Protecting a cultural right to abuse

by: Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney Morning Herald, April 11, 2013

At what point does autonomy slide into apartheid? Do the rights of a culture outweigh those
of its people? Why can’t we talk about this?

The Aboriginal war memorial in Canberra is a small bronze plaque pinned to a rock in
scrubby bush, 10 minutes – a universe – from official Australia’s pompous mausoleum and
inscribed with words you have to squat to read.

It’s almost like deliberate symbolism: ”We tolerate you blacks but, basically, what goes down
in the bush, stays in the bush.”

We are people of conscience. Every week we’re shocked by another Indian rape, sharia
stoning or fresh evidence that the German people ”must have known”.

As Anzacs we stand (and fall) for decency and truth. A fortnight hence we will honour the fair
go, the level ground, the open heart, the unforked tongue and the clear eye. So we like to

Yet there is a snake writhing in our midst that we cannot bring ourselves to see or even

To the pack rapes, genital mutilation, arranged marriages, wife beatings and routine child
sex at the heart of our continent we turn a blind, terrified and – truly – conscience-stricken
eye. A recent Sydney Institute talk by academics Stephanie Jarrett and Gary Johns laid it
bare. Indigenous violence, they argued, is not ”our” fault. Although alcohol-exacerbated, it is
endemic to pre-contact indigenous culture.

They are not the first. Many distinguished writers including Peter Sutton, Louis Nowra and
Nicolas Rothwell have documented these horrifying stories, supporting observation that goes
back to the First Fleet’s Watkin Tench. These writers had nothing to gain. They must have
known they’d be reviled by their own demographic, so it’s hard to impute motives other than

In Another Country (2007) Rothwell wrote that “a pathology of violence, pornography,
promiscuity and sexual abuse has taken hold”, in remote indigenous communities. The book
shone with a love of Aboriginal people and culture, yet Rothwell was accused of being an

The same year, English teacher Jenness Warin and UNSW mathematician James Franklin
wrote a paper entitled Aboriginal Communities: Why the Trade in Girls and Other Human
Rights Abuses Remain Hidden
. Warin was accused of trying to empty Aboriginal lands.

Also in 2007, Nowra wrote Bad Dreaming, his unflinching omnibus of misogynist violence
and routine child rape in central Australia. Reviewers, although shocked, continued to blame
European impact and insist that Nowra’s white-male view was inherently skewed.

What, does rape look different if you’re brown? Does it feel different? Matter less? Is that
what we’re saying?

Reviewer Jan Richardson voiced the standard view. Rather than seek the root of violence,
she argued, we should try to improve indigenous men’s grasp of capitalism, hoping
that “social inclusion and … positions that bring men the kind of esteem and authority they
earned when their cultural milieu was unhindered by a foreign philosophy might promote
fulfilment and reduce anger”. Our fault, our responsibility.

But Nowra’s question – whether indigenous male violence was intrinsic to pre-contact tribal
culture – is core, and should shape our entire policy approach to indigenous development.

If violence is endemic, self-determination emerges as an error of tragic proportions.

White liberalism habitually sees all criticism of indigenous culture as right-wing racism. This
effects a self-censorship that is profoundly racist – talk about anything, just not this – and,
argue Jarrett and Johns, breathtakingly cruel.

We’ve had the stories. With a care and acuity one can only wish was more typical of
academia, Jarrett and Johns array the evidence. Sadly, it is compelling.

Alice Springs politician Bess Nungarrayi Price, who writes the foreword in Jarrett’s Liberating
Aboriginal People from Violence
(Connor Court Publishing 2013), was raised in traditional
culture and has the scars to prove it. “Men had the power of life and death over their wives,”
she recalls. “Young girls were forced into marriage with older men.”

Jarrett documents many current instances of the “customary rape of young women (often as
part of a group deflowering ceremony) and sexual abuse of children”.

Official statistics show black-on-black violence to be three times higher in remote
communities than urban, and four times higher against women than men. Hospitalisation
for family-related violence is 30 times more likely for an indigenous person than a non-

There’s also paleopathology showing that cranial injury from attack was almost four times
higher, pre-contact, in women than in men.

It’s not just booze. Indigenous alcohol consumption is falling, but the violence rises. Men who
are peaceable in the city revert to routine violence in remote cultures. Women who are young
and successful in the city return to tribal culture, becoming trapped in violence and coercion.

Therefore, argues Johns in Aboriginal Self-Determination, the Whiteman’s Dream (Connor
Court Publishing 2011) current ”self-determination” policies are not only massively wasteful –
throwing billions of dollars into a black hole of impossible service provision in remote areas –
but condemn women and children to lives of unconscionable brutality.

They could be wrong. This could be a massive conspiracy. There could be other
explanations of the damaged skulls, the violence, the abuse.

If so, these counter-arguments should be put. Instead, we have emotion, ridicule and snide
personal attack.

The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen wrote a snarky, gossipy review dissing Jarrett
(”tremulous”, ”slightly posh”), her PhD (”human rights before cultural rights”), Johns (”a
Howard man”), their publisher (”a bush operation”) and their audience (”white-haired white
men”), as though ipso facto outing their secret belief that, in his words, “once a savage,
always a savage”.

But to talk truthfully of violence is not to undermine Aborigines. Two centuries ago white
Australia was also violent and abusive. It is the rule of law that dragged us out, protecting
weak from strong.

And that’s the crux. Endemic or not, this violence is illegal. Condoning as ”customary law”
what we would never countenance for ourselves is not autonomy. It’s apartheid.

As Price notes, “the best thing about acknowledging … our own traditional forms of violence
is that … we can fix ourselves. We don’t need to be told what to do by the white man.”

So let’s have the discussion without the ridicule, since if it can’t be discussed, it can’t be