Perspective: Towards A New Vision Of Social Cohesion
It is increasingly recognised that Australia has long been a country of diversity. In addition to the land’s traditional custodians, a strong history of migration means we can all trace our heritage to other parts of the world. This has always presented social challenges and tensions between ethnic and religious groups, but also the opportunity to learn from one another and grow as a nation. While formerly immigrants were generally expected to assimilate with the dominant culture, in recent decades this perspective has changed.
The rate of migration, cultural and religious diversity of migrants, and their ability to maintain ties with countries of origin and cultural practices have all increased. The means for traversing long distances is becoming ever more accessible, encouraging an accelerating movement of people and exposure to the unique elements of diverse backgrounds. Communications technology is also enabling different cultural and religious value systems to remain strong even when communities are geographically dispersed. With increased international mobility and communication, there is less a sense that migration implies having to "leave behind" one's culture in order to embrace a new one, allowing people to live side-by-side and be enriched by our new social landscape.
In Australia, another reaction to these new trends has been a rise in tribal dynamics. Groups defined along religious, racial, socio-economic, political and rural-urban lines are becoming increasingly disdainful towards one another. Social media platforms are creating online echo chambers that harbour fractious extremes of thinking. Further still, settlement patterns in neighbourhoods are leading to decreased exposure to individuals and communities from other backgrounds.
In this new reality, Australia stands in need of a new vision of social cohesion.
Unity and Belonging
Paradoxically, at the heart of this tendency towards exclusion is the need to belong. Identifying with a community defined by a set of values, norms and a common purpose can fulfil this need. There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling a sense of connection to ones race, religion, community or culture. The challenge arises when individuals and groups come to define themselves in opposition to others, as this leads to a hardening of viewpoints, increased incivility, an unwillingness to even attempt to understand differing perspectives, a tendency to automatically take sides and even outright conflict.
Our society must be able to foster an equally potent sense of belonging for all individuals to a broader collective ‘Australian’ community, inclusive in nature and within which all can see themselves. This would assist us in learning how to build a nation with unifying characteristics focused on what is common between us. In an inclusive country, individuals would feel a strong desire to channel their talents and capacities towards meaningful participation in its social and material development. Sharing a common purpose and being valued for one’s contributions regardless of background, strengthens a sense of belonging and upholds the nobility of all human beings.
Against this backdrop of religious and racial diversity, cultural and political tribalism, and increasing social polarisation, the principle of unity in diversity is the primary characteristic an Australian society must strive to embody in order to achieve social cohesion. This principle contains the essential concept of ‘diversity’, distinguishing unity from ‘uniformity'. To realise such a conception of unity, our nation urgently needs an inclusive description of our identity, who we are as a nation, in which Australians could take pride. Such a description would direct public discourse away from preoccupation with perceived cultural differences and instead focus on the values and principles shared by all Australians.
A unifying instrument for dialogue
A description of Australian identity should be arrived at via a process of consultation, encompassing Australians from all walks of life. The Baha’i Writings highlight, “All are seeking truth, and there are many roads leading thereto. Truth has many aspects, but it remains always and forever one.” It also counsels all not to allow difference of opinion, or diversity of thought to cause separation from our fellow brothers and sisters, or to be the cause of dispute, hatred and strife in the hearts of people. Rather search diligently for the truth and make all people our friends.
While it is acknowledged that participants in such consultative spaces would undoubtedly come to the table with different perspectives, the experience of the Baha’i community suggests that such diversity can be harnessed to enrich the dialogical process, as it inevitably provides a more complete picture of social reality for all participants. There is a unique power in the simple act of people with diverse viewpoints coming together in an atmosphere of respect and good faith and participating in a sincere dialogue – as distinct from a debate – with the aim of finding common ground. We propose, that when diverse actors are able to recognise their common humanity and engage on the basis of trust, they can transcend seemingly irreconcilable opinions. In this way, the participants will increasingly embody the very unity they are striving for, allowing consensus to emerge organically around the values and principles that Australians of all backgrounds would want to characterise our nation. This can lead to purposeful and constructive action and can begin to address some of the fractures in our current social reality.
The Australian Bahá’í Community collaborates with a number of people to help develop contributions to thinking around issues of social concern. This article represents some of the thinking that is helping to inform the work of our community and its participation in Australian public discourses. This is not a position paper or official statement from the Bahá’í community, but rather a set of reflections on an event that draws insight from the Bahá’í teachings and the experience of the community as we seek to apply them to the betterment of society. Further thoughts or comments on this paper can be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org