The Hatfield clan circa 1897
I had a long chat recently with an old mate from my politics days who I hadn’t seen for some time. The conversation turned to Aboriginal affairs issues, as it does when you’ve both worked with and for Indigenous groups for the best part of thirty years.
Somewhat surprisingly for an aging lefty, my old mate’s attitude was quite similar to mine (and that of another old lefty in Bob Durnan who I often mention in posts like this). The former left-liberal approach to Aboriginal affairs, based as it was on “self-determination” and symbolic issues like treaties, apologies and recognition of customary law, just didn’t work. The plight of Aboriginal people actually became progressively worse by just about any measure. Of course, some supporters of that approach continue to argue that self-determination was only ever tried in a half-hearted, piecemeal, stop-start fashion. There’s probably some truth in that , but you still can’t argue that those policies even remotely resembled a raging success.
Similarly, the Howard Intervention and its relabelling by the ALP government as “Closing the Gap” has also enjoyed underwhelming success to date despite multi-billion dollar spending, as a recent article by Indigenous legal academic Larissa Behrendt highlights. Part of the problem, as Behrendt argues, is the “top-down”, prescriptive, paternalistic nature of the federal programs. As Behrendt observes, successive Productivity Commission reports (hardly a bleeding heart, left-leaning organisation) have found that the programs that work in Aboriginal communities are those based on consultation, partnership, mutual respect and communities “taking ownership” of initiatives. That must not obviate acountability or efficiency, but the two are not incompatible.
However, I strongly suspect after nearly 30 years of observation that the lack of a “partnership” approach per se isn’t the main problem. The principal and possibly insoluble problem is that key central aspects of traditional Indigenous culture are simply fundamentally incompatible with a contemporary, post-industrial, western capitalist individualistic culture like that of the dominant Australian community. However, as soon as you make such a statement, other than privately and sotto voce, you end up being howled down as a “racist” (or at the very least an arrogant xenophobe). Even undeniably well-motivated, knowledgeable experts like veteran anthropologist Peter Sutton have experienced this backlash after daring to critique aspects of Aboriginal culture. Here is Sutton talking about the inherent extreme violence of Aboriginal society:
The anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, lived and worked with Aboriginal people for 40 years, including in Central Australia. He says violence was not considered inherently negative.
Peter Sutton: There were many acts of violence which were considered very important and positive, such as cutting open the skull with stones in grief, such as piercing the nasal septum to wear a nose peg, such as circumcision, sub-incision, and other bodily operations that were part of the religious law and status marking and so on.
Chris Bullock: He says today’s violence is a mix of things that are deeply embedded, like teaching children to react quickly to a threat, because that was a critical survival response in days gone by.
Peter Sutton: So when you’ve got children still being brought up to be quickly vengeful and quickly vengeful in a physical way when they’re slighted or insulted or attacked, if you combine that with a sedentary community, people living maybe 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 strong in what is really a kind of a suburb in the bush, where people are not dispersed and they’re not moving camp whenever they need to, but have to keep dealing with the same relatives all the time, and these people are all related in these communities, then you add to that, say, alcohol, which is a disinhibiter, it lets the steam off, you can suddenly have a tremendous amount of bloodshed because it’s the new combination that is structuring this thing and it’s going off. But one element of it, or two or three elements of it actually come down from a very long ancient line of how children are raised.
In other words, while the extreme violence, especially against women, that we witness today is certainly exacerbated by alcohol and substance abuse, violence at levels that non-Indigenous Australians rightly regard as utterly unacceptable was always inherent in Aboriginal society. It’s a point veteran journalist Hal Colebatch makes even more trenchantly in the latest edition of Quadrant, albeit that he rather undermines his own argument by relying on egregious ideological denialist Andrew Bolt.
Sutton also emphasises a much less well understood aspect of traditional Aboriginal culture and religion, the concept of sorcery, curses and payback violence, as this summary of Sutton’s book The Politics of Suffering by the Dominican Friars observes:
Many remote-area indigenous people also believe most illnesses and deaths are due “to the ill will and sorcery of other people”, a belief that further complicates efforts to boost health. …
In fact if anything this understates the real picture. Traditional Aboriginal people believe that not only just about all illnesses and the deaths flowing from them, but also accidents and many if not most criminal acts, are a result of curses and sorcery inflicted by particular malevolent individuals from other clans. There is no such thing as illness or accident! Not only does this extraordinary belief system result in cycles of extreme and utterly irrational “payback'” violence inflicted on entire extended families for acts they didn’t cause and are powerless to prevent or mitigate, but more generally it also means Aboriginal people have no incentive to examine or change their own behaviours. Why worry about alcohol or substance abuse, poor nutrition or personal hygiene if these things have no causative relationship with the observable chaos and misery that surround you?
The ongoing farce of 60 people from Yuendumu who keep fleeing their community and ending up in Adelaide is a result of just such a bizarre, irrational “payback” situation. It makes the Hatfields and McCoys or the Montagues and Capulets look like models of proportionate restraint by comparison. At least their vendettas were triggered by real acts that someone actually committed! The Yuendumu feud between the Watson and Nelson clans is exceptional only in the large number of people fleeing town and the fact that they keep lobbing in Adelaide and hence hitting the national media.
Other aspects of traditional culture that are fundamentally incompatible with modern society include the rituals of “sorry business”. Whole communities shut down, sometimes for weeks on end, when someone dies. Moreover, given the ubiquitous extreme violence and range of behaviours leading to appalling health outcomes, deaths are frequent. “Sorry business” rituals mean that Aboriginal communities cannot maintain business enterprises capable of competing in the broader economy, nor can traditional individuals hold down jobs in the mainstream economy unless they have extremely understanding and flexible employers.
Finally, the traditional system of “caring and sharing” kinship obligations, so beloved of many left-leaning commentators wearing rose-tinted spectacles, is itself rendered toxic by interaction with the modern economy and welfare state. Why bother to hold down a job if you’re going to be forced to share your earnings with a swag of idle, welfare-dependant relatives who will intimidate you to hand over your cash to fund their alcohol, substance abuse, gambling and porn addictions? It is largely this ugly phenomenon which causes otherwise left-leaning community workers like Bob Durnan to support the Intervention income management program despite its evident paternalistic aspects. Income management means that mothers at least have enough unstolen money to feed and clothe their kids.
Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson tries (tacitly) to undertake his own form of social engineering by advocating that Indigenous people adopt a “ladder of opportunity” world view in which they put the welfare of their immediate family first. However, Pearson deliberately fudges the extent to which that would represent a radical departure from the traditional culture of kinship obligation.
Frankly, I despair of any lasting positive changes in Aboriginal society unless and until Aboriginal people themselves decide to address these issues and adapt their own culture to the contemporary world. The assimilation and “stolen generation” policies of the twentieth century demonstrated the futility of imposing such changes forcibly on any culture or community. How to effectively sow the seeds of such a desire for change is the problem, at least as I see it? Honest discussion like this post could be a useful start, though only if at least some others participate in a constructive spirit. Real friends don’t hesitate to level with each other when one of them is stuffing up. The same should be true of blunt but fair and reasoned criticism of cultures in our midst, despite the post-modernist pressure for multicultural “acceptance'” of even the most obnoxious practices of oppressed minorities. However, the real solution must lie in education, both of children and adults, as well as identification and fostering of potential future leaders. If we had a couple of Noel Pearsons in every community then real change would become possible. But knowing that and achieving it are two different things.