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Tim Soutphommasane and patriotic multicultura -

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HideAndrew West: Well one of Australia’s most eloquent voices on multiculturalism is that of Tim Soutphommasane. This Oxford-educated philosopher has not one but two new books out on multiculturalism—its successes, its failures and its tensions. Religion is often central to multicultural policy because as you heard from Friedrich Heckmann, some people become more religious in their new homeland. It becomes a way of keeping alive a part of the old country. But it can be controversial and raises the question of whether religion can underline or undermine patriotism.

Tim Soutphommasane’s major new book is called The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society. I asked him if the recent violent demonstrations in Sydney against an anti-Islamic video had undermined multiculturalism?

Tim Soutphommasane: The multiculturalism I defend is what I call a liberal multiculturalism. It’s really an exercise in nation building. It’s about strengthening national communities and about ensuring that national identities can grow and evolve to adapt to changing conditions. But what’s important with this style of multiculturalism that I advocate is that it’s bound by certain civic values. It’s limited by liberal values. So cultural diversity isn’t an excuse to conduct all sorts of practises in the name of the religion or in the name of a tradition. It’s important that underlying any diversity there’s common ground defined by things such as a commitment to parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law, to equality of the sexes, and indeed to freedom of religion. So for me, the episode that we saw in Sydney a couple of weekends ago, was a form of extremism that was very much incompatible with how multiculturalism has been practised, certainly in Australia, and I’d say in many other countries too.

Andrew West: How intrinsic is religion to multiculturalism in the kind of liberal nationalist society that you envisage?

Tim Soutphommasane: It can be possible to define multiculturalism without resorting to religion. The key claim here is about the recognition of people’s cultural identities. Now that may involve a religious dimension, certainly. But it may not. I think where religion is often implicated is, is it’s implicated because a culture can’t be separated from a sense of a historical tradition. If you identify with a cultural community you’re identifying with a historical identity. There is flesh and bone to those things. And that’s where religion often enters into the picture. But I don’t think you need to define cultural diversity in the sense that I discussed it, according to religion per se.

Andrew West: But religion as you well know, is often the repository for communities—diaspora communities of their culture. I mean, I’m married to a Greek, a Greek Australian, and it’s impossible really, even among the most non-spiritual Greeks to imagine them not identifying in many ways as Greek Orthodox. The Greek Orthodox Church being the repository of what it means to be Greek in the diaspora. I’m assuming for many Islamic and Jewish communities that’s the same too?

Tim Soutphommasane: Yes I think it is. I don’t certainly mean to exclude religion from the discussion. There is a nuance though that’s important. You can identify with a cultural background, and that cultural background may draw in religious history, but that’s a very different proposition to saying that one’s culture is therefore determined by religious content or doctrine.

Andrew West: Let’s talk about a couple of models that you advance in your book The Virtuous Citizen. You talk about a small r republican patriotism versus a liberal nationalism. What do you mean by those two themes?

Tim Soutphommasane: There’s been a historical contest, ideologically, between republicanism and liberalism. Liberals in particular have had an aversion to notions of patriotism and civic virtue because they believe that it infringes upon a value of individual autonomy and universal morality. So it’s been more frequent for political theorists and philosophers to speak of patriotism and virtue in republican terms as symbolising a sense of civic order and collective participation in politics. I want to make the case though, Andrew, that it’s very important for liberal democracies to take patriotism seriously as well. A society that upholds individual rights and freedoms also draws upon a notion of a collective good and a sense of community. Without that sense of common good you aren’t able to get the kind of forbearance and the kind of sacrifice that goes with the liberal democracy that we live in and think of.

Andrew West: Do either of those models—republican patriotism and again we emphasise it’s small r republican patriotism and liberal nationalism—do they require or rely on, in any sense, a sort of ethnic group identity, or a linguistic identity?

Tim Soutphommasane: Well, the republicans, small r republicans, would say that there’s no need for ethnicity at all. In fact, the advocates of republican patriotism see patriotism as an antidote to nationalism. So they would argue that patriotism means love of country, but love of country actually means a love of liberty and a love of the political documents and community that one lives in. Liberal nationalists take a different focus. They say that, well, if you love your country, what does that country mean? In a modern world it really means national communities because most political communities coincide with a nation state. Now republicans think this is very dangerous of course. They think it descends into ethnic nationalism into cultural chauvinism. And there’s no shortage of examples in history to demonstrate the dangers of ethnic nationalism.

Andrew West: And in recent history too; I mean, it’s 20 years this year since the outbreak of the Balkans War—the Bosnian War. I mean, that was an example…

Tim Soutphommasane: Indeed.

Andrew West: …of ethnicity being used in a very divisive way.

Tim Soutphommasane: Indeed, and liberal nationalism isn’t a prescription for all countries or communities. As I argue I hope very clearly and forcefully, this is a mode of thinking that is suitable for well-established liberal democracies. But this idea of liberal nationalism is really based on a number of precepts. One is that a nation isn’t defined solely by ancestry or ethnicity or cultural elements of nation; there’s a subjective element too. A nation is constituted by the subjective will of its citizens, and it’s regulated by democratic norms and public debate. That’s the kind of national identity that I believe is useful in articulating a sense of community.

Andrew West: And you say, I think quite explicitly, that liberal nationalism, this liberal form of nationalism, it’s not fixed, it’s constantly reinterpreting itself.

Tim Soutphommasane: That’s right. The idea of a national project is one way of understanding it. Which is to say that the nation never just simply is, it’s not simply a product of its past and unchangeable or fixed in time. But it’s always constantly evolving. And the kind of patriotism I put forward is one that’s aspirational in its ethos; the idea that one’s nation never fully comes into being but that you should aspire to ensure that your country lives up to the very best of its tradition.

Andrew West: Finally Tim, in your writing, not just in this book but your broader scholarship, you’ve talked about the notion of civil religion. What do you mean by that?

Tim Soutphommasane: Well, the term was really introduced in the 1960s by the American sociologist Robert Bellah, but the idea was that the symbols of a nation or a political community can take on a certain religious flair or flavour. For example America is often cited as an example of the country that’s governed by civil religion, given the rituals that surround its expression of national identity, and given the place of the flag there.

Andrew West: These are almost liturgical forms in American patriotism. You know, I lived in the United States for a few years and that’s…you’re quite right, the placing of the hand on the heart, the standing for the national anthem, a whole lot of other cultural touchstones, are given almost liturgical forms.

Tim Soutphommasane: That’s right. There’s a ritual there to American civic identity and nationhood. I don’t think we have a civil religion in Australia, although many would say there are elements of it in our commemoration of Anzac. Certainly the dawn service has come to occupy a particularly important place in national remembrance. What I find really fascinating with the concepts of civil religion is the power of ritual, the power of tradition. I think all these things can be harnessed for good civic ends if you do it right. People often dismiss ritual and often dismiss symbolism. But if you look at how debates about national identity in Australia have evolved during the past decade, if you look at the American experience, you get a sense that symbolism really does matter a lot.

Andrew West: I just want to squeeze in one more question Tim, and it’s a very personal question. You’re a Buddhist, raised a Buddhist. According to the recent census, the biggest non-Christian religion in Australia is in fact Buddhism. Now one assumes that a large proportion of Australians who identify as Buddhists aren’t of Asian background, they’re Anglo-Buddhists. I’m wondering, first of all, is that a kind of cultural appropriation that is common and where does that fit into your hypothesis?

Tim Soutphommasane: I’m glad you asked that question. It’s very important that one engages with other cultures the right way, with the right ethos. I think of the philosopher Charles Taylor and his concept of a fusion of horizons—the notion that you should approach a different culture or tradition with an openness to having your own view of the world transformed by the end of it. Now when I look, for example, at the manner in which little Buddha statuettes are used as adornments or as decorations in people’s homes, very casually—and this happens a lot, people don’t really think too much about it or make too much about it. In fact I’d say some people think that putting up a Buddhist statue in your own home is an expression of one’s cosmopolitanism and openness. But it’s important that you engage with other traditions the right way. I think there you have a vulgar form of cultural consumption. And I actually think that’s very destructive of the kind of multiculturalism I support, because it’s not just about lifestyles or appropriating different traditions for our own instrumental ends, it’s about genuine ethical engagement with fellow citizens.

Andrew West: Well, Tim Soutphommasane, the book is called The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society. I should also point out that you have another book due out in a couple of weeks called Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From. But that’s for another discussion. Tim, thank you very much for coming in.

Tim Soutphommasane: Thank you Andrew. A pleasure.

Andrew West: You’ll find links to those books on our homepage at the RN website.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane
Political philosopher; lecturer National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University; Graduate School of Government, University of Sydney; columnist, The Age; director, National Australia Day Council; member, Australian Multicultural Council; research fellow, Per Capita; D. Phil, M. Phil., University of Oxford
Producer Mark Franklin