Russell Marks’ column in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald on the tent embassy riot was an interesting read, albeit logically flawed and error-laden. First, his argument:
Marks argued that while Abbott was technically right to observe that indigenous affairs have moved on from the land title debates of the embassy’s founding, there are still many issues which deserve indigenous activism. The average indigenous life expectancy is seventeen years lower than the national norm, while poverty, alcoholism, abuse and unemployment ravage aboriginal communities.
That’s what Marks got right. What Marks got wrong was this paragraph.
What was wrong with what Abbott said? It was his assumption that he, as an non-indigenous man, could rightfully or usefully express an opinion on the way indigenous people conduct their politics of reform, protest and resistance. And it was that Abbott expressed such an opinion on a day many indigenous people mourn as commemorating a colonial invasion. If non-indigenous Australians are to truly “work on our own racisms”, then we (my own ancestry is European) must not only acknowledge the problem, but we must also acknowledge indigenous people’s rights to determine their own strategies in response to the problem.
Marks’ error is two-fold. First that it is “paternalistic” for a white person to venture an opinion on indigenous politics and second that the real problems facing indigenous Australians are the white fellas’ fault.
Let’s dispose of the second fallacy first. What are the very real problems facing indigenous Australians, to which they must formulate their own strategies? Marks himself lists the massive health problems: substance abuse, diabetes, cancer as well as life and death situations like child and teenage suicides and deaths in custody. The indigenous life expectancy is seventeen years shorter than the national average.
These are health problems. These are not caused by white people. White people do not cause indigenous people to contract cancer, or diabetes, or force them to commit suicide, or make them drink too much. Therefore it is illogical to imply that white Australians have willingly allowed the health crisis to persist because we are racist. The problem is not white people and the problem is not fixed by getting white Australia a conscience.
Now for the first fallacy- the charge of paternalism. It is not paternalism to have a negative opinion of the Tent Embassy. Nobody accuses Abbott of a “I know what’s best for you” attitude when he holds a negative opinion of a white activist or a Labor government. Nor would it be paternalistic for an aboriginal to express an opinion on Tony Abbott, as I notice many of the rioters ventured to do. Criticism is a product of a free society. It’s not paternalistic to say what you think would be another’s best course. It’s politics.
Here Marks’ two fallacies turn on himself with a vengeance. Marks’ own opinion on indigenous affairs is paternalistic because it absolves aboriginal people of choice and responsibility. Remember Marks maintains that the major problems for indigenous people are all white Australia’s fault and therefore white Australia’s responsibility to resolve.
Aboriginal people are as human as you or I. As responsible beings, their life is theirs to improve. It is our responsibility, as fellow citizens and fellow humans, to help them improve their lives, especially when (as in cases of suicide and abuse) they might not be able to do it on their own strength.
But Marks’ attitude scuttles all of that. He absolves indigenous people of all responsibility for their own lives, therefore insinuating that they’re somehow not capable of living their own lives, or improving them. That’s paternalism, that’s racism and that’s wrong.
Some of the problems that aboriginal people face are of their own making, and some are out of their control. But the longer we assume that they have no ability or responsibility to care for their own lives, the longer we are paternalistic and the longer we will search in vain for a solution.