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A Different Silence

Sarah Maddison

Silence has long been a theme in academic and policy debate about Indigenous Australia. In his 1968 Boyer lectures, anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner spoke of the ‘great Australian silence’, arguing that the level of inattention to the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australian history books could not be explained by mere ‘absent-mindedness’. Stanner had surveyed books on Australian history and politics, finding that in the almost complete absence of Indigenous people—let alone Indigenous perspectives—in these texts there was a ‘cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’.

Anthropology, as the discipline by definition devoted to the study of human society and culture, was never silent in the way that historians and political scientists were. It has, nonetheless, proved problematic. Early Australian anthropology was interested in Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’, often meaning that those who had been subject to the earliest onslaught of colonialism through an intense occupation of their land fell outside the interests of the discipline. The focus on a certain experience of Indigeneity and cultural difference proved contentious for many critics who perceived anthropology and anthropologists as complicit in the colonial project. In response to such postcolonial criticism, many anthropologists eventually came to recognise these shortcomings, and to take a more critical view of the extent of the discipline’s complicity in informing damaging or racist policy. Recent publications, including this latest contribution from Diane Austin-Broos, continue in this vein, offering critical insight into the strengths and limitations of various positions among anthropologists and their counterparts in certain think tanks and media outlets.

Austin-Broos’ specific focus is on the recent debates about remote Aboriginal Australia that swirl around what she describes as the ‘rights-pathology axis’. She maps out the terrain of two discourses about remote communities: one with a focus on equality, the other emphasising difference. Austin-Broos perceives silences between and within both of these discourses. She argues that there is a deliberate effort by those most focused on equality—or anti-separatism—to pathologise Aboriginal culture, while those focused on protecting Aboriginal cultural difference have been silent on the reality of suffering in remote communities. As she puts it, the book takes its departure from the observation that in the remote communities debate, the pathologising by opinion writers and the denial of distress by some academics were real factors in the debate. Forms of silence marked both sides and reflected fundamental issues. On the one hand was a failure to acknowledge cultural difference and the complexity it brings to policy-making geared to address disadvantage; on the other was a failure to grant that the suffering and the distress brought by marginalisation are not simply defined away by Aboriginal forms of life.

The characterisation of these two discourses owes much to the analysis of ‘postsocialist’ politics as articulated by Nancy Fraser, a point belatedly acknowledged by Austin-Broos in her concluding chapter (although she does not speak to the wider philosophical debates about recognition and redistribution evident in the writing of Axel Honneth, among others). Rather than a politics of recognition and a politics of redistribution, however, Austin-Broos wishes to articulate the challenge involved in the tension between a politics of cultural difference and a politics of equality. Like Fraser, Austin-Broos recognises the need to try to reconcile these two political demands, and in her conclusion offers some modest proposals concerning primary education in remote communities that she sees as being of potential benefit.

Austin-Broos’ articulation of these debates is not particularly new. Peter Sutton, identified in the book as among those who pathologise Indigenous culture, has also argued that considerations of justice (that is, Indigenous rights) have been given too much weight at the expense of considerations of care. Sutton, like many others in the field, is concerned with high levels of violence among Aboriginal people, particularly where such violence involves women and children. He rejects, however, what he describes as the ‘myth’ that the recognition of Indigenous rights will in any way be able to improve this situation. Austin-Broos is more nuanced in her analysis, arguing that cultural difference ought to be protected from blatantly assimilationist approaches, but nonetheless conceding that a greater focus on care or at least a greater acknowledgment of inequality, marginalisation and suffering is now essential.

It is disappointing, then, that in making this argument Austin-Broos seems compelled to set up something of a straw person, or at least a ‘straw anthropologist’. There are other, more overtly political, factors at play in these debates that receive scant attention in the book. Past policies of assimilation—and current policies under the banner of ‘intervention’—have left a bitter legacy. Government programs targeting Indigenous inequality are viewed by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with deep suspicion—and with good reason. There have been too many instances of the settler state insisting that it knows best and attempting to impose its will on Indigenous people. These efforts will always be resisted and government policy and programs will always deliver far less than is hoped.

This view is more likely to be supported by the cultural difference anthropologists than by those who reject what they see as separatism. Where the difference paradigm has also engaged with economics, public policy and the realpolitik of Indigenous life choices and aspirations—as the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has in the United States, for example—then it is likely that their policy prescriptions might offer genuine hope. It can almost certainly be guaranteed that coercion and assimilation—even when motivated by the deepest concern about inequality—will never succeed. Austin-Broos never quite seems to concede this point.

Thus, inasmuch as Austin-Broos is eager to point out the silences in the two positions she has mapped, she seems oblivious to the silences in her own account. Although her concluding chapter purports to speak to the politics of difference and inequality, both her analysis and her prescriptions for a way forward seem strangely depoliticised. Her focus on anthropology as a discipline and on a close reading of a few specific contributions to the field render much of the debate a conversation between anthropologists (with some neoconservative political intervention from certain think tanks and media commentators). She has little to say about the wider political context and the ongoing struggles by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for quite specific forms of recognition. For example, although entirely ignored in this book, it should be evident that current debate about possible recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution could have a direct bearing on the issues of concern to Austin-Broos. What would be the effect, for example, if a referendum were to allow new possibilities for agreement-making between Indigenous groups and the state? How might remote Aboriginal communities be able to harness a changed political context for themselves in ways that allowed a renegotiation of the politics of difference and equality on their own terms?

Another significant silence in the book is the voices of Aboriginal people themselves. Only Martin Nakata, Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson are heard in any detail in these pages and the vast and complex landscape of Aboriginal political culture in which Indigenous leaders and activists express a range of views, concerns and solutions concerning the very problems of interest to Austin-Broos are missing. This makes the book very much a conversation about Aboriginal people rather than a conversation with them. In this sense the book perpetuates all the problems with the discipline of anthropology that have been articulated by postcolonial critique, which Austin-Broos acknowledges and yet somehow fails to take on board. In this sense too, she perpetuates a particular type of relationship: between the knowing white expert and the silent and pathologised Indigenous victim.

There is much to commend A Different Inequality to anyone interested in understanding the complex ways in which remote Indigenous people and communities are understood and problematised by (mostly white) anthropologists and others eager to influence policy in this domain. As an intellectual history it is an engaging and interesting analysis of the field of debate. Where it falls short, however, is in situating this analysis more effectively in the wider political context, including by drawing on a wider range of Indigenous perspectives on these issues. In this regard Austin-Broos has perpetuated some of the silences she seeks to break.

Associate Professor Sarah Maddison is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow based in the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales. In 2011 she published two new books: Beyond White Guilt (Allen & Unwin) and Unsettling the Settler State (Federation Press, co-edited with Morgan Brigg).


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