Bennelong Papers

On Leaving the Past Behind

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.
Calvin Helin from Dances with Dependency

black eyeThe quote above is from a Canadian Aboriginal man and it pretty much reflects the view I take of the impact the past may have on today’s Australian Aborigines. More succinctly, as Stan Grant has argued in his Quarterly Essay, history need not be destiny. The past’s influence on the here-and-now is an important topic and one I have addressed before. I take up the topic once more because, sadly, I continue to hear the message that Aboriginal people suffer today because of colonisation. This message, like the memes “it’s the government’s fault” and “racism is everywhere,” is both seductively appealing and extraordinarily damaging, sapping the motivation for Aborigines to make a difference in their own lives. After being endlessly bombarded with this narrative of hopelessness, who can’t grasp why a what’s-the-use-of-trying? mindset has established such deep roots?

Fortunately many Aboriginal people don’t buy this nonsense. Nonetheless, it is an issue that needs discussing.

Australia’s history of poor race relations between the original inhabitants and the British is a matter of record. Many Aboriginal lives were lost. Now focus on the present, on 2017. While many Aboriginal people are doing very well in terms of health and wellbeing, many are not. Interestingly, among those who are doing well, some like to think they are suffering. Their alleged suffering is described with such rhetoric as ‘genocide,’ ‘assimilation,’ and ‘white supremacy.’ To identify any of these rhetorically alleged culprits is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. As an example of the trash they carry on with, consider the words of blacktivist Celeste Liddle, who tweeted, “This colonial system is literally murdering Aboriginal kids.” Yes, “literally”! If Celeste abhors this ‘colonial system’ which so oppressors her, she is free to give up her city privilege and go back to living off the land.

I am not particularly concerned about the victim brigade and its whinja ninjas. I am more bothered by that other group of Aborigines whose suffering is real — those living in environments where violence and child abuse are common. These people often live in remote communities where daily life is overcrowded, unclean, unsafe. There’s no doubt about it: they are suffering, and as Australian citizens this should not be. What I question is the assumed causal relation between events of the past and the current state of suffering. So, is colonisation the cause of the problems afflicting Aboriginal people today? I think not. Peter Sutton (2011) in his excellent book The Politics of Suffering, notes that the past “is not enough, on its own, to explain the Indigenous/non-Indigenous health gap.”

The fact that many Aboriginal people today are not suffering — indeed, thriving — must cast serious doubt on the assumed cause-and-effect relation between the past and the ongoing disadvantage of others. This is not to suggest the past is irrelevant, only that is far from the tragic stumbling block preventing success in the present.

I’m going to explain my reasoning by way of an analogy. Stick with me, as it is short and I believe its relevance will be readily apparent.

Imagine you and I are working in the hot sun for a few hours. I’m not wearing a hat or shirt or using sunscreen, but you are. It’s easy to see which one of us gets a bad sunburn. It’s also easy to know what I can do to avoid getting burnt in future. It would be a waste of time to blame the sun. What I need to do is take some personal responsibility, be sun-smart and take logical precautions in future. The sun, obviously, is the agent of my sore and flaking skin, but it is in no way the cause. My negligence and lack of personal responsibility is the cause.

So it is with our pasts — all our pasts, not just black ones: they play a part, but so do we as agents of our own fates. As my friend, Dr Phil Harker, puts it, “We are never, ever victims of the past, only ever victims of our view of the past.” That is not to say some of us don’t encounter difficult circumstances which may have their genesis in the past, but it is not the historical past that is directly causing present suffering. Loyola University of Chicago psychology professor Gerard Egan, puts it this way: “That past experiences may well influence current behavior does not mean that they necessarily determine present behavior.”

I explained my sunburn analogy to a colleague and he responded, “Well, we should be trying to understand why they are without their shirts, hats, and sunscreen today.” I agree fully and will respond here. If people have the opportunity to either move to the shade or wear skin protection, then they usually will. It is about opportunities and action; and here in Australia, there are many, many opportunities. While many Aboriginal people have taken advantage of these opportunities, many have not been so lucky. It’s not that they lack the capability to  take action, rather they lack access to the opportunities.

The best opportunities are usually available in cities with sizable populations. It is here employment and education opportunities are found. Sadly, there are too many activists who wish to keep Aboriginal people in remote ghettos under the pretense of “living on country.” I’m not suggesting uprooting people and dumping them in the cities. This needs to be carefully planned and requires some tough decisions. This is something Stan Grant has spoken about before.

Duran and Duran (1995), when discussing Native American postcolonial psychology, have suggested that historical trauma is passed on by the same mechanisms by which culture is generally carried forth from one generation to the next. However, cultures are not destiny; they can change and bad aspects, or aspects that may have at one time served a purpose, can fade, be discontinued or modified to better serve the immediate demands of one’s present environment. Psychologist Abraham Maslow remarked that culture is a necessary shaper of human nature, not a sufficient cause. Cultures do not, in themselves, define one’s destiny, and therefore provide only a potential for one’s destiny — and this potential itself is constantly changing. This is not to suggest that culture is not important, but we know that among people of the same culture (or even the same family), there is often much variation in attitudes and behaviours – some succeed, others fail. Therefore, just like culture, it is not a given that the deleterious effects of past traumatic events need to pass from one generation to the next – again, unless they serve a positive purpose in the upcoming generation’s ability to cope with their present world.

Aboriginal people as individuals must decide for themselves whether they will allow the past to be the determining factor in their lives today or if they will focus on what they personally can do to improve their lives. But to have a true choice, they need to know (as so many already do) that they do not have to be governed by the legacy of colonisation. If they only hear the popular message that past experiences (which cannot be changed) are responsible for their current plight, then it is unlikely that they will be able to take up opportunities – however many there are – and move forward. My purpose in writing this article is that Aboriginal people hear an alternative to the dominant message of “You are suffering due to the past.” I am not suggesting that people forget history or their personal pasts, but only that they do not energise them to the point where they dominate the present and define identities –or, to be more precise, psychologically cripple them.

Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl, spent time in Nazi prison camps and learnt much about the human ability to make choices after experiencing traumatic events:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action . . . We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Calvin Helin, the Canadian Aboriginal lawyer quoted atop this article, acknowledges the usefulness of looking back: “The elements that for millennia contributed to the survival and success of Aboriginal societies may provide some clues to solutions in the present situation.” It is good for Aborigines today to look back in the past to see what skills, attitudes, beliefs, and character attributes their ancestors possessed that enabled them to survive. However, Helin cautions against dwelling on the past, which is very different from reflecting on the past. Aboriginal people do well to reflect and move forward; to do otherwise is to remain stuck.

Update: The Australia Day debate has reared its ugly head once again. This is a topic I have spoken on before and won’t elaborate on here — except to note that this nonsense is one more excuse for whinja ninjas to express sanctimonious outrage.

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


6 thoughts on “On Leaving the Past Behind

  • padraic says:

    Totally agree, Anthony. The best thing about the past is that it is past. As you point out,letting the past define your present gets one nowhere. You only get one crack at life so why waste it whining about what someone did to your ancestor hundreds of years ago, or thousands of years in the case of the Middle East. Some of my ancestors had a rough trot but succeeding generations built on those nasty experiences to take advantage of the opportunities the present gave them. There is nothing stopping any Australian citizen at present to achieve their potential and have a good life, except their attitudes.

  • Warty says:

    The truth is not a consideration in the culture wars, or when it comes to identity. Tear down a statue of Robert E Lee and those involved feel half an hour of euphoria in having performed such a virtuous act. It is an act based on an idea, not serious research. Somewhere, at some time or other, some lazy first year uni student decided that Robert E Lee was one racist son of a bitch, despite the fact he liberated his slaves before Abe Lincoln, three years before a good many slave owners in the Union, and agreed to fight for the Confederates on constitutional grounds, not on the issue of slavery.
    Though not American, I had been intrigued by the American Civil War in my late teens, so I read up on it, and came away thinking Lee was by far the greatest general to come out of the war, defeated by attrition, not generalship.
    I came away with an abiding sympathy for the South too and fruitless anger about the unprincipled behaviour of the ‘Carpet Baggers’. I gained a fetch of the characters of some of the principal players in the war, not so vividly that I could reach out and touch them, the way the romanticists imagine, but a strong impression; all the while knowing I could not alter the course of the war, any more than I could slow down the industrialised might of the Northerners who eventually suffocated the spirit of the South. But I would not have imagined taking a jackhammer to the marble seated statue of Abe Lincoln and more than I could imagine tearing down a bronze of Stonewall Jackson, the ultimately victorious Union general.
    It seems the American Civil War, more particularly the tearing down and the removal of Confederate soldiers and generals, has made quite an impression on our Stan Grants and our lunatic fringe, because it gave them pause to think about our own history, of which they know so little. Distant memory of poisoned blankets and filled-in waterholes, designed to cruelly murder our indigenous people, albeit the methods attributed to the colonists were in fact those of the North Americans, seemed to percolate down as though from the aether.
    Governor Macquarie was seen to authorise a form of ethnic cleansing, and Captain Cook, looking so arrogant, so jingoistic on his pedestal, had the audacity to think he discovered the East Coast of Australia, despite the fact that Aboriginals were here 30,000 years ago . . . no, was it 40,000 . . . blow me down if it wasn’t 61,032 years, three months and two days ago. But the ‘discovery’ bit is what really rubbed. Forget the fact that three nights ago you went home and told your wife you’d discovered a fantastic new restaurant in Parramatta and got a bollocking because you had originally said you were working late.
    No, when it come to the virtue game, there are no rules and no ground given. Truth is the first casualty and being on the wrong side is very dangerous indeed. We are living in particularly troubled times. Draining the swamp is taking longer than anyone thought.

  • Jody says:

    I’ll say it again; it’s the Taliban and IS and now the alt-Left which loves destroying statues, monuments and icons.

  • says:

    I suspect that Indigenous ‘radicals’ have no positive agenda, they simply don’t know what to do next. ‘Recognition’ seems to have, to use Chris Kenny’s term, run into the sand. ‘Self-determination’, handed to people and communities forty five years ago, didn’t turn out to be what people meant, not if it meant having to do anything for yourself, make your own mistakes and correct them. What’s left ? Merely a never-ending, ever-expanding and undemonstrable catalogue of atrocities, ‘evidence’ of the all-powerful and unalterable wickedness of non-Indigenous people. This “poor-bugger-me” fall-back position is crippling, enervating and incredibly destructive for Indigenous people, as Anthony points out: ‘due to white evil, nothing has worked or will ever work’. The Indigenous movement seems to have reached an impasse, of complaining about petty ‘wrongs’ such as the inscription on Cook’s statue, or what day to celebrate. Meanwhile, out there in the remote communities ……

    And meanwhile, around 45,000 Indigenous people have graduated from standard award-level courses at universities, overwhelmingly from urban environments. Perhaps 18,000 are c currently studying (the equivalent of one and a half young-adult age-groups). They may not get the employment they deserve, given that a 3 % ‘quota’ locks them, to a large extent, out of 97 % of the job market, and may confine them to Indigenous fields. But they represent the resilience, determination – SELF-determination – and optimism of a huge proportion of the Indigenous population.

  • innocuous says:

    I must say I like Anthony’s style of writing. It feels like we are having a bit of a chat. I guess partly because what write makes so much sense and has such positive message for everyone indigenous and non indigenous alike. It’s a universal message of hope for the future and having the power to make a difference just by choosing to have a positive attitude.

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