Recently, the University of New South Wales received media attention for its guidelines for terminology in relation to Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
This isn’t an unusual thing for a university. Just Google “appropriate university terminology Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” and almost every Australian university will turn up with its own pdf or link.
But for some reason, the media jumped on this one. And thus, we have a Daily Telegraph front page with Captain Cook.
I didn’t want to say anything publicly, but when I posted “I’m sorry” on an Aboriginal friend’s Facebook page, she wrote back “What are you going to DO?” Sigh. It’s true, sis. What am I going to do about it?!
So here I am, speaking out. I’m a PhD investigating Australian religious and cultural identity, and I might, at some point, teach your children in a university or college.
I will hand out similar guidelines, and here’s why.
It is not because, as Alan Jones asserted on Sunrise this week, I have an agenda, or because Australia’s scholars are all left-wing radicals. This is actually not a “left” issue. Clearly the right’s thought leaders also promote their ideas, or the shock jock would never have said this on national television. He’s hardly the pointy end of the research community.
Yes, there are the “History Wars”, which is a rupture of our Australian national narrative. We don’t agree on our story. But that’s only a tiny drop in the bucket compared to international scholarship.
Truth is, guidelines are necessary because Western scholarship draws upon a really, really racist legacy. The textbooks used in many of our university courses are written by Europeans, not Australians. These are the “classics” of most disciplinary studies. Despite our excellent standard of scholarship and over-perform per capita, the Australian publishing industry is still tiny.
Debates regarding governance of “primitive” peoples became very important for Europe after the Pope’s 1492 edict to Christianize (and, therefore, civilize the world). This literature forms the bedrock of our legal and political economy guilds, with Hobbes asserting in The Leviathan (1651) that life without a social contract had “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. A social contract was largely proved by being written.
John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government in 1689 emphasized the importance of each person’s right to privately owned property, an idea still at the very foundation of the Australian dream that keeps our land prices rising, and cities expanding.
In contrast, Geneva’s philosopher Rousseau waxed lyrical in 1762 about “noble savages” who lived in a peaceful, blissful existence. He argued that laws had to actually improve people’s life. By the time England got to the shores of Australia in 1788, it had convinced itself it was doing the world a large favour, extending its benefits across the world.
You may not know it, but the “father of sociology” Émile Durkheim believed Aboriginal Australia’s Dreaming to be the most basic or primitive of all religions. He never set foot in Australia to attend a single corroboree, or ceremony. But he happily wrote about it in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life in 1912. His 2008 reprint has been cited 11,000 times according to Google scholar.
The scientist Charles Darwin believed that the “Australoid” race was the most undeveloped peoples, and most closely related to the ape. He wrote The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. Don’t worry, his low view of Australian peoples also extends to our natural wildlife, as he states, “… neither Australia, nor the Cape of Good Hope, nor any region inhabited by quite uncivilised man, has afforded us one plant worth culture”. The 2009 edition of his work is cited 32,000 times.
Such ideas are constantly appropriated by modern authors in incestuous ways. Such as, for example, Canadian Steven Pinker (2003) who seems blissfully aware of propaganda narratives supporting Tasmania’s genocides, and quotes North American Jared Diamond’s Germs, Guns and Steel (1997) regarding the technological ineptness of Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples who, he claims, not only lost all their technologies but had no way of making fire. If you’ve ever been to Tasmania, the coldest state in Australia… well, I find it hard to believe. Jared Diamond’s book sold over one million copies and is cited over 8,000 times in other works. Pinker’s sold another million, and is cited 4,000 times.
This is the tip of the ideas iceberg that non-Indigenous Australians draw upon to form our religious, political, legal and business life. This is our heritage. And it’s deeply flawed, because we didn’t stop to really learn or listen from people who thought and acted differently from us. But you tell a story long and often enough, and you start to believe it.
It would be impossible to write up a comprehensive account of all the erroneous or naive images that lie beneath our understanding, that frame how our Indigenous peoples are seen in the media.
But the truth is, Australian Aboriginal people continue to adapt and change, and their culture is vibrant and alive. Dreaming Lore or Law, which governs both cultural and religious aspects of life still influences life in Australia’s cities.
Aboriginal scholars are making enormous contributions in all areas, but especially in regards to ecology and caring for the environment, in education and in the Arts.
Can you imagine being Rebecca Richards, Christian Thompson or Paul Gray, three Rhodes scholars sitting in Oxford trying to sort through the legacy of all these books?
Ideas move slowly, and academics is the art of drawing upon old ideas in order to propose new ones. So, old scholarship always has a bigger audience.
Australian students are regularly assigned heavy-hitting scholarly greats such as Durkheim and Darwin who provided some great insights, but who wrote with little sense of responsibility for the peoples they were studying.
So, what do universities do – encourage the lecturers to throw these books out? Or, with the help of Indigenous academics, publish a guideline to help students, and authors writing new research?
The great Durkheim and Darwin are dead, but their legacies live on. And Australia does need to produce its own guidelines, because we’re by no means leading these discussions. No, in fact, the conversation is being had on our behalf.
And this is tragic because ideas form public opinion, public opinion forms policy. And our policy is wreaking havoc upon communities.