It appears to be the case that criticism is unwelcome in the Australian culture.
It’s not part of the fabric of our way of doing things. And when it does arise in the public realm it looks and feels so out of place.
I suggest the reason for such criticism of criticism has blossomed from the soil of good intention. Criticism has often been used as a veiled form of hatred or rejection. The popular definition of tolerance shifted from loving disagreement to merely the need to accept all views. If I just accept that you believe something different to me and my loving response is to remain silent then it follows that anything other than silence towards an alternate view must be unloving.
This view of tolerance seems on the surface to make sense and it also allows us in the short term to avoid conflict – which in a society of 22 million is surely a good thing! However, as time moves forward something less attractive starts to take place. Our society ends up as merely a collection of smaller communication units. These units (or homes of thought) interact smoothly within themselves but also establish tall fences, keeping them safe from ‘the outside world’. Unfortunately differing thoughts and beliefs between these homes take on the form of neighbourhood dogs that never get let out of the yard from fear that they will dig up another’s garden bed. Once again, on the surface this seems good. It seems safe. My thinking is protected by the family home and I am never at risk of being shaken up by another’s view of the world – my flowers stay intact.
In fact it matches the larger shift of our physical neighbourhoods which view our homes as castles where ‘what happens behind the front door’ is no one else’s business.
Just like our suburban homes, our society becomes less a society and more a collection of closed-off thought communities. Such communities include the Christian church, the gay community, the Islamic mosque and the deep green movement to name just a few. Whilst this breeds a feeling of safety for those inside it masks a much greater problem, namely this is not how societies work best!
Just as neighbourhoods used to be places where everyone knew everyone and the kids all played together in the street, on a grander scale societies have always worked best as places where smaller thought communities could move in next to each other and learn from each other.
That has often been the attraction of cities. Cities have involved the crashing together of differing communities coming in from the outlying areas and learning to live together, ideally in a society that is better than the country towns because ideas and beliefs have been sharpened by interaction with others. This was my experience when I moved from the leafy and somewhat isolated North Shore of Sydney to the hustle and bustle of inner city Newtown.
In order to sharpen, challenge and deepen my own view of the world I need to be criticised. In fact I welcome criticism by those with differing views because no man is an island and I rely on others to help me grow and change. This is the basic value at the heart of political liberalism which, in the past, the Western world has celebrated.
Unfortunately our fences have become so high and our doors so tightly deadlocked that ‘meeting the neighbours’ in these communities of thought have turned into acts of war. To voice an alternate view is not welcomed as an opportunity for thoughtful reflection but rather a criticism which is assumed to be fuelled by hatred. As a result fences are strengthened and everyone inside the home gives each other a pat on the back for how much better their home is to the one next door. This is a fabulous structure from which to breed arrogance and self-righteousness but a terrible structure from which to build a real, thought provoking society.
Historically, tolerance was never based on the virtue of silence but rather the virtue of love. It was built on the concept first introduced by Jesus that we should “love our neighbour as ourselves”. Fence lines were lower and conversations could be had between the ‘neighbours’ that didn’t result in shouting or hatred. You could go back to your home thinking the guy next door was strange, but certainly not someone worthy of your contempt.
Perhaps in Australia it would be good for us to unlock our doors and lower our fences – for differing communities of thought to speak with each other and learn from each other. This will certainly involve disagreement and criticism but every good society always has. The only common thread that will need to run across our country is a desire to love our neighbour as our self.
I, like everyone else in this country, belong to a community of thought. But I’m tired of not being able to play with the kids next door and I miss the random dog wandering in my yard.