Bennelong Papers

Indigenous violence and its enablers

Proud feminist and woman of the left Stephanie Jarrett has written a book remarkable for its candour and bravery. It will make her no friends among those who prefer to view Aborigines and the cancer of violence through a prism of cliches and patronising excuses.

Jarrett spoke of her research and the book it produced, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, with Quadrant Online‘s Roger Franklin. Never shrinking from the grim truths of Indigenous violence, its tradition and tragic, ongoing consequences, her book is a demand for a change in both attitudes and policies. What follows is an edited transcript of their exchange: 

Q: Why did you write this book? It would seem to fall into the “brave” category in that merely raising the topic of Indigenous violence will earn you a long list of ardent enemies.
My profession entails a responsibility to uphold truth, despite my primary political orientation, and any personal discomfort and attack that may follow. I see little point in post-graduate studies specialising in political science at one of Australia’s finest universities if I do not hold to this principle.

I am committed to the liberal-democratic principles of universal individual human rights and non-relativism regarding violence. My left-leaning feminism increases my outrage against the oppressions endured by remote Aboriginal women. Through my research, I came to understand that Aboriginal self-determination is a key causal factor in the persistent, high levels of violence against Aboriginal women.

I also saw the necessity for this book for the following reasons. There is a persistent non liberal-democratic, cultural relativist approach among white professionals regarding Aboriginal violence. There remains a denial of the violence in pre-contact Australia, despite scholarly works detailing this violence. There is an evasion of the implications that traditional violence has for self-determination policies. Above all, I wrote this book as my contribution towards a less violent future for Aboriginal Australians.

Q: Are there truths that cannot be uttered?
No there are not. All truths need to be told so that we understand more fully the range of human behaviour, beliefs and norms, how negative behaviours and norms develop and are exacerbated, and how to address them. Nevertheless while the book depicts violent events, I abbreviated some awful descriptions, because the point being made was amply clear enough. In my field work, I experienced hearing harsh truth on a physical level, when I witnessed that [any given] weekend’s violent events were an amusing topic for conversation. I found this so upsetting that I went into flight mode, wanted to leave the area, my visual and auditory senses wanted to shut down, and my heart raced. For me, this was an early signal that I might be witnessing a norm about violence very different from my own.

Writing uncomfortable truths may have a downside, possibly augmenting stereotypes. However denying the truth does this even more so, as we are in desperate need of compassionate, non-racist Australians to engage with the problem of Aboriginal violence.

Q: In exploring your topic, one guesses that a substantial weight of documentary evidence must have been more or less readily available. Was it difficult to find your sources? Why has nobody tapped them before?"
A: There is ample documentation of pre- and early contact traditional violence from across Australia, including by early French navigators, First Fleet officers, explorers, missionaries and anthropologists. Such accounts are publicly accessible in bookshops, libraries and online.
Stephen Webb’s palaeopathological study of skeletal remains is categoric evidence of commonplace cranial and other bone injuries caused by assault in pre-contact Australia for thousands of years.

There is also accessible documentation of continuing traditional violence, such as submissions for the recognition of customary law from Aboriginal communities to the Australian Law Reform Commission. There are recent, fine scholars who have tapped into this evidence, most notably Joan Kimm, Louis Nowra, and Peter Sutton. However this evidence is still being denied or evaded, and the strategies indicated by the pre-contact origins of today’s violence have yet to be faced up to.

Q: So, what is the solution?
A: The last three chapters explore potential solutions. In developing responses to Aboriginal violence in communities, we need to acknowledge that while alcohol and welfare dependency are exacerbators, the violence is underpinned by traditional norms and practices that make it particularly difficult to overcome. This limits the impact of outside interventions against violence in communities separated from mainstream society.

Acquisition of the liberal-democratic lower tolerance for interpersonal violence is essential. This requires regular, positive interaction with mainstream people. The permit system needs to be removed for this to occur. Voluntary integration, plus the skills and opportunities for successful participation in mainstream life, are also needed. My final chapter presents strategies to overcome the policy-created separation between remote Aboriginal communities and mainstream Australia.

The Aboriginal-initiated, voluntary Family Re-Settlement Program in New South Wales of the 1970s, where mainstream communities provided welcome and support for Aboriginal families establishing a new life in a city, is exemplary here. The program ceased when funding stopped because it was deemed assimilationist. Hopefully we are now more enlightened.

Q: What part does welfare dependency, if any, play in fostering violence?
A: I adhere to the principle of the need for a robust welfare state. Compassion and welfare for those in need are fundamental to the viability of liberal democracies. Even conservative governments in most Western democracies uphold this, at least until recently.

Welfare dependency is a step too far. It defines welfare-supported people capable of working but [who], for various reasons, shun employment. Welfare dependency locks away vulnerable people, such as many remote community people, from the demanding but character- and esteem-building path of employment. Being work-ready and available for mainstream employment requires the adoption of many mainstream norms and behaviours, including self-esteem building education and skills, and a reduction in the use of, and toleration for, violence.

Furthermore, as described in my book, welfare is sadly compatible with a range of bad behaviours, including violence, because it provides financial support to those unwilling to change negative behaviours, and provides no incentive to change negative behaviours.

Q: One need not venture too far off the beaten track to witness the consequence of violence in Indigenous life. How could so many people professing their concern for Aboriginal betterment have remained so blind for so long?
A: A key reason is the guilt white Australians carry for the injustices and losses Aboriginal people suffered under white colonisation. For many caring, well-educated white Australians, the primary task is to address these past colonial wrongs. For them, cultural respect, cultural rights, cultural relativism even for violence, “never criticise”, and a sense of “otherness” more than our shared humanity, are uppermost. These inhibit perception that intra-community violence needs mainstream attention. They blunt national outrage and the sense that it is even our concern. As one service provider said, “we have left it in their hands”. Gary Johns’ recent article in The Australian makes this amply clear. As a nation, we are outraged and saddened by the horrific rape and murder of the young Indian woman in New Delhi. We are a caring people, but we are largely mute about the many horrific instances of rape, assault and murder of remote Aboriginal women.

Q: What is the worst example of violence you came across?
A: Numerous incidents could be chosen as “the worst”. Here are three. Dieri marriage ceremonies, which included pack rape against the kidnapped, screaming young bride, documented by Howitt over 100 years ago, is one example. In a mid 19th century example first recorded in writing by T.G.H. Strehlow, two or three “Aranda” young men were immediately executed for accidentally committing a grave sacrilege. The execution consisted of twisting the young men’s necks so much that their vertebrae became dislocated. A more recent example reported in 1998 by Tony Koch in The Courier Mail, is the brutal rape by an adult male of a tiny Cape York girl when she was just 17 months old. Her injuries were so horrific that she needed a colostomy bag, and she became socially withdrawn. No smiles, no play, no talking, the little girl stopped showing almost any emotion.

Q: The attitude, especially amongst those who inhabit academia and bureaucracy, often seems to regard Aborigines as a quaint form of bipedal fauna. How much does this reflect the tyranny of low expectations?
A: I am sure that most academics and bureaucrats would deny this, would have no conscious sense of it, and would view such an attitude as racist. However, your question does raise uncomfortable truths.

As late as 2000, South Australia had a Department for Environment, Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs. This suggests an attitude in high places that Aboriginal people are closer to nature than non-Aboriginal people. As the Rev Dr Steven Etherington wrote in his 2007 article, Western people yearn for less stressful, less busy lives. We yearn for a greater spiritual connection to the environment, we want Aboriginal people to keep living such lives for us, and we turn away from the harsh consequences this has for Aboriginal people.

The result is a perverse tyranny of low expectations, in that by devaluing the mainstream world, we find it difficult to consider that remote Aboriginal people could or should aspire to it.

Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence is published by Connor Court and can be purchased here

One thought on “Indigenous violence and its enablers

Leave a Reply