Silence and the Social Order

David Marr, Killing For Country: A Family Story (Black Inc, 2023)

Silence and non-silence can give special insights into the nature of a social order. For example, the role of silence when confronted by nuclear technology could be a necessary response to the unknown—a standing-back in order to assess the meanings of the society that began to emerge after the splitting of the atom towards the end of World War Two. This was a society of unknown consequences, dependent as it was upon highly specialised knowledge of destructive and terrifying powers in nature that in turn required levels of security that have changed the nature of social life ever since. As such, silence, in this case a form of reflexion, allowed the emergence of a society that was not only unique but also a threat to our being in the world. Social options were not yet formulated. And however necessary, this silence allowed the formation of a social order of a new and unattractive kind—for this historical silence changed its meanings over time. It became a simple avoidance mechanism, one that normalised what could arguably never be normal.

If this example of silence gave an entry to the novelty of high-tech society, silence plays a very different role for societies like Australia created on foundations formed in the colonial or imperial process. Here silence has a different intensity, but is just as crucial for the formation of a social order. In 1968, anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner spoke in his Boyer lectures of the great Australian Silence, in which Australians do not just fail to acknowledge the atrocities of the past, they do not think about them at all, to the point of forgetting that these events ever happened.

Who could deny the social significance of Australian society needing to hide from its own view those aspects of Australian history that suppressed and butchered the Aboriginal cultures in place, denying them their elaborate and complex exchanges between themselves and with nature: the first nations of Australia?

The basic problem for societies seeking to establish a social order is that it is usually seen to be necessary for them to universalise themselves—to see themselves as the only possibility in the present and to project the present back into the past. Differences from the past must not contradict the realities of the present. At the very least there must be a rational account of any transformations that allow the present to be justified. Where this is not easy or even possible, deep silence about core aspects of the past becomes a pressing social need.

Many may prefer to refer to this kind of silence as ignorance. But silence better captures the comprehensive social need that is expressed in ‘not knowing’. It is not merely a matter of not knowing; it is knowing actively being suppressed by multiple mechanisms. In this respect Australia is an example of the role silence can play in making the formation of a certain kind of nation state possible. Because it is founded upon ‘lies’, it is especially vulnerable, and will go to great length to deny and protect itself.

Young people growing up in Australia usually accept this untruth, by and large by not finding a way to contest the comprehensive silence about social origins that is their overwhelming reality and thus allowing the actual social divisions to remain unknown or largely ‘sugar-coated’. Their only alternative is to live with a growing uneasiness about those childhood assumptions that regard the world as always having been as it is now, not to mention uneasiness about where ‘they’ have gone.

We should be grateful to the many historians and anthropologists who, step by step, have helped to uncover the reality concealed by this silence. As they would know, it is a dangerous endeavour they have initiated, albeit often with the innocence of the teller of truths. The contribution of Henry Reynolds’s The Other Side of the Frontier turned the tide especially for serious readers. Reynolds did so by showing the generality of the inter-cultural violence that typified the ever-expanding frontier of settlers in Australia. The shocking revelations made by James Boyce in 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia pierced the silence in southern Australia that had become reality for those who had lived separated from frontier times by several generations. Boyce did so by outlining the entrepreneurial invasion of Victoria that emerged from the genocidal practices first perfected in Tasmania.

Now David Marr has deepened these insights in Killing For Country, in which he exposes another level of silence: that of the complex reality of the regiments of Native Police who terrorised and massacred any blacks who fought for their cultural rights against settlers who assumed they could take over those lands that were always essential to Aboriginal existence. Intentionally drawn from regions far from the localities they terrorised, and always commanded by ‘safe’ whites, the Native Police made it possible to avoid the establishment of an official military force that would have made more explicit the meanings of the cultural assault that was the hidden reality—the true real.

Marr was initially shaken to discover that his own family, represented by Edmund Uhr, was directly involved in the day-to-day workings and organisation of the Native Police. He set about to more fully bring to the foreground what was largely unknown about the role they played in the nineteenth-century rollout of settlement across the continent. He goes back to early days in the 1800s and locates key figures like Richard Jones who engaged endlessly in politics that supported the ‘freedom’ of settlers against government restrictions upon their behaviour, including his own ‘right’ to be a free settler. The basic issue was what to do when Aboriginal need frustrated settler intentions. Ostensibly the rule from the Colonial Office gave support to Indigenous economy, and no one would officially counter that approach. An unofficial institution like the Native Police demonstrated the way to break through.

Much of the activity of the Native Police took place in New South Wales and Queensland, especially the latter, which remains more of a frontier society today than most of Australia. Anyone who grew up in North Queensland would find Marr’s accounts of the genocidal practices in a great variety of localities both riveting and disturbing—that is, unless they rely upon silence as a form of self-defence.

What should be said about a nation so dependent upon silence for its day-to-day functioning? Of course, the obvious thing is that this is a society that is relatively closed to certain truths about itself while also actively engaging in denial about such closure. Any challenge to its grounding assumptions, like ‘reconciliation’, must have the capacity to be translated into practices that do not challenge the status quo. The recent Voice referendum illustrates this process well.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart called for three strategies in order to move towards a proper inclusion of the first nations of Australia: a Voice to Parliament, truth-telling and treaty-making. The Albanese government selected the proposal of the Voice to Parliament as the best step to take. However, this proposal being abstracted from truth-telling and treaty meant that it carried no obvious challenge to the status quo. It was merely formal. This does not mean it had no worth by itself, but it was a way of containing or putting off the larger process. Instead of producing a recognition of the extremely difficult process of asking how two incommensurable cultures can find a way to engage each other and come to know each other, at least in part, the Voice referendum deflected into multiple narratives, many based in racism and denial of racism. In this context the charge of racism is itself a form of denial: a refusal to engage deep cultural difference.

In places like Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where the historical frontier lives on in one form or another, racism is often explicit. There may be silence about the historical means of racist strategy, like the Native Police, but attitudes are close to the surface if not ever-present. It is not surprising that these were active in the Voice referendum. But what of those states like New South Wales and Victoria where explicit racism is occasional but less apparent? Here one must refer to deep attitudes, where knowledge and social assumptions take the form of inter-related layers, some of which are not immediately available to the individual. Under some circumstances these layers, which have been wrapped in silence, are stirred into more active being. It is no accident that Peter Dutton, an unreconstructed former policeman from Queensland, was able to press the necessary buttons to bring them to the surface. And respect for competing cultures was the last thing on his mind.

David Marr was stimulated to write his book when he discovered that some generations ago a member of his family was a significant figure in the organisation and practice of the Native Police. While he does not say that this book was a form of redemption for him, it is easy to read it in that way. It illustrates how Australian history, with its inter-cultural and genocidal violence, poses difficulties for those who see themselves as socially embedded via the generations as opposed to being individuals in the moment. I don’t know how David views his forebear, but I am sure he should not think of him as acting as a related but unsavoury individual who gave his family a bad name. Rather, the whole matter of dispossession and destruction associated with the colonial experience is an effect of cultural invasion—of one culture attempting to displace another. Reconciliation is therefore to be seen as a process of cultural restoration, the parameters of which are not black-and-white and are altered by free negotiation and time. While we are all implicated, from this point of view the individual is secondary, or should not be in the foreground.

About the author

John Hinkson

John Hinkson lectured in the Education Faculty at La Trobe University for many years. He is a longstanding Arena Publications Editor.

More articles by John Hinkson

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