I have been an academic in Australia for 40 years. I grew up in close association with the Xhosa tribe of South Africa, the land of my birth, and lectured for many years on sustainable tribal homelands. The simplistic Australian model of Guilty Whites/Innocent Blacks struck me decades ago as a real brake on mature debate about alternative futures for self-identifying Aboriginals. I am aware of the tendency to stereotype ex-South Africans as evil incarnate, irrespective of their personal actions against apartheid. So expecting an unbiased reception to my suggestions about individual responsibility and positive thinking by members of a group who insist they’re oppressed is less than realistic.
We are lucky to still have at least a few print media willing to say it as it is, and expose the offence-taking strategy which plagues rational policy-formations in contemporary Australia. In August, 2012, I ordered the Ph.D. thesis of Associate Professor Gracelyn Smallwood and was surprised to find it gravely disappointing. I felt so strongly about the contents and inferences of this thesis that I was moved to air my concerns in the newspaper which originally praised it and its author. My letter was published in the National Indigenous Times in August, 2012. It read as follows:
Letter to the editor:
It has been my privilege to guide and examine post-graduates from several universities here and overseas for nearly half a century. In recent years, the increasing numbers of Indigenous theses have been both important and heartening. Understandably, most of these have been on the history, identity, justice experience and well-being of Indigenous peoples. In attaining doctoral status, Indigenous scholars have gained confidence and status in the intellectual community. However, it is time for supervisors to encourage Indigenous post-grads to select thesis topics other than the ‘poor fellow me’ genre. Thus while it was important for the early PhDs to contribute to pride and identity in the face of injustice and discrimination, the cosy mutual back-scratching among a small group of supervisors and examiners is damaging intellectual rigour and academic respect.
The most serious shortcomings are seen in those theses in which the supervisor has mistakenly accepted the ‘this is your life’-type hard luck story as appropriate intellectual content for doctoral examination. This autobiographical material may well be suitable for booksellers but it devalues intellectual standards of original thought, balanced literature review and objective deductive conclusions. While some disciplines, notably in the arts and humanities, have always accepted qualitative research, when this moves to acceptance of subjective analysis, autobiography and personal attack, the reputation of Indigenous intellectuals is devalued.
We all recognise that many Indigenous individuals are still in a transitional stage of development socially, but it is time to transcend the victimhood view and encourage our scholars to look ahead, concentrate on solutions, avoid subjective politics and demonstrate our intellectual capacity by developing original concepts for progress.
The sooner the academic effort moves toward problem-solving in the poverty cycle, irrespective of race, the sooner we will move to a needs-base for equitable social policy. In doing this we should recognise the importance of a doctoral thesis being more than selective macro-literature reviews and personal feelings. Originality is the important criterion of good thinking. The National Indigenous Times has a role here, by showing how such a shift in the tenor of doctoral research can be done without being seen as insensitive or disrespectful to ethnic values. This is an important debate.
In its issue of September 5, 2012, the wrath of four Indigenous PhDs erupted: Gracelyn Smallwood (JCU), Noritta Morseu-Diop (UQ), Rosemary van den Berg (Curtin) and Chris Sarra (QUT). Their anger was aimed at me, and I was labelled a racist.
Being a longstanding academic with long experience of transitioning tribal people in several African countries, I was taken aback by this unexpected vilification. Well, what did you expect, said a senior colleague? You should have seen it coming. Normally, as a mature and objective scientist, I would resist the temptation of entering such a slanging match. However, after considering the values reflected in this stoush, I decided that a cool, incisive analysis of this conflict was not only warranted but necessary. Here it is:
FOR SEVERAL decades there has been an increasing tendency for many Aboriginal spokespersons to insist that non-Indigenous scholars and commentators keep out of Indigenous affairs, usually in the name of ‘self-determination’. Parallel with this trend has been a damaging shift toward avoidance of rational debate on Indigenous rights with those who challenge the mindset which holds that Indigenous affairs may only be discussed by Indigenous people. Sadly, this resistance to rational debate is present even if those who question or oppose are fellow Aborigines. Added to this unintended move toward infantilisation is the more recent argument about Aboriginality and the criteria of eligibility.
The case reported on here is probably not unique but it offers a recent real-life examination of the closed-shop mentality which is depriving academic Indigenous Australians of respect and co-operative acceptance. As such, it offers lessons which other Australian academics ignore at their peril.
In essence, this paper [the NIT] deals with a letter to the editor referring to an isolated case of alleged reduced research standards, followed by an organised response from several fellow Aboriginal researchers and a literature analysis of perceived offensive writing.
At the risk of over-analysing the original letter and its response, the following comments (below) from Smallwood, one of the four responding Indigenous PhDs from Australian universities, is both informative and illustrative of the orchestrated oversensitivity to the letter that was, somehow, perceived as racist.
The newspaper used the large-print headline “Academics outraged over PhD ‘Poor fellow me’ slur” to head two full pages of critique plus photographs of each of the commentators. What is most notable about the responses is the way in which they object to things which my original letter did not actually say. The wording of the responses can probably be read as carrying deeper messages than the respondents were aware of. It is these subliminal messages and the values that they reflect which form the burden of this account. For the record, it should be emphasised that I completely accept the extent of colonial trauma suffered by the original inhabitants.
To my mind, the central issues — the one that motivated me in the first place — are research standards and how best Aboriginal scholars can earn the respect they seek.
Smallwood starts her response:
‘His [mine] remarks have set back reconciliation by decades for the University. This bloke needs to go back to South Africa instead of coming over here and running our people down … his bizarre comment on our brilliant scholars is setting back our reconciliation process by decades. Our university is known for its work on reconciliation … and now it will also be known for this bigot who calls himself a professor. He ought to be ashamed of himself. I’ll bring these racist remarks he’s made to the attention of the Vice Chancellor and ask that his tenure be reviewed. What message is he sending out to our Indigenous post-graduates if he’s espousing this nonsense about what they should or shouldn’t study as a topic of their PhD. It’s not for a non-Indigenous academic to tell [me] or other Indigenous students in pursuit of academic excellence what to study. You really have to laugh at this old bigot who feels the need to engage in something he knows nothing about.
Would he have preferred that I wrote about the mating habits of the green frog than my life story of cultural struggle … I know what interests readers the most and that is the topic that will promote wider knowledge of relevance for our next generation of black and white students.
Maybe this fella ought to read my PhD and then he might learn something new. He might even learn to stay out of Indigenous affairs to which he is a total novice and on a topic he cannot add further to that field of knowledge.’
Comment on Response
As a self appointed Aboriginal activist, Smallwood is of special significance in this search for causes of bellicose responses. She is the writer of one of the strangest generalisations ever to have appeared in the Australian race debate: Some weeks before the verbal conflict considered here, she returned from an overseas race conference and wrote:
‘Australia is the ultimate country that exerts white power and all its citizens fall in line with the power of whiteness. They either toe the line or, like a lot of our brothers and sisters who dared to challenge the status quo, they get locked up.’
Smallwood gives the above as a reason why South African racists are so at home in Australia!
In her response, my suggestions are interpreted as ‘running our people down’ – a strange twist to what was actually intended, which was to urge the raising of academic standards. The idea that ‘our university, known for its work on reconciliation … will now also be known for this bigot’ denies the constructive contribution which a critical assessment of PhD quality trends, can make to Aboriginal academics’ image. In her view, not only should the author be ashamed of himself, but the Vice Chancellor should review his tenure (‘unispeak’ for sack).
In her NIT response, Smallwood then asks the question:
‘What message is he sending to Indigenous post-graduates on what they should or shouldn’t study when they are in pursuit of academic excellence?’
This question is perhaps more important than Smallwood might realise. My intended message to post-graduates was that they need to be aware of slipping standards, and by implication, they should demonstrate through their own integrity and research rigour that they have important contributions to make to Aboriginal well-being.
This ‘message’ question is central to the growing tendency for cultural extremists to shut out challenges from both outsiders and insiders who call on the closed-shop spokespersons to abandon their childish ‘because I say so’ reason-free idealism and face up to a mature contest of ideas. Those wishing to debate Indigenous futures in the public square are at a loss to understand why the traditionalists refuse intellectual help and insist that differences be kept in the family – a family which is at odds with its own most creative thinkers, branding them ‘turncoats’. This puerile refusal to face the music of grown-up rationality not only damages the image of the intelligentsia but deprives the whole mob of productive open-mindedness.
Smallwood’s advice that I ‘might learn to stay out of Indigenous affairs …’ reflects the gravity of attempts to bully outsiders out of the public square, particularly if they disagree with cherished beliefs. Why most other academics retreated from the Aboriginal futures debate was simply answered by Prof. Colin Tatz more than two decades ago: they fear being branded as racists. This refusal to debate contested values, as referred to earlier, is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the contemporary non-debate. It will continue to derail the attempts to contest ideas, by those open-minded Indigenous spokespersons who recognise the futility of the on-going, opaque, closed-shop mentality.
The recent book On Offence by Richard King elucidates many elements of cases of abusive response to reasonable suggestion. The following examples from King can contribute to understanding the current Aboriginal academic non-debate. King explains that his book is an attempt to understand the culture of offence-taking and offence-mongering. He claims that the art of umbrage-taking has become a must for politicians to win sympathy on the evening news. In this way, indignation has become a major tactic – it has certainly become a useful tool for Indigenous academics seeking attention. In the process of playing the victim card, the culture of offence has come to overshadow the veracity of the facts of the case. King quotes Christopher Hitchens’ suggestion that, when we claim something is offensive, it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. This demagoguery harnesses self-pity and resentment in pursuit of self-justification. In taking offence we often tend to forget our equal right not to take offence.
On Offence is based on three convictions: (1) Free speech is meaningless if it doesn’t include freedom to offend; (2) To find something offensive should be the start of the debate, not the end; and (3) the modern fetish for sensitivity is corrosive of genuine civility. King follows the culture of sensitivity as it has played out in English-speaking countries over the past 20 years, starting in universities. It is here that the culture wars and resultant politics of indignation began.
Democracy, says King, needs a thicker skin, a requirement reinforced by recent events in the Muslim world and, closer to home, in Indigenous politics (as Andrew Bolt found out the hard way). Disrespect, it seems, is a powerful incentive to go on the defensive, even if the response is blushworthy. This certainly is the way the aggrieved Indigenous PhDs have chosen to interpret the suggestions I offered. The problem arises when hurt feelings (sometimes fabricated) are regarded as more important than factual argument. In the present case, the taking of offence is used as the weapon to ‘strike back at the intellectual opponents’, to quote King, who contends that this increasing new trend should be cause for deep concern.
The demand for respect, however, has gone beyond normal civility. The aggressive accusation of disrespect is now being used by the aggrieved to produce a new form of racial politics which seems to be increasingly used as what King recognises as a form of therapy – it is used as ‘psychological nourishment’ of the self-proclaimed oppressed and has been described by one analyst as ‘the dictatorship of virtue’, relying heavily on historic White guilt.
In Australia this holier-than-thou stance has contributed substantially to political correctness (PC) – to the extent that the basic tenets of democracy may soon be under challenge. This is especially so when complaints are presented on the pedestal of human rights.
King highlights the bold writing of Diane Ravich (The Language Police, 2007) who claims that racism, sexism and economic disadvantage will never be understood by students whose received wisdom is a sanitised history stripped of a critical, intellectually honest assessment of controversial subjects. In such history, all upsetting or polemical material has been removed in order to protect self-esteem. This what Robert Hughes called ‘remedial belief’ — a belief system which brings comfort and belonging irrespective of the facts. The Bible, Koran and other sacred texts offer such remedial belief to those who take them literally.
In this process, one group’s objective truth has given way to another group’s cultural relativism, which King claims ‘has taken root as a spreading weed’ in Australian universities. King is probably only partially right in this analogy because the facts tell us that the truth lies somewhere between two selective and somewhat dishonest polarised interpretations.
King takes this matter further:
‘For what does the culture warrior sell if not a brand of intellectual Viagra – little blue pills of indignation to stiffen the ideological resolve? The passions aroused are artificial, or are based on artificial grievances. But their potency is not to be denied, nor indeed their corrosive effect on the quality of public discourse.’
Such a description of the toxic effects of oversensitive offence-taking seems to fit the local case, as described, rather well.
Contemporary Australia suffers from a type of fanaticism, one which uses identity politics to shatter moderate multiculturalism through loud indignation by people whose claimed oppression is regarded by many as largely self-inflicted. From this hurt position has come a demand for separatism to replace mutual tolerance and acceptance. So what we have currently is a retreat by many Aboriginal academics into the refuge of cultural identity, a rejection of other views and an emphasis on difference. Frank Furedi in his excellent 2011 book On Tolerance suggests that an Eleventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not judge’, has become a new requirement. However this is at odds with Finley Dunne’s contention (King p.137) that ‘it is the job of the writer to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’. While probably said with tongue in cheek, Dunne seems to be aiming his barb at the complacent, the moral high-grounders and the holier-than-thous.
Puerile offence-taking has led to a constructed self-righteousness, a trend so well described by Christopher Lasch in his Culture of Narcissism (1979). The exaggerated esteem which bolsters the hurt self, in turn leads on to what Furedi has called ‘therapy culture’ which is built on emotional sharing of personal hardships – a pity-seeking stance of apparent therapeutic value to the self-promoters. This phenomenon is well illustrated in the local case described above, to the point where the objective viewpoint of the original positive criticism comes a poor second to hurt feelings of offended self-proclaimed victims. Furedi is probably correct when he claims that ‘the identity of victim enjoys favourable cultural validation’. This is a claim which Hughes in his Culture of Complaint (1993) puts succinctly as follows: ‘The Inner Child has taken over…. when these individuals ought to be figuring out where their Inner Adult is and how that disregarded [adult] got buried under pop psychology and specious short-term gratification.’
Perhaps the greatest responsibility in the present case was on my shoulders, instead of showing understanding of a minority candidate, I insisted that the highest academic standards be met. Why would I be so strident and persistent in my demands? Firstly because the university promoted its ‘world class’ research standards; secondly, because the university dogmatically denied any two-tier standards for the disadvantaged; thirdly, because only the candidate promoted her research as brilliant; fourthly, because evidence of original writing was underwhelming; fifthly, because four professors from four southern universities did not consider that the dissertation met the host university’s own published PhD standards. Lastly, but very importantly, because university staff, postgraduates and alumni could be expected to be embarrassed by the way this doctorate shamed them and de-valued their own hard work.
So the question remains: would forgiveness or silence have been morally defensible?
Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow