Finally, they did not share in the British Empire prosperity. Theirs was a rough deal.
    Or look at Germany: they all spoke the same language for millennia, celebrated the same culture, food, values, yet the country was split into separate kingdoms and principalities until Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871. Why weren’t they unified earlier? Religion was one factor, but the main factor was… because they didn’t have to. They weren’t threatened. So there was no need for them to unify in response. In the light of this discovery, we should add shared threat to the list of shared attributes above. In the history of Germany, the threat materialized when Bonaparte’s hordes mowed German kingdoms and principalities in virtually unopposed invasion. It was then that the pan-German nationalism was born.
    What unifies Australians? Cricket? Love of the land they live in? Common language? Perceived (and possibly not entirely unreal) threat from the North? Shared history of recent immigration for nearly all of them? These are the core common values even if some, like cricket, may be trivial.
    Anzac, though, is not quite in the same category. For starters, it happened when most of today’s Australians (their ancestors including) weren’t Australians. It happened in a misguided and botched military action in a far away country, Turkey, with which Australians have nothing in common and couldn’t possibly imagine, today, being at war with. Over what?
    What Anzac really celebrates is the Britishness of Australia. The holiday was founded in the fervor of WWI in 1915, in the Australian and New Zealand dominions of the British Empire. Let us recall that not until 1942 did Australia ratify ending constitutional links with the UK. By celebrating Anzac during the Interbellum Australians were reminding their British masters that they were and wanted to remain a part of the British Empire and had earned this privilege with their blood sacrifice.

    • margaret says:

      What unifies Americans these days? The Fourth of July? That was an excellent movie with Tom Cruise who may be weird but can act.

      • Gus says:

        What unifies Americans these days? I can’t think of anything. I’ve never seen Americans as disunited and unhappy with each other as they’re today.

  • margaret says:

    We had a house break in when we lived in Canberra – it’s very unnerving – particularly when our son who was a first year teacher and living at home returned from work and disturbed the boys in the act. They ran out of the house still clutching some jewellery which was found at the back fence. They also took some electronics but couldn’t fit too much in their back packs. They were local youths and had done other homes but I have no idea what sort of punishment they received because we weren’t kept in the loop as is often the case with victims of crime.
    I doubt in that case that these boys didn’t feel that they didn’t belong, it is an affluent suburb and they were likely to have come from middle class homes.
    But I do think high schools really don’t work for anyone not willing to conform to the ridiculous rigidity of their structures. It’s too late to do work experience in year 10 and often meaningless, careers advice is ineffectual also. I think year 8 is where kids are to be captured in their engagement with the world that they will enter when school finishes. This is when they could be doing some real life work during the school week and not confined to classrooms for 40 minute periods until the siren wails and they are ‘free’ at last. Sure, they have to get an education but the way high schools are organised still harks back to “Sir or Miss” boring the pants off a captive audience as they spout forth their expertise in their subject. I don’t think it’s very useful or interesting for a majority of kids.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Margaret,
      I agree about the Year 8 timeframe. i was a teacher early on in my working life. Our school structures work well enough for some students, but they could be far more interesting for many. To enable that, we’d need a very different involvement by the community, in a sense, using the whole village to raise a child. I think we need to devise more options, run some trials for some years, and learn as we go. What we’re doing is just not good enough.

      I’d like to see many students, particularly boys, for whom the classroom has become too confined for their stage of development, placed in gainful supervised and mentored work for two or three years. They would learn much. Then I think they’d be ready to come back to a more formal learning world, be ready for it, and wonder of wonders, probably enjoy it!

      • Gus says:

        I was lucky enough to work on my father’s farm since my early ‘teens. But how do you provide “gainful and mentored” work for hundreds of thousands of otherwise useless and unskilled brats, if the economy is not up to it and “child labor” is banned?
        Work develops character and teaches kids perseverance and the value of money, also the pride of having earned it, so it’s a good thing. It should be made available to all who want it. But for this the economy must be booming and unemployment must vanish. Vocational training should be encouraged. We invest too much in academic skills, which do not lead to creative jobs down the road–do we really need so many white collar workers? At the same time, it’s hard to find good tradesmen, when you need them.

        • DaveW says:

          What do you think of the Swiss approach to academic/vocational training?

          http://world.time.com/2012/10/04/who-needs-college-the-swiss-opt-for-vocational-school/

        • margaret says:

          Yes, you were indeed lucky and I can see your character shining through.

          • Gus says:

            Alas, not being bred to any Trade, my Head began to be fill’d very early with rambling Thoughts: My Father, who was very ancient, had given me a competent Share of Learning as far as House-Education, and a Country Free-School generally goes, and design’d me for the Law; but I would be satisfied with nothing but going to Sea, and my Inclination to this led me so strongly against the Will, nay the Commands of my Father, and against all the Entreaties and Perswasions of my Mother and other Friends, that there seem’d to be something fatal in that Propension of Nature tending directly to the Life of Misery which was to befal me.

      • margaret says:

        I agree with all of that but given the audit commission report it won’t happen. I particularly like the mentoring concept for young people. Teachers have enough to do already, they can’t mentor (although they already do in many cases) 30 class individuals. Older people (those people who were lucky enough to retire early perhaps) could mentor Year 8 students and be part of a scheme for work experience and careers advice.

    • Gus says:

      Jewellery and documents should be kept in a bank vault.

      • margaret says:

        Oh lord, my “jewellery” was not what you may imagine, some gold chains, pearls maybe. There were no diamonds, emeralds or rubies, and apart from my ring that I wear and my grandmother’s engagement ring I still possess few adornments that dazzle.

  • margaret says:

    I don’t like Anzac Day at all. I think Remembrance Day is the one commemoration of the futility of war that should be recognised and it isn’t a holiday and is fading into obscurity.
    My grandfather was nearly 30 when he went to Northern France in 1916. He was at Fromelles. He was unmarried at that stage. He survived. He was a stretcher-bearer because he refused to bear arms and I suspect he joined up because he was sent a white feather, he was definitely sent a white feather. His brother then joined the camel corps and went to the Western Desert. His younger brother was too young and didn’t join up but became an alcoholic instead. Their father died at home during WWI and their mother became a rock.
    Australia missed out on becoming a greater country because it really did lose the best of its young men whether they died or not, their families were forever affected and the returned men often bore both physical and deep psychic wounds.

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