The Irreconcilable Politics of Suffering

Almost ten years have passed since Peter Sutton delivered the inaugural Berndt Foundation Biennial Address at the University of Western Australia. In that speech he lamented the breakdown of well-being in remote Aboriginal communities and decried the policies of self-determination and welfare delivery that he believed had led to an intolerable status quo. Sutton, who had by that time spent nearly three decades studying, living, and working with the Wik people of Western Cape York, seems to have been energized by the repeated loss of friends and adopted family members in and around Aurukun to murder and suicide. Equally, the then-recent publication of Noel Pearson’s Our Right to Take Responsibility (Noel Pearson and Associates, 2000) with its call to rejection of victimhood and government handouts provided inspiration for some of his arguments with politics as they played out in Cape York.I first encountered Sutton’s provocative thesis in its revised, published form as “The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Policy in Australia since the 1970s” in the journalAnthropological Forum (vol. 11, no. 2, 2001, pp. 125-173). I recall being doubly shocked by his article. It was the first extensive documentation I had seen of remote dysfunction; it was also the first blast at what I had thought until then as the unquestioned “liberal pieties” surrounding self-determination and the will to a renaissance of traditional Aboriginal culture and values.It is primarily the latter theme, the failure of liberal ideals (signaled by the change in the subtitle from article to book) that Sutton focuses on in the monograph that has grown out of the 2001 article and a series of other speeches and writings he has delivered in the past decade. The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (Melbourne University Press, 2009) can still shock, even after years of exposés in The Australian, the publication of Little Children are Sacred, and the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The new book is aptly described in the cover blurb by Marcia Langton as “incandescent, emotional, tragic and challenging.”

I think Langton has caught the essence of Sutton’s book in those four words. Most every review that I have read has brought out the intensely personal and emotional connection that fuels Sutton’s despair and motivates him to seek a new answer, a “post-liberal” solution to the crisis in Aboriginal life. He marshals an impressive body of evidence for the failures both of successive governments and of Aboriginal communities. Many of his insights are keen, and if not original, still pertinent. He insists, for example, that during the last thirty years, governments implementing policies of self-determination have been far more interested in bureaucratic and fiscal accountability than they have in the quality of life on the ground (p. 49). He also unsparingly documents the history of and evidence for levels of violence in Aboriginal life that make those of us who hold liberal, Eurocentric values shudder (Chapter 4, “Violence, Ancient and Modern”).

But time and again in the first half of the book, where he enlarges upon the evidence and themes he first presented in 2000-2001, Sutton’s despair leads him into a sort of logical desperation. He speaks repeatedly of the “relatively benign” character of mission life at Aurukun prior to the liberalization of politics in the 1970s; I can only say that this seems quite at odds with evidence that has been put forth by others, including Nicolas Peterson in his summary of Donald Thompson’s notes on life at the Aurukun Mission as presented in “A Biographical Sketch of Donald Thompson” in Donald Thompson in Arnhem Land (Miegunyah Press, revised edition, 2003):

For many years, indeed into the 1960s, Aurukun was controlled with a rod of iron by a superintendent of long standing. Under his regime and by his hand Aboriginal people were summarily punished by complete or partial head shaving, flogging, chaining, and imprisonment. The prison was a galvanized iron building, seven by twelve feet, divided into two compartments and containing as many a six adult prisoners at one time. For such a trivial offence as late delivery of the milk to the white staff’s holiday camp on Archer Bay, miles from the mission, an Aboriginal man, Billy Blowhard, was threatened with goal. Worst of all, in Thomson’s eyes, was the power of the superintendent to have people exiled for life to Palm Island simply on his own word, and without any trial (Peterson, p. 6).

Whatever the exact character of a place like Aurukun Mission, Sutton concedes that “the creation of holding and training institutions for Indigenous people under mission and government policies of the colonial era and afterwards … was social engineering on a grand scale….” He goes on to agree “that it is unthinkable to argue for that kind of social engineering and intervention any more” (pp. 140-141).

And yet a mere two pages later he formulates in its baldest expression the solution to dysfunction that runs through much of The Politics of Suffering.

The evidence is heavily stacked against the rose-coloured expectation that Aboriginal people with a traditional orientation will simply adopt foreign causal theories, living conditions and health practices with alacrity, on the basis that they are good for their health. So it is not realistic to assume that the kind of cultural change I refer to here is going to occur quickly and simply as a result of education or persuasion of adults. The cycle of childhood socialisation needs to be re-geared if the specific behaviours to do with things like hygiene and sanitation, the legitimation of violence, the degree of priority placed on physical wellbeing itself, and openness to preventative health measures, are to change more quickly (Sutton, p. 143, emphasis added).

This is the logic of the missions: it is too late to affect the behavior of the adults and thus intervention in the lives of the children is the only hope. If Sutton is not arguing for “social engineering on a grand scale,” he does not explain quite what exactly he is arguing for.

In the final chapters of The Politics of Suffering Sutton moves beyond the polemics of his early writings to take up a sort of anthropological and humanistic exploration of the two cultures and the disastrous results of their collision. He does not assign blame to colonial dispossession, government intervention, Aboriginal separatism, or passive dependence. Rather, Sutton argues persuasively that it is that collision of two very different views of the world, of the self, and of human relations that are the source and the fuel of the fire that is consuming Aboriginal Australia. In the chapters “Bodies Politic” and “Customs Not in Common” he examines the substantive differences between classical Aboriginal culture (admitting of significant variation between, for example, Yolngu and Pitjantjatjara) and the expectations of the modern European nation-state. I think it is fair to say that Sutton believes these differences to be fundamentally irreconcilable.

In his penultimate chapter, Sutton takes an unexpected turn to examine “Unusual Couples.” Here he chronicles some of the extraordinary pairs of Aboriginal and European men and women whose names and writings (at least the Europeans’ writings) are nearly synonomous with Australian anthropology in the twentieth century: Makarrwalla and Lloyd Warner in Arnhem Land, Bambegan and Ursula McConnel in the Wik country where Sutton later worked, Durmugam and Bill Stanner. Although it seems at first a strange digression into anthropological history, this chapter functions to further two critical points for Sutton.

The first of these points is that we will never know the exact nature of these extraordinary relationships, recorded as they were only from the anthropologist’s point of view. Sutton even hesitates to use the word friendship to describe them. He goes on a series of interesting linguistic diversions to show that the concept of “friendship” may itself be entirely alien to the Aboriginal mind in which relationships are chiefly structured by concepts of kinship. 

The second point is that the possibility for the remediation of culture clash is never better than it is in such intimate interconnections as these “unusual couples” achieved.

And thus, when Sutton returns in his final chapter, “On Feeling Reconciled,” to the questions of politics that govern the suffering of his own Aboriginal relations, it is with a certain degree of pessimism about the possibility of political solutions. He concludes by offering a sort of personal salvation as an alternative to the political: it is only by establishing meaningful connections at the personal level between people who come from such disparate backgrounds that we can hope to work through the chaos and confusion that afflicts Aboriginal Australia. 

For Sutton to emerge from two hundred pages of a critique of liberal idealism and “rose-coloured expectations” to such an idealistic, personal, and individual severing of his Gordian Knot was both surprising and inevitable. Surprising because I can’t remember another voice in the many arguments about rights and responsibilities, strategies and solutions, to bring the discussion down to this intimate a level. Inevitable, perhaps because Sutton’s arguments all stem from his very personal sense of loss, rage, or despair over the violence that has undone the lives of his friends and relations in Aurukun. 

But politics is not about individual relationships, although they may be the foundations of life in the polis, the city. Politics works at the level of communities, and of cultures. And Sutton is right to recognize the perhaps irreconcilable differences between these two cultures. Like Tess Lea did in Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts, he zeroes in on the issue of repugnance: European repugnance at the place of violence in Aboriginal life, for example, and its converse, Aboriginal repugnance at the mutability of European laws on paper. Both attitudes are rooted in the respective culture’s concept of what Europeans would call justice. If such a fundamental issue divides us, how can we achieve reconciliation, if reconciliation is ultimately about justice? Sadly, when Sutton recognizes the necessity of change, he presupposes the prerogatives of the modern nation state and sees no solution except that Aboriginal people change. In other words, he endorses the status quo.


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