Ever since Europeans first came to Australia, public views of Aborigines have veered between two extremes. Aborigines have been promoted either as disgusting savages or as admired paragons, uncivilised riff-raff or as noble bearers of their culture - bad or good, but never ordinary.
As we now enter a new phase of Aboriginal affairs, Indigenous Australians once again enter the public mind as radically different types of people. On the one hand, we are bombarded with material about dysfunctional communities plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, rampant violence, uncontrolled children and chronic sickness. On the other hand, we routinely hear about “the oldest living culture in the world”, Aboriginal people caring, sharing and looking after country, and the profound qualities of Aboriginal art.
In these circumstances, it’s hard to know what “the oldest living culture in the world” might be. Indeed, it’s hard to know what people are talking about at all when they refer to “culture”.
We’ve heard a lot of arguments about the “true” nature of Aboriginal culture in recent weeks. Some say Aboriginal culture fosters violence against women and children. Others gainsay this and suggest that violence is cultural breakdown stemming from neglect and marginalisation by mainstream Australian culture. There are many more axes to grind in relation to employment, health and education, but always with a view to promoting a good or bad image of Aboriginal people, not to mention a good or bad image of the “mainstream culture” which provides Aboriginal services.
This blame game doesn’t give us “the truth” about Aboriginal or any other culture. It simply reduces the extremely complicated relationship between Aboriginal communities and all the arms of the state (governments, bureaucracies, the police, land councils, schools, health centres, etc.) with which they engage. Recourse to “culture” always seems to deliver imagined parodies of real life, transforming it into something inordinately valuable or completely worthless.
British cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked that “culture” is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. (...) In fact, it’s an empty word: you can fill it with pretty much anything you like. That’s why it functions so well in slogans.
In the meantime, there are many people both inside and outside Aboriginal communities who recognise that there are big problems in Aboriginal affairs. It’d be good if they could all be allowed to get on with the job of finding appropriate solutions to those problems without “culture” getting in the way.