Luke Pearson: The language of blame, responsibility and accountability

In BlogX, Good Reads, Media, Politics, Race & Racism by Luke Pearson

Author: Luke Pearson

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Aboriginal people are over-represented in most of the negative statistics and under-represented in most of the positive ones.

This is the fundamental reality underpinning government programs like ‘Closing the Gap’.

The language we use to talk about this ‘gap’ is of crucial importance.

Only a generation ago, and for generations before it, it was pretty much universally acknowledged that many of the issues facing Indigenous people and communities were the direct results of colonisation and the often brutal discriminatory practices it brought with it for Aboriginal people. Exclusion, discrimination, racism, segregation, impoverishment, under funding, over-policing. These were, and continue to be, key drivers for many negative outcomes faced by Aboriginal people.

However, under the Howard government, we saw a shift of focus in the language for improving outcomes. We saw terms like ‘Mutual obligation’ introduced into the national dialogue, manifested through ‘shared responsibility agreements’ (SRAs). This was touted as a ‘carrot and stick’ approach.

During the reign of Tony Abbott we saw mutual obligation mutated into sole responsibility being placed on Aboriginal people and increasingly punitive responses were put in while funding and support mechanisms were taken out. Basically, the carrot was gone, the stick got bigger, and nails were hammered through at all angles.

Both agendas were plagued by bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance, as has become the signature aspect of Indigenous affairs, but the shift in rhetoric was significant and far reaching.

What was once ‘no school, no pool’ under Howard became ‘if kids don’t go to school, parents on unemployment benefits will have those benefits cut’ under Abbott. ‘Work for the Dole’ became little more than a return to ‘work for rations’, with more work hours for more weeks of the year and much more penalties being enforced than for comparable, predominately non-Indigenous, programs. Basic cards were introduced ostensibly to stop spending on alcohol, gambling and porn, but was applied in a blanket approach regardless of whether an individual had any issues with substance abuse or addiction in the first place.

There was also a significant shift in language.

No longer was there any talk of reciprocity, of shared responsibilities or mutual obligations. Abbott’s key three-point slogan for Aboriginal affairs was ‘Kids to school, adults to work, and communities need to be safe’. There was zero talk of the need for government to invest in schools appropriately, or create sustainable jobs for adults to go to, or provide mechanisms and support services to promote or facilitate community safety.

Many of these programs and services were actually gutted under Abbott, and this has not improved under Turnbull.

The failure of successive governments to provide adequate housing and services to remote communities became the fault of the people living in them for making a poor ‘lifestyle choice’ by staying there.

Not only has this language masked an abandonment of government responsibility and accountability, it has also fostered a growing animosity towards Aboriginal people that we see reflected in media and more broadly in the national dialogue. Victim blaming is now the norm, and any talk of government responsibility and accountability is decried as Aboriginal people refusing to take responsibility for our own outcomes.

This language is not just manifested in government policy and pre-scripted talking points though; it has crept into all areas of dialogue. Never do we hear that ‘police are more likely to arrest Aboriginal people’, we only hear that ‘Aboriginal people are more likely to be arrested’.

We do not hear that judges are less likely to employ their discretionary powers to avoid custodial sentences for Aboriginal people, or that governments have made substantial policy changes to send people to gaol for unpaid fines, we just hear that ‘Aboriginal people are more likely to go to gaol’.

‘Aboriginal people are more likely to’ is how every negative statistic is now framed, so much so that Aboriginality itself is now seen as a risk factor for ill health, child removal, educational outcomes, incarceration and so on.

But the act of being Aboriginal is not within itself a causal factor, the way Aboriginal people have been treated, and continue to be treated, and the common issues and ailments that affect many of us are all causal factors, but Aboriginality itself is not.

This does not just impact on how these issues are perceived, it has a tangible impact on how Aboriginal people ourselves view our own likelihood of success. Being constantly told that we are ‘more likely’ to die young, to not finish school or go to university, to go to gaol, to get diabetes, all of these do little to offer solutions or promote positive behavioural change and instead run the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies while masking government incompetence and malfeasance.

Also, this language does very little to paint an accurate picture of the scope of the issue, or the realities of the statistics that affect us. I know that as an Aboriginal person I am four times more likely to get diabetes than a non-Indigenous person, but I have no idea how many non-Indigenous people get diabetes to begin with. I know that 400% sounds like a lot though. But is it 400% of 1 in 10,000 or 400% of 1 in 10? I also don’t know from that stat if my age plays a part in that statistic, or where I live, or any other of the many categories that this stat changes for.

Much of the language framing societal statistics as personal probabilities was not done so maliciously. Many believed that in a society that, on the surface, considers itself to be about a ‘fair go for all’ then hearing that ‘an Aboriginal person is x times more likely to [everything bad]’, it would resonate as a call for change. Others perhaps believed it sounded more emotive and would more likely garner clicks and made for a better headline.

However, in the new era of Aboriginal victim blaming and the erasure of government accountability, this language now seems to reinforce poor ‘lifestyle choices’ instead of systemic failures.

There is a clear interplay between the choices we make and the policies and practices within the society we live. Understanding this relationship is crucial to finding solutions for creating the kind of society we want to live in. It is easy to say ‘do the crime, do the time’, but when people are ‘doing time’ for unpaid fines, then there must also be some acknowledgement that we have effectively made poverty a crime. Or when non-Aboriginal people are given less prison time (or none at all) for the death of Aboriginal people than Aboriginal people are given for failure to pay fines, then we must acknowledge that our system is fundamentally broken, and that laying sole responsibility on the ‘choices’ of Aboriginal people will do nothing to address these systemic problems.

These considerations are why it is just as viable to say that ‘our society sends more Aboriginal people to gaol than it does to university’ as it is to say that ‘Aboriginal people are more likely to go to gaol than to university’. Neither is a complete picture, and neither is entirely accurate as a stand alone statement, but over the past decade or two, we have chosen language which across the board frames Aboriginality as the sole causal factor, and ignores the responsibilities or governments and other institutions and service providers to provide adequate policies and practices to have any meaningful impacts on these issues.

And it is not just within Aboriginal affairs that we have seen these types of language shifts, and few of them are accidental. It was not by accident that asylum seekers became illegal immigrants, or the definition of ‘Aussie battlers’ no longer includes the unemployed or ‘dole bludgers’ as they are now commonly referred, or why its only ‘class warfare’ when the mechanisms that benefit the rich are under the microscope and not when the poor are facing further cuts.

These subtle shifts of language have a massive shift in perspective of those who absorb these messages unthinkingly. This is why instead of acknowledging the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’ in Australia we celebrate ‘Harmony Day’ – it reinforces the message that racial discrimination isn’t a problem in Australia, because we are a ‘successful multicultural nation’.

The role that racism plays, both institutional and personal, is now effectively banned from public discourse except for in the most extreme cases of personal racism. These instances are seen only in isolation and no efforts are made to draw links between them that could highlight systemic problems.

So while it is perfectly acceptable to talk about the choices Aboriginal people make, a conversation about white privilege, or even mentioning it in a glossary of terms inside a code of conduct, can unleash an unwarranted and unfounded attack. Whiteness is sacred and cannot be named or interrogated, and Aboriginality is a sin that must be punished and any effort to apply a lens outside of personal choice is decried as an avoidance of personal responsibility.

These shifts in language are not trivial, they tell us how we are, who is to blame, who is ‘the other’, who we should listen to and who we should ignore. They tell us that it is okay to punish those people who ‘make bad choices’, and that this is only solution to complex social problems.

We are encouraged to no longer consider multiple perspectives and holistic approaches to societal issues.

Instead we are given slogans and stereotypes. Catch phrases and convenient scapegoats. The give us a single story and a means to reject all other stories. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

There is no one story, just as there is no one single cause, or one blanket solution.

We need to interrogate the one story we are being told, and seek out new stories that bring depth, foster understanding and compassion, and find solutions instead of scapegoats.

It is not enough to say that we are bombarded with negative stories and therefore we need to promote positive stories instead.

Not when even those positive stories are seen only through the same lens. The story of one Aboriginal person succeeding is held up as ‘if they did it then so can you!’ not as a means of instilling hope, but of negating the very real obstacles many Aboriginal people face.

It is saying ‘Anyone can become Prime Minister!’ while ignoring the reality that not everyone can become Prime Minister, or that everyone who has done so so far has been a white male, with the exception of one white female who copped absolute hell for her troubles.

We need positive stories, this is true, but we also need to understand both the negative and the positive stories.

We need to change the lens through which both are perceived and understood, and this means critically interrogating the choice of language we use to tell them.

Who decided this person can be an ‘Aboriginal leader’ while another is an ‘Aboriginal activist’?

What is the difference between stating a number as a statistic or a personal probability?

Who keeps thinking it is a good idea to have all white panels discussing Aboriginal issues?

How is it that two or three conservative Aboriginal commentators can be used to dismiss the voices of thousands of other Aboriginal people?

Does a white person saying ‘our Aboriginal people’ instil a sense of responsibility for our conditions with other white people, or simply perpetuate a sense of ownership over our lives?

Why are all Aboriginal outcomes framed against non-Aboriginal outcomes? Does it reflect a goal of equality or of assimilation?

Why do we talk only of ‘Closing the Gap’ instead of Aboriginal empowerment or self-determination?

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