Review: The Politics of Suffering
By Peter Sutton, Melbourne University Press, $34.95

Peter Sutton has a substantial pedigree in anthropology. He is the author of 40 academic papers, has lived at Aurukun for long periods between 1973 and 2007 and provided anthropological assistance for native title applications.

For these reasons his book is likely to be regarded as a more considered reflection on Aboriginal affairs than some others.

But with a glowing introduction by Marcia Langton, there is no doubt that Sutton is playing the role of cultural warrior, providing ideological justification for the blame-the-victim policies that underpin the new assimilationist policies of Noel Pearson and the NT Intervention.

As Jon Altman describes in his review of Sutton, “In 2000, he had an epiphany: the vestiges of pre-colonial social norms, in combination with alcohol and passive welfare, have formed a deadly cocktail when interacting with western institutions.”1

This ideological blindfold influences everything about the book.

In the first chapter, which is an updated version of an article published in 2008 in the Griffith Review,2 Sutton asks, “ Why did this descent into a seriously dysfunctional state seem to coincide with liberal progressivist policies based on a rights agenda…with the advent of greatly increased services, infrastructure and personal incomes.” (p31).

Sutton actually perpetuates the myth that there was some golden period of Aboriginal self-determination, government largesse and land rights dating from the 1970s.  He should know better.

Although Sutton thinks that self-determination clashes with traditional culture, he actually quotes Barrie Dexter, head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1973 questioning whether self determination was even happening. Dexter wrote,  “…that progress in transferring authority to Aboriginal residents and settlements was ‘more apparent than real.’”

He even describes in considerable detail the state land rights negotiations with the Goss Labor government in 1991, that left “Labor’s promise of land rights so watered down…that it was not much more than scraps from the table.”

Perhaps it is worth noting here that Sutton and Marcia Langton (and Noel Pearson) were inside talking to Wayne Goss and Kevin Rudd (then Goss’s cabinet Officer director-general) while outside a land rights demonstration literally tore the gates off Queensland’s parliament house.

Sutton’s seems to have no grasp of the actual history of the last 30 years. He writes as if it was a dramatic revelation that by the early 2000s, “Many Aboriginal people, both in my personal observations over some decades and also on the available statistics, had actually suffered a decline in well-being since 1970.”

Could he really have been blind to the constant government attacks on Aboriginal services and Aboriginal rights that were won in the early 1970s—the attacks of the Bjelke-Petersen government, the failure of national land rights legislation, the stifling of Aboriginal organisations like the National Aboriginal Council, the furore around the Bicentennary, the findings of the Black Deaths in Custody Inquiry?

Culture and colonisation
But given Sutton’s anthropology credentials perhaps the most insidious aspect of the book is his “cardboard anthropology”. Over and over again Sutton argues that there is something in the traditional culture of Aboriginal people that pre-disposes them to a particular style of drinking, levels of social violence including child abuse, and even dependency itself.

Sometimes this degenerates into crass racism—Sutton actually argues that the use of toilets requires a deep cultural shift.

His understanding of dispossession is revealed as extremely limited. He asks, “How can one explain why the levels of disadvantage are higher in a number of remote settlements where the arrival of the state has largely been under the benign conditions of the mid twentieth century and where people have never lost the freedom to make traditional use of their lands…” Benign? Really?

What Sutton does not seem to understand is that the scale and impact of invasion extended to the remotest corners of the continent.

Aboriginal people were rapidly drawn into the working class. Henry Reynolds in Black Pioneers records that in 1884, it was estimated that in Western Australia’s northern district Europeans employed some 1800 Aborigines, a significant section of the industrial population. At the end of the 19th Century perhaps as many as 10,000 Aborigines worked permanently or casually on cattle and sheep stations in the Northern Territory.

The spread of Christianity too impacted on Aboriginal beliefs. Some feeling for this can be gleaned from “I, the Aboriginal”, written by Douglas Lockwood, telling the stories of Waipuldanya an Alawa man from the Roper River in the Northern Territory. “Long before the First Coming of Christ to the Aborigines, we were practising many of the laws given to us in the Bible. One of these was the exhortation of Moses that the iniquities of the fathers would be visited upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation.”

The very fact of European contact irredeemably affected and distorted Aboriginal society. To crudely equate beliefs and practices in today’s Aboriginal society with beliefs or practices of the past is a dangerous and fraught exercise.

Pre-invasion Aboriginal society for example had no social hierarchy, and thus no warrior class. But contact with the militarised British invasion necessitated self-defence, with inevitable transforming consequences for Aboriginal social organisation.

The colonial practice of appointing particular Aboriginal people (overwhelmingly men) with whom the colonial authorities would negotiate reflected the sexism and prejudices that colonial society brought with them. But the appointment also served to fragment existing Aboriginal society as the appointed “leader” became imbued with social power because of his connection with the colonial authorities, access to supplies, etc.

Russian explorers in the early 1800s observed “…that the colonial government bypassed leadership choices made by the Aboriginal communities and selected their own preferred leaders. The government then conferred the distinction of a gorget [ie King plate] on their chosen leaders, making the title official. The main criteria for selection were the person’s loyalty and usefulness to the colonists.”3

Gender relations
Similarly gender relations were ripped apart by colonial contact. It is commonly believed that Aboriginal society was a rigidly patriarchal one—but there are good reasons to believe that this view reflects the prejudices and prevailing outlook of those making the observations—and not just in colonial times.

As Eleanor Leacock (in Myths of Male Dominance), Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt and others in Towards An Anthropology of Women (TAOW) have argued, “Male ethnographers use male informants whether by inclination or because of cultural requirements and observe the activities of males or those involving both sexes, but rarely those in which women alone participate.”

As Eleanor Leacock points out, in pre-class societies, “the participation of women in a major share of socially necessary labor did not reduce them to virtual slavery, as is the case in class society, but afforded them decision making power commensurate with their contribution.”

Similarly, a lot of prurient publicity is often focussed on arranged marriages and the promise of young women to older men. But Phyllis Kaberry’s studies of Aboriginal societies in the Kimberleys in the 1930s suggests a very different picture. In TAOW, Leavitt writes, “According to Kaberry, young people of both sexes have casual affairs before marriage, a commonplace in pre-class societies.

“But full sexual intercourse, with either lover or husband, is not permitted until after puberty. Both parents and young people indignantly rejected the notion that sexual intercourse took place before the first menstruation. Child brides are a feature of patriarchal civilisations, not of most primitive societies.”

Given the way Howard and Brough falsely used child abuse as the excuse for introducing the Intervention, perhaps the most pernicious sections of Sutton’s book are those where he attributes mistreatment of children to traditional cultural practices of Aboriginal society.

In one of the most dreadful examples of socio-biological clap trap, he argues that the mistreatment of children had some adaptive significance for preparing Aboriginal children for traditional life in the harsh environments of central Australia. Not only does this defy common sense, there is no evidence at all for such a ridiculous proposition.

W E H Stanner, in his 1959 essay, Durmugam: A Nangiomeri, writes, “Aboriginal culture leaves a child virtually untrammelled for five or six years. A cry brings immediate fondling. Its dependence on and command of both parents is maximal, their indulgence extreme. To hit a young child is for them unthinkable. A shake or a sharp word, both rare, are the most an exasperated parent will do.”

In his autobiography, Moon and Rainbow, Goobalathaldin, an initiated man from Mornington Island wrote in 1962, “No-one ever hits or punishes a small child, and so childhood is a very happy time.”
Sutton quotes a study of child rearing in Arnhem Land in the 1960s, “[Girls] witness the verbal and sometimes physical assaults meted out by quick-tempered men, and are told that adult women as a matter of course comply with men’s wishes for their own good…”

But this description is not about traditional patterns of violence—it is a manifestation of the violence of post-invasion society.

Sutton’s book is bad reductionist anthropology. It is a little less sophisticated than Noel Pearson’s pretentious essays but it serves the same purpose and feeds the racism behind the Intervention.
He is oblivious to the irony of his support for the army marching into the Northern Territory. “The women and others needed re-assurance that the state was on their side. They got it…The army sent unarmed to accompany the Intervention’s new people and services…was the state incarnate, a particularly apt symbolic statement.”

But that’s not the view of the women of the Prescribed Area People’s Alliance, who burnt a copy of the NT Intervention legislation. But Sutton is also oblivious to the voices of resistance.

By Ian Rintoul

1. www.newmatilda.com/2009/07/16/what-liberal-consensus
2. Peter Sutton, “After consensus”, Griffith Review 21 (2008)
3. Creation of Aboriginal Kings—Australian National Museum

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice one Ian. Splendid use of irony for you to accuse Sutton of wearing an “ideological blindfold”. The first section of your review is naive, simplistic and crudely prejudiced (equating Sutton’s supposed “epiphany” about certain issues with an allegedly dogmatic “ideological blindfold”; your interpretation of the Dexter quote; the claim that Sutton perpetuates a myth of a “golden period”; the Rudd reference) and often illogical. I could go on and outline further instances from throughout the rest of the review, but why should I bother? Your “review” is just a crude hatchet job full of abusive comments on a book that deserves an intelligent response and analysis.

  2. I think the phrase ‘blame-the-victim policies’ is dismissive rather than critical. They are saying that Indigenous people are actors, capable of agency and responsibility. This doesn’t necessarily proceed into meaning that Indigenous people are to blame for their situation. Rather it offers scope for an additional locus of change. To be complemented by a critical analysis that acknowledges and challenges the context of institutions and discourses which also exert power.

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