Michael Leunig on Identity


The famous Australian cartoonist gave this speech last year at The Disrupted Festival of  Ideas at the State Library of WA. I think some of his observations about the state of public discourse in Australia are on the money. Here’s a sample:

In a land that worships winners, doles out awards, trophies and medals for even the most dubious achievements, and has discomfort with the acknowledgement of loss and grief, negativity is often repressed from conversation – perhaps for fear that the barbeque will run out of gas, or the beer will go flat. If we express sadness, we are often told to cheer up. If we express joyfulness about beauty, we are told to calm down, particularly if we are male.

Does Australia have a problem with introspection, joy, sadness, or beauty? Is there the sufficient cultural humility, openness or courage required to enter into these personal matters? Publicly?

It’s as if we are becoming constricted by our rampant materialism and secularity, and more adverse to soulfulness or the negative capability required to access the profound mysteries of existence. We have become timid and embarrassed about this eternal frontier.

We seem addicted to factual certainty and a vehement secular hope in the promise of science. Being right, even about trivial things. has become very important We rush too quickly for answers or a diagnosis of our social ills; we are wary of the unknowable, we turn away from lyricism, metaphor and poetic truth in our existential insecurity, we embrace the clinical language of law and statistics to explain our human condition – and in so doing, define our identity too narrowly, too technically, too starkly in a new form of modernist fundamentalism. We limit ourselves. We are a nation that appears to be afraid of the darkness – the fertile darkness, and in that sense we have an infantile or immature streak.

Alas I have found it is the more soulful or spiritual expression and the sincerity of the idiosyncratic or visionary intelligence that gets too much persecuted and mocked. That’s what is declared irrelevant by those who presume to ordain the nature of reality. The fact that intelligent personal truth can be so intolerable and forbidden in the public domain, would suggest that the nation is either becoming a huge committee of cautious, if not insipid and frightened individuals – or else a lynch mob of egotistical, brain ridden fanatics projecting certitudes and opinions most forcefully and fiercely through mainstream and social media in a delusional quest for power. How bitter, fast and unloving is the cult of cleverness. How arrogant and vain.

It seems to me a great pity, that people should withhold their convictions and wisdom through intimidation and fear of the mob – be it an educated intellectual mob or a mob of brutes. We are impoverished as a nation by this cultural inhibition and shaming of our true nature, with all its benefits and genius that should be feeding into the life-blood of society as a regenerative stimulant and nourishment. It happens as much in art as it does in politics or public discourse.



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