December 2023 – January 2024

Life Sentences

‘That is inappropriate’

By Hannie Rayson
The author is challenged on the privilege of the progressive, egalitarian ideals of her ‘multicultural’ generation

The first person I heard say, “That is inappropriate” was a boy I shared a house with in Brunswick. I had told him my mum used chicken stock in vegetable soup that she then served to vegetarians, so they could enjoy something with a bit more flavour. I thought this was funny. He thought it was morally reprehensible – and entirely inappropriate.

My parents lived and let live. That was their code of honour: I cannot remember an occasion when either of them said, “That is inappropriate.” Frankly, it is an expression that their parents might have used in some dour yesteryear, when it was bad form to show up at a christening without a hat.

I was raised on the sunny uplands of liberal humanism, where I imbibed my parents’ philosophy that bad behaviour needed to be understood and forgiven. You should be slow to judge people, they thought, because you don’t know what other people are dealing with. What they’ve been through. Before you rush to judgement, you should give people the benefit of the doubt.

These days we are encouraged to call out and judge. Name and shame. Forgiveness has fallen from favour. Doubt is now the harbinger of damnation.

With increasing clarity, I have begun to see that my parents’ world view existed on a spectrum between apathy and privilege. It was a manifestation of what a white middle-class life allows: a belief that humanity and the universe are essentially benign. This same tolerance – this privilege – enabled me and my cohort from the 1970s to embrace a universalist politic that insisted the things we share are more important than the things that divide us.

To be on the left, or to be a decent small “l” liberal in Australia, was to believe that human beings are not divided by skin colour, upbringing, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Sure, these things define us. They are what make us distinctive and interesting to each other. But they should not make us strangers. And that was the aspiration that reached its highpoint in the ideals of a “multicultural” Australia, which were so hegemonic from the 1970s to the ’90s.

But as it turned out – and as the new ideology attests – the progressive impulse in Australia has not necessarily been that hospitable to many identity groups. They are not feeling the love. Nor the equity, nor the privileges.

That’s undeniable.

They are also not necessarily committed to “everybody” or to the belief that members of different identity groups can properly understand each other. Recently I was talking to a young woman about why old men cannot desist from asking taxi drivers of colour where they come from.

“No matter how often you explain to these Old Men that this is othering, they still maintain that they are just being friendly,” my young colleague sighed.

I remembered how egalitarian and proud we used to feel being Australian and sitting in the front seat in cabs. Only toffs sat in the back. You can still sit in the front, but you mustn’t other. Even if you believe you don’t have a racist bone in your body. Even if you are hoping to start a bonding conversation with a person who is unlike you.

When I try to defend good-natured old blokes – and myself, the most snoopy person in the world – my young friend is adamant.

“Why can’t you just start a conversation about something else? Why does it have to be about asserting your status as the country’s true host?”

Fair enough.

This is unexamined racism, she tells me, and anyone who does not understand how inappropriate this behaviour is has a tin ear.

Duly noted.

I think of all the delightful and life-enriching conversations I’ve had with cabbies when I’ve asked, “Where are you from?”, and I feel a sort of sadness as I see a picture of this girl sitting in the back seat in silence on her phone.

Why does the new generation of thinkers lay so much store by the concept of appropriateness? It’s so huffy. It is designed to silence people, make them desist from conversing, embarrass them for their social inadequacy, and, at its most arbitrary, to brand them guilty of moral crimes. And who is setting this code of proper conduct – which new lords of the manor, which monarchs of the glen?

There is no question that we all have to examine our own racism and prejudices. Along the way, let’s try to be fair rather than appropriate.

Hannie Rayson

Hannie Rayson is a playwright and screenwriter.


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