It’s put about frequently these days that Australian Indigenous societies hide behind secrecy, are inherently violent and constrain their members’ freedoms. That may be true. But it’s usually contrasted with an assumption that Anglo-Australian society offers a better model, a way out of these self-destructive cultural imperatives: that the ‘mainstream’ offers a way out of the problems confronting Indigenous people.
I find this perplexing.
My society, like all societies I imagine, has its own self-image, its own self-critiques and its own myths. Like all societies, I assume, it believes it is self-critical and open; and it believes its way of doing things is better. Fair enough.
My society believes it is free and open and points to what it calls democracy and a supposed openness of government; to laws against violence and a transparent justice system and to a deep-seated belief in freedom of choice.
Try this: walk into the office of the CEO of an organisation you work for and access their computer and take the last two years of minutes of the Board. Put them online publicly. Discuss them openly.
Do you feel free? Is this an open society?
Or: you don’t feel like working, so you stay at home and your boss upbraids you. You respond angrily, saying they have no right to talk to you like that. Maybe they dock your pay. Maybe repeated instances lead to you getting the sack.
Do you feel free? Is your behaviour controlled and regulated by outside forces?
Or: you have no money, no job, you are hungry and cold. Walk into a department store and take some blankets, get some food from a supermarket and some cooking equipment from a camping shop. Maybe you need some money. Ask the bank for it; demand it with a weapon when they won’t give it to you. All of these things will result in strict sanctions, some of them with imprisonment.
Do you feel free? Are there harsh punishments for transgressing social norms, even those transgressions which seem normal or justified?
A country resists our friends’ will to inspect its internal affairs. It is first starved and bombed for a decade then a full-scale war is launched which results in hundreds of thousands of deaths, occupation, control and continues brutally for well over a decade.
Do we live in a peaceful society that abhors violence?
Would Bradley Manning think we respect openness? Would Julian Assange? Would Iraqis or Afghans think we believe in non-violence? Would impoverished workers and members of our urban underclass agree that we allow freedom of action and individual human rights? Would the teeming prisoners, filling our overflowing gaols?
Societies, like all systems, are compromises between good and bad elements.
Whether I would prefer twenty years in a cell or taking a spear in the thigh is irrelevant.
Defending the right of a society to set its own course is not to agree with it, it is to say those people have the right to make their own decisions. And in a country like ours which has such a history of making decisions on behalf of the original people, it’s time we spent our time on thinking and understanding and not on judging and deciding.
That’s not to say the Pearsons and Bess Prices shouldn’t be heard, but it is to say, let’s hear all voices, not just the tiny minority who happen to say the things we like to hear, and let’s listen, understand and support.