Denial of Culture

I expect that most of you have by now read Louis Nowra’s “Culture of Denial,” which appeared in The Australian Literary Review on March 7. I hope that you have also gone back to read the comments that were posted online since its publication. It’s interesting to note that the earliest comments were generally outraged at Nowra’s racist abuse; over the course of the week the tone seems to have swung more to the other side, reiterating Nowra’s outrage at the violence and his condemnation of Aboriginal culture.

There is no point in denying the existence of violence and abuse, and little hope of refuting how out of proportion it is in some Aboriginal communities as compared to the rest of the country. And although the past year has seen much reporting on it in the press and on the ABC, the history of violence has been well documented for decades in anthropological studies, word-of-mouth reports, and even from sympathetic incomers to communities (see, for example, Neil Murray’s fictionalized history of the Warumpi Band,Sing for Me, Countryman, recently republished by Griffin Press). I find these reports appalling and frightening and profoundly depressing. And the intractability of the problem magnifies its obviously lamentable qualities.

But beyond all that, what I find depressing and unnecessary is the constant need to draw in “Aboriginal culture” as the primary motivating force, the special circumstances that explain the problem and that need to be rooted out in order to resolve it. I’d like to say I don’t understand why seemingly intelligent people like Nowra have to resort to racist diatribes to urge the need for a solution. And I do believe that racism is at the root of Nowra’s complaint–unlikely as that might seem coming from someone who wrote the screenplay for Rachel Perkins’ Radiance and was married to Rachel Maza, one of its stars. 

Pace Noel Pearson, who wrote in another Australian opinion piece (“Failure to act also criminal,” December 30, 2006) that claims of racism do not advance a solution. But articles like Nowra’s likewise do nothing to solve the problem. More importantly, they make solutions more difficult to achieve by promoting the notion that Aboriginal people are beyond hope, are the cause of their own problems, and are condemned to this cycle of despair and violence unless they break free of the chains of the culture that has brought them to this impasse–and the “culture” so implicated in the indigenous one, not the colonizing one.

Take for example the following paragraph from Nowra’s article, in which he offers an example of how anthropological studies have helped us “gain a clearer picture of the relationship between Aboriginal men and women.”

Betrothal was universal across the continent, with some marriages arranged before a child was born. A feature of Aboriginal life was that of the considerably older man, a middle-aged elder, marrying a girl barely into her teens. Polygamy was also practised.

I’ve recently been working my way through several works on Tiwi culture that support and document this practice in great detail. No arguments there. But how does Nowra get from that statement of fact to the following conclusion mere sentences later:

Despite local variations, there is a consistent pattern of traditional men’s treatment of women that could be exceedingly hard and sexually aggressive (gang rape, for instance). Given its pervasive nature across Australia, we can say that it was ancient and long-lasting.

That is not analysis; it’s not even logic. It is one man’s repugnance at a custom that conflicts with his own cultural prejudices. And from that custom of child betrothal he extrapolates a culture of gang rape! Are not the statistics on the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and the evidence of women horribly scarred by beatings enough of a call to action? Why does he need to drag in child betrothal as a generating cause? Why is there this need to blame traditional Aboriginal culture, to single it out as the wellspring of a modern malaise?

The permit system is similarly abused as a significant contributing factor–and as a uniquely Aboriginal one. The silence of the Moree community and its refusal to cooperate with the prosecution of Phillip Boney for rape is given similar prominence in Nowra’s litany of condemnations. If one wants to invoke ethnographic studies, surely one can point to the similar culture of protection of abusers among orthodox Jews, or the violence that is hidden behind the concept of omerta in Italian societies. Similarly, Nowra states that “[r]etribution by relatives of the accused is common.” That is true enough, but not only among Aboriginal people. It is not a defining and differentiating mark of Aboriginal culture, but a commonplace in many cultures.

Throughout, Nowra displays his ignorance of traditional Aboriginal culture far more than an understanding of it. (And while understanding does not and should not imply approval, it is nonetheless important in an analysis of social problems that seeks solutions rather than simple complaint and condemnation.) He is shocked that no one intervenes in public brawls, failing to take into account that there are no private brawls in communities where life is conducted out of doors. More importantly, he fails to understand that the presence of onlookers in such public fights often acts as a deterrent. Yes, the abuse is publicly condoned. But the public presence can also assure that the violence does not go too far, as Basil Sansom has described in great detail in The Camp at Wallaby Cross. As with drunkenness, it is the public nature of the behavior at least as much as the behavior itself that is being judged. It offends our “civilized” eyes, and thus relegates the offender to the category of “uncivilized.” Civilized people come home from a bad day at the office, close the door, kick the dog, and get quietly drunk in the privacy of their parlors.

The kind of sloppy thinking and selective logic that characterizes and undermines much of these ad hominen arguments extends in a particularly vicious way to the concept of “defense.” Nowra perpetrates a common myth and misunderstanding of the facts when he makes statements such as “[c]ustomary law or traditional law began to be used as a common defence.” Customary law has been invoked by lawyers pleading (in non-indigenous institutions) for lenient sentencing in cases where the accused has already been found guilty of the crime. I’m not aware that it has ever been used–at least successfully–to defend the actions prior to the verdict being handed down. You can accuse me of splitting hairs here, but it seems that the legal system under which these prosecutions take place excels at splitting hairs and making distinctions that are in themselves highly culturally biased. Remember that for many years Aboriginal people could not testify in a court of law because, not being Christians, they could not swear on the Bible to tell the truth, and without that sanctified assurance could not be trusted. How ironic now that Aboriginal people are now condemned for not stepping forward to offer evidence!

I will freely admit that in writing all the above, I am being as selective in choosing my arguments as Nowra has been in choosing his. I guess I am attempting to assert that there are more sides to the story than are being told here, and I am frustrated at the persistent racism that underlies quality of the ongoing media attention to a matter of humanitarian concern. “Human rights come before cultural rights,” Nowra concludes, oblivious to the fact that “human rights” as he blithely proffers them is a cultural construct that varies in time and space. What remains constant is the condemnation of the other.

Racism is insidious in its workings. It is also extraordinarily hard to understand if one has never been the victim of it. Twenty years ago I went back to graduate school while working full time, and to accommodate my working schedule, enrolled at North Carolina Central University, the first college in the state founded to offer higher education to “Negroes” in a state predominantly Anglo-Celtic in its ethnic composition. Its student body remains 95% black today. I told friends and colleagues that it was “interesting” to find myself a minority student and surprising to be offered a “minority scholarship” as an inducement to contributing to the diversity of the student body. It wasn’t so interesting to be looked at with suspicion as I made my way across campus to classes. One winter day, wearing black Levi’s and a leather jacket against the sharp wind, I was crossing the parking lot when I heard another student shout, “Don’t matter how much black you wear, you still white.” I was shocked. And speechless. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t come back with a snappy retort. Even afterward, thinking over the incident, I just couldn’t work out any response that sounded good, that didn’t sound hostile, defensive, or just plain whiny. I had been silenced. And that made me angry. And I viscerally understood something about racism that had always eluded my liberal sensibilities until that moment.

There is no doubt that lives are being destroyed in Aboriginal communities by the violence in them. But screeds like Nowra’s do nothing to advance a solution, and I assert that they in fact do more harm than good. The demonization of Aboriginal culture only adds to the lack of mutual understanding, to the simplistic, thoughtless reaction, to the offhand, casual, and cruel dismissal of the humanity of the people who are trapped in the mire of poverty, substance abuse, boredom, and yes, violence. We may not be able to leave race out of these discussions, and we may not be able to leave racism out of the conversation either. But let us please be very, very careful about what we do with our racism.

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2 Responses to Denial of Culture

  1. Disappointed says:

    I’d suggest other people go read Nowra’s article for themselves. This one, on the other hand, fails in comprehension when reviewing it. You’d think most of it would be obvious to the writer when constructing this silly response. Just go read it and make up your own minds. There was no dismissal of the humanity of Aboriginal people, in fact the article was very compassionate to the women and child victims as any healthy person would have to any fellow human. This article has misconstrued bits and pieces completely and taken them out of context, like the part where the author of this one somehow thought that Nowra was saying that gang rape and other violence is generated by the Aboriginal peoples’ cultural tradition of child brides, that was NOT at all what he was saying. And yes human rights are a cultural construct but meaning being treated well/not being harmed (like rape or being “given” to someone) should be placed before the values of a specific culture that allow and support such things to happen. You know what he meant, like c’mon. I bet the author of this calls “racist” at near anything. Nowra’s article did serve a purpose as evidenced in his suggestions for the future based on the issues contained in the article. He highlighted some important issues, real issues as even you, the author, have admitted, and then suggests future direction, how is that serving no purpose? Just ridiculous on so many levels.

    • Bella says:

      The author of this blog could do worse than to read up on Bess Price’s views on the subject, too. And then read the case of The Queen v GJ. And then come back to us on how racist Nowra is.
      The point of Nowra’s article isn’t to claim that Indigenous people are inherently somehow morally inferior to any other group. The author of this blog may have read “Culture of Denial” as an attack on Indigenous people because it details the crimes committed by Indigenous perpetrators. However, far from being an attack on all Indigenous people, “Culture of Denial” is actually calling for Indigenous people to be afforded adequate protection from violence. That other cultures are and have historically been sexist and violent is entirely beside the point: today, in Australia, people are being assaulted – physically and sexually. Let’s make it stop.
      Many articles which criticise Nowra’s work – especially that total disaster of a piece co-authored by Larissa Behrendt – claim that the problem of violence in Indigenous communities is “complex”. Or “multifaceted”. However, they offer no solutions besides vague suggestions of “education” (a marvellously uncontroversial, luke-warm policy which appeals to our white, middle class sensibilities because it doesn’t involve punishing anyone) – education as to what exactly, they never say. “Multifaceted” and “complex” are weasel-words; let’s have Nowra’s critics offer some tangible, alternative policy prescriptions. A magic formula for ending abuse in Indigenous communities without dismantling them and removing children would be fantastic – so let’s hear the academics who oppose the removal policy provide such a solution.

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