Tuesday, August 2, 2011

common ground

Higher Ground, Stevie Wonder from his 1973 album Innervisions


In an Age opinion piece discussing the nature of distrust between the West and the Islamic world, Waleed Aly makes the observation that “the people who hate each other most deeply are in fact most alike”.

At the risk of misrepresenting Waleed’s point, Anders Breivik and any Islamicist would both see themselves as defenders of people under siege, in a situation where there is no room for traitors but plenty of room for violence.
Both sides – right wing anti-multiculturalists and extreme Islamicists – believe their cultures are mutually incompatible. The fight is not just for power or territory, but for the right to define society they way they believe it should be defined.
In the context of the 20th century and the end of empires and colonies, Islam is, for many people, something of a “declaration of independence”.
Unfortunately, it seems there is a growing tendency for people to take sides with one extreme view or the other, with few people occupying the middle ground. We are increasingly polarised on important issues.

Today I also watched some footage of Bessie Price, a Warlpiri woman from Yuendumu speaking to the Bennelong Society last year about the Northern Territory intervention. 
Price has been subjected to some fairly nasty criticism for defending the intervention, but just one of the points she makes is that what is right for other Aboriginal peoples in other circumstances is not necessarily right for Yuendumu. Asking white people to consult with Aboriginals is not just about having a say in policy as a matter of courtesy, but about ensuring policy takes account of these different situations.

There are some interesting parallels between what she and her [whitefella] husband had to say, and the comments made on Waleed’s opinion piece.

Not too long ago, David explained, a white policewoman had trespassed on a men-only site during a secret ceremony, and several of the men made it clear that if she had been Aboriginal she would have been killed. 

For David, the implications of this are twofold: 
Firstly, it illustrates the very deep-seated tradition of female subjugation behind a great deal of Aboriginal on Aboriginal violence. 
Secondly, the silence which followed this episode was appalling. It was as if, for the sake of political correctness, nobody wanted to challenge the assumption that it is okay for Aboriginal women to be treated in a way that is not acceptable for anyone else. An even worse possibility is that the silence was not political correctness so much as a romantic and unrealistic belief that so long as it is a cultural tradition it must be good. It’s not okay to talk casually about killing Aboriginal women, but no one spoke out.

David Price also explained that traditional Aboriginal Law had no means of enforcement available other than violence. Without a court system, without a police force, there was no way to impose a fine on anyone for breaking the law. But in its original context, violence worked and was not often needed.

The tools available to traditional Aboriginals for dealing with conflict are not useful in the new world. 
During the early colonial period, missionaries were in a position to help Aboriginals make a gradual transition from the old ways to the new, but all of this was thrown away with the move to self-determination in the 1970s. 
This left communities with some elders who had learned tradition in its original setting and context, and had also had time enough to understand the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Next came generations who could not hope to gain that wisdom in the right framework, and who were also then left without the support of a Christian framework either.

In some Aboriginal communities, perhaps too many, violence is still accepted as perfectly natural in the scheme of things. Without the right guidance or support, or education or experience, and without the benefit of a few generations for adjustment to a new way of life, violence is the way everything is handled.

Many Aboriginals of both genders are afraid to speak out, not just because they fear reprisals, but because if the dust has settled over an issue they do not want to revive bad feelings. Aboriginals might not tell their family members they love them, but they show it by defending them no matter what.

One comment on Waleed’s article reads
“Can we get a more secular Australia out of this? It’s 2011, right? Why are we so concerned with damn religion and its superstitions and mostly mentally deficient followers?

There was a time when I wondered what might be the best way to decide who is Jewish, by their genes, their cultural attitudes, or their beliefs about God and the way they express those beliefs. If we are to argue for or against multiculturalism, maybe we should be clear about how we define Aboriginal, or Muslim.
Most religions are enmeshed, to some extent, with ethnic practices or beliefs. For example, the “Irish” Catholicism I grew up with is significantly different from the Italian version I’ve met, and from the Filipino version that now keeps our churches full. So there are different degrees of genetic, ethnic and religious identity, and each person will be the result of just one of many possible combinations and permutations.

The above comment concludes
“I’d like to see all immigrants to [and residents of] Australia pledge that the laws of Australia always supersede any religious edicts or practices.”

I don’t know whether kids recite any special pledge at school these days, but the citizenship oath for new Australians goes something like this:
From this time forward, (under God,) I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.

I do believe the law is being enforced where practical, but cases like the Carnita Matthews case are far more interesting than twenty dull news reports about murder or robbery. But, the Matthews case was newsworthy, in part, because it tapped into a very widespread community sentiment about the unwillingness of some Muslims to make any effort at all to integrate.
None of us like being snubbed.

Another comment reads
“My 3 y.o. daughter is terrified of women in burqas and, as I am male, the woman underneath the burqa will not talk to me. My daughter calls them ‘black ghosts’… I cannot see the woman’s face or engage her in conversation to show my daughter that she is human. Where there is no possibility of common ground the extremists will continue to prosper.”

At some level I think we are failing Aboriginals, not by refusing to assimilate to their ways, but by not making an effort to understand the difficulties they face in assimilating to our ways. Political correctness is not always the only acceptable approach.

Similarly, a small but troublingly conspicuous number of Muslims are failing the rest of us, not by refusing to abandon their religion or even ethnic practices, but by refusing to even meet us half way. It might be Karma, but it’s not good.


  1. At a point of conflict who's cultural practices should win? In my mind that is the debate.

    My answer is, who's community is it? When cultural practices where seperated by defined boundries (think countries or widely seperated villages with limited communications) these issues didn't really arise, if you moved to a new town you had to do it their way (whatever that was). I am not sure why this should change. If I moved to China and demanded that everyone learn english because I don't "like" chinese how would I get on?

    The historic issues surrounding an invading power taking over (as in the whitefellas coming to Australia)dosen't easily fit my arguement as you can't go back and all become pre european Aboriginies and I don't know enough about it to comment sensibly but in terms of the Muslims etc, if you move to a christian country and they don't like burqa's being worn into banks then tough luck, their community their rules.
    Likewise if I moved to a Muslim dominated country I would have to live by those rules.

    This view does assume that not all positions are equal and valid, something most people seemed to find a problem, yet in reality we pick the winners everytime we make a society rule. eg my desire to speed in my car is over ridden by your desire to be safe on the roads.

    Like the english language we can change and incorporate the parts we like (think "ethnic" food) but it takes time and can't be forced.

  2. Hi Big Dog, they are all rather curly questions aren't they?

    If we vote for 'might is right' we will be in trouble if a still undemocratic China decides to expand! [Not in my lifetime I hope.]

    If we vote for 'what is right' this is still rather subjective, because so many of our values have a source in something emotional, e.g. faith which, by definition, is something that can't be 'proven' by logic or science.

    So in the case of a tie [given that I've carefully set the options myself] I'm going to vote for my own idea of what is right.

    To an extent, though, the problem is of our own making. We are very selective about the wars we become involved in. Ireland and Vietnam are two places of conflict which show that bullets can kill people but not ideas.
    We need to let people sort out ethnic or other differences for themselves on their own turf because no idea can be permanently superimposed over others, the others will just lie dormant.
    If we create less refugees we can spend our dollars elsewhere, helping those who will fit in to migrate here.

    But you are absolutely right,our dollars cannot buy the most vital ingredient of change, which is time.