Tribes and Tribulations

By Legal Eagle

If I were an indigenous person trying to make life better for my people, I’d prefer that my cause not be “adopted” by one particular side of politics. Once you get adopted by one side, the other side won’t look at your legitimate claims and grievances, regardless of how much merit they have. Just look at the recent furore involving Larissa Behrendt and Bess Price.

Behrendt was one of the plaintiffs in a claim under the Racial Discrimination Act against newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt. As I’ve detailed here, the essence of her complaint was that Bolt’s columns had been calculated to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person on the basis of her aboriginality, and had contravened s 18C of the RDA. Shortly after that incident, Behrendt found herself in hot water after she used Twitter to make the following comment about Bess Price, an Aboriginal woman who has supported the Northern Territory Intervention: “I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price.” Talk about offensive, insulting, humiliating and intimidating! It seems to me that Behrendt’s actions were rankly hypocritical.

Bess Price responded as follows in The Australian:

“I want what she has for my children…The white blackfellas should be happy about the lifestyle they have. They should help us rather than trying to put a barrier between us and what we should be saying. Who does she think she is? I’m very angry about that. How dare she have a go about me without talking to me or confronting me face to face if she has a problem with me. They think that they can control us, that I shouldn’t be commenting or having an opinion on indigenous issues.

And the likes of her and others don’t know anything about our people in the bush. Who are they to stand up and talk on behalf of our people. My background is totally different to hers, we are culturally different.”

It is perhaps understandable that Price was angry, but personally I didn’t think criticising Behrendt as a “white blackfella” was helpful or fair. Fundamentally, as I outline below, the issue is not one of skin colour or race, but of class. Behrendt is entitled to an opinion too, and it shouldn’t depend on how traditional she is or what colour her skin is.

The reaction of the media and the blogosphere was predictable. The Murdoch press, particularly The Australian, reported the issue. The more conservative areas of the blogosphere opined that Behrendt’s comments were offensive (see eg, here and here) and conservative commentators like Keith Windschuttle lanced into Behrendt. The Fairfax press did not report on the issue. The more progressive areas of the blogosphere opined that the whole matter was a beat-up by the Murdoch press (see eg, here, here and here). The only balanced piece of writing I saw on the issue was from Sue Stanton in Crikey (kudos to her).

You know what gives me the irrits? If the position had been reversed, and Bess Price had written an offensive tweet about Larissa Behrendt, I think it’s a fair bet that the positions of the commentators would have been reversed too. The progressive media and blogosphere would have been having a red-hot go at Price, and the conservative media and blogosphere would have been saying it was a vendetta and a beat-up by the Fairfax press. It’s like people on the different sides of the political divide don’t actually think properly. Once some cause has been adopted by them, they support it, come hell or high water.

I think that it is possible to be progressive and to believe that what Behrendt said was utterly unacceptable and hypocritical. In this, I endorse the opinions expressed by Marcia Langton:

[Behrendt and her friends’] Twitter messages reveal a repulsive hatred of everything that Bess stands for: the rights of Aboriginal women in remote communities to be protected from sexual abuse and violence and to be supported to take up opportunities for themselves and their children. As for the human rights that Behrendt and company laud so highly, how have they been accorded by this crew to Bess in this exchange? Not at all. Her plea for an inquiry into the culture of sexual abuse in her part of the world is “offensive”, according to Behrendt. What are we to make of this hypocrisy? It is very simple: Behrendt and the other anti-intervention campaign maestros have assumed the role of superior thinkers whose grand education and positions in the metropolis qualify them to heap contempt on the natives of that faraway place where other urban Australians rarely tread foot and about which they sustain a romantic out-of-date mythological view.

Let’s take race out of the equation by using a hypothetical involving myself and my own family. My mother has conducted genealogical searches into my family, and has discovered that we have an unimpeachable working class pedigree. Both my mother and my father were the first in their immediate families to attend high school past the age of 14, to matriculate, to attend university and to complete undergraduate and postgraduate degrees (swiftly followed by their siblings). There’s someone lurking inside me whom I call my inner Marxist. My inner Marxist comes out at times, and derives from my sense of “there, but for the grace of God, go I” when I look at the less fortunate, as well as living in Manchester as a teenager and having to read lots of Engels and Marx for History, and being outraged.

I have a working class background. But let’s not make any bones about it, I am not working class. I have not lived that life. I am resolutely middle class. I have been given every advantage in life (thank you, Mum and Dad). I have some second cousins, however, who live in council housing in poor areas and have not had the same advantages. Let’s say my second cousins were concerned about drug-dealers in their council flats and proposed measures which I, as an educated lawyer, thought were draconian and against the rule of law. Would that entitle me to sneer at my second cousins, and say, “I watched a  man having sex with a horse, and it was less offensive than the proposals of these bogans”? I do not think so. I do not live in council flats, and I do not have to worry about my children being at risk as a result of drug-dealers loitering around the lifts. I don’t live that life. Yes, I have a historical and emotional connection with that life, and my forebears lived that life, but I don’t. Therefore, it ill behooves me to sneer at the concerns of those who do live that life. If I do wish to comment critically, I should do so in a way which recognises the legitimate concerns of my second cousins, and which is respectful of them. I should also listen to them before I react in an unduly emotional fashion. If you substitute Behrendt’s name for mine, and Price’s name for that of my second cousins, then I think you see what I am getting at.

This is why it surprises me that many progressive people have seemed to have brushed off the Behrendt/Price furore as just a beat-up by the Murdoch press. The interaction involved someone from a more advantaged background attempting to silence and humiliate someone from a less advantaged background. I don’t know, maybe I’m just old fashioned, but isn’t an important aspect of a “progressive” outlook to say that people from less advantaged backgrounds have an equal right to a voice, and that more advantaged people shouldn’t sneer at them and attempt to humiliate them? I don’t really care that Behrendt has been “adopted” by the Left and that Price has been “adopted” by the Right. We should listen respectfully to the points that both make, but we should also demand that they respectfully listen to the opinions of others.

I have been reading the writings of Noel Pearson lately, as I found a book of his essays at the Borders liquidation sale. It reminded me of why indigenous politics was the only area in which I ever became politically active at university. I believe that indigenous people in this country deserve a voice, and deserve a stake in what happens to them. And I believe that it is up to indigenous people themselves to come up with ideas as to how to move forward. But that can’t happen fairly if middle class advantaged indigenous people attempt to silence and humilate less advantaged indigenous people, or if traditional indigenous people try to sideline the experience of urban indigenous people as less ‘authentic’. There are indigenous people of all different beliefs, and I should listen to the views of all indigenous people, not only those whose views accord with my own, nor should I stand by while one indigenous woman attempts to humiliate another because of her point of view. Both Behrendt and Price are entitled to their points of view, and to respect from the other, and other indigenous women are entitled to differ with both of them. A respectful dialogue is really the only way forward.


Noel Pearson on the furore.


  1. Posted May 2, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Frankly, don’t care about ‘context’. If you want to say someone’s remarks are offensive, you make it clear that is what you mean and you don’t use a metaphor involving personal behaviour. Adding ‘s words involves a whole 7 characters: if you just tweet ‘BP’s words’ it does not even take more characters.

  2. Posted May 2, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Also, if you want to talk about context, how about Club Virtue’s habit of labeling anyone who disagrees with them on indigenous or migration policy as ‘racist’? The constant attack on the moral character, intelligence and motives of dissenters from Club Virtue’s orthodoxies is the larger context LE, for example, is clearly invoking. Which gives using Bess Price’s name as referant a very particular “context”.

    On the issue of which media outlets refer to what story (or not), a recent piece suggests choice of topic or issue is a major mechanism of media bias. A classic example is how homelessness was a major media topic in the Reagan-Bush years, and then dropped out of the mainstream media when Clinton became President. If one judged by media coverage, all one had to do to “deal with” homelessness was elect a Democratic President! There is a reason FoxNews found such a (large) niche.

    [email protected] There seems to be a principle that any organisation in the policy/advocacy/education etc realm not of the right gets taken over by the left, as the left simply cannot be trusted to share. (Since dissent is evil, don’t you know?) One solution is simply to set up two of everything. (Though that leads to the obvious issue about the ‘none of the aboves’.) Still, given the fairly dreadful state academic Oz history has fallen into, setting up ‘Centres of Archival Research’ to reconnect history to actual evidence and away from the Manning Clark ‘myths that make me feel superior’ approach probably is a good idea.

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  1. […] of a struggle over who gets to speak for a particular group of people (see my post on the matter here). Behrendt published an offensive tweet after seeing Price featured on Q&A. Price is a vocal […]

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