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The virtue of humility

Race Race Discrimination

Occasional address, Graduation ceremony of Southern Cross University

The Hon. John Dowd AO QC, Chancellor
Mr Trevor Wilson, Deputy Chancellor
Professor Peter Lee, Vice Chancellor
Graduates of Southern Cross University
Parents, family and friends of graduates

May I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respect to elders past and present.

Graduations are a most happy occasion. I know this, as I have myself have had more than one. I have often joked that the nine years I spent as a student at university were because I enjoyed graduating so much.

To the graduates today, I imagine that you are feeling gratification, and rightly so. Those of you who are family and friends of graduates are, no doubt, swelling with pride. In these respects, graduations can resemble a triumph.

In our common usage, a triumph means a success. In ancient times, a triumph referred to the public celebration that the Romans would have to welcome a general and his army after a conquest or victorious campaign. Rome’s citizen army would parade through the city, following an ancient route, marching past temples to the gods with great fanfare, as they showed off captured loot and defeated kings.

Leading it all would be the general in his chariot, a wreath held over his head, and draped in the robes of a god. But in his moment of glory, the general would have standing behind him a slave, who would whisper in his ear – over and over again, as he absorbed the adulation of Roman citizens – “Remember you are a mortal.”

The ancients believed in the importance of humility in triumph. Our current age, at least in my view, doesn’t always remember the need for humility as well as it should. Particularly in our digital world, we can tend towards disclosure rather than discretion. There are fewer and fewer things that we keep only to ourselves, and when we celebrate our successes it can often err on the side of over-the-top. We have got to the point where humility is now commonly invoked as in the form of indirect boasting – as in the so-called practice of the “humblebrag”, when someone can artfully bring up their achievements in the form of artificial self-deprecation.

Today, like the slave whispering in the ear of the general, I would like to say a little about the importance of remembering our limits and of practicing moderation in our lives. I say this not to dampen any joy today; I say it because I believe that humility is one virtue required for human flourishing. It is a quality that is required not only for us to improve ourselves, but also for us to treat others well.

When I reflect upon my own work in the area of racial discrimination and human rights, this is one point to which I increasingly return. Namely, while racism can be born of fear and hate, it can also be born of ignorance and arrogance. Let me explain what I mean by this, and the connection with being humble.

Many, for instance, continue to believe that racism refers only to behavior connected to a belief in racial superiority. And yet, words or actions can have a racist effect even it they are not accompanied by nasty intent. This is the case with what has been labeled “casual racism”, where someone can make something like a throwaway comment that has the effect of denigrating or humiliating another because of their race. What one person may regard as harmless may in fact inflict some injury on another.

Last year, we saw a powerful illustration of this through the episode involving AFL footballer Adam Goodes and media personality Eddie McGuire. As many of you know, Goodes – an Aboriginal man – had been called an “ape” by a young spectator at a match in Melbourne. A few days later, McGuire would jokingly refer to Goodes promoting the musical King Kong. McGuire, I believe, did not intend to say something racist in likening Goodes to King Kong. But the effect remained the same. Racism, after all, is as much about impact as it is about intention.

One major challenge with my role on the issue of racism is getting Australians to reflect on their attitudes and behavior. This is by no means an easy thing. Often, the problem with prejudice and discrimination doesn’t involve people who are evil or heinous. It can involve people who may have good intentions, and who may be good people; it may just be that their way of talking to or doing things doesn’t always result in others being treated fairly. But how can people come to change their ways, if they don’t even see that there is a problem in the first place? It is frequently the case that what some regard as racial prejudice or discrimination, others regard as humour or part of free speech.

This is where something like humility comes into the picture. Because for there to be recognition that one may be in the wrong, even when one doesn’t necessarily mean to be, there must first be humility. Someone must be willing to acknowledge that their current ways may not necessarily be right or the best. This is what I mean when I say that prejudice can be born of arrogance as well as ignorance. As the philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, “there is no respect for others without humility in one’s self”.

All this frequently overlaps with another challenge: one of empathy. A failure to understand the impact of one’s behavior can reflect an inability to see things from the perspective of another. This can be true of those who should know better. The strong and intelligent can be lacking most in empathy. When it concerns racism, those in positions of social privilege commonly dismiss or underestimate the harm of discrimination. They can fail to understand that the power or free speech that they might enjoy may not necessarily be exercised by those less powerful or with less voice. Yet empathy would mean very little if one cannot express compassion for those who are weak or vulnerable.

Graduates, today, you come to the formal completion of your degree. For some of you, there may well be further study. For others, this will be the culmination of your education. Whichever category you belong to, education in its truest sense will always be ongoing. And it will be as much about sentiment as it will be about knowledge. Education is nothing if not about the cultivation of character: about the expansion of one’s thinking, the challenging of one’s ability, the examination of one’s values. And it begins with the humble acknowledgement that however much we do know, there remains much that we do not know.

As I have said, it may seem out of step with the times to stress humility as a virtue. But in a world where everything is happening faster, when everything has grown complex, when everyone it seems has an expert opinion on everything, sometimes the most enlightened course is to suspend our judgment and accept our imperfection. Because sometimes there can be nothing worse than trying to transcend our limits, for we then forget what it means to be human.

To all of you graduating today, and to all your families, you have my warmest congratulations. I am honoured to be with you to celebrate your triumph. I wish you all the very best in your endeavours. May you enjoy every success and happiness.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner