Bennelong Papers

Hobbled by History, Immersed in Self-Pity

pastMany people have asserted that the problems Aborigines experience today are largely due to the influence of the past. Specifically, colonisation is assumed to be the cause of much of the suffering as James Cook University Associate Professor Gracelyn Smallwood has stated . Aboriginal people, she says, remain burdened by “the trans-generational scourge of violent colonisation”. The Creative Spirits website takes up the same theme, blaming colonisation for causing “all the known social disadvantages and trauma.” Interestingly, despite a past said to be causing such havoc today, there are many Aboriginal people — many thousands in fact — who not only survive but thrive.

How can it be that the past is not holding them captive? What we do know is that any search for an answer anywhere but in history attracts much criticism. Could it be some Aborigines are victims of one particular and debilitating view of the past? What is certain is that any explanation that directly or indirectly suggests Aboriginal people have a part to play in addressing their problems will attract vitriol and abuse.

Such has been the lot of Noel Pearson, recently quoted in the The Australian as urging indigenous Australians to get over their traumatic history. This prompted a feeding frenzy among the culture vultures and victim brigade. The purpose of this article is not to defend Pearson, but to offer an alternative to the mantra, “Our suffering is due to colonisation”. I do this because I wish to see Aborigines move forward, not be held back by the myth that we are history’s victims and powerless to change our own lives. The equally pernicious twin of this poisonous message about the past is that, until some (unspecified) form of recognition or acknowledgement or apology is given, Aboriginal people will be unable to move on. Yet, despite those who derive their sense of personal meaning and importance by playing the prophets of gloom, many have moved on in leaps and bounds.

Before showing why it is not the past that keeps Aboriginal people down, I would like to briefly consider a few of the recent responses to Pearson. First, consider Ghillar Michael Anderson, last survivor of the four young  men who set up the Aboriginal Embassy outside Parliament House in 1972. According to Anderson, the anger directed by some at Pearson is proof in itself that he has no empathy for other Aboriginal people. “Telling his own people to move on from the traumas of the past makes it very obvious why he is not accepted in many Aboriginal communities,” writes Anderson. This may well be the case, but it would be very foolish to conclude that the rejection of a message is evidence that it does not contain truth – just ask Galileo.

The simple fact is that people of all races and any often need to be confronted with unpleasant and unsettling truths. But how many wish to deliver such messages? Many of those who wish to win popularity contests in Aboriginal affairs have found the message ‘you are not responsible for finding solutions’ is the way to go. Anderson then goes on to claim that Pearson “continues to appease perpetrators of racism”. He gives no evidence whatsoever for this claim, confident that the cry of ‘Racism!’ is one of the surest and easiest ways to shut down what might otherwise be a  rational discussion.

Not to be outdone, fellow activist Kerry Blackman also weighs in, likewise failing to provide any argument to refute Pearson’s position but invoking the past to attack the man whose message he dislikes. “Pearson doesn’t and never have [sic] had in his control the silver bullet to cure our social ills”, he said. Most people, including Pearson himself, would not beg to differ. None of us has the magic remedy Blackman is talking about. Is he suggesting that Pearson claims that he has the answer? Some detect the whiff of a red herring deployed to conceal a weak argument.

The Australian quoted Pearson’s diagnosis as “twenty years of brutal trauma caused by an untrammelled ­alcohol binge.” Blackman acknowledges that alcohol and drug abuse are prevalent within Aboriginal communities while adding the qualification “as they are in all mainstream communities”, a sleight of hand which neatly ignores that grog and drugs loom larger in Aboriginal community than for the “mainstream communities”. Blackman should perhaps also google “fetal alcohol syndrome” or visit this Australian Institute of Health and Welfare webpage and download these documents examining substance abuse among Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Sadly, he appears to think that more money is the solution.

Blackman then claims, “Whitefellas generally, and black coconuts specifically, understand the social issues facing our people today are directly linked to the high level of direct and indirect violence and racial discrimination from white people since they set foot on our lands in 1788”. He offers no evidence or rational argument to support his claim, just his opinion that “forcefully taking our land off our ancestors without negotiating a treaty … created trauma back then as it still does today to us as displaced traditional owners”.

While Blackman is happy to talk about the violence of the past, he does not refer to what is surely the more serious problem facing Aboriginal people today: the shocking and undeniably high rates of violence affecting some Aboriginal communities. In 2003, Mick Dodson lamented that “violence is undermining our life’s very essence, it is destroying us, and there are very few Aboriginal families that are not struggling with the debilitating effects of trauma, despair and damage resulting from their experiences with violence … To read the many reports detailing violence in our communities is to make one weep.”

I cannot help but wonder how much the silence and denial in regard to Aboriginal violence has contributed to the state where, more than a decade after Dodson wrote those words, violence in some Aboriginal communities has only grown worse.

Or consider another activist, Jude Kohn’s reaction to Pearson’s words. Pearson, he wrote at New Matilda, must bear in mind that  “any survivor of any trauma can tell you that healing cannot begin until there has been some recognition of the suffering inflicted upon them.”. That is Kohn’s opinion, and that is all it is – an opinion.

People can move on, and many have, without receiving any such recognition. Offering forgiveness of wrongs committed is far more empowering than seeking some form of recognition or apology. I am not suggesting that people do not derive some short-term relief from an apology or other manifestations of recognition. But it is not the healing which comes from forgiving — and never forget that forgiveness can be an incredibly difficult thing to offer. That is why  blaming others and demanding acknowledgement are more popular, so much more seductive. But the popular approach is also the disempowering approach. To blame others essentially communicates a message that hobbles those who utter it: “I am unable to do anything to help myself.”

There is another serious problem with the belief that an acknowledgement of past wrongs by non-Aboriginal people is needed in order for Aboriginal people to feel good, engage productively with society and be able to attain the standard of living most Australians take for granted. To insist on some form of acknowledgement essentially implies that the happiness and well-being of Aboriginal people is under the direct control of those who are being requested to give the acknowledgement – the non-Aboriginal people. This is not to say that any official acknowledgement of past wrongs is inappropriate, only that it is not required before Aboriginal people can succeed and thrive, as many are already doing. The simple fact that many Aboriginal people are not suffering, and, indeed, are thriving, must surely cast serious doubt on the assumed cause-and-effect relationship between the past and contemporary disadvantage.

Blaming the past (or someone else) has great appeal. It may be human nature, but the blame game will not solve the problems facing Aborigines today. Rather, it helps perpetuate them while preventing the necessary internal changes that will enable Indigenous communities and individuals to focus on the areas where real gains can be achieved, such as personal responsibility, jobs, education, and health. Discussing race relations in the United States, University of Pennsylvania legal scholar Amy Wax suggests: “Focusing on the actions of others may sap the determination necessary to achieve difficult internal changes.” Her point applies no less to Aborigines than it does to minority groups and communities in her own country. If Aboriginal people are constantly urged to regard the past as their catch-all excuse for a miserable present, they will be less likely to focus on  solutions to today’s problems, less motivated to grab the many opportunities available today – opportunities which so many Aboriginal people have already taken. Instead, overcome by passivity and a crushing sense of victimhood, they will sit and wait – and many will die waiting – for the state to ‘rescue’ them.

While many of the problems facing Aboriginal people are arguably linked to the legacy of past events, it is not colonisation that sustains those ills and the ongoing disadvantage of many. One hundred years from now, unless that attitude is abandoned, the same problems will remain, the potential of countless lives squandered and many available opportunities ignored. It may be useful to know how a fire started, but there is surely greater value when seeking to extinguish in knowing what keeps it burning. That is the case, of course, if we are more interested in putting out the fire than laying blame!

It cannot be denied that many people (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) have had difficult pasts, nor that their ancestors endured dreadful hardships and injustice. The past cannot be forgotten, nor should it be, but it can be overcome. Perhaps the Indigenous Canadian writer Calvin Helin puts it best:

The problem with always looking back is that there is nothing we can do about what has already happened. How can the constructive future of indigenous nations be founded on festering grievances of the past? Should we not be focussing on positive, forward-looking solutions to a new policy, a new economy, a fresh outlook, rather than being anchored entirely in rancorous injustice of the past (no matter how justified such views are)? How is dwelling on historical injustices going to lift indigenous people out of the morass of social and political pathologies? … We should be asking, “What pragmatic steps can we take now to make the lives of ordinary indigenous people better?” It should be obvious that we must begin moving forward and start looking for real solutions.

 Anthony Dillon identifies as a part-Aboriginal Australian who is proud of both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestries. Originally from Queensland, he now lives in Sydney and is a researcher at the Australian Catholic University

10 thoughts on “Hobbled by History, Immersed in Self-Pity

  • says:

    Anthony, In my view, many Aboriginal people cling to the past because they believe they can’t compete and contribute effectively in the present. This is too painful to admit. That is understandable. But, in fact, they can compete and contribute. The fault lies in decades of paternalistic policies. I doubt any group of people could have withstood them unscathed. Peter

    • rosross says:

      The problem with this position is that it suggests there is something inferior or dysfunctional in Aboriginal ancestry because many groups, peoples, nations, races etc., have been subjected to paternalistic policies and made their way through it.

      The first and worst mistake and the source of indigenous problems today, where they still exist, in every country where they do exist, is the move away from assimilation and the deluded notion that you can pin like moths to a board, a group of people, in a process of elective apartheid, and it will somehow work out for the good. It doesn’t, it didn’t, it cannot. The only hope for anyone is assimilation. If the British had not assimilated through dozens of invasions, occupations and colonisations where on earth would they be today?

      Another factor which is never considered or even mentioned is the detrimental impact of racism within the indigenous societies themselves which discourages members from assimilating or even moving forward. This pressure is powerful and common. You see it still in less developed cultures and it is not particular to indigenous Australians.

  • en passant says:

    Well argued and very brave of you. Now take cover!
    In 1692 soldier’s of King George massacred the McDonald Clan in Glencoe in Scotland. My ancestry is traced to a McDonald survivor. I still suffer the trauma of that terrible night and will never get over it.
    Option 1 is for me to sit around complaining until given an apology and lots (and lots) of compensation.
    Option 2, on the other hand is that I could shrug off the past as past and an event long before my time, educate myself, set up my own business, work hard and make lots of money, live comfortably and give my kids a leg up with an even better education than I had. I could then take pride in their achievements.
    Option 1 condemns me and my children to a mentality and reality of handout poverty (no matter how much compensation I receive, it will never be enough) and to maintain the rage we must make sure the next generation behaves exactly the same way.
    Option 2 means moving on (and upward) recognising that it does not matter where you begin life, but the road you travel and where you end it is what counts. There are opportunities, but also probable failures and hard times along the way. It’s a jungle out there and it ain’t easy!
    It’s a tough choice: do nothing except complain, or accept the challenges and opportunities life in modern Australia offers.
    Give me a few years (or generations) to think about it …

    • rosross says:

      I am descended on all sides from long generational lines of persecuted, poverty-stricken, victimised people and my view is that it made me more resilient and stronger. But then I grew up in an age when being a victim was not fashionable. Lucky me.

  • says:

    This is an eminently sensible article, resonating with every single reader of Quadrant. Sadly, though, published in Quadrant, it is preaching to the converted. One fervently hopes that Anthony Dillon gets lots of exposure in mainstream publications where his views are likely to make a difference.

    Bill Martin.

  • Jack Richards says:

    All you have to do is watch NITV occasionally. Every ‘talk show” is a wallow in self-pity and how hard-done-by they all are. I wonder who Arthur Phillip was supposed to make a treaty with? The tribes around the Sydney area spent their lives in internecine war with each other and their languages were mutually unintelligible. Would a “treaty” with the Wiradjuri be honoured by the Pitjinjara or the Daruk any of the other c700 tribes?

  • Jody says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this article, and I believe many Australians feel the same. The culture of victimhood saps vitality and incentive from entire sections of the indigenous community. Pearson has tried valiantly to turn this around. As always, it’s the children for whom I feel the greatest empathy – not served at all well by their community, insisting as they do that indigenous languages are a “pathway” to keeping in touch with culture but ensuring they are excluded from the mainstream. That this is not recognized by their own people is a shocking tragedy and this is perpetuated with help from misguided do-gooders and the rights industry. Shame, shame; for the children.

  • rosross says:

    This is another excellent and sensible article from Anthony Dillon. I cannot help but wonder, for those who ascribe to the ‘generational trauma’ theory, something which in fact applies to every human being on the planet since we are all descended from someone who was victimised or persecuted, why the ‘trauma’ is so selective. Certainly, those who suffered at the hands of colonisers, and not all did, many women actually benefited being removed from violent cultures and many children benefited receiving better care and an education, may have handed down trauma at a cellular and cultural level, but colonisation was only one form of trauma experienced by some Aborigines, and the greater traumas, resulting from culture and tradition, handed down for thousands of years, have been ignored and forgotten and may perhaps be a greater reason for dysfunction today, i.e. child neglect and abuse; domestic violence; misogyny and violence toward women and a lack of community consciousness and responsibility.

    If something like colonisation can create inherited trauma, in just a couple of centuries, what impact would practices over tens of thousands of years have? Traumas like infanticide, cannibalism, not just of enemies but of their own children, women, the aged, the sick and shocking levels of brutal violence toward women mentioned in the earliest records by the English? Aboriginal women have been brutally beaten over the head with lumps of wood for thousands of years and who is to say, given the same sort of violence today, that the practice has continued because the issue has never been addressed? Political correctness and deluded notions of a mythical ‘noble savage’ have prevented truth and honesty prevailing in regard to the primitive and brutal nature of Aboriginal culture.

    None of us can advance, evolve, heal, without accepting and recognising all of our history, the worst with the best and seeking to make indigenous excepted in this regard simply inflates the dysfunction and the trauma.

    • rosross says:

      I mean, who has done a psychological study into the possible impact of thousands of years of children seeing younger siblings killed and thrown on the fire to be eaten, including by themselves? Not to mention seeing the bodies of the aged, sick, turned into food, or the brutal treatment of mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers? How does a human being process such horrors?

Leave a Reply