Wednesday, June 28, 2017

the persistence of invisibility of really important aspects of indigenous reality

Summary and some thoughts about Ch 3 The Trouble with Culture of Peter Sutton's The Politics of Suffering (2009)

Where I can learn from this chapter is that Peter Sutton has a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of indigenous culture, its negatives as well as its positives, than most commentators. He also blows the whistle on the willful blindness of official government reports and some other commentators / authors, including some who are well intentioned and have done the hard yards. Nor do indigenous leaders escape from his critique although he treats them with respect. The invisibility of reality appears to operate at several levels and he goes some of the way to unmasking that.

I feel that Peter has become pessimistic about indigenous futures as a result of his life experiences but that his analysis is fundamentally correct and serves as an essential starting point for those committed to continuing to try to solve the problems that many have tried to solve without success.

Personally, I prefer pessimism that lives in the real world to the phony optimism of those who draw a veil over the truth. I prefer to face the dark side of life than to live in the false light of self deception. Can we accept the reality of the dark side and still remain optimistic and energetic about positive change for indigenous people? That is the challenge.

The radical historical shift in government approaches to dealing with indigenous affairs which occurred in the Whitlam years (1972-75) forms part of the backdrop to this analysis. As government policy became more humane, open hearted and liberal the actual on the ground situation for aboriginal people became worse. Welfare poison led to drug addiction, dysfunction and death. That is what Peter experienced and has driven him and other commentators to document, analyse and explain this seeming paradox.
“In my time with the Wik people up to 2001, out of a population of less than 1000, eight people known to me had died by their own hand, two of them women, six of them men. Five of them were young people. From the same community in the same period, thirteen people known to me had been victims of homicide, eight of them women, five of them men. Twelve others had committed homicide, nine of them men and three of them women. Most of these, also, were young people, and most of the homicides occurred in the home settlement of both assailant and victim. Of the eight spousal murders in this list, seven involved a man killing his female partner, only one a woman killing her husband. In almost all cases, assailants and victims were relatives whose families had been linked to each other for generations. They were my relative, too, in a non biological 'tribal' sense ...” (p. 2)
Remote communities are shattered. If you google Aurukun, Doomadgee, Koyanyama, Elcho Island or Wadeye and poke around you will see what I mean.

Those who have avoided foetal alcohol syndrome or arrested development through malnutrition still end up less educated (illiterate) and less socially mobile (emotionally immobile) than their grandparents who were raised on the mission. Paternalistic benevolence was more successful than self development.

Various authors, indigenous and non indigenous, have blown the whistle on this devastating reality. The cat is out of the bag but nevertheless still remains invisible to many at the official government level where policy is made.

After reviewing the evidence Peter asserts that the value and power of traditional indigenous culture as a recovery agent is over rated. He agrees with Noel Pearson that economic relations are a more effective method of driving change. (65)

For me, this is the main take away message. White people have to take indigenous culture on board – for reasons of respect and communication – but that needs to be done without romanticising or simply ignoring negative features of indigenous culture. Possibly, Martin Nakata's Cultural Interface approach provides a starting point for a solution here. Still not sure.

So, what are the problems with traditional indigenous culture which make it ineffective as a change agent? This is best summarised on page 85. I will inadequately summarise the summary.

There may be many aspect of our modern society that we dislike and we grumble about those. But we don't leave our modern society to go back to nature and live as a “noble savage” except in our green tinted glasses fantasy dreams. As we acquire real knowledge of the real conditions of traditional indigenous culture we learn about:
  • power stuctures which promote dependency
  • family loyalities, kinship stuctures, at the expense of the common good
  • traditional medicine blocking modern medicine
  • minimal hygiene / demand sharing / rejection of accumulation in keeping with a semi nomadic economy
  • violence as the preferred way of resolving conflict arising from a stateless society
  • fatalistic outlook, that tragedy is normal and the order of things is meant to be
As Peter points out the negative aspects of traditional indigenous culture have been exposed by many authors. He lists 12 such authors on page 72.

How then do we explain the silence, when in fact there isn't silence? The silence operates at many levels, some relatively benign, some well intentioned but blinkered, some self serving, malicious and incredibly harmful.

I loved and have been influenced by “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die” (2000). Richard Trudgen has spent many years in Arnhem Land learning from, working with and helping the Yolngu . He explains how communication between Yolngu and Balanda (whites) breaks down in three related areas (1) Language (2) World view (3) Culture and calls for more understanding and empathy about this. But his analysis is flawed in that he doesn't outline any negative aspects of Yolngu culture as part of the problem. For instance, demand pressure from relatives is a key reason why indigenous people might fail when placed in responsible positions of handling store goods or cash (refer Sutton, pp. 80-81)

We live in a modern society which provides us with a certain living standard, values and expectations. Those values include a duty of care to the vulnerable: infants, the elderly, the mentally handicapped. There is a general social acceptance that our failure with the "indigenous problem" is not acceptable. We are dealing with a hard problem, many have tried and failed, many suggestions have been tried and have worked with varying degrees of success. Programs are tried, they fail and then their failure is not analysed. But even in the rare instances when the analysis is done the problems are so embedded and chronic that their solution is not clear.

Some elements which contribute to the persistence silence include:
  • White guilt / spectre of the past where indigenous people were described as primitive / avoid blaming the victim
  • Euphemism in descriptive language of government reports
  • Tragedy tolerance of the insiders
  • Political correctness
Read Peter's book for more detail.

Is there a way forward without going backward to the bad old days?

Related: Notes:
I've ordered a copy of Caging the Rainbow by Francesca Merlan. Peter's comments about it on p. 69 suggested to me that it anticipated Martin Nakata's Cultural Interface analysis.

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