SOCIAL DARWINISM AND THE LANGUAGE OF RACIAL OPPRESSION: Australia's Stolen Generations

Article excerpt

Introduction

THE LONG HISTORY of racial oppression in Australia has until recently been ignored almost entirely by historians and the public alike inside Australia as well as around the world.

The history of the 19th and 20th centuries provides numerous examples of institutionalized racial oppression that led to great tragedy. Societies around the world devised and sanctioned discriminative policies that ranged from the stratification of society and apportioning of resources on the basis of race, to systems of slavery, to campaigns of genocide. The most familiar examples include the enslavement of African peoples by Europeans and Americans during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the genocide of native inhabitants of the Americas by European settlers, the Holocaust, and the South African system of apartheid.

In recent years, details have emerged regarding the succession of Australian government policies designed to precipitate the extinction of Aboriginal peoples on the island-continent. Perhaps the best-documented example of the systematic oppression of Aborigines by white Australians is the forced removal of mixed race children from their families for placement in institutions and foster-homes for the purpose of their "absorption" or "assimilation" into white society. The policies of forced removal produced what Australians refer to as the "stolen generations" of thousands of indigenous children who were subjected to varying degrees of cultural "re-education," isolation, and in many cases physical and emotional abuse at the hands of white missionaries and foster families. (2)

These policies, which at various times anticipated both the biological and cultural extinction of Australia's indigenous population, were rooted in the collective abstractions of white European settlers regarding race. These abstractions had grown out of the experiential phenomena of 19th century industrialization and colonial expansion, framed by a scientific and philosophical environment that included the publication of Darwin's theories on natural selection and Smith's model of laissez-faire capitalism. These factors came together in the broad concept of Social Darwinism that applied the linguistic framework of Darwin's biological theories to the realm of human social relations, both to describe the world as experienced by white settlers and to justify the policies and practices of racial oppression against Australia's indigenous peoples.

In this essay, I will examine the case of Australia's "stolen generations" from the perspective of general semantics as originally developed by Alfred Korzybski in his 1933 work Science and Sanity and later interpreted by Samuel Bois in The Art of Awareness. First, I will summarize the concept of "abstraction" central to the field of general semantics and discuss the evolution of collective abstractions into the umbrella "worldview" of a cultural group. I will then examine the semantic foundations of Social Darwinism in the context of 19th century scientific and social thought and its emergence as the dominant collective abstraction of European settlers encountering indigenous peoples in "new" lands. Finally, I will apply this framework to the practice of forced removal of Aboriginal children in Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Worldviews and the Process of Abstracting

Alfred Korzybski often encapsulated the main idea of abstracting as formulated in the discipline of general semantics by stating that "the map is not the territory, and the map does not represent all of the territory." Samuel Bois defined "territory" as "what is going on" (WIGO), the realm of external phenomena experienced by an individual. (3) The "map" is the individual's "abstraction" of that experience. In Bois' elucidation of general semantics, individuals are "semantic transactors" that interact with their environment on multiple levels simultaneously. As we transact semantically with WIGO, we draw on recollections of past experiences and expectations about the future to create abstractions that "register only features that are relevant to our needs, our purposes, or our habits. …