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Cultural Conflict

I have written many essays on human behaviour. Apart from the music of Mozart, test cricket, and catching Barramundi, there are few subjects that interest me more.

Most psychologists would concede that our biological history and our socialisation, particularly in our earlier years, have a large impact on how we behave. In this regard one could argue that large swathes of our behaviour are almost a cultural artefact. We largely assume the mores of the cultures we are born into. This is not surprising because we see them played out and reinforced by the actions of significant others virtually every day. As well, we acquire a behavioural repertoire by these means which we seldom question. Once such a repertoire is established of our “preferred” behavioural responses we draw on them automatically

Consequently when one culture attempts to impose its mores and social and moral standards on another, conflict seems to inevitably ensue. These cultural mores often take centuries to develop or to be displaced.

When I was at school it was maintained that the first faltering steps towards a democratic state occurred when King John of England issued the charter called Magna Carta to appease his troublesome barons at Runnymede in 1215. The parliament of Great Britain was first formed in 1707 with greatly restricted powers compared with the parliaments of modern day Western democracies. But we moved on from there. Now the point I want to make is that the transition from feudalism to democracy has largely been a slow and arduous process – in the case of Britain, taking some six or seven centuries.

Western governments, attempting to prove the value of democracy, have often sought to impose it on other societies with mixed results. Colonial governments seemed to believe it their moral duty to do just that. History, however, has shown us that progressing successfully to a liberal democracy has in most cases taken centuries. Those countries that have seemed to have been able to “fast-track” the process have been India, Indonesia and Turkey. It is interesting that these three countries have been able to separate the church from the state. Consequently, implementing democracy in these countries was far easier to achieve because the debate could be mostly confined to one of civics rather than religion. Most of the countries previously under colonial rule have failed to establish robust democracies.

The issue is well stated by the anthropological researcher Joseph Henrick. Henrick, talking about his research activities in Fiji says:

“The idea of doing democracy in a Fijian village for example, is actually insulting to people there because they have a hierarchy based on the chief. And we have been studying why the chief has the right to make these decisions. They have a system which isn’t democracy although it does give equal voice to everybody. But it is a decision making system. If you just tried to just stick in democracy in there, things just wouldn’t go well!”

Another failed attempt to bolt democracy onto a feudal society is what has happened in Iraq. As soon as the allies withdrew there was instant recidivism to try to assert the power of competing religious and tribal interests. Despite recent attempts to bolster the government’s will to maintain democratic processes the current situation is parlous at best and it is hard to be optimistic about Iraq’s future in that regard. Looking at Pakistan and Afghanistan would not enhance your optimism. As well, the outcomes of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings have all been largely depressing.

Henrick and his colleagues have researched the social mores of some of the world’s more primitive peoples. The cultures of these societies reinforce value sets vastly different from those we commonly hold. Unsurprisingly, the tendency to treat women poorly is not restricted to fundamentalist Islamists. Indeed in some primitive societies women don’t even seem to resent this! Another trait they uncovered was the absence of economic drivers to maximise personal benefits. In these societies people were often content to get any share of the pie at all let alone to attempt to get the largest piece!  Western economic theory would fail under these circumstances. It is easy to see how confronting it is when we try to impose our values on such people.

The underlying assumptions and beliefs that seed such behaviours are not usually communicated by a charismatic teacher. They are reinforced every day for generation upon generation. No doubt issues of kinship and tribal allegiances play a strong part. Consequently, when we try to impose conflicting values on such societies we are usually doomed to failure.

John Haidt is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He has devoted his career to moral judgment and decision making. He maintains that cultures are built around four sets of values-based intuitions:

  • Aversion to suffering,
  • Reciprocity, fairness and equality,
  • Purity and pollution.
  • Hierarchy, respect, duty.

Haidt points out that we in the West have largely emphasised the first two sets of intuitions in our culture. It is inevitable then that there will be friction when we rub against those with a different focus, for example some Muslim and Hindu cultures that emphasise the latter two groups of intuitions more than we do.

Haidt also argues such cultural values are not arrived at by rational decision making. Our reasoning is normally post hoc and seeks to justify what we have already come to believe and to provide a rationale to try and convince others of the validity of our beliefs.

Whilst the wholesale change of a traditional culture is extraordinarily difficult, such change however, can often happen at an individual level when a person is removed from such a culture and has to contend with the dilemma of embedding themselves in a new one. By and large, because we are human we have social needs. These needs often compel us to want to “fit in”. In this way we largely adopt the behaviours of those around us. If we are left to our own in a new cultural environment, we are more than likely over time to assume the behaviours demonstrated in our new environment. If, however, we are allowed to operate in a cultural enclave of like-minded people, not only are our behaviours unlikely to change but we will often use our different behaviours as a badge of honour.

We can easily point to the multitude of immigrants to our country and how most have adopted our values and our way of life. There are some of course who have not. Their resistance to such cultural change is aided and abetted by the development of such cultural enclaves maintaining and defending their previous culture so they are not forced to confront the new culture so dramatically. Whilst it is seldom stated explicitly there is a common belief that immigrants should seek to conform to the major conventional norms of our society.

That some do not is not such a bad thing except for example where, in the case of those like the fundamentalist Islamists, they feel they have the right to impose their cultural norms on the rest of us. But that is not the main theme of this essay.

[My prime experience is in organisations. I know that cultivating productive organisational cultures is hugely important to the long-term success of organisations. I also know that it is inordinately difficult to do. Most leaders don’t have the vision, the stamina or the persuasive ability to manufacture such change. And obviously changing an organisation is much simpler than changing a society.]

So it is evident that there are many situations where these cultural battles are important. And it has only just occurred to me, (slow learner that I am), after reading some of the work of Haidt and Henrick quoted above, that one such example is the intractable issue of our own indigenous disadvantage.

When Australia was settled there was initially both conflict with and some accommodation of the indigenous population. But very rapidly, through force of numbers alone, the indigenous population were soon overwhelmed by the colonists. As a result our native Australians had to rapidly contend with being subject to and interacting with a foreign culture.

For many years Australian governments sought to assimilate indigenous Australians into the mainstream culture. But in the late 1960’s that was all to change. I have described that change in a previous essay.

“In 1967, not long before his disappearance in the surf at Portsea, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced that a Council for Aboriginal Affairs would be formed to advise the government. The man he chose to lead the Council was, in some ways, a surprising choice, viz Dr Herbert Cole (“Nugget”) Coombs. Coombs had a distinguished career as a public servant which culminated in his role as the Governor of the Reserve Bank. At the time of his appointment to head the Council he had recently retired. Although he had not previously worked in this space, Coombs had a life-long interest in the Aboriginal community. He had been raised in Kalamunda in Western Australia and there he had seen first-hand the extent of the tension between Indigenous and Non-indigenous Australians.

Nothing I write here is meant to denigrate “Nugget” Coombs. He was a great Australian trying to do his best to assist an afflicted people. But as is often the case well-meaning people can often precipitate bad outcomes.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the notion that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that the indigenous population would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.”

As a result of this initiative we now have many thousands of indigenous people living in remote communities where there is essentially no economy and with only the minimum of support services. Now these remote communities are a good example of the cultural enclaves I mentioned above. People living there have little exposure to Australian mainstream culture which is founded on education, employment and adherence to the basic laws and mores of Western liberal societies. These remote communities are characterised by poor school attendance, high unemployment, ill-health and largely dysfunctional social arrangements.

Moreover it seems that most of our attempts to aid these people to share a life more like the rest of us, is met with resistance. In these communities they have recreated their version of Aboriginal culture and despite its deleterious effects on the health and welfare of the residents they cling to it obstinately. And of course there is the dilemma. We have seen how difficult it is to get people to take on another culture but we can also see how debilitating it is for these people to continue fashion their behaviours on the beliefs and assumptions of what they believe is their traditional culture.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (It is difficult not to infer in Coombs’ philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”).

Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare.


Now the consequence of this behaviour is not trivial.

Last year, Alan Tudge, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister reported that the Government spends (according to the Productivity Commission) $44,000 per annum per indigenous person but it is likely to be twice that amount in remote communities. Now that seems a lot of money but I wouldn’t for a moment begrudge our spending it on the indigenous community if was actually getting results, but the results being achieved are mixed at the best.

In his article Tudge revealed an astounding statistic. He reported that:

“Last year an Auditor General’s report found that a typical indigenous community is serviced by one government program for every five members. Wilcannia in western NSW for example, has 102 funded activities from 18 state and federal agencies, with a further17 activities proposed. The indigenous population is 474.”

The Bligh Labour government commissioned the Griffith Youth Forensic Service to conduct a study of indigenous communities which was subsequently delivered to the Newman government. The Courier Mail and the Weekend Australian newspapers leaked some of the purported findings of the report. The Director of this organisation, Professor Stephen Smallbone, reportedly requested that the findings remain confidential “to allow time for problems in those communities to be addressed, without exacerbating those problems by publicly stigmatising the communities concerned.”

The details leaked show disturbing findings. Statistics reported in the Weekend Australian include:

  • The rate of reported sexual offences in Aurukun was six times the state average between 2001 and 2012.
  • The average age of a sexual assault victim was 14, 85% were under 17 and the youngest was 4.
  • Teenage pregnancies accounted for one third of births.
  • More than 200 children under 16 years of age and 29 under 10 were being treated for STDs. In total almost 3000 STD infections were recorded which is 56 times the rate of infection among the wider Queensland population.

On top of this, these communities are wreaked by violence with women and often children being the most frequent victims. These remote communities are riddled with alcohol and drug abuse dilemmas their ancestors never had to deal with. These communities are full of despair and record high rates of youth suicide.

I am not wise enough to know the solution to this long term, devastating problem. But one thing is apparent, exposing young indigenous children to the toxic cultures of these remote communities is a recipe for perpetuating this human disaster. No wonder that Noel Pearson has been advocating that children should be sent to boarding schools from these communities where they at least might have more healthy role models.

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation has been doing wonderful work in offering scholarships to indigenous children to study in some of our most prestigious schools. No doubt they benefit from the wonderful tuition they will get from such schools, but I suspect even more importantly they will benefit from being removed from these toxic environments at a formative time in their lives and again being exposed to better role models.

It is hard to imagine the difficulties of these children. One young indigenous lady who I met whilst working with an indigenous school was dux of her school. Up until the final year of school she had never lived in a house. I thought it must be a great advantage to have made this shift until she told us that there were 30 people living in the house!

Trying to give her a positive stroke someone then said, “Your parents must be proud of your achievements.”

“Well yes they are,” she responded. “But often that makes it harder. When I do well at school they want to celebrate my success by taking me down to the pub and drinking, which of course interferes with my study.”

Trying to improve the lot of indigenous Australians is a complex and trying business. And as many commentators have pointed out it is a multi-faceted problem. The issues are different for urbanised indigenous people than those in remote communities.

My comments in this essay have been largely directed towards the latter. There are some very fundamental questions to be answered here. Should the people in these remote communities be given the freedom to choose to live under the norms they perceive (rightly or wrongly) to have prevailed in their traditional societies? If they do so it seems likely that further indignities will have to be endured by the women and children of those societies. Not only that but it would be reasonable to expect that the epidemic of alcoholism, diabetes, renal disease, Foetal alchol syndrome, STD’s and so on will continue.

So as I suggested from the start when cultures are in conflict it is almost inevitable that human suffering eventuates. In Australia we seem to have such a conflict between some of our indigenous population living in remote communities who would eschew mainstream values in favour of regressing to their version of an Aboriginal traditional culture. No doubt some of them enjoy the opportunity to indulge in the hunting, fishing and gathering practices of their ancestors. But this indulgence seems a poor reward for eschewing the economic, social and health benefits of being associated with mainstream society. But that is their choice and I am reluctant to be judgmental about that.

So if there is a choice, let it be clear that those advocating  that indigenous people have a right to live in a so-called traditional culture in these remote communities are almost inevitably committing such people to shortened lives, dysfunctional social arrangements, poverty  and generational disadvantage.

As I began this essay, it is obvious that those in cultural enclaves will find it difficult to challenge their assumptions and beliefs about human values and how we should live our lives. I don’t condemn their choices when effectively they know no others! But I weep for our fellow indigenous citizens that seem to be caught in this cleft stick between embracing traditional Australian values and trying somehow to re-engage with their ancestral past. In this clash of cultures it is hard to see how our indigenous compatriots can possibly be winners!


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  1. 9 Comment(s)

  2.   By Mack on Jan 27, 2015 | Reply

    A very well written article. It would seem that the ‘Aboriginal problem’ is largely a ‘remoteness problem’.

  3.   By Joe Lane on Jan 27, 2015 | Reply

    Brilliant ! There is so much food for thought that I’ll have to come back to this essay, again and again ……

    E.g., the clash between a hunter-gatherer-forager ethic and a preparation-work-storage ethic, to put it crudely, a divide ever since the innovation of agriculture: a boom-bust versus an accumulation ethic.

    Also e.g., as an ex-Marxist, I still think partly in class terms: which class does this or that ideology represent, who is benefitting from a particular stance ? For instance, any push for democracy anywhere needs a predominance of ‘modern’ classes, workers, middle class, etc., and strong involvement of all classes in the one society: peasants, a welfare class, alienated youth to cripple that process of democracy development, hence the failure of the ‘Arab Spring’.

    So much to think about, thanks Ted !

  4.   By Greg Brown on Jan 27, 2015 | Reply

    I don’t disagree that largely isolated indigenous communities have not been very successful at improving the lot of the people who live in those communities. What I am wondering though is how much better off are the indigenous people who are living in more typical Australian communities. I suspect that the use of alcohol and drugs is of a similar level and the incidence of violence is also high. The incidence of violence against white Australians is also high. Certainly in the community where I live, plenty of people have learnt the hard way that there are some places you just do not go late at night. Cultural assimilation has not happened particularly well in either environment as I see it. I’m not sure what the solution is but it is not simple.

  5.   By David Price on Jan 28, 2015 | Reply

    My wife is Aboriginal. Her first language is an Aboriginal language and she speaks 3 others. She was born and raised in one of the remote communities you write about. And you are right. I can argue with nothing you have said.

    My wife is now a Minister of the Crown in the first Australian government in our history to be led by an indigenous Australian. during the election that brought her to our parliament there were 3 electorates contested by only Aboriginal candidates representing 3 different parties. This is not widely celebrated especially in the southern cities, although it is in the remote communities that we know.

    At a conference recently I asked Peter Sutton if there were any young Aboriginal people in the remote communities he knew of who were capable of working towards the solution of the problems that their people face and are now crushed by. He answered ‘yes, but not if they stay in the bell jar of the remote communities in which they were born’. This is also our experience.

    There is now a powerful political and social movement designed to keep our kids in those ‘bell jars’ and watch them self destruct in the name of the preservation of the world’s longest surviving culture. My wife has been vilified and her life has been threatened by those who hold different views to hers.

    We are setting up a foundation to give girls and young women to give them whatever support they need to see beyond the confines of the bell jars, to take control of their lives, decide for themselves what they want from life and their status as Australian citizens and citizens of the world and tell us and the rest of the world what we need to do to support them. Keep writing. You make sense in a debate dominated by the senseless.

  6.   By Esther on Jan 28, 2015 | Reply

    Is the problem for indigenous Australians solvable?
    Along way to helping their situation is ‘meaningful work’.
    When I was residing in Oz, any discussion regarding indigenous folk ended with me asking if they (white fella) would employ a person with an original Australian background.Sadly the answer was always no based on the premise they were lazy unreliable etc..All generalistions, not founded on the individual ability or training.
    On speaking to a policeman from the front line in Western Australia, I asked if anything was helping with the indigenous alcohol and drug problem. He could only think of one thing … A seed farm totally run by the tribe. Growing and selling native flora seeds .. ‘meaningful paid work’.
    likewise here in NZ once the Iwi started enterprises totally run by them, change ourred more rapidly. Not withstanding the Noble savage option should be available with limited welfare but I fear the social infrastructure of 200 years past had been lost in Oz.
    The Marae system used in NZ isn’t available in Oz which means limited opportunities to pass on traditions, to the detriment of the environment and the wider Australian culture.
    Very perplexing problem asimulation ..seems possible that both cultures could gain by taking the best customs from each .

  7.   By Joe Lane on Jan 28, 2015 | Reply

    Ted, you suggest that ” …. some of our indigenous population living in remote communities who would eschew mainstream values … ”

    I wonder though if there is a lot of cherry-picking going on, with many ‘mainstream values’ enthusiastically followed – if that means Toyotas, houses, fast-food, grog, tobacco, etc. – while very little hunting and gathering is going on, except the odd day or two (mostly to relieve the boredom of no-work and too much grog) – what the rest of us would call ‘a weekend trip’, or a ‘picnic’ or a spot of fishing. Hunting has been by vehicle and rifle for nearly a hundred years now.

    Meanwhile, in the towns and cities, where the vast majority of Indigenous people live and work, nearly forty thousand Indigenous people have graduated from universities. Currently, around two thousand graduate each year – compare that with age-group size (say, 25 or 26-year-olds) with around fifteen hundred of those being first-time graduates, i.e. 15 % of equivalent age-groups.

    Many years ago, when I was checking out articles on mass higher education, MHE was defined as 15 % of age-groups enrolling – so these days, Indigenous people have achieved mass higher education GRADUATIONS, not just enrolments. Annual enrolments have been increasing by around 8 % since 2005 – I suspect they doubled between 2005 and 2014, and could double again by 2025. Fifty thousand graduates by 2020 is likely, 100,000 by 2032 is possible.

    So what does it mean, higher numbers of graduates in the cities, lifelong-welfare populations in the remote areas ? Is the Indigenous population in danger of splitting apart, or totally fragmenting into many disparate populations, each population going in very different directions ? Is the ‘Gap’ between Aboriginal populations, never to close ? Just a thought.

  8.   By Joe Lane on Jan 29, 2015 | Reply

    Oops, I meant to include this bit ” …. Currently, around two thousand graduate each year – compare that with age-group size (say, 25 or 26-year-olds) OF 10,000 NATION-WIDE, with around fifteen hundred of those being first-time graduates, i.e. 15 % of equivalent age-groups.”

    By the way, two-thirds of Indigenous uni students and graduates are women: what are the men doing ? And once those graduates move into the workplace, where they may represent only 1 % of the work-force, who do you think they will socialise with and marry and have kids with ? Overwhelmingly with their work-mates and people similar.

    I suspect, with little to go on, that Indigenous people in country towns and outer suburbs have massively turned away from education, and their children are more than ever likely to be long-term unemployed. So the ‘Gap’ may be rapidly growing not only between urban and remote populations, but between urban working and urban non-working populations too. There is a multitude of opportunities now for those urban and semi-urban populations, overwhelmingly English-speaking and sort of literate, so whose job is it to actually do something if not the people themselves ?

  9.   By Joe Lane on Feb 2, 2015 | Reply

    Nicolas Rothwell has had a couple of articles published in the last two Saturdays’ Australian, laying out very comprehensively the possibilities of what one may call the salvation of remote communities – a separation of ministerial responsibilities for aboriginal Affairs between a ‘southern-urban’ portfolio and a ‘remote’ portfolio, which I suggest should be given a great deal of thought. ‘Southern’ or ‘urban’ Indigenous people are not doing too bad, their participation and graduation in tertiary education is close to par with those of other Australians, as is their employment rate, on the whole. All the problem issues focus on remote, ‘traditionally-oriented’, people in hole-in-the-wall settlements and out-stations. His suggestions should be taken very seriously.

  10.   By tedscott on Feb 2, 2015 | Reply

    Thank you all for your fabulous comments. I was truly overwhelmed. There are many of you who are better placed than I to opine about these matters. I won’t reply in detail to the fabulous comments that have been made.

    Let me point out to my readers the pedigree of some of the commentators.

    Anthony Dillon is a part-Aboriginal Australian who is a researcher at the University of Western Sydney, a regular contributor to Quadrant and to the Australian newspaper..

    David Price is the husband of Bess Price who is a formidable Aboriginal Australian activist and currently a minister in the Northern Territory Government. David and Bess are inspirational advocates for the indigenous cause.

    It is truly overwhelming to attract the attention of such formidable advocates for the indigineous cause. Please read their contributions knowing they are well-informed. That is not to detract from the contributions of Joe Lane, and my good friends Greg Brown and Esther Cook.

    Thank you all!

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