This semester I have been teaching a course on political ideologies. The breadth and depth of the course is a lot to take in as anyone could imagine – especially for the first-year students it’s aimed at. Like most courses, we have spent the last few weeks discussing the more contentious and less well-known topics that deserve more attention than the token week of coverage they receive. This week’s special feature was Indigenous Australian politics. I’d like to address a very insightful comment on this topic that was raised by one of my students. The question was something to this effect: At what point can we draw a line between the violation of human rights and cultural sensitivity? It arose in reference to an article discussing underage marriages in a remote Indigenous community in Australia. After a quick Google search I narrowed the article in question down to two possible publications but I believe the article in question was this one. Whether my judgement is correct is neither here nor there because the burden of this question can be interpreted from either publication.
Now to be certain, my intention of this post is not to use it as a platform for my own utilitarian gains by objectifying this student and their very real and sincere question. Instead I am writing this to build on the answer I relayed in class, because we all know that feeling of coming up with an insightful response after the window of timing has closed. So first of all thank-you, anonymous student, for this question.
My answer in class touched upon the issue of ‘identity politics’ and the problems it raises when talking about different identities, cultures, and beliefs when we are not part of that particular group. Most often, identity politics results in a situation that cuts off dialogue, recognition, and engagement because things become too ‘subjective’ to be able to meaningfully discuss between different groups. By leaving the conversation at this point of ambiguity, I was doing no one any favours because I fell into the ‘identity politics’ trap myself. So here are some very simple thoughts I would like to iterate.
It is important to remember that the actions of a particular group of people from a common culture and identity do not speak for the entire culture and its multiple belief systems, as is the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the same way the actions of extremist Muslim groups and individuals do not speak for the entire Muslim population. The same can be said for a non-Indigenous Australian who acts unlawfully and immorally. An example that came to mind here was the recent murder of Tiahleigh Palmer by her foster father Rick Thorburn. The actions of Thorburn, however, were not reported to reflect that of the majority of the non-Indigenous Australian population, despite ‘Australians’ being considered to share a common cultural identity (multiculturalism).
So, why didn’t it? Why is it that the rest of the non-Indigenous Australian population weren’t also accused of being commonly immoral under the cultural banner of Australian identity? This raises the issue of discourse and discursive constructions, which one of the set readings for the class spoke about in relation to the historical construction of ‘Aboriginality’. When we speak of ‘discursive constructions’ we are referring to the way language practices (verbal and non-verbal) serve to construct a particular reality and truth claim, meaning they are imbued with power relations. Now to go back to the original question and article, we see these discursive practices working to create a particular reality and truth claim about what Indigenous communities are, how they act, and what moral values their beliefs ascribe and inscribe. The article, for example, condemns this particular groups’ traditional legal practice that ‘included spearing as the penalty for murder’, yet nothing was mentioned here about Western states in the world that still support capital punishment under their respective criminal legal code.
To be clear, I’m not justifying murder under the premise of an ‘eye for an eye’, nor do I approve of domestic violence, rape, or forcing anyone into a practice they do not want to be a part of. What I am saying is that we need to be more critical about debates surrounding ‘identity politics’ and whether they are meaningful and constructive, or whether they use a straw man’s argument to paint a generalised picture of an entire group or population (these practices aren’t “Aboriginal customs” that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group ascribes to, as the headline suggests). Don’t let these discussions result in cultural relativism, or essentialising reductions of an entire culture and identity.
Don’t get caught in the ‘identity politics’ trap. Just because you don’t identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully and respectfully engage in these discussions, perspectives, experiences, cultures, practices and specialised knowledges. It also doesn’t mean you can’t support the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to self-define their identity. Or to say it in another language: just because you don’t identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA), doesn’t mean you can’t be an ally to this community and support gender and sexual diversity and recognition. Getting around the ‘identity politics’ trap can be done.
 Due to subscription walls, the second article cannot be hyperlinked. See further, Berkovic, Nicola. “Underage marriages in remote areas rife”. The Australian Business Review. February 14, 2014.
 See Dodson, Michael. 2003. ‘The end in the beginning: redefining Aboriginality’ in Michele Grossman (ed.) Blacklines: contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians. Melbourne: Melbourne: University Press, pp.25-42