The Need for Aboriginal Ethics

The ongoing destruction of Indigenous Australia demonstrates the need for Aboriginal ethics

Morgan Brigg and Mary Graham Posted on ABC Religion and Ethics on Mon 15 Jun 2020

The destruction of ancient rock shelters by Rio Tinto and the scourge of deaths in custody are expressions of how the dominant political order bludgeons Indigenous Australia — they are also signs of the need to embrace Aboriginal ethics.

It is not coincidental that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and the paucity of cultural heritage protections thereby brought into public view have the feel of a colonial frontier. Resource companies, as necessary as they are in our contemporary economy, are key agents of the longstanding extractive and developmentalist expansion that have been at the forefront of dispossessing Aboriginal people across the Australian continent.

The bludgeoning of Indigenous people through the carceral institutions of the dominant society are similarly longstanding and bound with the same developmentalist expansion. The ancestors of those who die in custody today were forcibly removed from their homelands by agents of the state — including police and Aboriginal “protectors” — in processes that made way for pastoralism and other primary industries.

Nonetheless, the violence released in the explosions that destroyed the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and dispensed in police custody does not mean that the relationship between Indigenous people and miners, and the wider relationship between Indigenous people and Settler Australia, is mono-dimensional. Indigenous-Settler relations are complicated, characterised by intimate entanglement that mixes support with destruction, care with brutal violence, and appreciation with shocking disregard.

Our entanglements are confronting when they are brutalising, but they are also the basis for deeper understanding of the problems we face, and a source of possibility. We should thoroughly excoriate mining companies and the police, along with many others, for appalling practices in relation to Indigenous people, but the extensiveness of such practices also highlights the systemic and structural nature of the problem.

To begin to understand what is at stake and to develop the means to recast the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia requires interrogating the philosophical underpinnings of the dominant political order.

As commentator Stan Grant has observed, Australia is deeply attached to liberalism, and thus to commitments to personal liberty, equality before the law and moral neutrality of the state. Grant has spoken of liberalism as if it is a rock of Australian political order. But as the destruction of the Juukan Gorge shelters shows, how we relate to longstanding artefacts of human creation is in our hands.

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