arena, francesca merlan and her critics


In Arena Magazine no. 107, Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris attribute to me the view that the current situation of Indigenous people, however one interprets it, is due to their ‘culture’. Nowhere have I said anything vaguely similar to this. One of my concerns has been precisely to show how totalising, bounded and fixed notions of ‘culture’ fail to help us understand the relations and outcomes of Indigenous Australians with others. Another has been to argue (for example, in my book Caging the Rainbow) that to hold Indigenous people to imagined standards of ‘authenticity’ is to impose double jeopardy upon them: to colonise them and radically alter the conditions of their existence, then also demand that they remain as they were.

Concerning the NT Intervention, my experience in remote, as well as not so remote, Aboriginal social settings is that certain unwelcome conditions are widespread. These include alcohol and substance abuse, and related violence; and their consequences for child and youth welfare. Health conditions are notorious. In many remote communities very few people survive to old age, while younger ones have multiple bypasses, complex operations, ongoing dialysis, and batteries of pills to swallow every day. There are other kinds of problems that do not lend themselves to such clear-cut description, including social involution and disoccupation in the face of what are often overwhelmingly difficult social conditions. None of these problems can be simplistically attributed to Indigenous ‘culture’. But there is a question, once one has had experience of these concentrated forms of neglect, problems and special vulnerabilities, whether one thinks that action should be taken. Many Indigenous people do. And so, in my own way, do I.


Lattas and Morris are ‘scandalised’ by what they see as the use of anthropology’s familiarity with Indigenous cultures to legitimise the ‘legal alterity’ of Indigenous people. This refers to my statement that ‘universalist understandings of rights can be problematic in their application to people whose social lives differ from the mainstream’. I should have gone further and said that the application of universal human rights is often contentious with respect to the mainstream as well—but perhaps particularly contentious with respect to people, like many Indigenous Australians, who do not themselves think in terms of universal human rights, and who may act and propose kinds of solutions to concerns in their lives that do not conform to universalist principles. This is not to say that we should not have and value human rights; and it is certainly not to advocate relegation of Aboriginal people outside their reach. However, there are often complex questions around the realisation of rights, and the reconciliation of certain rights with others. For example, how, in practice, is equality of right to life, liberty and security of person (as per Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to be realised? There are regulations in mainstream communities to support and prioritise certain kinds of value and activity over others; so, for example, the rights of children to be tended may have to be prioritised over the rights of parents to do as they want. This is familiar territory: we all recognise obligations to protect the vulnerable. But my point is that ways in which Indigenous people may choose to identify and realise norms may differ from those in wider Australian society.

Part of Francesca Merlan’s impressive response to Andrew Lattas and Barry Morris’s astute (though, it could be said, erratically condemnatory) critique of cultural determinism, the ‘neo-liberal’ predicament, and everything else under the Aboriginal sun.

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