Group guilt redux

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I wrote earlier about the strange idea of guilt based on national ancestry, popular with some on the soi-disant left. My examples came from the Sorry BookChristian anti-semitism and the author Bernhard Schlink.

But somehow I forgot one of the great symbolic touchstones of this movement: Paul Keating’s Redfern speech.

Respondents to an ABC Radio National poll voted Keating’s address the third “most unforgettable speech” of all time, behind entries by Martin Luther King and Jesus, and ahead of the Gettysburg Address.

The most-cited passage from the speech, written by Don Watson, is this:

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the diseases. The alcohol.

We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

The wretched Fran Kelly (for whom this is history’s most enduring harangue: bigger than Jesus!) said this was ‘perhaps the first time a political leader had asked the white population to consider that we shared some of the blame, and therefore the responsibility for the pain, shame and dysfunction within the Indigenous community.’

But the same hectoring rhythm, and racist substance, was seen earlier in Bruce Elder’s famous book, Blood on the Wattle, first published in 1988:

Aboriginal Australians had what we all now want. We, the European invaders, took it all away. We destroyed it. We took the land as if it was our own. We destroyed the native fruit-bearing trees to create pastures for cattle and sheep. We killed off native wildlife it it tried to compete with sheep and cattle for the pastures. We replaced ecology with aggressive nineteenth-century exploitative capitalism. We built roads over sacred sites. We denied the land its spirituality. We killed off Aboriginal people with guns and poison and disease. We refused, through ignorance and arrogance, to see any tribal differentiation in those Aboriginal people who survived our insidious, long-term holocaust.

[…]

The blood of tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians killed since 1788, and the sense of despair and hopelessness which informs so much modern-day Aboriginal society, is a moral responsibility all white Australians share…. We should bow our heads in shame.

Respondents to a Sydney Morning Herald and Age poll apparently voted this the tenth-most influential work of Australian non-fiction in the twentieth century. No wonder the kids are confused.

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17 Responses to “Group guilt redux”

  1. Dan Says:

    I think you’re ignoring the historical context of this speech to the point of deliberately baiting response. Despite you disparaging Fran Kelly as “wretched”, she at least seems to consider why the address was made at that point in time.

    You’re also happily ignoring the nature of speech-giving. Speeches, even the greatest ones, rarely linger on nuance or particulars, and like this one usually focus their attentions on ideas and concepts. They also have quite specific contexts. In this case, it was made by a white head of government to a crowd almost exclusively made up of Indigenous Australians. If we continue this argument without context, perhaps you agree more with this other famous Australian speech when similarly de- contextualised: “I am fed up with being told: ‘This is our land.’ Well, where the hell do I go? I was born here, and so were my parents and children. I draw the line when told I must pay, and continue paying, for something that happened over 200 years ago. Like most Australians, I worked for my land. No one gave it to me.”

    It also seems to me that you’ve so far been able to criticise a variety of positions without actually offering much of your own opinion (ironic, given that you previously criticised postmodernism for much the same reason). How would you have written the Redfern address?

  2. Nick Says:

    Hi, Dan. I take it that you think the speech is quite good. Perhaps, for you, there’s no other position for the rest of us but Hansonism?

    I’ve already made my case against the “ideas and concepts” presented by Keating. I don’t think these ideas become more or less sensible as the context or audience varies.

    I haven’t criticised a variety of positions, but only the one: that which assigns guilt to people based on ancestry or group. You seem inclined to defend this position against attack, without committing yourself to it explicitly. I could with more justification ask you what your opinion is on this matter, as mine has been clearly stated.

  3. Dan Says:

    Haha, yes, obviously I do think the speech is quite good. But no, I don’t think the only other position is Hansonism, and I certainly don’t think that it is yours. I think I was quite clearly arguing that speeches must be taken in context. If we ignore Hanson’s context of implied or outright racism, some of her claims can be taken as fairly reasonable. Just as if we ignore the context of the Redfern address we can come to the same conclusions as you have in this post.

    As far as positions go: yes, it’s probably fair to ask me to state my position outright, though I do feel to some extent that the situation of commentor/poster implies a power relationship where it falls upon you to state a position rather than me. It’s your blog, and you’re the one who is setting the agenda here, not me. In addition, to criticise an argument as incoherent is in itself not actually a belief but only a contention, the mechanics of a debate, so I don’t believe that you have stated much of an opinion.

    Nonetheless, I’ll go out on a limb: 1. I agree that genetic guilt is a flawed concept; 2. As far as we can delineate between settler and Indigenous Australians, we can see real advantage/responsibility/disadvantage, and therefore ascribing responsibility, if not guilt itself is a far more reasonable thing than in some of the other cases you’ve argued; 3. I would rather ten generations of misplaced guilt on behalf of settler Australia than a single generation of continued ignorance (a state, I might add, that was particularly pervasive at the time of the Redfern Address). In a case of two evils, one is clearly the greater.

  4. Nick Says:

    Recall that when I first talked about this stuff w.r.t to Sorry Day, you suggested I was arguing against a strawman. Nobody thinks all white people (settlers/non-Indigenous Australians) are guilty of something! Since then I have shown that children, popular and esteemed historians, the former PM in a famous speech, and a well-known radio host all think this. But rather than admitting that you were wrong and I – at least in this respect – was right, you’ve now said, “Yeah, so what? S’not the worst thing in the world, is it?”

    In fact, by saying it’s “a case of two evils”, you are claiming what in the first paragraph you deny – that these two positions are exhaustive, and we must declare allegiance to one or the other. But this (your point 3 above) is simply a false and unnecessary choice, which nobody needs to make. Hanson doesn’t make Keating right. Keating’s speech (and the passage from Elder) is a series of statements whose meaning doesn’t vary with context. The propositions (“we brought the diseases” etc) are either true or false, and, if true, are true in every context.

    You say that “genetic guilt is a flawed concept”, but that “settlers” may be considered guilty, or at least responsible. May I ask how you define a settler?

    And can you please explain how all settlers have benefited from the destruction of Aboriginal societies, cultures and languages? Keep in mind that the “real advantage” you spoke of can’t just mean benefited from a world in which Aboriginal societies, cultures and languages were destroyed. That would implicate anyone who’s ever successfully drawn breath. It must mean benefited more from a world in which Aboriginal societies, cultures and languages were destroyed than from a world in which they weren’t.

    And – perhaps I’m demanding too much – how would such benefit confer responsibility?

  5. Dan Says:

    “Nobody thinks all white people (settlers/non-Indigenous Australians) are guilty of something!” This is not what I’ve argued, and I’m sorry if you’ve misinterpreted my comments as such. I did accuse you of a straw-man, but regarding this statement: “non-Indigenous people are invited to imagine themseves as ‘white’.” My point was that Sorry Day has multiple possible relevances, and that guilt is only one of them. Originally I felt like you had taken one position on Sorry Day and expanded it to stand in for the whole event. I think this is fairly clear in my original response (“‘Sorry’ does not always imply guilt. In its many different connotations for Sorry Day…”). I don’t think I ever denied the existence of belief of guilt here, despite not arguing for it myself.

    There are certainly many other positions here, including the one that I outlined as early as my first comment (“Sorry Day is at its most potent when the feelings it encourages are empathy and sympathy, rather than guilt, pity or personal culpability.”).

    I agree that I imply a binary in my closing point above, and perhaps I shouldn’t have, as it is clearly not what I believe. What I was trying to argue is that I don’t see why in this case genetic guilt is so deplorable, given why it has been invoked. I think it’s reasonable to both hold that “genetic guilt is a flawed concept” and also that given the circumstances, it “S’not the worst thing in the world, is it?”. It certainly doesn’t preclude the option of other positions, many of which I’m sure we’d agree on.

    I made this post to clarify my position here, but I don’t want to continue down the unhelpful and combative path that this debate is turning to (and I’m not suggesting you’re taking it there – I’m probably more responsible than you in this instance anyway). I’m sorry if you feel I’m avoiding your questions, for which I do have answers, but feel it’s probably best to let this sit for a bit.

  6. Nick Says:

    I’ll just say this: if the factual inaccuracy and moral-philosophical absurdity of the ancestral-guilt line doesn’t trouble you, you might still like to reconsider its instrumental worth.

    You want – as I do – non-Aboriginal people to acknowledge the awesome tragedy suffered by the first Australians. So why insist that the former feel solidarity with people – fellow “settlers” – with whom they otherwise share no great complicity? And if we’d like people to regret the great destruction of Australian societies/cultures/languages, why insist that they’ve benefited from it?

    That many people bridle at accepting responsibility/guilt for the actions of the pastoralists etc suggests that they don’t feel an innate “racial” solidarity. So rather than asking people to believe that they share in the great historic project of John Macarthur, why not ask them to feel solidarity with Jandamarra? If they are encouraged to side – imaginatively and practically – with the victims and resistors, rather than the perpetrators, people will more readily admit the truth of this great catastrophe.

  7. Dan Says:

    If you’d posted that to begin with there probably wouldn’t have been any debate! I think that’s a very strong argument. However, I still think that the Redfern address and similar highly aggressive rhetoric was an important – and likely indispensable – step to reach a point where we can suggest this as a better path. Sympathy and acknowledgement had been repeatedly asked for since the 1960s – Wavehill, the Tent Embassy etc – and I don’t think that it was until the increased force of rhetoric in the ’90s that general society really started to take notice.

  8. Nick Says:

    If you’d posted that to begin with there probably wouldn’t have been any debate!

    With respect, that’s an extremely backhanded way of conceding the point.

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