In the lead up to this Australia Day I have noticed some developments and continuances that I was aware of but not with the same intensity as I have this year.
A week or so I spoke to a gathering of elder and others on the subject “Sovereignty and Treaty – We Carry It In Our Bodies”. It was an unremarkable talk but it sparked a remarkable response. Ordinary words and categories, which I used in the context of empowerment, were interpreted by those listening as derogatory and disrespectful. I copped several angry responses and simply had to hear them out before being able to address their misconceptions. While waiting for them to finish I forced myself to reflect on where that anger comes from and why they would take that anger out on a fellow Aboriginal person who was on their side? It has to do with trauma and demonisation and I will return to that when I talk later about healing, sufficient for now to note the act of demonising of the other, in this case, me.
I have noticed a ramping up of the political rhetoric of division and confrontation by those who wish to change the date, cancel Whitefellas Day altogether or flags at half-mast. These are couched in emotive and demonising language that places one position in direct opposition to the other and allows no space for anyone to speak and be heard.
I have also noticed the act of self-destruction amongst Aboriginal people. By this I mean, the divisive intra-cultural name calling, backbiting and sabotaging that has seemed to have reached fever pitch. High profile Aboriginal people are attacking each other publicly to the delight of newspapers and politicians, Aboriginal people are boycotting and disrupting efforts of their fellow Aboriginal people to gather and yarn about these issues in search for a way forward and some have simply been derogatory of the ordinary Aboriginal person attempting to find their own way in this mess. No names, but I suspect we know those high profile people and perhaps we have become caught up in this as well.
My question for these workshops and for you is: Are we so committed to our own particular stories we fail to see the possibility of one unified story? Unified here refers to a dialogue allowing us to recognise ourselves in the other and to work together for the flourishing of all. It is a move away from defending what we hold dear and what we use as a weapon to bludgeon and control those who are different to us. This applies to non-indigenous and indigenous people equally. We are both trapped by our ideologies.
The more we defend ourselves and our version of the story, the more we find ourselves becoming the same as each other, sharing the same error. Our defence of the indefensible leaves us at the same place as those we are defending ourselves against – enclosed in a world we have defined for ourselves, leaving no space for difference and diversity.
The danger then lies in the oppressed mirroring the words and ideologies of the oppressor and becoming a partner in the further alienation of themselves from the other, from those they share the oppressed space with and, in a deeper and more tragic sense, from who they truly are and have been.
As such an opportunity is lost. The oppressed are always in a unique place to bring about a new vision. By being deemed powerless and marginalised in a world of insiders and privileged, they have the capacity to speak truth to the lie without fear of further alienation or rejection. There is nothing to lose. As outsiders they cannot be exiled further. They are what they are, where they are and therefore can only go in one direction – in. And yet it doesn’t matter if they do or if they stay firmly entrenched where they are. They already have a formed and vital identity with an authentic and real voice they are required to honour.
It is in the speaking – the use of their voice in word, action and living provides them with the capacity to change reality for all. It is not about them being right and winning the argument. There is no argument. There is simply a conversation in which they speak and listen, and then repeat the hermeneutical circle of engagement.
Unification as the recognition of the sharing of what makes us human is the task in which both are to be engaged. In this space we are to cease protecting our rights and our wrongs and work to bring about reconciliation based on our humanity. This is not a great work, but the only work. It is the letting go of what makes us safe and the hearing of the needs and insecurities of others and ourselves equally.
This is the act of thinking together about what we know and what we don’t know. It is the act of thinking through transparent conversation, of finding a language to articulate what we both do not know and what we need to know, and what we do not and cannot know, in order to reconcile broken relationships and ruptured polity.
It is not the place of fixed cultural and community knowledge or of a personal commitment to an inner moral or cultural anchor. It is the place of the unknown, of finding ourselves in the space-in-between certainty and tragedy together, and agreeing to stay in that place until we reconcile. This reconciliation is not about an innocent for ever after but a shared conscious decision to stay engaged in a process that will take us into and out of that space-in-between certainty and tragedy, over and over again.
It is time to get out of our intellectual ghettos and admit what we don’t know i.e. how to live reconciled lives together. It is not about Closing the Gap or even about treaty or treaties, it is about admitting how we got to this place and beginning to negotiate the path to hope. I know people will say we have already done this over and over. And for some people that is true but I would suggest there are many who haven’t begun this process and many who think they have done this, are in fact coming late to the process on the basis others have done it for them.
This is the response our nation needs at all levels of dialogue including the dialogue within the main protagonists – the indigenous and non-indigenous positions. What we have presently are people speaking out of fixed immovable positions and attacking those who speak different ideas and defending ideas or positions they hold themselves. It is the ideology of the oppressor versus that of the oppressed. These are not real but ossified rhetoric employed to avoid the hard work of thinking and talking together.
How do we move out of this position for ourselves, those we purport to represent and those we share the country with? By returning to the art of conversation.
By employing the art of conversation, engaging in the basic of human communication where we speak and listen to the basic needs of humanity and where we find what we have in common – that very humanity. While ever we stay in the place of competition – us versus them, winner versus loser – we remain in the place of fear and never move upward and out, but spiral down into the ever-deepening hole of tragedy.
When we sit quietly with another and just talk we begin to hear what they say and what we say, and if we are attending to that conversation we will hear what we are thinking within about what we are saying. Is what I am saying unified with what I am thinking? Is what I am thinking authentic to me or am I cobbling together the knowledge, experience and myth I have collected from others and simply parroting that with out thinking it through? In conversation we have that opportunity which will also allow us to hear what is happening for the other.
Why conversation? Because it is the very basic building of Aboriginal culture – the ability to sit with one another and listen to the wisdom of the ages in the present time. My father would say to me: “Walk your country and if you listen close enough, you will hear what it has to say, what it needs and what you have to do”. This is the conversation of sitting together and is our traditional approach to problem solving. Sitting, listening and responding – offering no solutions until you know who you are talking to (other) and who it is that is talking (you).
This is the skill we are to bring to the discussion on treaty, within ourselves, amongst the mobs and with the whitefella. It is the process we need to follow even when we are engaging in the whitefella’s technology of dialogue, consultation and negotiation. Without this deep conversational listening we will simply be railroaded into their system and find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage. We are to remember who we are and how we do things and return to those and remind the whitefella that this is our way. Governments and politicians who set deadlines for the signing of treaties need to be reminded that in our world we take the time it needs to take to discern our position – the position found in the land under our feet.
In our time together this week we will hear much we will agree with, some we will disagree with and still other that we will simply not hear. Some of what we say will come from a technical understanding of topics such as treaty in the form of processes, models and theory; some of it will come from we have learnt in our own engagement in this space. What is required of us is to conversationally sit in the space in between and allow ourselves to unify our thinking and speaking and reimagine what this conversation with the each other and those outside our group should look like.
As we do this, we can hope that our inner unification becomes a community actuality and we begin to speak more clearly about what we understand we need and how to bring that about for all, not just our mobs.
This is the place of (in the words of Barbara Creed) the stray, those who have no thing to lose and, paradoxically no thing to gain. They are who they are and they do not need to be anything different. They have retained their dignity and have the authenticity to speak what is plain to all but impossible for those who are protecting their fragile possession of country, resources and people.
It is the stray who can say this is what I know and, at the same time, this is what I don’t know. This is the place of mystery and abyss, and only those who have lived a long time in this place can speak with authority on what is required now.