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Western Innocence

Why the West continues to devastate Aboriginal cultures

Jon Hinkson

“Boyce places responsibility at the door of the evangelising social orders who saw themselves as bringing civilisation with a ‘faith in enterprise, order and the virtues of respectability’…

While the Nazis were extreme in the generalisation of these ideas and practices … the West has by no means come to terms with how those ideas are directly implicated in its extreme practices towards Indigenous cultures…

Cultural blindness is no longer quite an appropriate description. It seems more appropriate to speak simply of indifference, the West sensing that it is possible to transcend culture practically.”

It is not enough to expose the cultural injustices done to Indigenous cultures since the arrival of Western cultures. The depth and unrelenting nature of this one-sided destructive relationship calls for its own interpretation. Time after time we have been told that the most recent policy changes will make the difference, will allow relations between settler and Indigenous cultures to start anew on a positive basis. This was said about the Northern Territory Intervention five years ago, and is now being repeated in Stronger Futures.

Nor will a focus on individuals illuminate this destructive relationship. While many, if not most, individuals from the dominant culture are hostile towards Indigenous peoples, many others seek both understanding and empathy and attempt to support Indigenous people in a variety of ways. Yet at a cultural level and in the way the state seeks to provide assistance there is a rotten core. Culturally there is a denial of the humanity of Indigenous cultures and in the attitudes of dominant cultures a strange ‘innocence’ about the devastation they have caused. How does this come about?

In his recent book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, James Boyce raises questions that give important leads. He argues that the settlers who came to Melbourne in 1835 carried with them practical methods first developed in Tasmania that had perfected processes for the cleansing and elimination of the Indigenous population. His account is shocking. After a tentative and controversial arrival at Port Phillip Bay in 1835, within fifteen years the settlers had crushed, supplanted and largely eliminated the Indigenous people―not just in the Melbourne region but throughout much of Victoria―and also triggering a larger transformation throughout Australia.

Boyce dismisses the usual explanation for this cultural cruelty and savagery―the actions of former convicts with degraded sensibilities. He places responsibility at the door of the evangelising social orders who saw themselves as bringing civilisation with a ‘faith in enterprise, order and the virtues of respectability’.

[T]he assimilation of native peoples into the liberal economic and social order was not only good in itself, but was the primary means of ensuring that Aborigines were not degraded or killed by the lower order of Europeans.

It is important that rather than accusing individuals, he identifies the liberal economic and social order as the primary cause of the destruction of Aboriginal culture. But he does not delve into why this is the case. Possibly he shares the views that many hold about such matters: the reasons are obvious: greed, racism, and the like. Being ‘obvious’, however, is a shortcut, one that closes off investigation. As it turns out, taking the argument a further step generates new understandings of Australia’s more recent Intervention.

John Gray, in his Black Mass, is helpful in delving behind this obviousness. He seeks to critique Enlightenment ideas and ‘cultures’ in their role of supporting the colonial empires of the West. He points to the well-known philosophers of the Enlightenment who justified racist programs that effectively eliminated Indigenous peoples on a genocidal scale: John Locke who combined doctrines of equality with the seizure of Indigenous lands; H. G. Wells who accepted the need to eliminate the ‘swarms of black, yellow and brown people’ who did not meet the needs of efficiency; Kant … Gray shows how the Nazis were inspired by exterminatory and other practices in the United States, in particular, the sterilisation of the unfit and the extermination of the ‘red savages’ by starvation and uneven combat. Such practices were significantly grounded in Enlightenment assumptions.

While the Nazis were extreme in the generalisation of these ideas and practices to new categories of the population, the West has by no means come to terms with how those ideas are directly implicated in its extreme practices towards Indigenous cultures. In this regard the West is ‘innocent’ and always ready to start again out of that innocence. When these grounds are combined with our empiricist assumptions we are able to imagine there is no reason why what has happened in the past will be repeated if we start again.

It is Gray’s argument that this Western ‘innocence’ arises out of arguments directly generated by the Enlightenment philosophers: the Western world entered a mode of universality that has marked it off from all other cultures. It is this universality that is the basis for an emphasis on equality and a form of radical individuality. The West is not defined by cultural particulars but by a universality that is inseparable from the emancipated individual, and also the idea of ‘exceptional cultures’. In these terms, relative to all other cultures, the West thinks of itself as above and beyond any cultural evolution. This allows an initial idea of how cultural blindness towards other cultures can emerge as a form of ‘innocence’ with those consequences over the past three centuries that we know to have been devastating for Indigenous cultures.

In this respect, Gray’s approach to this form of universality is like that of many postmodern thinkers; he dismisses it as an illusion―certainly a powerful illusion with shocking practical consequences, but nevertheless an illusion. In his terms, if Western culture were really to be a culture it would require a generic anthropology, or a construction of a culture out of emancipated individuals. But his view is that all cultures are constructed out of particularity; that a ‘culture’ of emancipated individuals who stand above particularity is impossible.

In this matter of universality I believe Gray is mistaken. Cultures are always composed of a mix of particular and universal commitments. It is necessary to go beyond philosophy into social analysis to illuminate this. What is it about social relations that allow them to be regarded as universal? Universal social relations are those where the relation does not require an ‘other’ to be present: like relations that are mediated by technologies of one kind or another. For example, writing is a technology that supports the network relation relied upon by intellectuals who do not need to be present to develop a practical relation. They rely on written media. Or where the electronic media enters the domestic sphere, absence composes an increasing share of domesticity. Where markets compose more and more of our civil society, similarly absence displaces presence―a shallow but widespread form of universality.

So, all cultures are composed of relations that require absence and presence but Enlightenment modernity shifts the balance towards relations with absent others as compared to other societies. This is the link with the liberal social order identified by James Boyce, which was composed significantly of investors and entrepreneurs relative to other nineteenth-century societies.

While we do not have to accept the supposed superiority of societies born of the Enlightenment, it is possible to argue that they are different and that this gap with other cultures makes cross-cultural understandings difficult. This is to say that their heightened universality is real and also that it lies at the heart of many of their problems because they are losing the practical empathy and sensibility that can only be gained through rich relations of presence. Their technical superiority, often so devastating, is accompanied by a growing poverty of relations and community-based experience that diminishes the possibility of acknowledging a common humanity. It is this that supports cultural blindness.

If these social relations are at the centre of the cultural blindness towards Indigenous cultures generally, more recent developments can be seen at work in the Intervention. I am referring to the high-tech revolution generated by the linking of the institutions of higher education with the capitalist market. High technology allows a radical enhancement of relations of absence in society, a shift so fundamental that relations that require the presence of an other seem dispensable. This is seen most clearly with the rise of the internet, but also with the enhancement of those markets that have come to be known as neoliberal. One example is the relation of young people to the particularities of family and community that are increasingly distanced by techno-relations based in absence.

It is highly significant that there is a growing tendency now to question whether ‘culture’ is a valid category. The social setting generated by the high-tech revolution is the background support for this questioning, which is turned against Indigenous societies. But it also reflects the emerging prospect for the West which, given this trajectory, is headed towards a post-human culture, keeping in mind that human beings have always been formed at least in part through substantial particular communities. As it moves in this direction the West stands to one side of cultural evolution. ‘Outside’ of all human cultures, it beckons to all of us from a distance. Cultural blindness is no longer quite an appropriate description. It seems more appropriate to speak simply of indifference, the West sensing that it is possible to transcend culture practically.

This is the context of the neo-assimilationism now offered in developments such as the Northern Territory Intervention. While governments often express notions of cultural diversity, the Intervention actually allows no real cultural meaning to such ideas. Land rights have in effect gone; educational bilingualism has gone, at least as policy; cultural rights have gone. Particularistic cultural meanings are now only forms of exoticism, to be celebrated as long as they are not taken too seriously. Everyone is called, if not engineered, into the universal social space as the only form of development to be allowed―the universal world of individualistic absent others.

Despite this, it does not follow that the future is clear. The problems of selfhood and meaning in high-tech society appear to be as unsolvable as the consequences of unconstrained growth and ecological destruction. There is every reason the re-creation of Indigenous cultures could be seen to be in concert with cultural resistance generally to post-human societies. While hardly equating the terrible travails of Indigenous cultures with the crises of development that now hang darkly over ‘advanced’ societies, the prospect of real mutual support between the two may help to find a way forward for both over the coming decades.

John Hinkson is an Arena Publications editor.

*An extended version of this piece can be found in We Stole the Children: The Settler-Colonial Present, Arena Journal, nos 37/38, 2012.

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