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identity and andrew bolt

Mentioning Andrew Bolt’s name is controversial. Examining his writing riles some up, encourages some, disgusts others. He’s most recently been in the news for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act in several of his columns, which are still available to read online if you must; however, as you read them I would encourage you instead to consider what constitutes identity, and who (if anybody) has the authority to question it.

In summary, Bolt talks about what he calls “white Aborigines”, persons of Aboriginal descent who are lighter-skinned than what Bolt deems to be acceptable. He claims that these people are choosing to align themselves with that one particular strand of heritage over the European strands, and in doing so, stop the “full-blood Aborigines” from gaining recognition by winning many (if not all) of a number of Indigenous artistic and scholarly prizes.

Of course he also claims that his intention in asserting that one must be at least a little dark skinned to identify as Indigenous was to promote a world in which we look past race and define ourselves as nothing, to overcome the “divisive” nature of race to form a society in which we are merely “proud only of being human beings”.

Clearly, that message got lost somewhere amongst all the vitriol.

I’m not going to examine the court’s decision, and nor am I going to touch on the notion of free speech, because I am not a lawyer. What I will pick on is Bolt’s choice of terminology, something which, as a student, I can discuss with the aid of that wonderful tool we call ‘research’. I refer in particular to the term ‘Aborigine’ which Bolt finds so charming. Any journalist wishing to present a balanced article which showed respect for all concerned would surely check and see that the word ‘Aborigine’ “has negative connotations and should be avoided”. Surely anyone who wished to promote one peaceful world would avoid such inflammatory language; more to the point, surely a journalist with such a goal would check first to see what language is even considered inflammatory. Bolt did not.

Now to the question of identity. I do not identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander because I have no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage, and I even think that perhaps I shouldn’t even be writing this because, well, who am I as a non-Indigenous Australian to say how Indigenous Australians should live? But the point here is that I’m not saying anything to anybody other than Bolt, who I believe has no business criticising a nation of people he can ever fully understand, by virtue of the fact that he does not belong to that nation. In the same way, Bolt himself has Dutch parents and once identified as Dutch and not Australian, something that I am unqualified to comment on because I am not Dutch.

I was raised as Australian. My upbringing did not emphasise my European heritage over my Australian heritage, and it is this fact which leads me to identify as Australian. Regardless, I believe that if I felt a growing bond with my other roots and my self-view shifted to German-Australian, then that would be my business and my business only. Identity is more involved than choosing your favourite piece of the puzzle; in fact, there is nothing as simple as choice when it comes to the formation of an identity, and this reason alone should have been enough to stop the publication of Bolt’s articles regardless of their racist content.

It can take a lifetime to forge your identity, and anybody who hasn’t lived your life cannot know the many factors that have been at play in its formation. Anybody who hasn’t lived your life cannot know who you are, cannot know where you have been, and cannot judge whatever identity has been created. Bolt has not lived any life but his own. He knows only himself. He has no right to pretend to know otherwise.

(Image credit: 1.)

3 thoughts on “identity and andrew bolt

  1. Well parts of a person’s identity may for many years be unknown to an individual – for instance, to this day my aunt knows more about my family history than I do!

    And a person may claim a particularly identity for many reasons, and many of those reasons will be selfish: to get ahead in a job, to fit in with a particular group, to avoid being stigmatised, to appear better than someone else, to demonstrate solidarity with others… etc.

    In my view personal choice does come into claims of personal identity quite a lot and if Bolt had merely made this general point he wouldn’t have been taken to court… but then, of course, we get into the area of defamation, journalistic research, and so on, and we all know by now that that was where Bolt really got caught out: he made contentious claims about people’s identity – AND he got his facts wrong.

    On a broader point, ‘identity politics’ – and related questions around who has a particular identity, how they can claim that identity, and what it means for them once they claim the identity – has been with us now for at least 50 years. And I think it’s had a largely deleterious effect on society – because many people now habitually think of themselves in terms used as group identifiers, in terms used as moral, free-willed individuals. I tend to see it this way: a prison camp attendant wants to know about your identity, but they don’t care about your character. A friend, on the other hand, wants to know your character; they may not care at all about your identity.

    Bolt was perhaps neither wholly wrong nor right, but in pursuing questions on this subject he has at least contributed to an important debate. And it’s worthwhile carrying on in our own time too, I think.

    Cheers, guys!

  2. I meant to reply to this ages ago – sorry Tim!

    Re Bolt, of course his factual errors were important legally (and really should mean his writings are further scrutinised by the public/other media outlets in the future, because he is a journalist – aren’t they supposed to, you know, tell the truth? But anyway.) but there’s also a bunch of other factors which make his article so offensive, and I believe that neither he nor I should question people’s identity – especially not knowing them.

    What really struck me was the identity vs character point you raised, and the potentially harmful nature of claiming a strong identity and ignoring other aspects of one’s self-view. In the wider identity-sphere as it were, those are really interesting points. I guess as long as we all consider who we are as well as what we are, and recognise what other people should value us for, then the two can balance out. Definitely food for thought. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Bolt’s strong alignment with Israeli policies suggests to me he might actually be Jewish.

    Wikipedia describes him as Agnostic, sometimes used as a term to muddy the waters.

    Is Bolt ethnically Jewish? Who is in a position to clarify that point?

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