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March 03rd 2013 print

Stephanie Jarrett

The Monthly’s nasty little hatchet job

By all accounts, The Monthly's John van Tiggelen was a picture of gentlemanly decorum at the launch of Stephanie Jarrett's brave new book on the roots of Indigenous violence. Back at the office, however, the bile poured forth


When I first read John van Tiggelen’s account of my book launch, I was shocked by its dismissiveness and trivialisations. I expected that from the Editor of The Monthly and his long-time work as a journalist in north Queensland, it would consist of points of disagreement addressed in an intelligent Left critique, particularly given the tragic subject matter of my book.


I shall first clear up a couple of distractions, with apologies for my indulgence. I want to inform readers that the average age of people at my launch was not 120, but thank you John*. Second, van Tiggelen refers to Connor Court as a “bush operation”. Like the publisher, van Tiggelen resides in rural Victoria, and my Adelaide Hills town sits amid horticultural, vineyard and grazing country. To these pieces of information, the young might rightly shrug and say, “whatever”.

On reading his article a second time, I noticed much agreement between us. Van Tiggelen has embarked on the general trend towards acknowledging pre-contact origins of Aboriginal violence. In the mid to late 2000s, Joan Kimm, Louis Nowra, and Peter Sutton brought to light early documentations plus Stephen Webb’s palaeopathological evidence confirming the violent side of Aboriginal traditional culture. Hence, while denial still continues, the reality of pre-contact violence is gaining general acceptance. These authors also point to a link between present violence and pre-contact legitimation of violence for control, punishment, and retribution.

Van Tiggelen agrees that there is much evidence for pre-contact violence, but manages to divert attention from his agreement by criticising my research into written sources, especially newspaper and anthropological accounts, labelling it “anthro porn”. He adds, “And it’s true, people do get off on this sort of thing.” John, these accounts of violence break my heart, and fill me with such outrage at the suffering that my commitment to helping feels stronger than I can physically bear. Further, in case van Tiggelen gave the impression that my research consisted mainly of newspapers, anthropological and other texts, my understanding of Aboriginal violence was forged through fieldwork and hundreds of interviews.

Van Tiggelen further attacks my use of anthropological references by stating that Jarrett “doesn’t mind annexing alien academic territory”. In the Humanities and Social Sciences, interdisciplinary study, research, and writing across fields are expected, necessary skills. Human behaviour just doesn’t fall into neat discipline categories. Philosophy, politics, psychology, history, social geography, anthropology, economics, law, and more, all enrich understanding of human conflict and violence. My undergraduate politics coursework included analysis of anthropological scholarship. Also, acclaimed social science books typically use references from a wide range of disciplines. The book I am reading now, Professor Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, is Book of the Year 2011 for several US newspapers. He draws on anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and more. His expertise is psychology, and apparently has no formal anthropological qualifications. The idea that scholarly works should not, and by definition do not, "annex alien academic territory" is a nonsense.

Van Tiggelen also misrepresents an answer in my Quadrant Online interview with Roger Franklin, in two ways. Van Tiggelen wrote that when asked “what was the worst act of Aboriginal violence she had come across (s)he nominated the modern-day rape of a toddler, a depravity unrelated to traditional practice, surely.”

First, I nominated three “worst” acts, the other two clearly traditional. Second, as my book discusses, while rape of toddlers is against traditional law, it cannot be argued with full certainty that such acts are a “depravity unrelated to traditional practice”.

My book focuses on pre-contact violence categories that have some bearing on present violence. Hence I was puzzled that van Tiggelen found it apt to write “Hell, there was cannibalism in the far north” and, “And Torres Strait Islanders haven’t eaten each other’s kidney fat for 150 years”. By doing so, van Tiggelen implanted “cannibalism” in connection to my book into readers’ minds, when I do not even mention “cannibalism”, “cannibal”, “kidney fat”, nor write about cannibalism using any other term. I assume that van Tiggelen approves of my non-referral to cannibalism. So I wonder whether his raising of “cannibalism” indicates a frustration that I didn’t mention it, thus robbing him of this point for attack?

Van Tiggelen also takes issue with what he calls my “insistence” that alcohol and welfare dependence “simply ‘exacerbate’ tradition”. In my book, I have spent considerable space on how I came to the conclusion that in Aboriginal communities, alcohol and welfare are exacerbators of the higher rate of violence, while traditional factors remain causes or justifiers for conflict and violence. I do not expect agreement, rather, acknowledgment that my position is more than “insistence”.

Nevertheless, van Tiggelen seems open to the idea of pre-contact violence continuity. Regarding Bess Price’s plea that “‘we have problems with our traditional culture.’” “Payback” punishment, polygamy and child brides had no place in modern society – the cultural excuses had to stop … the white man’s law should prevail”, van Tiggelen writes that “this was relatively safe ground.”

Hence I pose this question, and not rhetorically. Does his article’s sarcastic tone reflect discomfort with his own realisation that pre-contact violence is at least a partial factor in today’s violence, with uncomfortable implications for effective responses?

It is regarding solutions that his disagreement is strongest, but he still launches a distracting attack rather than considered argument with my proposal for integration. First, he misleadingly raises another term. Regarding self-determination and the continuation of traditional violence, van Tiggelen writes “In other words, and let’s not mince them: once a savage, always a savage – at least when he’s left to his own devices.” I do not use “savage”, nor would I call anyone a “savage” because I do not see people through that kind of prism. If van Tiggelen had written, “once a human, always a human – and humans are more inclined to interpersonal use of violence in stateless societies,” he would have expressed my perspective, which is in agreement with Sutton among others.

Van Tiggelen confessed to a difficulty in differentiating integration and assimilation, given that both lead to a loss of minority culture and language, although integration in a more passive way. He asked me to outline the differences for him, which I did:

Ideally in a liberal-democratic, multicultural society, various cultures are practised and celebrated, while its citizens are integrated into the mainstream. Integration means that minority peoples, perhaps particularly the children, have or are able to gain skills and values that enable them to positively participate within the mainstream economy and society, while many of their varying cultural norms and practices can continue. Non-mainstream languages and cultural practices including religions may decline but often do not disappear in such a setting, and there is scope for revival of practices and languages. Liberal-democratic, multicultural societies do require that the universal rights of individuals, including freedom from violence, are recognised by all. Cultural norms and practices in conflict with universal human rights are not tolerated, which means that such practices are against the liberal-democratic nation’s law.

Integration here refers to strategies which enable everyday, positive interaction with the mainstream. In such a setting, universal human rights norms are more likely to become familiar, aspired to, and adopted. Hence to uphold the human rights of individuals within the minority culture, such as women, there is less need for subjection to mainstream law enforcement.

Assimilation differs from integration in the following crucial way. It is a demand that a minority give up their language, religion and/or other cultural norms beyond that needed to comply with universal human rights practices, and beyond that required for successful participation in the mainstream economy and society. When forced, such assimilation could itself be deemed to transgress individual human rights.

After receiving this, van Tiggelen said that he still had trouble differentiating integration from assimilation. One hopes that if successful integration programs embraced by Aboriginal people are undertaken, attempts to overturn them are not made by those of like-mind to John van Tiggelen on the spurious grounds that they are assimilationist, as happened to the Family Resettlement Program in the 1970s, causing that Program’s demise.

*Editor’s note: Van Tiggelen’s hatchet job is behind The Monthly‘s pay wall. Subscribe if you fancy another example of the left smiting those who break ranks and place practicality above precious nostrums. Other than that, assume a gush of industrial strength bitchiness.