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Tag Archives: Social Darwinism

Entitlement

Does your success owe nothing to luck, or circumstance? Then you probably think the poor actually deserve to be poor. Peter Barnes examines the conservative mentality that underlies the coming budget.

One of the great things about Australia is that any child can grow up to be Prime Minister.

Travel to any Western democracy and you’ll hear the same thing, with slight variations; the great thing about the USA is that any child can grow up to be President, and so on.

Any child. Even a girl – in Australia, but so far not the USA. Even a person of colour – in the USA, but so far not Australia.

Which really makes you stop for a moment, because, hang on, isn’t half the population female? Isn’t that a bit weird, over a hundred years of Prime Ministers – twenty eight Prime Ministers – and so far only one girl has made it? Two hundred and twenty odd years of Presidents in the US – forty four Presidents – and so far only one person of colour has made it, and no girls at all?

Yet half of children are girls.

Perhaps there’s more to it than being a child and growing up.

While our constitution, our voting systems and our laws don’t prohibit any child from becoming Prime Minister, it’s painfully obvious that those aren’t the only things stopping at least half our children from achieving that goal. As Anatole France said a long time ago “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal bread”.

Perhaps it helps to be a particular kind of child?

While we all may be born equal under the law, we are certainly not born with equal opportunity. Nobody can deny that a male caucasian child born to a rich family living in a capital city has some advantages; you only have to look at the faces in Parliament to see the truth in that. That’s not to say that any other child still cannot become Prime Minister; it’s just an unarguable fact that, so far, only one has succeeded.

That’s not the entitlement this article is about, however.

So, what other entitlement is there? Few would argue that, in general, your race, colour, gender, wealth, location and many other factors make it easier, or harder, for you to succeed.

It seems obvious, then, that circumstance and luck will play a part in any success – or so you’d think. But here’s the strange thing. Successful people don’t believe that. They might agree about it in general, but never in their own particular case.

The entitlement I’m talking about is the entitlement assumed by the “successful”, and its consequences for their behaviour.

How does it work?

Many of those who succeed truly believe that their success is not because they had greater advantages, or luck. They believe it’s because they are truly better. More, they believe that they deserve everything they have, because they’ve earned it by being better – no matter how much they’ve got.

There’s more. Having succeeded, they truly believe that anybody else could also succeed, if only they wanted to or tried hard enough.

In fact, they actually believe that those less fortunate deserve their misfortune! Why? Because they didn’t try hard enough.

The following poll comes from the USA, however the basic distinction between conservatives (Republicans) and liberals (Democrats) is also true in Australia. The poll asks the simple question: are poor people poor because of circumstances, or because of lack of effort?

Roughly half of Americans believe that poor people are poor because of their circumstances. However there’s a massive difference when you break that down by party affiliation. Less than 30% of Republicans think it’s because of circumstances, while over 60% of Democrats do.

Put another way, 57% of Republicans believe that poor people are poor simply because they don’t try hard enough.

Think about that. Nearly two thirds of conservatives think that poor people’s poverty is their own fault.

Which, when you think about it, could be translated into saying that the reason why we’ve had twenty eight Prime Ministers and only one female Prime Minister is that basically women just aren’t trying hard enough…

Another way to look at it is to observe that in the USA the top 0.01% of households earned an average of US$10.25 million per year. The overall average for the US was US$51,000. As Matthew Hutson points out in his excellent article, “Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead“, that logically means that the top households are 200 times smarter and work 200 times harder than the average household . . .

You hear stories about poor people who are successful “against the odds”, but strangely those odds don’t get mentioned when the more privileged are successful. It’s the same for arguments about intelligence, hard work, or any other quality. They don’t guarantee success, and successful people don’t necessarily have them.

Let’s face it, if you work hard and are successful you’d much rather believe that your success was due entirely to your own efforts and intelligence, and not just luck or good birth. It’s only human nature. It’s what follows that belief that’s dangerous.

There’s a lot of other research into this, here, here, here, here, health here and here.

So what’s the problem?

The problem comes when people with those beliefs – particularly when rich, successful conservative politicians – decide policies about social welfare, health and education.

Research here, and this article here, document how poorer people give more than twice as much to charity, proportional to income, as rich people. Simply put, the poor are generous because they know what hardship and privation are. The rich are not, either because they have no experience, or because they actually don’t think the poor deserve it.

Recent figures indicate that the world’s richest 1% own 46% of the world’s assets. And this research shows that, largely, they think they got that wealth because they’re better, and they deserve it. And the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough.

If you’re conservative, or rich, or both, you’ll probably hold those beliefs. It’s not very hard then to see why you might not believe in age pensions, subsidised health care, unemployment benefits and many other publicly funded services. It’s not very hard to see why you would have no qualms at all in cutting back those schemes simply based on your personal beliefs and ideology, regardless of the economic circumstances.

The very way Joe Hockey uses the term “entitlement” clearly indicates that he thinks it’s optional, and its time is over. Of course an entitlement is a right, and most Australians believe our society has agreed that things like pensions and medical care are rights.

The following graph, again from the USA but likely to be repeated here, particularly on predictions of the coming budget, shows the change in cost of various goods and services over the last ten years. Chillingly, while “things” are getting cheaper, critical services like health and education are increasing in cost. Poor, unhealthy, uneducated people are not going to escape from this trap.

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However the entitled don’t believe in a poverty trap.

In the article “Noblesse Oblige? Social Status and Economic Inequality Maintenance among Politicians“, Michael Kraus and Bennett Callaghan examine the policy and voting patterns in US government.

Their study shows that Republicans tend to support legislation increasing economic inequality regardless of their social status. For Democrats, their social status – measured in terms of average wealth, race, or gender – was a significant predictor of support for economic inequality. That is, even amongst Democrats, if you’re rich and successful, you’ll vote for legislation that continues or increases economic inequality.

A scan of the benches in Parliament reveals many rich white males making our current policy decisions. Although parliamentarians represent us, they are not representative of us. For example, in the Australian population, about half a percent are lawyers by occupation. In the current Parliament, 60 parliamentarians, or 25%, are lawyers.

This is not a call to class warfare. Neither is it an assault on wealth. What I’m trying to point out is that there are well documented, honestly held beliefs held by conservatives and the successful that simply do not match up with reality. Those real beliefs, in turn, lead to policies that are generally harmful to people who are already vulnerable. If there’s class warfare, that’s its source. If there’s an unreasonable distribution of wealth, that’s where it starts.

So the Age of Entitlement is not over. It is over for the sick, the poor, and defenceless. It’s alive and well and built into the belief systems and psyche of a large majority of conservative politicians, and the conservative voters who support them.

We can trace the upcoming budget and all social legislation far more easily to the government’s personal and ideological beliefs than to any reality in the economy or the needs of the poor, the sick, the aged or the young. If those groups have problems, it’s their own fault!

In Australia a girl of colour from a poor background may one day be Prime Minister, but not while the current, entitled, incumbents govern, and the current incumbents truly believe that they’re entitled.

This article was first published on Peter’s blog infinite8horizon and has been republished with permission.

 

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Do some research and you’ll find it’s OK not to be black enough

Aborigines face the unending task of resisting attempts, on the one hand to cut them off from their heritage, and on the other to bury them within it as a thing of the past. This statement is indicative of the struggles that Indigenous Australians face in the constructions of their own Aboriginality.

This was never more evident than during the Andrew Bolt case where:

… in two famous columns in 2009 he took a swipe at “political” or “professional” or “official” Aborigines who could pass for white but chose to identify as black for personal or political gain, to win prizes and places reserved for real, black Aborigines and to borrow “other people’s glories.”

More recently, Tony Abbott reignited a similar argument when he foolishly described Western Australian Liberal MP Ken Wyatt as “not a man of culture”. Ken Wyatt is an Indigenous Australian.

I would have hoped that both incidences found their way into the dustbins of history, but they haven’t. Bolt’s comments, in particular, have entrenched themselves into our vernacular. Never before have I had the displeasure of hearing so many degrading comments aimed at our Aboriginal brothers and sisters as I have since the Bolt case. “He’s too white to be an Aborigine”, “She’s white but calls herself an Aborigine”, or the ultimate insult “He’s only a half-caste” are common speak.

Hence this article.

If people/journalists/politicians are prepared to make wild exaggerations about Aboriginal Australians then they should be prepared to at first learn where and how they belong in our society. Perhaps then they’d remain silent. Respectfully silent.

Bolt asserted that the hue of one’s skin is the only thing that matters when a person identifies themselves as an Indigenous Australian. He for one had failed to do some simple research and as a result of his laziness – and his influence – Aboriginal people are now being ‘classified’ like never before in the last decade, as I alluded to earlier.

I have done the research and this is what I have found.

If we cast ourselves back to 1788 we would embrace an environment where Aboriginality did not exist, but was to soon be invented by the colonising power. The European invaders constructed Aborigines as an ethnic category based on their own notions of culture and saddled Aboriginality on the Indigenous Australians, and European ideology continued to shape European ethnic perceptions. Prominent among the perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood.

Over the next hundred years European ideology continued to shape the whites’ perception of Aborigines. Among these perceptions it was believed that culture was carried in the blood, that culture was the external indicator of biological ancestry and culture, and that cultural characteristics, either heredity or unchanging, separated human groups from one another.

Ethnographic evidence indicates that before the arrival of Europeans, numerous distinct groups had occupied the Australian continent. Although these groups shared physical and cultural features and had ties of affinity, trade, and religious cooperation, these societies were distinguished by geography, language, and culture. With the benefit of hindsight, the ethnographic evidence failed to recognise that in determining identity, Aborigines traditionally attributed greater importance to culture and genealogical ties to heredity. Groups were differentiated on the basis of presence or absence of certain beliefs and behaviours, and of spiritual ties between people and land.

Basing their construction of Aboriginality on inadequate theories of culture, early anthropologists defined Aboriginality as constituting a pristine and timeless and cultural condition. Some still saw them as savages, remaining noble, despite constraining nature and unbending adherence to rules; the Aborigines typified a fossilised and primitive stage of social evolution. Ethnocentrism further led to the attribution or projection of negative characteristics. Even to this day – again, refer to my earlier claims – many people have a stereotype of Aboriginal people as being very black, standing on one leg with a spear and living in the desert.

Up until recently, the social and cultural practices in Australia rendered Aboriginal people invisible. As a consequence, while Anglo-Australians have continued to ‘know’ about Aborigines they have known them only by report. Even in the rural Australia, local Aboriginal people have been ignored in favour of ‘real Aborigines’, supposedly living in a tribal life in the bush. The public has been largely dependent on representations of Aborigines to be found in the statements of various ‘authorities’, the work of painters and photographers, the printed and recently the electronic media, or even artifacts aimed at the popular and tourist markets.

Such representations of Aboriginality called into doubt the special status of those who called themselves Aboriginal, but lived in urban settings, practised no traditional arts or ceremonies, and generally failed to ‘look the part’. Such people had constructed their Aboriginality in other modes, primarily by reference to proximate ancestors and living kin. Some have identified it as a major component of what is called ‘the Aboriginal commonality’, implying as it does a continuous network embracing all Aboriginal people throughout the continent.

Regardless, under the doctrine of Social Darwinism it was always expected that the Aborigines would not survive alongside the presumed European superiority. However, only Europeans had selected Aborigines for extinction. Nature had not. While Australia was told that Aborigines were not going to die out, it was also given to understand that Aboriginality was doomed. Timeless and unchanging, Aboriginal culture was incapable of coexistence with the modern world: the old Aboriginal cultures are collapsing everywhere under the impact of while settlement, mining exploration, pastoral expansion and the effects of State assimilation policies.

Managing Aboriginal people under one guise or another, the State has been in a position to influence their public constructions. Not only has it determined who should have access to them, but it has played a major role in the assembling of information about them, has commissioned much of the research conducted by experts on them, and has acted as patron for artistic representations of them. Consider, for example, the Western Australian interpretation of what constituted an Aboriginal person. Every person who is:

  • an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, or
  • a half-caste who lives with an Aboriginal as husband or wife, or
  • a half-caste who, otherwise than as wife or husband habitually lives or associates with Aborigines, or
  • a half-caste child whose age does not apparently exceed sixteen years, shall be deemed an Aboriginal within the meaning of this Act … ” (Western Australia Aborigines Act of 1905, Section 3).

Aborigines are no longer silent objects of study, but increasingly challenge the very terms in which they are written about. However, it is not easy to re-examine the intellectual heritage; a heritage that is a body of knowledge understood by those sharing the same discourse and built into our contemporary consciousness in many intricate and hidden ways. Aborigines are exploring their own Aboriginality and are finding that the white Australia cannot accept their own view of themselves. You can’t define Aboriginality in terms of the colour of their skin or in terms of what genes and chromosomes were inherited. Aboriginal people have a very strong spiritual heritage: above anything else it is the essence of being an Aboriginal.

Consider how different an Aboriginal interpretation of Aboriginality compares with the political or social construction. The emphasis on spiritual and cultural unity is absolute. They identify the following characteristics as common to all Australian Aborigines:

  • descent from the original inhabitants of Australia; a shared historical and cultural experience, particularly that arising from relations with non-Aborigines;
  • the Dreaming, or Aboriginal worldview; intimate familial relationship with the land and the natural world, and knowing the pervading moulding character of these in all matters Aboriginal’;
  • social interaction based predominantly on the mutual obligations of kinship; observance and social importance of mortuary rituals; and
  • bi- or multilingualism.

Whilst these elements constitute Aboriginality, Aboriginal values such as reciprocity and individuality could also be included although these are not unique to Aborigines. However the list provided could be considered typical of cultural inventories: they constitute a coherent set of characteristics that are present and enduring in all Aboriginal people. However, significantly, the operative definition of Aboriginality has shifted from biological to the cultural. The Aboriginal emphasis on kinship and behaviour in determining identity is apparent. Another notable characteristic of Aboriginal social life is the self-conscious identification with notions of sociability and behaviour ascribed to Aboriginality, a world view with definable social values, attitudes and cognitive orientations.

In denying people the right to relate to themselves through their bodies and where notions of kinship are organised around cultural notions of the body is denying Aboriginal a major aspect of their Aboriginality. The dominant theoretical prescription of ideal Aboriginality would act to prevent Aborigines from creating their identities out of the body and out of biology, and would also in effect prevent them talking descent and moreover reinventing their notions of descent.

The assertion of Aboriginality is part of a political process. Although the legal and social status of Aborigines has changed significantly, they are by no means equal participants in Australian society. They still suffer severe social disadvantage and defacto discrimination; in the eyes of many whites, being Aboriginal is still a social stigma. Against this background, many Aborigines are consciously and actively working to establish positive images of themselves and their cultures. This involves the rejection or reversal of dominant European definitions; the promotion of colour as a desirable feature rather than a taint; and the revival, invention, or adoption of distinctively Aboriginal cultural behaviours and symbols … the construction of a new identity in which all Aboriginal people can share.

In other words, it’s OK not to be black enough.

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