The Problem With Multiculturalism Highlighted In Detrimental Safe Schools Changes

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

After being appointed to do so by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, UWA Professor William Louden authored an important review of the safe schools program which has been published today on education.gov. Contained within his review are a number of criticisms and recommended changes to the structure of the notorious anti-bullying program.

What is most notable is that restrictions on some lessons, specifically role-playing exercises, have been linked back to “conservative cultural groups” in the reasoning for their removal – think religious families who have come to Australia from India or Saudi Arabia or any other number of countries where LGBTQI individuals are not recognised, legally persecuted and often killed, either under systemic corruption, religious beliefs of the theological state, and more often than not a toxic combination of both.

Herein lies the problem with Australia’s popular discourse of multiculturalism, diversity and unity. What is most revealing is the selective wording chosen to discuss what is ultimately the same thing as ‘different people of different beliefs all being equally right’ – by using the peachy term ‘conservative cultural groups,’ involved ministers have managed to narrowly avoid a discussion about the role of religion in modern Australia – particularly fundamentalist Catholicism, Islam, and conservative Hinduism.

When everyone has the right to express their own beliefs, what do we do when those beliefs directly oppose one another? In the name of multiculturalism, no body is incorrect. No body can be told they are wrong. This is where the problems start. What is interesting is that our representative ministers have chosen the rights of foreign cultural groups over Australian students. I am not implying that there are no Australian religious families out there with LGBT children, but to deny the obvious is to do nothing.

Safe schools has been receiving a flurry of media attention all throughout this year, primarily for its groundbreaking focus on LGBTQI children in Australian primary education, and the policies and procedures it is aiming to implement in the name of reversing discrimination. Ultimately, and without wanting to be too cold and analytical about the issue, the basic jist is this:  suicide rates are disproportionately high amongst LGBTQI Australians – particularly young adults – and a wide expanse of literature exists linking prolonged childhood bullying to later mental health concerns, mostly low self-esteem and depression, identified as pressing causes in suicides everywhere. So right off the bat, it’s obvious that the safe schools program is both something Australian schools need, and something that is likely to bring with it many raised eyebrows from all sides of the field.

The suggested changes threaten to impeach upon the accessibility of this program to LGBTQI students, and also threaten to reduce the quality of content being delivered as educational modules. Here are the biggest suggested changes listed below, as pulled from the crikey article:

  • Like religious education, the safe schools program is recommended to be taught only when parental consent has been received,
  • Heteronormativity has been identified as too complex for 7 – 8 year old students,
  • The suggested removal of role playing exercises that ask students to imagine what it might be like to be homosexual are the elements of this review that have been solely linked back to ‘conservative cultural groups’,
  • Intersex has been identified as age inappropriate,
  • All third party materials are now disallowed from the program, leaving only government sponsored content remaining,
  • All lessons must now be passed by an education panel effectively dishing out peer review.

So then let’s look at ‘multiculturalism’ – like me, you probably attended a high school that had a ‘diverstiy day’ or a ‘multicultural day’ where all different nationals set up stalls representing their home country, often providing native foods and informational posters. Further yet, most of you probably have some form of this going on at your University campus at least once a week. This is all fine, and probably condusive to a more peaceful society, up until the rights of one group receive preference over another group.

If we look beyond the scope of the current safe schools example, one might realise that this is bound to happen over and over again, as it always has done, much to the blind eye of mainstream media circuits. This is the troubling flip-side of social justice: inclusion versus discrimination, a troubling philosophical gray zone which is bound to snag the line of progress in any bureaucratically managed institution – we have seen the same thing happen in Universities again and again. The historiography of Indigenous studies, for example, is an interesting merry-go-round of history where White academics have been identified as unallowed to speak about issues, then re-accepted back into the discourse, and then suggested once again that their voices are over-represented. I do not bring this up to make any statements, or to liken the treatment of our First Peoples to the context of the safe schools review – only to highlight the problematic nature of change, growth and decay in the process of creating a truly united, ‘all-accepted’ society.

In 1996, author Ien Ang wrote an interesting case study on the treatment of Asian Women in Australian society, highlighting that there are inherent contradictions in the notion of a multicultural nation, and that a self-congratulatory stance is not enough to overcome the relations of “acceptance/rejection between majority and minority groups.”

At what point is it appropriate to tell somebody that their beliefs have no place, if we are to blindly continue supporting a flawed idea of unified diversity? Like all things, it is much easier to choose a hardline for or against stance, without ever wanting to discuss the dirty and murky clashes of ideas.

But we are witnessing one of these clashes right now, and lives may continue to be needlessly lost because of it. The factor at play here is when we will admit that we can’t have the perfection we want.