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14 August 2016




On Monday I enjoyed a night at the Opera House, listening to the rather impressive Australian Youth Orchestra during an evening of Ravel, Vine and Mahler that included Mahler’s first symphony, Titan – one of my favourite symphonies with its playful quirkiness and extravagant musical intertextuality.  It did not go down so well with Mahler’s contemporaries though, who at the time were bewildered rather than amused by its humour and eclecticism.

The Opera House, which never fails to amaze me, was lit in green that night – I found out later that this was meant to serve as a reminder to the people of Sydney to fill in their census online on Tuesday night.  Unfortunately this well-intentioned signal could not prevent the technological problems that affected the actual night of the census!

As I looked at the green sails of the Opera House, first from the Quay, then from the ferry, I thought back to the brilliant spectacle that is Vivid Sydney when clever lighting systems enable the key landmarks of Sydney to change their colour at breathtaking speed.  The Opera House is a bit like a chameleon, changing colour depending on circumstances, being able to light up in the colours of a country struck by an act of terrorism as a gesture of solidarity or in the Australian Olympic colours in honour of Rio 2016.  One almost forgets what its true colour is.

It made me reflect on people and on the saying “to show one’s true colours”.  This phrase is usually used in a pejorative sense and has its origins in a nautical expression, referring back to sailors who sailed under false colours, a false flag, usually because they were pirates who did not reveal their true colours (the pirate flag) until they were within entering distance of their target.

To a certain extent, we all behave like chameleons at times, sailing under false colours and adjusting to our surroundings.  We behave differently, speak differently, dress differently when we go for a job interview from when we go to the pub with a bunch of mates.  Few of us would risk standing out from the societal norm in certain situations – a notable exception that comes to mind is the notorious “naked rambler” in the UK who has been walking the British countryside for years, wearing nothing but his hat and his walking boots.  He gets himself arrested regularly for disturbing the peace, but remains unperturbed by this small inconvenience and usually starts his next ramble within days of being released from prison.

He is, however, a rarity – and this is probably not a bad thing.  There are situations where we are expected to conform to certain standards and conventions, and if we do stand out, we should do so for the right reasons.


The big difference between people and the Opera House is that the Opera House changes its colour to attract attention and promote a message of public interest, whereas people usually change colour to blend in or to gain an advantage for themselves.  Like chameleons, people use this strategy as a type of camouflage and for conformity.

There are, however, limits to how far we should go in our conformity and in changing colour according to circumstances.  Those who blend in too willingly (the bystanders of bullying incidents, for example, who want to blend in with the popular crowd and actively condone acts of cowardice, or people who shift allegiance and either make new friends or abandon old and trusted ones when it seems opportune to do so) will ultimately not remain true to themselves.  We all need a moral centre and a moral compass, and it is in morally challenging situations that people reveal their true colours – either in a good or in a bad sense.

Gustav Mahler, despite shifting allegiance from Judaism to Catholicism to secure his position in Vienna, had the courage to stand out from the mainstream when he challenged certain expectations and conventions of classical music, and he risked his career for his beliefs.  Sophie and Hans Scholl and their young friends, who distributed leaflets to mobilise the Germans against Hitler, risked and lost their lives for their courage.  Nowadays, at least in our comparatively safe western democracies, standing up for what is good and right is far less dangerous, so taking a stand against bullies, standing up for our political beliefs or honouring our friendships and staying loyal and steadfast, even in rocky circumstances, should be the norm rather than the exception.

Being an opportunistic chameleon may serve some short-term goals, advance your career, save you from trouble or help you blend in, but adjusting too much and forgetting who you are, what you stand for or who your true friends are will ultimately cripple you as a human being.  Chameleons need their adaptive colour changes for survival, but it is our morality that distinguishes us from lizards.  We have the freedom and the duty to make moral decisions, and it can be a challenge to decide when to adapt and blend in, and when to resist and take a stand.  The latter choice comes with risks – but they are worth taking if they allow us to stay true to ourselves and our values.  If you are a rock, you can be an anchor for yourself and others; if you are a chameleon, nobody will be able to hold on to you in stormy weather and you will be swept away.

The beautifully light-hearted words of Dr Seuss, spoken by the Birthday Bird in the book Happy Birthday to You!, encourage us to celebrate our individuality and to be ourselves.


Today you are you,

This is truer than true.

There is no one alive

Who is youer than you.










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