Ideologies in Australian culture

I recently had the great privilege of sharing a conversation and a coffee with Hugh Mackay, a prominent social scientist who has been commenting on Australian culture for over 30 years. His latest book, Australia Reimagined, offers fascinating insights into contemporary Australian culture. Whilst his book explores an array of subjects, one of the most striking is how much ideological pervasion is currently going on in our society.

The narratives dominating western society

Ideologies are akin to grand narratives. Essentially they are the discourses that as a society, we think, speak and act through, mostly unconsciously. As social beings, we pick up language and attitudes from each other and some of that comes from dominant political and social discourses and influences. Usually there are many ideologies that pervade simultaneously with some more dominant than others. Take for example the ideologies of relativism, subjectivism and individualism. All three dominate much of western democratic society and are all underpinned by a long term ideology of liberalism. What makes them so powerful is they can help shape societies to achieve beneficial means and ends. However, they can also play to the causes of human suffering. Let me explain further. 

Relativism essentially asserts there is no universal, objective truth or morality, but rather each individual’s point of view has its own truth or moral basis.

 Subjectivism asserts our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience, instead of shared or communal experience, and there is no external or objective truth outside of our own thoughts. Individualism asserts our moral worth and the right to pursue our own goals and desires whilst valuing our independence and self-reliance as individuals. It advocates that our interests as an individual should achieve precedence over others, such as the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon our own interests by society or institutions, such as the Government. Finally, liberalism asserts a political and moral philosophy that encourages the individual to freely exercise choice whilst pursuing liberty and equality through civil rights, democracy, secularism, gender and race equality, as well as internationalism and the freedoms of speech, the press, religion and markets. It also advocates human separation from, and opposition to, nature.

So, what do all of these ideologies encourage or reinforce? They lead many of us to: see ourselves as individuals who are more important than others; view truth as relative only to our own experiences and thoughts; believe we have infinite choices we are free to pursue; believe our morality is a matter for each of us individually; and believe we are not part of nature, but instead we should seek to dominate it for our own ends and means. It sounds harsh, and as with all ideologies, they are generalisations, but they are also legitimate means by which we can describe the dominant influences of one or many generations. And of course, there are others that I haven’t referenced here.

Living with ourselves

To be fair, we all participate in ideological intentions, whether consciously or unconsciously. In fact these influences are not necessarily new, at least not for western society, as we have been pursuing paths associated with individualism for almost 400 years, and as I often say somewhat ‘tongue in cheek’, we’ve finally arrived and now we have to live with ourselves!!

So, why are ideologies a problem? Well firstly, they play to an aspect of our minds that sees ourselves as superior to others and this can often play out in very unhealthy ways. When we develop a sense of superiority we effectively isolate ourselves from those around us, whether they are known to us or not. As Hugh Mackay observes, over two million Australians are clinically diagnosed with depression and similar numbers with anxiety. He puts this down to a number of factors, however one of the main causes appears to be our isolation from others, and an unhealthy level of self-absorption.

Secondly, we are increasingly isolating ourselves from the wisdom of our shared history as captured through the great bodies of knowledge such as our mythologies, philosophies, theologies and the humanities. We now prefer to rely on our own point of view, formed from our own lived experiences, that whilst worthy of great regard and attention, need to be aided in their interpretations and meanings with the wisdom of many generations past. And on this point, I would stress the wisdom of our indigenous generations and their histories are also worthy of great respect to aid us in our knowledge.

Thirdly, seeing morality as relative to our own beliefs and experiences combined with the pursuit of infinite choice leads us into very dangerous territory. As Clive Hamilton explains in his book, The Freedom Paradox, “in contrast with the prevailing view that being free means being able to do what we please, we cannot be truly free without committing ourselves to a moral life along with its internal constraints.”

Meaning and morality – why we suffer when we don’t know ourselves

Let me explain this a little further. Let’s just say we were afforded every freedom, whether that be financial, ethical or moral as examples, without any form of constraint. Essentially two things would happen. Firstly, we wouldn’t be able to move as the range of choices would effectively paralyse us. Secondly, and more importantly, we wouldn’t know the deeper nature of ourselves. We would lose all sense of true identity. It is because of our internal constraints, moral compass and ethics, that we, to a large degree, define our deeper selves. Those things we will or won’t accept as a means to avoid our suffering and find our happiness, as well as how we treat others, is inexorably caught up in how we define what we often refer to as our ‘soul’. What we love and value is what we identify with and these things impose obligations upon us. If we fail to live up to these obligations, we suffer through self-betrayal. When we combine greater choice with a lack of self-control our sense of identify deteriorates. That is, when we move away from our moral compass we have a weaker sense of who we truly are and we suffer accordingly. Thus, ultimately, the meaning we bring to the world and our morality cannot be separated.

Life: an ‘ethical work in progress’

Whilst Aristotle and the Buddha disagreed on the premise of Self and No Self as the basis of their philosophical arguments, they both agreed one’s life was an ‘ethical work in progress’. That is to say, every experience in life is an opportunity to discover, nurture and improve upon our ethos and therefore improve upon who we truly are. They both also agreed it was near impossible to perfect these at any point in time in our life, but it was possible to get better over time as we moved through life, gathering wisdom from both personal experience and the knowledge of the sages. The gathering of wisdom was a way of moving towards the perfections and a life of greater happiness.

The preceding grand narratives will lead me to a series of blogs on their effects but for now, let me say this… Self over other leads to our suffering. Knowledge without wisdom is just knowledge, and when combined with self over other we become both arrogant and ignorant. Our ethos and our identity are inseparable. Our moral compass and its relationship with a universal morality matters and it is worth investing time to understand what our boundaries are as a way of interacting in the world, enriching our meaning and purpose, and avoiding your own suffering.

So, what is the universal morality? I’ll leave that to the next blog!