Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge.
— John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
At one time ‘rhetoric’ meant the high art of effective and persuasive speaking or writing. Nowadays it no more than empty, emotion-laden words without the solid backing of logic. As Shakespeare put it, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” A 2015 article in The Australian by Rick Morton makes the Bard’s point. His topic is Indigenous disadvantage, which has perhaps incited more rhetorical emptiness than any other subject over recent decades.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in past decades in attempts to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage,” it begins, adding, “now, it seems, the only things left to throw into that yawning chasm are platitudes about the shocking state of affairs”.
Morton is right. There is no shortage of platitudes in the swamp of Aboriginal affairs — in social media and academia, in the media, at seminars, conferences and in position papers, that is the participants’ stock in trade. Morton later wonders, “When so much effort is expended for apparently so little gain, what is left but rhetoric?”
Yes, we have rhetoric and lots of it. Much of the discourse used for the contributing factors to “the gap” and the solutions proposed to close it are neither insightful nor helpful — it is often just rhetorical hot air. By “rhetoric”, I mean impressive-sounding, fuzzy and/or emotive words and phrases with no precise meaning that are used to bolster an argument, make it sound intelligent and considered and its author likewise. If words are vague, if the listener is invited to project his or her emotions onto the blank screen of the speaker’s avoidance of the real issues, that is rhetoric in its modern definition.
Rhetoric is a problem because it distracts from identifying the true problems facing Aboriginal people and prevents proper solutions from being conceived. Instead of a genuine solution sought and offered, rhetoric delivers the comforting illusion of a problem being accurately identified and adequately addressed. Rhetoric tickles the ears of those who prefer to hear only what they wish to believe. Like pampered house cats, receptive listeners purr on cue at the expected stimulus. Yet modern rhetoric, for all its vacuity, can be very convincing — especially to those who are predisposed to be convinced.
There is no shortage of examples of the rhetoric that clouds and obscures almost talk of Aboriginal affairs. It is runs through mainstream media, major Indigenous publications, and online discussion forums. Examples of rhetoric used when discussing Aboriginal issues include mantras such as “sovereignty never ceded,” “paternalism,” “self-determination,”’ “assimilation,” “institutional racism,” “genocide,” and “Mother Earth.” As rhetorical arguments are vague and emotive, they are difficult to prove or disprove, which is, of course, why they are so frequently used. What follows are some examples of rhetoric with my responses. In each example, it is difficult to give a considered response due to the vagueness of the claims.
“How much longer do we have to pay the price of being blacks of this country? How much longer do we have to keep coming cap in hand?” — Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, 2014.
These words are redolent with confected imagery, and very emotive. From reading these words, the uninformed might think that Aboriginal people are being mistreated simply because they are Aboriginal. What is “the price” Rosalie invokes? If she is referring to the deplorable conditions in which some Aboriginal people live, often in remote communities, then this should be spelt out. And if that is her meaning, her reticence to raise the inherent disadvantages of isolation and consequent lack of opportunity is a damning omission.
Again from Kunoth-Monks:
“I believe that I do not want to enter into a Constitution that’s going to further kill my culture,” she says, plus this on the same ABC website: “I’m saying it clearly and loudly, and I (along with) a lot of tribal Aboriginal people, don’t even know what the Constitution is.”
It goes without saying that many tribal Aborigines (and even city Aborigines, not to mention many Australians of other backgrounds) know little of the Constitution. On this matter she is clear. But what does she mean by “culture”? Other than opening the floodgates to yet more rhetoric, the word is so broad as to be meaningless.
Not that Kunoth-Monks is alone. Speaking in support of constitutional change, Rachel Perkins says,
“There is a deep subterranean feeling of burning resentment, carried within my people, that has been handed down from parent to child across six generations since 1788. Fuelled by the fact our nation has not thoroughly acknowledged the First People of this country.”
There could very well be a “burning resentment” carried within her people. But what is its source, and who is being resented? Answers to questions like this would help clarify the intent of the message. And if this resentment has been “handed down”, then when would be a good time for the next generation to say “No thanks, I’m not accepting any more of it.”? As for the claim that Australia has not acknowledged its First Peoples, it is important to realise that many Aborigines are free and happy, not carrying any resentment. Rather, thy are thriving and doing so without need of any acknowledgement.
As you might expect, John Pilger, the propagandist who identifies as a journalist, is a keen advocate of emptiness: The quote below is taken from an online article entitled ‘Another stolen generation: how Australia still wrecks Aboriginal families’
“Assimilation remains Australian government policy in all but name. Euphemisms such as “reconciliation” and “Stronger Futures” cover similar social engineering and an enduring, insidious racism in the political elite, the bureaucracy and wider Australian society.”
That absurdly broad pronouncement is followed by
“The mass removal of Indigenous children from their parents continues unabated – where is the outrage?”
It’s not surprising that Pilger slips “racism” into the first quote, as very few words better tickle the ears of the victim brigade. Perhaps his message would have some credibility had he defined what he means by “assimilation” and provided specific examples of its alleged evils. Likewise, what might be driving that “mass removal” of Aboriginal children? Could it be abuse and neglect, do you think? Could it be that children are in jeopardy? Pilger dons his rhetorical skates and glides effortlessly over these questions.
Indigenous activist Kerry Blackman weighs in on one of his favourite topics, the treaty
“Signing a Treaty is the only way forward: which is proper and just to encourage the freedom of our people to participate fully; to be really and fully able to put into thoughts and words and actions the anguish and urgency needed for the establishment of a just, participatory and sustainable society.”
By “forward”, Blackman presumably means that Aboriginal people will see improvement in health, education, employment and general well-being. Few would disagree that these are worthwhile goals. Nor would it be wrong to state that many Aboriginal people already enjoy these without the alleged cure-all of a treaty. More than that, his use of that word supposes such a document to be a silver bullet capable, as if by magic, of making things better by its mere utterance. In the same article, inevitably, Blackman drags in racism
“The main obstacle to signing a Treaty is this nation’s population and its propensity of exhibiting the most racist trait of any other nation in the world.”
Of course he does not bother to substantiate his claim, which is the whole point of modern rhetoric.
Fellow activist Chris Sarra, has stated
“Do things with us, not to us.”
“The most fundamental step is acknowledging our humanity. In the relationship we have between first Australians and new Australia let’s say, our humanity is not being acknowledged and this is so tragically reflected in the sad statistics many of us know too well.”
Many would not be surprised by those “sad statistics” of abuse, anti-social behaviour and wasted lives, so no problem there. But what of his first statement: “Do things with us, not to us”? What does it mean? True, it is so vague as to have become a well-worn staple in any and very nearly all discussions of Aboriginal affairs and comes with the ring of comforting familiarity. That statement could have been made clearer if Sarra had provided some concrete examples to contrast the Aboriginal experience with the non-Aboriginal experience. After all, there would be no shortage of non-Aboriginal Australians who could just as validly claim that government had “done things to them” and not “with them.”
As for “acknowledging our humanity,” I am not quite sure what this would look like. I wake up every morning untroubled by whether or not my humanity has been acknowledged. The reason such messages are potentially damaging – to those who take them seriously – is that it communicates the disempowering idea that any suffering can only be fixed once government “acknowledge their humanity.” OK, your humanity has been acknowledged! Let’s see if that brings petrol-sniffing, violence and the abuse of small children to an end. I’m prepared to take bets from anyone who thinks that might be the case.
The treaty has been a fountainhead of rhetoric. Indigenous lawyer Nicole Watson states:
“The trauma will not begin to heal until we create ground rules for how to live together. For that reason, a treaty is inevitable.”
This claim could have some credibility if the author elaborated on that “trauma”. The anger and dissatisfaction I see amongst Indigenous protestors is often labelled as “trauma”. But is it? If correctly labelled, then the sources and, more importantly, the sustaining factors for the dissatisfaction and anger could be identified and addressed. But applying the label of “trauma” negates that need. It is the citing of effect to explain cause.
Here is Ms Watson, writing in the In the April 2013 edition of Tracker (and summarised here) and weighing in on the treaty once more:
“I think that treaties are absolutely vital for our mob … it will constitute long overdue recognition that this country was founded on stolen land. I think that this is absolutely vital for us going ahead as a country.”
The words are weighted to impress: “absolutely vital,” “long overdue recognition,” and, inevitably, “stolen land” — they are incantations to leave the impression that something righteous has been said. Left unstated is any consideration that the victimology mindset and its emotive preoccupation with the past is a sure way to hold people back. Again, those who take the claim seriously are likely to fall into the trap of thinking their problems will be fixed if someone would only acknowledge that ancestors of one race “stole” from those of another. There is no reason to believe such acknowledgements do the slightest good. After all, Kevin Rudd said “sorry” to the acclaim of all the usual suspects. In practical terms, has his apology achieved anything? Not that you would notice.
Each of the examples cited above might sound impressive, but minus clarification and exposition they are no more than empty phrases. While it is often difficult to prove that what they seek to communicate is a truth, it is even more difficult to prove what they communicate is false. To get to the essence of thought as presented in nothing but the debased argot of modern rhetoric is impossible. You might as well try nailing jelly to the wall.
Let’s choose our words carefully and be accountable for them, and let us do so while keeping firmly in focus the real and serious problems impacting Aboriginal people: unemployment, sickness, violence, child abuse and community dysfunction. No amount of rhetoric will fix them.
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