Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Recognising Victims without Blaming Them: A Moral Contest? about Peter Sutton's 'The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Policy in Australia since the 1970s' and Gillian Cowlishaw's Replies

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Recognising Victims without Blaming Them: A Moral Contest? about Peter Sutton's 'The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Policy in Australia since the 1970s' and Gillian Cowlishaw's Replies

Article excerpt

Abstract: Peter Sutton's texts on Aboriginal violence, health and their politicisation are replied to using his methodology, and acknowledging his convincing points. Sutton rightly denounces a lack of lucidity and scientific objectivity in anthropological debates. These inadequacies impede identification of what Aboriginal groups can do to improve their situations for fear that this identification would lead to blame the victims. At the other end of the ethical spectrum, those who advocate a broader use of what I will call a "resistance interpretation" of violence fail to recognise victims as such, on the implicit grounds that seeing victims as victims would deprive them of any agency, on the one hand, and entail blame, on the other hand. I aim to define a middle road between those views: the idea that victims should be acknowledged as such without being denied their agency and without being blamed for their own condition. This middle road allows identification of the colonisers' responsibilities in the contemporary situation of Indigenous communities in Australia, and to determine who can do what. Secondly, I show that Sutton's texts convey, through subtle but recurrent remarks, an ideology of blame rather than a mere will to identify practical solutions. As a consequence, some of his proposals do not stand on a solid and objective causal analysis.

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Peter Sutton's writings about Aboriginal violence, health and their politicisation (Sutton 2001, 2005a, 2005b) make valid points about methodology in anthropology. Sutton rightly identifies a drastic need for objectivity, lucidity, and honesty. But certain aspects of his argumentation call for a response. There is need to deny some of Sutton's conclusions using his own grounds, that is, what he calls a 'causal theory' justification. However, I do not find Cowlishaw's replies (2003, 2006) fully convincing. Cowlishaw (2006) objects to the kind of anthropology that Sutton is using, but her main answer seems to be indirect. I spent more than six months of each year between 1998 and 2003 near the community of Bulman, in Central Arnhem Land, where Cowlishaw worked in the 1970s. The socioeconomic situation of local inhabitants is far from ideal, in many respects. I consider that it is important to debate directly with Sutton on the issue of what can be done to improve the condition of remote Aboriginal communities. Cowlishaw's assertion that Sutton doesn't comply with the most basic of an anthropologist's tasks--to describe and analyse--fails to provide an alternative analysis of the situation.

In his own 'reply to Cowlishaw', Peter Sutton (2005b) has filled this gap by considering Cowlishaw's recent work as a possible response to his own articles. In this perspective, he draws into apposition his own views on violence and what he calls a 'resistance model', which he assumes Cowlishaw is defending. Whether Cowlishaw advocates such a model remains questionable. In any case, I take Sutton's response--his taking the resistance model to be an answer to his propositions--to reflect adequately an assumption that many of Cowlishaw's readers could be tempted to make: the assumption that a so-called 'resistance model' for interpreting violence should be shaped to apply to both southern rural communities and remote northern communities. (1)

Such assumptions can be made because Cowlishaw rightly points to an idea of resistance to the effects of colonisation in some of the expressions of violence that she describes. This aspect is appropriately restricted to particular situations and contexts. However, overextending such interpretations is counter-productive. A first step in building a so-called 'resistance model' consists of extending these interpretations to situations where they are not relevant. This is done regularly in anthropological writings. (2) A second step is to apply these interpretations not only to southern rural communities, where Cowlishaw's resistance interpretations are rooted, but also to northern remote communities, that is, to completely different contexts. …

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