March 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Thinking Backwards

By John van Tiggelen
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Aboriginal violence and its interpreters

On a warm Tuesday night last month, upstairs in the Sydney Room of the City Tattersalls Club, Gary Johns, once Paul Keating’s special minister of state but these days better cast as a John Howard man, announced the arrival of “the integrationist school of thought”. The occasion was the launch of a book, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, by Stephanie Jarrett. An unflinching critique of traditional culture, the book follows on from Johns’ own donor-funded attack on remote communities, Aboriginal Self-determination: The whiteman’s dream. And, Johns, Jarrett’s mentor and editor, half-joked, didn’t two books make a school?

Jarrett, slender in black and half the average age of her audience, took the lectern. She was from Adelaide, her accent slightly posh. In a tremulous voice, she spoke passionately about the suffering of Aboriginal women at the hands of men who claimed traditional custom as a defence. Bess Nungarrayi Price, the Aboriginal politician from Alice Springs, was there to attest that she bore “too many scars on my body to deny that Aboriginal people are violent. We have problems with our traditional culture.” “Payback” punishment, polygamy and child brides had no place in modern society – the cultural excuses had to stop, Price pleaded; the white man’s law should prevail.

This was relatively safe ground. But the mostly white-haired white men clamped to seats around the room weren’t here to nod along to a spot of ebony-and-ivory feminism. Price’s line of thinking was a mere jumping-off point: Jarrett’s thesis is that self-determination is to blame for maintaining “pre-contact, traditional culture [as] the key cause of today’s high rates of indigenous violence”. In other words, and let’s not mince them: once a savage, always a savage – at least when he’s left to his own devices.

Those who’d come to hear this message included many stalwarts of the conservative cause. Stooped in a corner in his pale fawn suit, notebook poised, was Peter Coleman, the Spectator columnist, looking like Tom Wolfe caught in a downpour. Holding forth in the centre of the room was Keith Windschuttle, the revisionist amateur historian – what Stolen Generation? – and editor of Quadrant. There were also a few women, including, less predictably, Rachael Kohn, host of Radio National’s The Spirit of Things. A reviewer sitting next to me expressed admiration for Jarrett’s book, though its recommendation that remote Aboriginal communities, outstations and homelands be abandoned made her squirm a little.

Jarrett’s publisher is Connor Court, a bush operation supported by right-wing think-tanks. Its biggest-selling author remains Ian Plimer, the climate sceptic whose tract Heaven and Earth once so excited Tony Abbott. Like Plimer, who is not a climate scientist, Jarrett, who is not an anthropologist, doesn’t mind annexing alien academic territory.

Jarrett told those gathered that her epiphany came after watching a film, State of Shock. The movie tells the true story of Alwyn Peter, a Cape York man who’d killed his de facto wife in a drunken frenzy. In the landmark 1981 trial, his defence team successfully argued that the social upheaval wrought by colonisation had diminished Peter’s responsibility, and he got a light sentence. When she saw the film, Jarrett was a university tutor in politics. At first she felt very sorry for Alwyn Peter. But an Aboriginal woman had seen the movie with her. What about the woman, she asked. What about all the women? “My research changed then,” said Jarrett, her voice straining to rise above the sounds of a pan flute ensemble piping up from Pitt Street. “I realised that was what I needed to look at.”

Her starting point for what was then her PhD was the same as that underpinning the Northern Territory Intervention: human rights – women’s rights, children’s rights – come before cultural rights. Jarrett trawled through the anthropological record to extract instances of violence against women and children. She found rich pickings. Traditional Aboriginal societies were patriarchal and harsh. Young men were often killed in tribal warfare, so those who remained claimed more wives. Young girls were promised in “skin” marriage. Hell, there was cannibalism in the far north.

As she collected these tales of violence, especially against women, Jarrett also kept press clippings of the many horror stories coming out of remote communities. Then she put two and two together.

“Child abuse and rape, and gang rape, also have traditional, formalised precedents,” she writes in Liberating Aboriginal People. “[Outstations] are a haven for the continuation of brutal beliefs and practices.”

Marcia Langton, the indigenous academic and feminist, is scathing of the lay obsession with what she’s called “anthro porn”. And it’s true, people do get off on this sort of thing. The day before the launch, in an online Quadrant interview, Jarrett was asked what was the worst act of Aboriginal violence she had come across. She nominated the modern-day rape of a toddler, a depravity unrelated to traditional practice, surely.

Today’s level of violence is hardly a continuation – missionaries and assimilation policy saw to that. It is also, for the most part, very different. Most perpetrators are drunk. Women murder women. Young men commit suicide. And Torres Strait Islanders haven’t eaten each other’s kidney fat for 150 years.

Most observers with first-hand experience, including many of the anthropologists Jarrett quotes, accept Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson’s analysis that today’s violence in remote communities is part and parcel of a profound social breakdown wreaked by welfare dependency and alcohol abuse.

But Jarrett insists these factors simply “exacerbate” tradition. She’s not alone in blaming the social violence in welfare-addled, grog-ravaged ghettos on the vestigial adaptations of a nomadic, animist, warrior culture – she has Germaine Greer for company, for one.

Whereas Pearson preaches a foot-in-both-worlds philosophy, insisting his people retain pride in their culture, language and community while attaining a mainstream education, Jarrett would rather everyone hop out. Any movement to keep indigenous culture strong, she warns, worsens the alienation from the mainstream and will keep Aboriginal people “trapped in an oppressive, violent, non-Enlightenment culture”.

Coincidentally, the Alwyn Peter case also had a seminal impact on Pearson’s thinking. He was 16 at the time of the trial, which featured the Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan as Peter’s junior defence counsel. A key defence witness, criminologist Paul Wilson, later wrote a book, Black Death White Hands, about the case. Never before or since has anyone more baldly put the simplistic contention that the problem with black Australia was white Australia.

But if Black Death White Hands was a jump too far, Jarrett’s book leaps all the way back. In her final chapter, she talks of a “reverse way” of looking at the problem. Whereas the Alwyn Peter case held that domestic Aboriginal violence was a symptom of disempowerment, Jarrett concludes the violence is “a sign of the failure to integrate … It is self-determination that is the main culprit and it is self-determination that should be brought to trial”.

After her book launch, Jarrett looked slightly lost. Perhaps she shouldn’t have mentioned earlier that she was a left-leaning feminist who had never voted Liberal in her life. Her cultured audience dispersed, sated.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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