This is a guest post by Homestead: Theatre of Words.
The extremes of assault, murder, rape, suicide, addiction and abuse (unto death) of children in remote Indigenous communities in Australia are so great that although it has been possible for governments to ignore them for decades, they are now inescapable. Systematic interventions have been initiated – since diluted by the current social democratic Federal Government – on both a national and a community level and some good progress has been made. Among the many individual communities that have, in their different ways, become emblematic of this crisis is Aurukun, the subject of a recent polemical book.
Aurukun is a community settlement for the Wik people on the far north-western coast of Queensland. The people were famously engaged in a significant land rights case in the 1990’s, and the community has received considerable political, ethnographic and social interest from wider Australia. The current Leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott, has for many years served a yearly internship in the Primary School; an exhibition of ethnographic and historical photographs recently toured through the nation’s galleries; the land rights ruling remains a benchmark in contemporary cases.
The Wik have attracted many of our brightest cultural and linguistic researchers. Among the most trenchant is Petter Sutton, a specialist in the languages of Cape York and in lands rights issues generally. In 2009, Sutton published The Politics of Suffering with the Melbourne University Press. In the introduction, he writes:
“By 2000 Aurukun had gone from a once liveable and vibrant community, as I had once experienced it, to a disaster zone. Levels of violent conflict, rape, child and elder assault and neglect had rocketed upwards since the introduction of a regular alcohol supply in 1985. Shortly afterwards, Aboriginal people in the neighbouring town of Coen, itself no paradise, had begun to refer to Aurukun as ‘Beirut.’”
Sutton had been accepted as a son by a local family – an honorary relation equivalent in prestige and obligation to a blood relation, and taken very seriously by all involved – and by 2000 had lost many of his new family members, and many of their friends, to suicide, murder and preventable illness. Sutton began to make highly visible and highly audible protests, in particular to take seriously the “contrast between progressivist pubic rhetoric about empowerment and self-determination and the raw evidence of a disastrous failure in major aspects of Australian Aboriginal affairs policy since the early 1970s.” This was a time that had inaugurated policy shifts toward a Liberal agenda that focused upon community esteem and ‘justice’ issues (particularly in regard to perceptions of racism), and that detached itself from concerns with community integrity, actual health, economic self-support and interaction with and integration into the wider Australian community.
In summarising his case, he writes:
“One of the costs of an era of social policy that has been dominated by cultural relativism, the rights agenda and the redistribution of power, has been the displacement of care as the primary determinant of special helping measures for citizens in trouble. Care and compassion have lost some of their seemliness…
The political glamour attracted by those who struggle for rights and justice has long outshone the small glow emitted by those who are in the coalface caring business, the ones who dress the wounds of battered women in remote area clinics at three o’clock on Sunday mornings, or who work to get petrol sniffers back on track out in the Tanami Desert in the ferocious heat of February…
We have long been told that the emotional and physical health of Indigenous people will not improve until their social justice and property justice and treaty needs and formal Reconciliation needs and compensation needs have been met, and, by implication, that the heart of the people’s problems and solutions lies in politics and law. By definition, those who deliver the people from extraordinary levels of rage, fear, anxiety, neglect, malnutrition, infection, diabetes, renal failure, sexual abuse, assault and homicide will thus allegedly be politicians, barristers and political activists.
This unscientific mumbo jumbo beggars belief.”
The book proceeds through a series of highly personal reflections on the history of Indigenous Affairs Policy, on the one hand, and popular comment on Indigenous Affairs desiderata by Liberals and their fellow travellers on the other. Its dissection of the political arrogance and the dishonesty that has led to the current extreme crisis is, therefore, not technical, nor overburdened with rhetoric. As an instance, he addresses his own academic environment and its addiction to relativism:
“It is an age of the dilemmas of the nice. As the influence of the stronger forms of cultural relativism wanes, their language seems to keep on, but in a domain where cross-cultural respect and recognition are also often the vocabulary of indigenous enclave politics and non-Indigenous self-redemptive feel-goodism. They can also be among the more fertile buzz words of bureaucratic empire-building and the accumulation of patronage power…
The stronger form of relativism espoused among some social scientists is usually enmeshed in an academic practice that stresses cultural critique rather than the accumulation of factual knowledge based on evidence. Cultural critique typically speaks to us in a moral language, focusing on subjects such as the evils of colonialism and Western power, the racism of pale-skinned people, the wrongs of patriarchy, police violence, and the oppression of minorities. The centrepiece is the campaign, and the centrepiece of the campaign is the crusading critic. There is little love of knowledge, or indeed of anything, in this kind of academic script…(T)here is often an unstated appeal by the cultural critiquer to certain universal ethics of social behaviour and cultural values. To that extent the anti-realist cultural-critique wing of the social sciences is embracing an absolutist and universal brand of relativism…
Both the adoption of cultural relativism and retreat from its stronger or more naive forms, historically, are not just intellectual activities. The are embedded in social relationships…The cohesion issue is not just one of neighbourhoods but also of the place where the rule of law is rooted, the nation state. For these reasons, although I tend to be philosophically realistic, I have a relativistic view of relativism.”
This concern with relationships above politics is the strongest and most useful feature of the book. In his final chapter, he makes a plea for reconciliation to proceed not simply as a matter of Government policy – which is the present case in Australia – but as a series of personal endeavours. That is, by making friends:
“Reconciliation is too important a matter of personal moral adjustment to be a process owned by the state, on the one side, or by a putative Indigenous nation on the other…
(T)he main reason why I am sceptical of a formal Reconciliation process…is because it politicises and collectivises the very things that need to be dealt with by Australians as individuals…”
And, as a final point, he quotes Mary Darkie, an Indigenous woman from The Great Sandy Desert, who writes in her memoirs:
“Reconciliation is about getting to know each person individually… All people are different; they may have the same skin colour but inside, each person is unique…
Reconciliation also means letting go of anger, hurt and blaming. I had to let go of these things in order to get to know people as they really are.”
and in this context he then gives us this from Donne:
“Since I am comming to that Holy roome,
Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy Musique; As I come
I tune the Instrument here at the dore,
And what I must doe then, thinke here before.”
The subtitle for The Politics of Suffering is Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus. In its claim for a simple and human response to the crisis of our fellow citizens, a response that is initially in the establishment of personal relationships, it presents model for social health for the coming time when the end of the Liberal consensus spreads to include the whole of the nation and all of its affairs.