The Voice

‘Truth-Telling’ of the Pontius Pilate Variety

‘What is truth?’ Pontius Pilate, John 18:38

Those with long memories may recall Peter Costello dancing the macarena on the Kerri-Anne Kennerley show in 1996, several political generations and, seemingly, a lifetime ago.  Simpler times, in many ways. Now we are dancing with “the truth” — as in, dancing with truth-telling as the indigenous narrative in the context of the Voice debate.  Here is a definition of Makarrata:

The Uluru Statement calls for a First Nations Voice to Parliament and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling. These reforms are: Voice, Treaty, Truth. The first reform is the constitutional enshrinement of a Voice to Parliament.

It seems that “truth”, or a conception of it, is at the heart of the Voice.  We therefore owe it as Australians, who are about to be asked to change the Australian Constitution on the basis of (what turns out to be) an unexplained, scarcely thought through, heavily contested, philosophically thin notion of “truth”, to think this through a little more.

Is there a recognisably Aboriginal notion of “truth”, and how does it relate to traditional, Western conceptions?  According to Reconciliation Australia:

Historical Acceptance is key to reconciliation in Australia. Historical acceptance means that Australians recognise, understand, and accept the wrongs of the past and the impact of these wrongs on First Peoples … Historical acceptance cannot occur without truth-telling.

But what is truth-telling? 

Truth-telling can involve activities at local, state, national, and international levels. For example: official apologies, truth and reconciliation or other inquiries and commissions, memorials, ceremonies and public art. It can happen in community halls and churches; in museums, cultural or educational healing centres and institutions; local councils; and in schools, TAFEs and universities.

Local truth-telling is particularly powerful, especially when it occurs in small communities where people are able to develop personal relationships through the process, or build respect and understanding.

More and more local communities are working together to mark previously untold and unrecognised parts of their local histories.

This has resulted not only in an increase in researching and documenting of wars and massacres, but also in recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty, contributions, and resilience, and actively recognising redress and healing.

The renaming of places has also grown as a means of truth-telling; museums and cultural centres are thinking about how to better take account of our shared Australian history.

According to two University of Melbourne academics:

First Nations people have made a plea for ‘truth-telling’. By reckoning with its past, Australia can finally help improve our future.

… Broadly speaking, First Nations peoples seek truths that address three key themes: narrative and memory; trauma and healing; and responsibility and justice.

Reckoning with its past?  Is it simply a matter of everyone agreeing that “whitey did it”?  Only accept the wrongs?  And only accept that one view of “wrongs” is the only view?  The passage above doesn’t even begin to define what is meant by “truth”.  It simply provides examples of what is asserted to be truth-telling, and it assumes much.  Can we even agree on a common definition, when any alternate views of post-European settlement, other than that agreed by Uluru-driven Voice proponents, are dismissed (by academics) as the “colonisation of truth”?  This is lazy scholarship in service of ideology.  Moreover, the use of terms such as “narrative” and “memory” invoke just one conception of “truth”, and a highly contested one at that.  Such words give the game away.

The evolving Western notion of truth has taken different forms down the years.  There was the Judeo-Christian version, truth as revelation.  The enlightenment thinkers (like Descartes and Voltaire) thought they could jettison truth-as-revelation in favour of human reason and science-based truth.  It was still recognisably truth.  It was objective truth.  Then came the subjectivists and idealists and the idea that truth could only be known through the individual human mind, and wasn’t the expression of an objective universe outside the mind.  This all set the scene for the relativist revolution that came to fruition in the 1960s and convulsed society.  Your truth and my truth and all that. The truth as “narrative”. This is where we now are.  We are, as Christopher Joliffe has noted in these pages, under the spell of:

… the navel-gazing that characterised twentieth-century philosophy, especially that coming out of Europe, where everything once considered concrete was reduced to mere phenomenological experience with no noumena of its own.

It is said that “truth” is the first casualty of war.  Well, it has certainly been the main casualty of the post-modernists’ war on everything that came before about 1970.  Drawing (irrelevantly) on Einstein’s theory of relativity, the post-modernists dispensed with both the idea of objective truth and the idea that “truth” could be discovered beyond an individual’s constructed “narrative”.  The recently emerged conception of Aboriginal truth-telling fits all-too-neatly into this latter day, ersatz version of truth. 

There is no evidence Aboriginal communities developed any version of this Western evolution of the notion of truth, of (to borrow from Matthew Arnold) “the best that has been thought and said” on the subject, prior to European settlement of Australia.  Yet, truth-telling is at the centre of the Makarrata revolution about to be foist upon us all.  Which version of “truth” is it?  The absence of a written record of pre-European era Aboriginal culture doesn’t help us.  So we are left with the likelihood that it is post-1970s indigenous reflection that lands us where we are, truth-wise.  A little like the 1980s Maori understanding of the “principles” of the Treaty of Waitangi, or, indeed, “the spirit of Vatican II”.

Where does Makarrata truth-telling come from, then?  Christopher Nance explores this problem:

Truth-telling. The use of this term has been copied mainly from various overseas bodies (such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission), but it is not really about people telling the truth; rather it is a term that has become politically weaponised, a means for berating white Australians. In the current discussion it entails non-indigenous people admitting the truth about our past, that the continent had been “invaded” and colonised, and that the original inhabitants had been ill-treated.

This all sounds like the post-modernist notion of truth-as-narrative.  Not worth a pinch of salt, in other words.  This is the age of truth-as-power.  The Aboriginal pro-Voice activists are seeking to ride the relativist version of truth wave to the beach.  This isn’t very “traditional”, of course.  It might be even be construed as cultural appropriation, in other words.  Quelle horreur! 

The “truth” of British colonial occupation of Terra Australis is highly contested.  As, of course, are Aboriginal interpretations of British colonisation.  Keith Windschuttle, for one, has written several volumes on the subject, notably his most recent, The Break-Up of Australia (which can be ordered here) in the process finding a veritable swamp of mis- and dis-information.  Nance says:

The terms and phrases discussed here are just a few that are being repeated in public discussions. They have become accepted without question, and indeed there are many more such claims that need to be scrutinised, such as traditional wisdom, Aborigines as a maritime people, and the validity of oral history. These are important issues because increasingly indigenous groups are making allegations, some outrageous, that are supposedly based on historical truths. All of the claims are for land or money, and many are made without any evidence; however, challenges to these claims are swiftly suppressed, branded as racist.

Not many observers have even bothered to explore what understandings of “truth” are in play here, in this contentious, post-Uluru debate.  They should.  We are all now dancing the Makarrata.  Given that “truth-telling” is at the heart of the enterprise, perhaps we all should, in preparation of the referendum vote, spend a little time looking at this.

It would be perhaps a supreme irony if select Aboriginal power brokers – for that is all they are – who do not speak for any particular tribe, let alone for all indigenous people (including the tens of thousands who seem not necessarily indigenous at all), had culturally appropriated core elements of both the European enlightenment and the Judeo-Christian heritage — appropriated at least in form, if not in substance, for ideological purposes.  The word “truth” still has currency, meaning and power, they assume.  The core of the Uluru Statement’s compelling power is just such a “truth”. This is a con, for at the heart of Uluru truth-telling is no notion of truth most of us would accept.  It is an act of appropriation of the truth label combined with a stripping out of its core. The appeal to some notion of truth is very convenient for the purposes of the Uluru class.

Consider the Enlightenment.  That would be the same Enlightenment that, through colonialism, brought the whole science-reason-truth philosophy to what used to be called “the new world”.  A world that, whether or not it was “terra nullius”, seems certainly to have been philosophia nullius.  Even if the Enlightenment was the work of dead white men and was itself a racist, patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic construct, it still provides the core of modern understandings of the holy trinity of science-reason-truth so beloved (again, in form if not in substance) of the liberal elites who are driving the Voice.  And, seemingly, a reference point for the notion of the Makarrata on which Australians will vote very shortly.

Peter Hacker (Emeritus Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University) notes, in relation to truth and the Enlightenment:

Journalists and politicians have introduced the expressions ‘post-truth world’ and ‘post-truth politics’. Some post-modernists have welcomed this new era. It will, they enthusiastically proclaim, put an end to the Enlightenment Project. This is correct. For the Enlightenment was committed to the pursuit of truth in the face of religious dogma and political bigotry. It advocated empirical science and its methods as opposed to religious judgments based on the Bible or on the authority of the church. It demanded reasons and rational justifications for social institutions inimical to human felicity. And it fought for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the face of religious and political censorship.

The juxtaposition of enlightenment truth and post-modernist truth outlined by Hacker is heavily ironic, given that the Makarrata version of truth bears so little resemblance to the former.  The version of “truth” that seems to be at the heart of Makarrata turns out to be faux truth, a construct largely of French café-dwelling philosophical ne’er-do-wells who thought that storming the barricades in 1968 ended every debate.  Not very traditional Aboriginal.  In another irony, a construct coming out of … Europe, the very home of colonial invasions!  So, it seems, the Voice industry has performed a (very clever) hostile takeover of whitey-philosophy, in the process upending traditional (either religious or not) conceptions of truth while at the same time appropriating truth’s marketing value.

Yes, it is fair question to ask what they mean by truth. What would Linda Burney say “truth” is?  Albo?  Noel Pearson?  If all truth is constructed, well, why shouldn’t we question the Aboriginal industry’s notion of truth?  When, literally, some now say that “white can be black”.  The era of dark Emu.  Of myth-making.  When, as per Henry Reynolds, speaking in 1981:

… the prerequisite of Aboriginality is cultural loyalty and not any false nineteenth-century genetic theory.

Michael Connor succinctly called it out:

A magic moment, as the actuality of black people was Max Factored out of existence by a white academic … 

On the evidence of this, one might well question whether “truth” and “Aboriginal activism” should be used in the same sentence.  Despite the fact that the word gets thrown around a helluva lot.  And is used as cover for all sorts of woke enforcement practices, not least in the workplace.  Bella d’Abrera tells us via The Spectator’s Café Culture that:

Last week it came to light that [the Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Agency] have ordered psychologists to create ‘culturally safe’ practices by acknowledging ‘colonisation and systemic racism’, as well as pondering their own ‘individual racism biases.’

More truth-telling?  The enforcement of top-down PC totalitarianism is not even close to a simulacrum of truth, and not especially reconciliatory either.  But this is the way of Makarrata: ‘truth’ as power.  No doubt, practices like this are being rolled out all across the land.  A veneer of truth lends weight to the cause, like sprinkling magic dust on a pile of dung

Perhaps the real question is not about respective understandings of truth but whether truth is even the right word to be using.  Christopher Joliffe has called indigenous culture, for example, a “synthetic reinvention”.  He refers to “… disingenuous sentiments about country or colonialism or culture or whatever magic word presently moves the withered heart of the patricidal activist …”  It is not accidental that Keith Windschuttle called his multi-volume history of post-European Australian settlement The Fabrication of Aboriginal History

Not much truth on offer here, you might well think.  And yet it is still maintained that truth is at the very heart of the Voice, and of the understanding of indigenous culture and history that we are now all meant to embrace.  It all has the whiff of a scam.  They seem to just make stuff up, and then have the gall to call it ‘truth’.  The core of the Makarrata is an insult to any notion of truth, even the truth-as-narrative version of the French post-modernists.

Peter Costello, who danced the macarena all those decades ago, then, a few years later, proudly walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of “sorry”, might now be wondering where that all has led.

9 thoughts on “‘Truth-Telling’ of the Pontius Pilate Variety

  • Macspee says:

    Paul, the questions that the ‘Voice’ conjures up, particularly the several responses of Marcia Langton, seem to hark back somewhat to her book First Knowledges Law: The Way of the Ancestors, that appear to be a struggle to provide excuses for the aboriginal people: ‘ we are not as ‘primitive’ as you think (a la Pruce Pascoe and “Dark Emu”) and our ‘law’ was and is pristine, something you have destroyed but can now return to us by giving us the ‘Voice’

  • Alistair says:

    I’m not the first person to say it – that there is some sort of tautology involved with the absolute assertion that all truth is relative. Surely the truth of that statement can never be verified, and is in fact just another one of the untruths that we are supposed to take on trust?
    What you are describing here is the end of the Enlightenment’s concept of absolute scientific truth and a return to Stone Age belief of truth as a politically derived affirmation of cultural membership . It fits in well with the end of Western Rules of Evidence and return to truth derived by sorcery under the returning to favour Customary Law, and the end of democracy as a valued institution and replacement by a “Voice” of unelected indigenous elders. I dont really blame the Aborigines for this but the I do blame the Constitutional lawyers who seem to have respect for what the Enlightenment has given them.

  • Jessie says:

    The term ‘makarrata’ is referred to in The Final Report of the Referendum Council 30 June 2017. Galarrwuy Yunupingu narrates the original pre-missionary [peace-making] makarrata event between war-faring clans in APPENDIX D: ROM WATANGU – THE LAW OF THE LAND.

    There is no mention of truth-telling.

    “One of the things that gave him the most recognition just before the missionaries arrived occurred when he joined Birrikitji and his younger brother Buwatjpuy from the Dhalwangu clan in a dispute with the Djapu clan, the Madarrpa clan and other clan groups. This came in the middle of a terrible feud among the clans. Mungurrawuy walked side by side with Birrikitji and his brother to a
    peacemaking event – a makarrata – that was held on the beach at Birany Birany.
    The dispute was very deep and very serious, and in the event Mungurrawuy made the peace.
    It was my father, perhaps for the last time before the missionaries arrived, who had the responsibility to make this happen in a proper way, in a proper Yolngu way – to bring about reconciliation.
    After the makarrata my father was widely praised by the senior leadership throughout East Arnhem Land.
    So the quest for “peace and harmony” in the world wasn’t anything new to Yolngu when the missionaries came and spoke of such ideals. They were already our words and our way of life. We had seen it through the actions of my father, who performed these duties in his time. “

  • john.singer says:

    What the appropriates call “truth” is not truth it is testimony. Unlike the truth that emerges from a Court of Law, this truth is unexamined, untested and unchallenged. It is presented without any proof other that the voice of the person presenting it.. No written evidence just the voice uttering it and sending it down the generations in song to be ever repeated.

    We have a modern Western Society equivalent but we wouldn’t base or alter a Nation on it. It is called Rap.

  • ianl says:

    >” … the Voice industry has performed a (very clever) hostile takeover of whitey-philosophy”< [part quote from the essay here]

    "The Voice" proponents have simply utilised a corruption of language that started over 30 years ago – that is, the deliberate conflation of the concepts of culture and race. Not really clever at all, in fact boringly predictable.

    If one criticises some aspect of (US) black music such as Gangsta Rap, one is a racist; critising Beethoven as perhaps too thunderously assertive merely elicits a comment on the lines of "typical of whitey".

    The point to this deliberate corruption of language is that most people reject the "racist" epithet, squirming in abasement. So any cultural counter-analysis labelled as racist shuts them up. This vicious dishonesty is the very basis of The Voice campaign.

  • Jessie says:

    There is more………………………………………

    Prime Ministers Indigenous Advisory Council 17/9/2018 (FINAL Redacted (4) when cursor hovers over the opened pdf tab)

    38. Makaratta “is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. Makarrata demonstrates a justice system that exists within the Yolngu Nation’s governance operating rhythm.”
    39-40. Makaratta explained by Djambawa Marawili (Dkirrikay [senior ceremonial leader] for Blue Mud Bay region, East Arnhemland p16] and then further developed and translated @ 41. by another man Wathanainy Wunungmurra. .
    53. The Council believes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Makaratta process should be empowered to make treaties. Treaty making processes should be available to all clans, organisations, councils and peoples that wish to make settlement.

    5. Other issues raised by the Statement from the Heart
    5.2 The Committee acknowledges that there is no single defined and agreed way forward. As consideration of The Voice took the bulk of the Committee’s time, the Committee did not have a chance to deeply consider issues raised by Makarrata and agreement making. On Makarrata it did not have much of an opportunity to test submissions in oral evidence. However, the Committee heard and tested a number of submissions on agreement making and truth-telling.
    5.11- 5.15-5.76-5.77 discusses this further
    Interesting: Additional Meetings hyperlink with Thomas Mayor Maritime Union of Australia and PMC Indigenous Advisory Council (Mason/Sarra), the latter had not been invited to Uluru Forum.

    Source Page for above: Submissions, Meetings, Further meetings etc

    The obvious action for Australians and other non-identifying Australians would be to have either the YES folk or the current parliamentary ATSI elect who represent all Australian YES/NO/MAYBE folk. They put their hands up as volunteers, line up and receive a spear into thigh from aggrieved party. AAlbanese already has his gifted Garma spear. Others may argue the Makaratta line-up should be Constitutional lawyers or similar.
    Thus the ATSI-identifying folk representing many clans and tribes as listed under PM&C and Australian Charities Not-for-Profits will peacefully and harmoniously proceed (cf Dr G Yunupingu) on with their lives.

  • Daffy says:

    Ah, now I understand my confusion. I had wondered why we needed a dance commission and perhaps all have to engage in macarena sessions. Now I know better; although I did always tell the truth when I said I could not dance the macarena!

  • pmprociv says:

    So, it’s black arm-bands all round, starting with little schoolkids. Can’t hurt to give them some truth early.

    Oddly, “truth” for the Old People was a mixture of mythology, magic and sorcery, packed with violence and death. And, if we want to stay really traditional, they didn’t have money, either, So what’s this about Treaty demanding a share of GDP? That’s adopting wytefella vices with a vengeance, not a generous gesture at all, as someone promised.

  • cbattle1 says:

    “We are all now dancing the Makarrata.” Ha ha, good one Paul, an allusion to dancing the Macarena!
    Ultimately, “truth” needs to be manifested and maintained by power. In any military conflict, the parties of the belligerents have their own truths that they hold to be worthy of dying for. It is for the absolute victor to write the “true” history of the conflict. If the “Yes” vote carries the day, we will have a new history of Australia being written, without even one shot being fired or a single spear thrown!

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