The morals, aesthetics and ethics of art

People love a good story. As Aristotle said, we are story-telling animals. By engaging with stories we can consider different points of view and empathise with others – including fictional characters.

Stories let us reflect on how we would feel or act if we were in the shoes of another. They might even help us be more compassionate in real life.

Truth and Story-telling

True stories are among the narratives that grab our attention. Reality TV has become a phenomenon, while dramatic portrayals of the lives of famous people, and retelling real life events are increasingly popular. Perhaps the it’s driven by our desire to better understand human nature.

But how real are these representations? The idea of reality TV as scripted surely doesn’t surprise many viewers, but what about biopics like The Wolf of Wall Street, Spotlight or The Big Short?

Overt ethical messages in such movies are made all the more powerful if the audience sees these films as factual.

Any film based on reality will have a tough job conveying a person’s life or a series of events that unfolded over a number of years into a 120-minute linear narrative. There are important decisions to be made such as what to include or exclude, and from which perspective to tell the tale. Then there is the element of ‘moralising’ – sending a ‘take home message’ to the audience.

Overt ethical messages in such movies are made all the more powerful if the audience sees these films as factual. So does that mean filmmakers are obliged to be truthful in biopics, or are they only bound by what makes a good story?

Aestheticism – art for art’s sake

There is a strong historical precedent for separating the moral from the aesthetic value of artworks. Oscar Wilde’s famous quote from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray states, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

This sums up a philosophical position known as ‘Aestheticism’, which argues that the only relevant factor when judging the quality of an artwork is its aesthetic value. Wilde explicitly categorises himself as an ‘Aestheticist’, yet he is well-known as a moralist. What’s going on here?

The reason people watch films or read is primarily for enjoyment – to tap into this so-called aesthetic experience. This involves enjoying the beauty or creativity of an artwork for its own sake. Aesthetic value is unique to artworks, so Aestheticists claim this should be the sole basis for aesthetic judgement. Any moral message in the work should not, therefore, affect the overall value of the artwork, either positively or negatively.

Aestheticists like Wilde may also want to protect art from censorship. If an artwork is judged only on the basis of its aesthetic qualities, it should not be condemned for its moral message. This concern harks all the way back to Ancient Greece when Plato was worrying in The Republic that the poets might corrupt the youth.

Moralism – the message behind the masterpiece

Artists are often well placed to critically engage with moral themes. Wilde’s novels and plays satirised the social norms of his day, and the best way he could protect his artistic right to free speech was to claim that the only thing one should judge is an artwork’s aesthetic merit.

However, to take this further and say artists are not concerned with moral, economic or political concerns is, I believe, mistaken. Of course artists need to consider real world concerns. Partly because they need to make a living and survive in the world in order to continue making their art.

Society also needs artists to help explore diverse perspectives. Artworks can be informative, influential and possibly even transform social attitudes about certain issues. However, sometimes the moral and aesthetic judgements of an artwork will clash.

Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is often described as aesthetically beautiful but morally evil.

The infamous 1935 propaganda documentary was commissioned by Adolf Hitler. In it, director Riefenstahl portrays the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany as a glorious event and Hitler himself as God-like with a positive vision for his country. Unnervingly, the film is majestic, with beautiful cinematography and an emotive soundtrack underscored by nationalistic Wagner (who else?). It is awe-inspiring in its beauty and chilling in the way it glorifies the fascist Nazis.

In Triumph of the Will, the ‘immoral’ message – that Nazism is good and positive – interrupts our aesthetic appreciation of the work. It is difficult not to devalue Riefenstahl’s work based on its moral content.

Philosophers would generally rather teach people to think for themselves than apply strict censorship rules to artworks.

The moralist would claim that the moral value of an artwork does impact on our overall aesthetic judgement of the work. So does this mean artworks with a good moral message are elevated by their ethical content?

Moralists worry about the influence propaganda films may have in rallying impressionable people to harmful causes – like Nazism. Hitler was likely well aware of this when he commissioned the film. Correspondingly, artists’ concerns about censorship are also valid, if we consider who dictates what should or should not be seen.

Philosophers would generally rather teach people to think for themselves than apply strict censorship rules to artworks. That way, spectators are encouraged to engage critically with the messages they are receiving.

Critical spectatorship

Critical spectatorship is important in the case of biopics like The Big Short. The movie depicts a moral message we may well support, and the mass-market nature of film means it’s a powerful way to quickly take that message to a large number of people. But does it matter if the audience is viewing this narrative as they might a news story? Perhaps we should consider how viewers engage with the news.

Even when watching the broadcast news, viewers should be critical and consider what’s being shown or left out, from whose point of view the story is being told, and with whom or ‘what side’ we’re being positioned to identify. We need to constantly analyse or fact-check what we are told, particularly as we exist in a 24-hour news cycle and receive so much more information than previously.

As social media encourages quick likes and shares, it really is worth pausing to consider the impact such stories may have on others, on society and on our collective cultural myths. This is not to say that we should cease telling all the stories, far from it. But let’s also receive them critically, compassionately and open them up for discussion.

Stan Grant

What comes after Stan Grant’s speech?

Stan Grant’s speech broke your heart – five views on what to do about it.

1) Tanya Denning-Orman say’s It’s not hard to capitalise on Grant’s momentum.

Last year Stan Grant delivered an address that left a crowd of hundreds speechless. This week, those same words jumped out of computer screens and into the hands of ordinary Australians and polarised millions of lounge room commentators. When this happened, he forced an entire nation to confront a history that no one wants to talk about.

He made you uncomfortable because he put a human face to the stats and figures that so commonly define First Nations peoples. Stan reminded you that we are people of law, lore, music, art and politics, and he inspired you to reimagine who we all are as Australians.

Yesterday, commentators described the impact of this speech as a “Martin Luther King moment”. Today, those of us who live it know that it’s all come and gone before. Noel Pearson delivered a speech that commentators said would be spoken about for years. In the months that followed, there was silence. With just a few words Charlie Perkins could mobilise crowds to take to the streets. Is it that easy to forget?

Knowing this, tomorrow the challenge will be that this momentum, created by a Wiradjuri man, doesn’t drown in a sea of barbecues and beers that is ‘Australia Day’. Just as Stan Grant said, we are better than this.

This time let the power of the word inspire you to make a change beyond ‘a thumbs up’ on a post and clicking the share button. We can insist that schools teach Australia’s silenced history. We can hold our governments to account. We can be empowered by our shared story.

Never before have we been so connected – we can create a global movement through our fingertips.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s not that hard to do.

Tanya Denning-Orman is the Channel Manager for NITV. Follow her on Twitter @Tanyadenning.

2) Luke Pearson argues that sentiment isn’t social justice. Now is the time to do something

The worry with making white people ‘feel all the feels’ as we sometimes say online, is that it won’t lead to any change in thought, behaviour or actual contributions to the work that needs to be done. Worse, it can actually do the opposite.

White people’s emotional experiences are all too often used to validate privilege and identify themselves as ‘one of the good ones’. This shifts the responsibility to act away from them and onto ‘those other people’.

Novelist Teju Cole labelled this phenomenon the ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’, saying “The White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

This response gives people the moral authority to continue to justify racist responses that make them feel good about their privilege and direct and indirect contributions to racism and oppression. This attitude is what all too often justifies brutal government responses to complex problems.

In Australia this takes the form of punitive approaches to an endless list of humanitarian issues. The NT Intervention, offshore detention, military action overseas, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and increased rates of Indigenous child removal and incarceration whilst simultaneously defunding strategies to reduce these numbers…

This attitude leads people to get upset or feel attacked whenever white privilege is mentioned. They remove themselves from any responsibility purely by virtue of their emotional experiences, not recognising they are the ones who benefit most from their emotional experiences.

The very same people who claim to be our biggest supporters still argue that “we need to stop talking about race” rather than arguing “we need to stop racism”. They say “we are all Australians” without seeing the irony – erasing the identity of others was the outcome intended by culture genocide and assimilationist ideals. They feel betrayed when this is challenged because they feel they are owed for the emotional experiences they have felt.

If your response to videos like Stan Grant’s speech is to pat yourself on the back for a job well done without actually considering your place in the status quo and whether or not your ideas are just rebranded versions of the racism people have been fighting against for centuries, you are a part of the problem.

The same goes if you recognise the above but don’t actually do anything to change things. If you sit silently when you see racism within your own family, your workplace, your social group… If you don’t support those who work at the coalface, addressing the ongoing impacts of colonialism or who work at the highest levels trying to prevent it from continuing…

You are part of the problem.

“I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly”, writes Teju Cole.

Ditto for Australia.

Luke Pearson is the Founder of IndigenousX, Follow them on Twitter @IndigenousX.

3) Anita Heiss anticipates that the real power of Stan’s speech is yet to come 

As part of the debate, Stan Grant’s words were powerful. They were honest. They came from the heart and they were passionate. Unfortunately, for many of us they were not something new. They were words we had said ourselves in vain, similar to words we had heard from our parents and our peers. And so, we watched and sat in pain yet again at the reality of what is our great Australian nightmare.

For me the importance of Stan’s speech is that it has managed to reach a global audience. It has been heard by some who, for whatever reason, knew nothing about the facts Stan, a strong Wiradjuri man, was sharing as part of a debate that, in all honesty, was not much of a debate.

Words can be powerful. They can make us change the way we think. They can help us understand and feel empathy, but what are words without actions? I think the real power will come now, post Stan’s speech in a call to action to all those tweeting and facebooking to actually do something!

Teachers, watch the entire debate with your students. Get them to discuss, debate and talk about the issues raised. Parents, do the above also!

Corporates, politicians, policy makers, what are you doing in your worlds to address the inequities Stan mentioned? Immortality rates, incarceration rates, the ongoing removal of children?

Re-tweeting is not enough! You cannot claim to want equality for Indigenous Australians if you are not prepared to participate in the change – the actions – required to make that happen.

Build partnerships with Indigenous organisations that are already working in the areas you have influence in. Form lasting strategies to create the change this country needs. But please know, it’s not going to be easy, or going to be fixed overnight. Over 200 years of damage needs to be repaired to make the nightmare a dream.

Dr Anita Heiss is a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation. She is an author and Manager of the Epic Good Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaHeiss.

4) Kelly Briggs feels that we’ve had ‘Stan Grant moments’ before

I am confounded that some are comparing Stan Grant’s much admired speech from the IQ2 debate last year on Australia’s racism to Martin Luther King. Doing so erases Aboriginal activists who have come before us, including Dr Charlie Perkins.

Perkins headed what is now known as the ‘Freedom Rides’ – a busload of Sydney University students who toured particularly racist northern New South Wales towns to shine a spotlight on the heinous racism and segregation between blacks and whites in 1965. His passionate activism in towns, pubs, RSLs, swimming pools and the like saw changes to many rules and regulations.

Now that Stan Grant’s speech has gone ‘viral’, will it engender any changes to current governmental policies? Put back any of the money ripped out of the budget allocated to Aboriginal programs and issues? Create a much needed conversation about Australia’s ongoing overt and casual racism?

I don’t think it will. Stan Grant, while passionate, has not added anything new to what Aboriginal people have been saying in blogs, news articles and on social media for the better part of a decade. So, while I admire Stan’s stance, I do not hold out any hope that it will not be forgotten in a week, or that it will make a difference.

Kelly Briggs blogs at Follow her on Twitter @TheKooriWoman.

5) Siv Parker on why we haven’t done this before

We haven’t had enough feel-good moments cast around Aboriginal Australia for this nation to be in a position to waste one. So where to from here?

An icebreaker may help to shake off a few nerves. It would be easier on all of us if we took a breath and agreed that we haven’t done this before.

Bridge walks, town meetings, community events, the apology and the land help to give us all our bearings.

But a digital world makes it easier to satisfy a yearning for substance, to extend ourselves beyond fleeting online interactions.

The anticipated referendum around constitutional reform is a hook on which to hang our shared history. I have no doubt we can agree to include Indigenous Australians in the constitution. I am not the only one willing to make a start on talking about what that could look like.

We won’t need to invoke great moments from foreign countries to define us, we can create our own. Indigenous people are on the crest of a wave in asserting ourselves in words, art, performances and knowledge systems that has been decades in the making. This nation can do better. That is the promise within our ancient storytelling tradition. A story is not a one-sided affair. We don’t listen to a story, we become a part of it. In years to come, they will continue to tell stories that includes us all.

Siv Parker is an award-winning writer and blogger. Follow her on Twitter @SivParker.

Stan Grant: racism and the Australian dream

On the IQ2 stage in 2015, Stan Grant opened the hearts and minds of the audience with his powerful speech on racism in Australia.

The IQ2 debate, ‘Racism is Destroying the Australian Dream’ was a finalist in the United Nations Media Peace Awards for its role in stimulating public awareness and understanding. Stan’s iconic talk continues to move and inspire millions.


“Thank you so much for coming along this evening and I would also like to extend my respects to my Gadigal brothers and sisters from my people, the Wiradjuri people.

In the winter of 2015, Australia turned to face itself. It looked into its soul and it had to ask this question. Who are we? What sort of country do we want to be? And this happened in a place that is most holy, most sacred to Australians. It happened in the sporting field, it happened on the football field. Suddenly the front page was on the back page, it was in the grandstands.

Thousands of voices rose to hound an Indigenous man. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian. A man who was told he wasn’t Australian of the Year. And they hounded that man into submission.

I can’t speak for what lay in the hearts of the people who booed Adam Goodes. But I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos. We heard a sound that was very familiar to us.

We heard a howl. We heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again, you’re not welcome.

The Australian Dream.

We sing of it, and we recite it in verse. Australians all, let us rejoice for we are young and free. 

My people die young in this country. We die ten years younger than average Australians and we are far from free. We are fewer than three percent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 percent, a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons and if you are a juvenile, it is worse, it is 50 percent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school.

I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges.

It reminds me that my people were killed on those plains. We were shot on those plains, disease ravaged us on those plains.

I come from those plains. I come from a people west of the Blue Mountains, the Wiradjuri people, where in the 1820’s, the soldiers and settlers waged a war of extermination against my people. Yes, a war of extermination! That was the language used at the time. Go to the Sydney Gazette and look it up and read about it. Martial law was declared and my people could be shot on sight. Those rugged mountain ranges, my people, women and children were herded over those ranges to their deaths.

The Australian Dream.

The Australian Dream is rooted in racism. It is the very foundation of the dream. It is there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius. An empty land. A land for the taking. Sixty thousand years of occupation. A people who made the first seafaring journey in the history of mankind. A people of law, a people of lore, a people of music and art and dance and politics. None of it mattered because our rights were extinguished because we were not here according to British law.

And when British people looked at us, they saw something sub-human, and if we were human at all, we occupied the lowest rung on civilisation’s ladder. We were fly-blown, stone age savages and that was the language that was used. Charles Dickens, the great writer of the age, when referring to the noble savage of which we were counted among, said “it would be better that they be wiped off the face of the earth.” Captain Arthur Phillip, a man of enlightenment, a man who was instructed to make peace with the so-called natives in a matter of years, was sending out raiding parties with the instruction, “Bring back the severed heads of the black troublemakers.”

They were smoothing the dying pillow.

My people were rounded up and put on missions from where if you escaped, you were hunted down, you were roped and tied and dragged back, and it happened here. It happened on the mission that my grandmother and my great grandmother are from, the Warrengesda on the Darling Point of the Murrumbidgee River.

Read about it. It happened.

By 1901 when we became a nation, when we federated the colonies, we were nowhere. We’re not in the Constitution, save for ‘race provisions’ which allowed for laws to be made that would take our children, that would invade our privacy, that would tell us who we could marry and tell us where we could live.

The Australian Dream.

By 1963, the year of my birth, the dispossession was continuing. Police came at gunpoint under cover of darkness to Mapoon, an aboriginal community in Queensland, and they ordered people from their homes and they burned those homes to the ground and they gave the land to a bauxite mining company. And today those people remember that as the ‘Night of the Burning’.

In 1963 when I was born, I was counted among the flora and fauna, not among the citizens of this country.

Now, you will hear things tonight. You will hear people say, “But you’ve done well.” Yes, I have and I’m proud of it and why have I done well? I’ve done well because of who has come before me. My father who lost the tips of three fingers working in saw mills to put food on our table because he was denied an education. My grandfather who served to fight wars for this country when he was not yet a citizen and came back to a segregated land where he couldn’t even share a drink with his digger mates in the pub because he was black.

My great grandfather, who was jailed for speaking his language to his grandson (my father). Jailed for it! My grandfather on my mother’s side who married a white woman who reached out to Australia, lived on the fringes of town until the police came, put a gun to his head, bulldozed his tin humpy and ran over the graves of the three children he buried there.

That’s the Australian Dream. I have succeeded in spite of the Australian Dream, not because of it, and I’ve succeeded because of those people.

You might hear tonight, “But you have white blood in you”. And if the white blood in me was here tonight, my grandmother, she would tell you of how she was turned away from a hospital giving birth to her first child because she was giving birth to the child of a black person.

The Australian Dream.

We’re better than this. I have seen the worst of the world as a reporter. I spent a decade in war zones from Iraq to Afghanistan, and Pakistan. We are an extraordinary country. We are in so many respects the envy of the world. If I was sitting here where my friends are tonight, I would be arguing passionately for this country. But I stand here with my ancestors, and the view looks very different from where I stand.

The Australian Dream.

We have our heroes. Albert Namatjira painted the soul of this nation. Vincent Lingiari put his hand out for Gough Whitlam to pour the sand of his country through his fingers and say, “This is my country.” Cathy Freeman lit the torch of the Olympic Games. But every time we are lured into the light, we are mugged by the darkness of this country’s history. Of course racism is killing the Australian Dream. It is self-evident that it’s killing the Australian dream. But we are better than that.

The people who stood up and supported Adam Goodes and said, “No more,” they are better than that. The people who marched across the bridge for reconciliation, they are better than that. The people who supported Kevin Rudd when he said sorry to the Stolen Generations, they are better than that. My children and their non-Indigenous friends are better than that. My wife who is not Indigenous is better than that.

And one day, I want to stand here and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone else in this room, Australians all, let us rejoice.

Thank you.”

About IQ2

IQ2 covers the biggest issues of our times, building a bridge between ideological extremes to deliver smart, civil and engaging debate. We believe there’s never been more important time for respectful conversations about the issues that matter.

About Stan Grant

Stan Grant is a Wiradjuri man and an Australian journalist. Highly awarded for his contribution to journalism, including a Walkley for his coverage on indigenous affairs. Stan has worked for the ABC, SBS, Seven Network, Sky News and CNN. He is also the best-selling author of Talking to My Country.

Greer has the right to speak, but she also has something worth listening to

Early on in my transition I was physically assaulted whilst boarding a bus. My back had been turned, my hands occupied with digging in my purse for a ticket when a solid fist struck me from the side – a sucker punch.

He yelled “TRANNY!” and trotted away at a mild gait, unhindered by any witnesses.

This thug’s annoyance resulted from me having just declined his offer of a nugget of crack cocaine in exchange for an alleyway blowjob. Since I was a transwoman waiting for public transit, I was clearly available to be propositioned for sex.

I know one thing for certain as I look back on that incident. This vicious bloke had never read Simone de Beauvoir. He had never read Germaine Greer.

And yet according to students from Cardiff University, Germaine Greer is somehow responsible for me getting smacked on the skull because of her views about transgender issues. What are these violent ideas? In her own words:

I don’t think that post-operative transgender men – M to F transgender people – are women . . . I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure, what I’m saying is it doesn’t make them a woman.

petition written by Cardiff University Students’ Union’s women’s officer reads:

Such attitudes contribute to the high levels of stigma, hatred and violence towards trans people – particularly trans women – both in the UK and across the world.

So, an academic lecturing in Wales who understands “woman” to mean “an adult human female” is complicit in the murder of trans women (often poor and of a racial minority) by savage men (almost always by men)?

Let’s be honest about liberals and their armchair activism. Slagging off older women on Twitter or from the ivory tower is a hell of a lot easier than confronting actual male violence.

Greer, following feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, assesses that male and female sexuation is not a myth or a personal feeling, but material states of embodiment within ethical circumstances. She rejects a world in which a bepenised Caitlyn Jenner is dubbed Woman of the Year without having actually lived as a woman for an entire year. Greer denies feeling you are actually female inside is enough to define you as female.

Greer denies feeling you are actually female inside is enough to define you as female.

I signed a petition in support of Germaine Greer because I support her right to speak. As an academic I’m not afraid of lively and vigorous argument. As a transsexual I’m tired of my experience being erased in service to genderism. As a human person I would like a world without gender where we’re free to express ourselves regardless of sex.

Trans activists tell us “gender is not sex” like a mantra bereft of enlightenment. Well, what is gender? They never answer. Where did it come from? They never answer.

Sexual difference is the reality of how mammals reproduce. Gender is a socially constructed hierarchy of sex-based norms imposed onto bodies. Feminism contends that the specific reproductive capacities of female persons are exploited and dominated by male power, with gender as a mechanism of control.

Transgenderism, however, disavows that biological sex is an actual, real category people can fall into. Instead, trans activists adhere to the claim that being male or female is a matter of arbitrary opinion. A male must really be female if ‘she’ possesses a subjectively-identifiable cache of feminine personality traits. By her own command, she was always female, will always be female because thinking makes it so.

Greer rejects gender identity as a coherent essence. Attentive to the practical circumstances of sexuality and power, Greer defines woman as the female sex, and this by definition is exclusive of males – no matter how arbitrarily feminine their inner disposition might be.

To claim males who express “feminine” preferences must actually be female inside is to try to turn ideology into reality.

By defining sex as a materially determined fact and not imaginary assignment, Greer states an anthropological truth. You may not fancy her tact but objecting to her tone is not sufficient to overcome the feminist analysis of gender that Greer advances.

Gender is a synthetic ideology imposed on sex. To claim males who express “feminine” preferences must actually be female inside is to try to turn ideology into reality. And it is to do so on the basis of sex-based stereotypes.

Because these views can appear harsh, troubling, and oppositional to the worldview of many trans sympathisers, Greer’s opponents turn to the most regressive, chauvinistic tactic – aggressively enforcing silence. Rather than providing cogent arguments concerning gender identity, trans activists choose the tactic of no platforming.

Why are people afraid of Greer? Because she is a woman saying no to gender.

Read a different take on trans women and Germaine Greer here, by Helen Boyd.

The problem with Australian identity

Any Australian who has lived abroad for a time would have been confronted with the need to answer questions about the kind of society that exists in the antipodes.

It is usually easy enough to trot out a few clichés about the wonderful land of Oz or alternatively, to dispel a few myths about stereotypical Australian behaviour. Either way, the images (and counter-images) converge on icons such as Bondi Beach, the Outback, the MCG, kangaroos and crocodiles, meat pies, militant trade unions, and so on.

However, now and again, one is confronted by a questioner who wants to probe a little deeper in order to uncover something of the identity of Australia and its people. There may have been a time when it was relatively easy to give the sort of answer that would have commanded the assent of the vast majority of Australians. The content of such a description is now beside the point. Of far more significance is the fact that the question of Australian identity has now become one of the central problems facing the nation. Economic problems may seem to be intractable but they are as nothing when compared to the deeper questions relating to who we are as Australians and where it is that we think we are heading.

The problem with defining Australian identity is that there are so many different sources contributing to the country’s social amalgam. This in itself does not cause an insuperable problem. It is possible for different understandings, representing different starting points, to be grafted onto a common stock of images and beliefs.

The evolution of the United States of America provides the classic example of a process in which immigrant communities have given allegiance to the ‘American Dream’ – that potent admixture of myth, legend and genuine achievement that has helped to shape the American psyche (especially as expressed abroad).

The situation in Australia is patently different. Perhaps this is because of the relatively ignoble cause of European settlement in this country. No tales of Pilgrim Fathers escaping from religious persecution for us. Instead there is the ball and chain and the ignominy of a convict settlement consciously designed to house what were considered to be the dregs of another society. Or perhaps the difference lies in the fact of the ease of our attaining self government and independence. Having been denied the pain of revolution we have also been denied part of the substrate of national identity that comes with the warm glow associated with having thrown off the yoke of what is seen, inevitably with the benefit of hindsight, as being an oppressive regime. Or perhaps the matter is more simply explained as an absence of time since settlement coupled with such rapid change that there has been no opportunity to generate an Australian identity that can be consciously articulated and shared by all.

A rigid sense of what it means to be Australian may be inimical to the development of a tolerant society.

All of this is speculation and the truth about the matter is probably a mixture of these factors as well as a good many more. What is more, it may not necessarily be a bad thing that there is no absolute sense of identity at work in Australia. For example, a rigid sense of what it means to be Australian may be inimical to the development of a tolerant society in which a lack of absolute privilege for any one point of view acts as a social lubricant.

One needs to remember that riots in countries such as the US may have something to do with the fact that so many people feel excluded from the American Dream. Such an exclusion can go beyond there being resentment at the lack of opportunity to a deeper complaint that the dream is, for such individuals, a completely remote and foreign ideal.

In a similar vein, it may be that a lack of national identity precludes Australians from adopting too chauvinist an attitude in their dealings with people from other countries and cultures. Whilst uncertainty can be unsettling for some, it may also be evidence of an openness to new ideas, experiences and relationships. Could our acknowledged success as a nation of immigrants have something to do with the fact that each new citizen has reason to feel that he or she can make a contribution to the nation by subtly affecting the way in which it sees itself?

Yet, despite all of this, one senses that there is a yearning for some peg on which Australians can hang their hats. So, where are we to look for clues to an identity that will carry Australia forward into the next century? And of equal importance, how are we to maintain some of the benefits that may have flowed from the current uncertain position?