Suffer the little children: the burden of culture

By Lorenzo

A description of what confronted a Commonwealth officer in the Northern Territory during the Pacific War (1941-5), when thousands of service personnel passed through the Northern Territory:

… once you introduced a European or Asian father any child of that liaison had any rights as an Aboriginal extinguished at birth. They were not classed as Aboriginal people by the Aborigines …

… the Aboriginal midwives were well aware of the problems that could exist through a woman have a half cast[e] child and in this respect particularly in the Centre where Aboriginal children were born over a hole in the ground where a fire had been lit and when the child was born green leaves were thrown on the first so the child was smoked at birth. Also if the child was of light colour the Aboriginal midwives just grabbed a handful of ashes out of the fire and placed it over the nose and mouth of the child so that the child didn’t live. The child was then taken away from the camp area and buried 99% of the time under a small ant hill. This was just levered up with a yam stick and the body placed underneath and then put back in place and the area swept so that no one could tell where it was or anything else.

The author apparently made two attempts to give evidence to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Bring Them Home enquiry, and was both times refused. (Like the report’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Sir Ronald later publicly admitted that was a mistake.)

While the narrative of celebrity achievement is a universal exception, as an Older and Wiser friend of mine has pointed out, there are two permitted narratives about indigenous Australians among what Judith Brett calls ‘the moral middle class’: victims or Noble Savages. Which narrative does the above fit? And if neither, why is there anything morally righteous about writing those nameless, culturally euthanized children out of history?

Fetishising indigenous cultures is not remotely the same as understanding them. And, without understanding, what is moral judgement worth? Indeed, what is moral about wilful blindness?

Forager constraints
Hunter-gatherer desert cultures have to deal with an enormously constricting environment. There has to be a brutal pragmatism about such cultures if those who live according to their precepts are going to survive from generation to generation; let alone for thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of years.

Hunter-gatherer—that is foraging—cultures have to control fertility: a control which has to all the more strict the more constraining the surrounding environment is. Children are burdens, having to be carried and fed, to be taken on with due care.

A process whereby young girls are married to older men, and their widows are married to young men, transfers knowledge between the generations, commits the younger to support the older, and keeps fertility rates down. It is functional in an environment where not being functional means starvation.

Strictly controlling who can marry whom provides genetic protection, embeds children in a protective network and binds folk together in known patterns. Cultural selection when the non-functional means starvation selects brutally for what works.

Mixed parentage children had no place and no place means an unsupportable burden. The rules that led to the above behaviour make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging. Twins, for example, would be culled for the same reason.

Of course, even in the 1940s, those constraints no longer operated. But the culture had not yet shifted. It did later; once non-Aboriginal partners were seen as not-forbidden, instead of not-permitted, mixed-parentage children became much more acceptable.

The culture fetish
But this is where the fetishising of culture comes in. Cultural practices and outlooks that make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging make none at all in a society of industrial (or even post-industrial) prosperity. If the welfare of indigenous Australians is the measure, then their cultures must change. If fetishising them as noble savages with morally pristine cultures is what folk are about, then dysfunction is an embarrassing reality which indigenous Australians-as-victims can be invoked to hide from.

What does such dysfunction involve? Poverty, unemployment, suicide, violence, child abuse, spouse abuse, lower life expectancies; all at rates which would be unacceptable if it happened to folk who were not on display as noble savages and moral mascots.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any group who more fulfil Thomas Sowell’s notion of moral mascots than indigenous Australians restricted to the narratives of victims or noble savages. Which is where being historically honest about matters such as the stolen generation is the real test. For, if you are not interested in the facts of the case, then you are not interesting in helping actual people in actual situations; merely in being seen to be compassionate about imagined people.

Grappling with culture
In analysis, culture is the last refuge of the analytically bereft. Unless, that is, you are prepared to break down culture into things more analytically tractable—such as trust, networks, communication costs, attitudes to time and framings.

Economist Deepak Lal recommends (pdf) adapting ecologists’ view of culture as being a way of adapting to an environment by learning. Humans as beings-with-culture as a species that:

learns new ways of surviving in the new environment and then fixes them by social custom. These social customs form the culture of the relevant group, which are transmitted to new members of the group (mainly children) who do not then have to invent these ‘new’ ways de novo for themselves.

As Lal points out, such regularised behaviour fits in with economists’ notion of equilibrium, particularly when defined by economist Frank Hahn as one where:

self-seeking agents learn nothing new so their behaviour is routinized. [Equilibrium] represents an adaptation by agents to the economic environment in which the economy “generates messages which do not cause agents to change the theories which they hold or the policies which they pursue”.

Changes in the surrounding environment will lead to changes in the agent’s theories and/or behaviour.

Lal distinguishes between material and cosmological beliefs of particular cultures:

The former relate to ways of making a living and concerns beliefs about the material world, in particular about the economy. The latter are related to understanding the world around us and mankind’s place in it which determine how people view their lives—its purpose, meaning and relationship to others.

The evidence is material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones and the latter are deeply influenced by which language group one belongs to—languages coming with deeply embedded framings of people, action and the world.

The shift from foraging to farming involves great shifts in human behaviour and framings. Farming involves a completely different attitude to time; foraging is a here-and-now matter with effectively no capacity to store, so little need to associate sustenance with forward planning. Farming is all about forward planning. Foraging is about common activity, where sharing is an imperative. Farming is separated production with subsequent exchange where delineating and enforcing rightful control over almost every aspect of economic production is crucial.

Farming shifts conflict management from the “tit for tat” and “just split off” of foraging culture to managing repeated interactions between people who are anchored by their land; a management that typically involves more extensive and constraining internalised moral codes and far more extensive property rights with formalised and binding dispute resolution. Farming societies have dramatically lower rates of violence than foraging cultures.

The situation of mixed-parentage children described above led to conflict between indigenous women over children:

particularly when these women were fighting over children the women fought with yam sticks which usually about a meter or 3 ft to 4 ft made out of a very heavy wooden stick and they would fight by having one smack at each other while the other held up the yam stick. This of course led to a number of smashed and broken fingers. The mothers were then in a situation that they couldn’t cope with their children. They were then looked after usually by some of the relatives until the women could cope again. This didn’t always happen as in later years when this did happen quite often the mother would come to the person in charge of the settlement and ask them to look after the child for her until she could handle it herself.

While trial-by-combat is hardly unknown in farming societies, it was usually highly formalised. Family households were also much more autonomous in their internal workings yet had a wider range of exchange interactions, which both narrowed the range of conflict and increased the benefit from formalised dispute resolution.

These are profoundly different perspectives. (Economist Robin Hanson has blogged about the foraging/farming differences.) As the former Commonwealth officer said of children taken to boarding school in Darwin:

There was no problems with the children while we were travelling to Darwin. They all looked on it as an outing, a picnic, whatever you like. The trauma for these children started when the discipline of a boarding school was imposed on them not having been used to any discipline whatsoever prior to this, this became extremely hard.

Can foraging notions of time management, property, sharing, and conflict operate successfully in a modern economy? The short answer is no.

So, what incentives operate to shift to outlooks far more functional in the modern world? Remembering that we are thousands of years and many generations separated from foraging framings. If one is of Atlantic littoral European descent, one is the product of cultures that have long since adjusted to the foraging-farming transition and then gone through the Commercial Revolution of the C15th-C18th and the Industrial Revolution of the C18th-C20th. Our ancestors went through the traumas of adaptation. We are the fortunate heirs thereof.

So fortunate, that we forget we are heirs of such transitions. Culture becomes a “taste sensation”, menu items from a cosmopolitan smorgasbord. Cultural sensitivity becomes a marker of virtue; other people’s cultural authenticity a vicarious pleasure. Attitudes of 100, 50, sometimes 30 years ago, in our own culture are utterly unacceptable, but fetishised indigenous cultures have the thrill of millennial authenticity.

It is an attitude full of cultural sensitivity and completely lacking in cultural seriousness.  Culture separated from consequences. But what is hunter-gatherer culture when gathering is collecting sit-down money and hunting is spearing a grant to be doled out to cronies? A life of lies and pointlessness, robbed of the regular achievements of purposeful activity. A recipe for social collapse; for battered wives, raped children, alcoholic homicide and petrol-sniffing despair.

Noel Pearson is absolutely correct. Indigenous Australians need to participate in a real economy. But, to do that, their cultures must change. It is long past time when indulging a fetish for vicarious cultural authenticity bought on the bodies of battered and violated women and children is allowed to pass itself off as anything other than abuse of the vulnerable for the satisfaction of the privileged.


  1. TerjeP
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – I don’t see the problem in Europe as being linked to the use of a common currency. The problem has been an implied pooling of credit risk by governments, one which has been now demonstrated by several rescue measures. It is this which led to reckless lending practices (or permitted reckless borrowing practices depending on your point of view). However this is a product of a partial political union not a currency union. In any case the euro model is hardly the only one for achieving a common currency. For much of history gold was the common currency of the world. Clearly there were lots of currencies in the gold standard era but I advocated for a common currency not a single currency.

  2. Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I am, however, sure that “going to war” with their cultures would massively counterproductive. The point is about being honest that improvement requires change, but thinking we can successfully impose change is … well, an idea that has been tried lots and hasn’t that worked well? But we cannot insulate from change either.

    [email protected] You seem to be suggesting something like Keynes/Schumacher’s bancor idea. Personally, I am comfortable with floating exchange rates.

    The lack of a clear lender of last resort was a problem, but the ECB letting NGDP crash (i.e. not having money supply keep up with money demand) is the more proximate cause of the problems.

  3. TerjeP
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    The Bancor idea wasn’t too bad except it relies on a central authority. It’s economically good but institutionally fragile.

    We’ve done the NGDP discussion previously and we don’t agree.

  4. John H.
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps aspects of indigenous culture are a problem, however culture is organic and adapts and, considering history, I’d be hesitant to go into direct war with their culture. They’re sick of listening to us.

    The culture issue creates all manner of attacks against those who suggest Aborigines need to be more realistic about the limitations of their culture in the modern world. I’ve been trying to explore the problem from a neuro-developmental perspective because that sidesteps the culture questions. The culture questions are important but are also too easily manipulated by vested interests. Once you buy into the culture style arguments they win because it is their turf.

    I don’t know what prompted Lorenzo to write about the Aboriginal question. With me it was reports about a big spike in suicide rates that came out last week when only 2 months ago I read a similiar report about Aboriginal girls. So I looked up some data. It’s freakin incredible, I have data to hand showing sexually transmitted dieases are up to 40 times higher in Aboriginal teenagers than the general population. That alone is a freakin’ disaster so I won’t horrify you with health stats.

    Put bluntly, I don’t even understand why people need to identify themselves with the larger culture, with wearing some uniform (they walked in line… ). Maybe I’m just the odd one out but I don’t think so, I think most people are like me they in that we define ourselves by our behavior not by some identity tag. Appellations are simply conceptual conveniences, we can identify things with names but names are just symbols yet people get so caught up with this identity stuff. Just enjoy the day and stop the navel gazing.

  5. Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I went to a talk by a former Victorian magistrate who had worked in the Northern Territory in the 1950s, though I have long had an interest in indigenous issues.

    The stats are diabolically bad and the neuro-development “way in” well worth pursuing, for the reasons you say.

  6. John H.
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    The stats are diabolically bad and the neuro-development “way in” well worth pursuing, for the reasons you say.

    I suspected that which is why when the intervention started they went looking at STDs as a proxy for sexual abuse.

    At circa 2.00 am last night I did manage to find an approach that reduces the whole issue down to a single question: which is more important — preserving Aboriginal culture or creating an environment which allows Aboriginal children the possibility of being the best they can. Inspired by Lorenzo’s title: Suffer the little children.

    I’m still not sure I can finish my post because it is now growing into a monograph.

    Some recent material:

    In 2009, the highest age-specific gonorrhoea notification rate in WA occurred in the 15-19 year old age group for Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley region (10,069 per 100,000 population), which was 45 times the overall age-specific rate for all 15-19 year olds in WA (222 per 100,000 population) [13]. Rates were also high for Aboriginal people in the 20-24 age group in the Kimberly region (8,930 per 100,000) and 20-24 age group in the Pilbara region (8,369 per 100,000). Aboriginal children aged 10-14 years were notified with a gonorrhoea infection (458 per 100,000 population) compared to nil notifications for non-Aboriginal children in the same age group.

    News item last week.

    Mr Umbagai says he has lost count of attempted suicides. A document obtained by Fairfax reveals that in a four-month period from July last year, 18 females and 22 males were admitted to the Derby hospital, for self-harm, attempted hanging, overdosing and suicidal thoughts. Most cases involved indigenous people and excessive alcohol consumption. The number of young Aboriginal people taking their own lives may be higher as some deaths, such as a recent road fatality, have been classified as accidental.

  7. kvd
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] those rates per 100,000 are quite shocking, both in total and in comparison to the overall WA rates. Taking your 15-19 and 20-24 together I make that roughly 9,500 per 100,000 Aboriginal people (15-24) living in the Kimberley region.

    But I want to note that Wikipedia states the total population of the Kimberley as about 41,000 – of which about 33% identify as indigenous. And the age groups I combined as 15-24 make up about 15% of the total population.

    Therefore, getting back to absolute numbers, I’d guess there are about (41,000*33%*0.15=) 2,050 individuals, suffering at the rate of 9500 per 100,000 which makes 195 individual cases in the age group 15-24

    Now, all of the above is to say that accepting that a rate of 9500 per 100,000 is a) shocking, and b) 45 times greater than the wider population, it is difficult to jump from that to the “preserving aboriginal culture OR creating an environment etc…” proposition.

    The other thing is, your marker is an introduced disease, quite possibly aided and abetted in some instances by the transient, or fly in fly out worker populations. (Not arguing, just providing a another perspective)

  8. Adrien
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – The point is about being honest that improvement requires change, but thinking we can successfully impose change is … well, an idea that has been tried lots and hasn’t that worked well?

    Change happens best when those who seek it start with themselves and not with others, yes? There is, I’m sure, a plethora of discourse about Tradition v Modernity amongst the indigenous people of this country. On the paler side of the citizenry there’s been a plethora of policy. None of which has worked well. Instead of dismissing the entirety of ‘Aboriginal culture’ (of which there are many) as the illusions born of the economically backward, it’s perhaps simply better to convince them of the importance of acquiring certain attributes and competences (like literacy) in order to compete. Competing is something all living creatures understand.

    But we cannot insulate from change either.

    Try telling that either to the Leader of the Opposition or your average reactionary tribal elder, Aboriginal or otherwise.

    John – reduces the whole issue down to a single question: which is more important: preserving aboriginal culture or creating an environment which allows aboriginal children the possibility of being the best they can.

    It seems to me this repeats the mistakes of the past. We are boiling the issue down to a single question. The question changes but the boiling remains the same. The cultures of various indigenous tribes conflict with modernity and its products, like human rights or the market value of labour, at certain points. But culture is a conglomerate of various things and it is not necessary to jettison the whole lot. Nor is it productive to speak of doing so. The reaction is likely to be reminiscent of the prime minister’s last Australia Day.

  9. Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Instead of dismissing the entirety of ‘Aboriginal culture’ (of which there are many) as the illusions born of the economically backward, it’s perhaps simply better to convince them of the importance of acquiring certain attributes and competences (like literacy) in order to compete. Competing is something all living creatures understand.

    Talking of a single Aboriginal “culture” is one of my pet hates: fetishising at its most ignorant. You may notice I kept referring to “cultures“.

    Change does not have to mean abandonment, it means accepting a process of adaptation. There are aspects of our contemporary Western culture(s) which one can reasonably trace back to the development of nomadic cultures in the Russian steppes thousands of years ago.

    Apart from that, I agree.

  10. Mel
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it was always Larva Plod’s argument that there was no exceptional violence/alcohol/sex abuse or any other type of problem in indigenous communities and anyone who said otherwise was probably racist. That’s another reason why I’m glad to see the back of them. The denialist left is no better than the denialist right.

  11. John H.
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    The other thing is, your marker is an introduced disease, quite possibly aided and abetted in some instances by the transient, or fly in fly out worker populations. (Not arguing, just providing a another perspective)

    I have considered other aspects of that thanks Mel but had not considered your point. the points I raised are with respect to lack of popn exposure to these pathogens until 200 years ago so immunity against these pathogens is weaker than in our ancestral popns, plus aborigines *appear* to demonstrate impaired immunity, a result of psycho-cultural and nutritional factors, and the relatively closed natures of these communities means vector transmission may be very difficult to address, and hygiene issues(without germ theory hygiene don’t make such sense).

    What these STD rates suggest though, if not demand, is that aboriginal communities must adopt sexual mores that are much more rigid than the general popn. If they don’t do this the vectors will never be removed. As the AIDS crisis demonstrated, and in Australia we did a remarkably good job in tackling that issue, in the presence of such pathogens only sweeping changes in personal sexual behavior will address the problem.

    The STDs are only one set of health stats, the other health stats are often equally shocking.

    What continually surprises me is that even though it is consistently proclaimed that aborigines have experienced very long genetic separations from the global human population, we should then expect their genotypes to reflect that heritage and knowing the genotypes could be very useful in helping aborigines address the multitude of health challenges. Sadly though, last time I checked, it was rather difficult to find genetic analyses of aborigines. That is a big information gap that needs to be addressed and stuff the politics of it. This is about health, not some 19th century European elitist campaign to be rid of the aborigines. Genes matter!

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