An abyss beyond the bottle

Opinion Article

2007 July, 14

I know of no discrete Aboriginal community in Australia that uses alcohol without ensuing social and cultural dysfunction. If we take harm levels in non-indigenous Australia as a tolerable benchmark for the use of alcohol, I am willing to be informed of an Aboriginal community that does not incur intolerable harm from its use of alcohol.

Why is alcohol highly problematic to Aboriginal communities?

The recent report on child abuse in the Northern Territory by Pat Anderson and Rex Wild identifies alcohol as a main cause of dysfunction and crime in remote Aboriginal communities. Criminologist Don Weatherburn, director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, says in a paper presented to the Australian Social Policy Conference this week that an analysis of national crime statistics identifies alcohol as the overwhelming reason indigenous people become victims of violence.

It is often argued that the proportion of Aborigines who do not drink at all is larger than in the mainstream.

This is correct in many communities. The problem is that the middle group, with drinking habits that resemble those of the majority in the mainstream, is relatively small in Aboriginal communities. The group of people who drink in a hazardous way, and who behave in a way that is heavily influenced by a dysfunctional relationship to alcohol, is much larger than in the mainstream. In such places this problematic use of alcohol creates an environment in which community members, not the least children, are not safe.

Medical anthropologist Gregory Phillips is perhaps the most well known and prolific indigenous advocate of the hypothesis that indigenous hazardous use of alcohol, and destructive and dysfunctional behaviours generally, are responses to and symptoms of personal and inherited trauma. Drawing on international experience of indigenous people's efforts to strengthen their societies, Phillips concludes that a comprehensive healing process is necessary to deal with the original trauma.

I do not deny the need for healing, whether for individuals or communities, but I think the focus must be on personal trauma: namely the (chiefly intra-indigenous) violence and abuse resulting from the breakdown of social and cultural order in communities occasioned by alcohol and other addictions in recent decades. There has been a tendency on the part of those advocating “inherited trauma” to point to traumatic events throughout the entire colonial history of Aborigines as an explanation for present problems.

Certainly cycles of abuse can be transmitted inter-generationally and various communities across the country have developed pathologies that have their roots in institutional history, but the story of many (and, in my experience, I would say most) Aboriginal groups across the country is the story that is broadcast from Sydney on January 26 each year: “We have survived!” Whatever the poverty, the discriminations, the displacements, the depredations, Aborigines across the country rebuilt families from the ruins of colonisation. Out of these hard times came countless thousands of strong strong elders and responsible parents who lovingly cared for children.

Was there the degree of abuse and neglect of children back in the era of discrimination that we witness today? No.

The biggest problem for the hypothesis that indigenous people's historical trauma is the main source of the malaise is that indigenous communities that have been least affected by dispossession, decimation, removal from land, removal of children, loss of culture and so on typically have problems that are as severe as the problems of communities that have the most traumatic histories.

Another hypothesis that interprets dysfunction as a symptom is that substance abuse is correlated with, and caused by, general socioeconomic disadvantage.

This explanation overlooks the fact that, globally, there are many societies and communities that are materially more deprived than Aboriginal communities but that are socially stronger and more functional.

Another problem with this hypothesis is its corollary: namely that general socioeconomic uplift (which of course is an important goal in its own right) may be believed to be a prerequisite for solving substance abuse problems. This deterministic thinking can have a paralysing effect because the scale of the solution that apparently is needed is so vast, when in truth people in poverty can be free of substance abuse.

Weatherburn says the significance of his study is that it shows alcohol abuse is not just a symptom of Aboriginal disadvantage, “it's a problem in its own right”.

He says it is widely accepted that alcohol abuse is a serious issue but until now it has been unclear whether disadvantage creates the problem: “To put it simply, you could fix unemployment, you could fix poverty in Aboriginal communities and you would still have a problem with alcohol.”

The theory that informs our practical work in Cape York Peninsula is based on our rejection of the symptom theory of substance abuse.

Phillips has stated that inter-generational trauma is an explanation, not an excuse. I would add that neither does historical explanation necessarily suggest a solution. Auto-catalytic dysfunctional behavioural patterns and negative social norms have become problems in their own right, and the methodical rebuilding of social norms is a necessary foundation for social and economic development.

I believe the fundamental structural and behavioural reforms we propose to implement in Cape York Peninsula will turn around the situation in our communities in a matter of years. Our remote communities can be transformed into strong home bases for Cape York people, safe and peaceful places where children receive a primary education that does not disadvantage them, and large numbers of adults learn to re-engage with the real economy instead of depending on passive welfare.

However, I think it is also necessary to have a discussion about the nature of these communities. Some of these thoughts present challenges to the theory underlying the plans we have developed.

The relatively large remote sedentary communities are recent phenomena in Aboriginal society, creations of colonial history. Many of them are former mission stations.

But it is not only the settlements that are new. The population growth in remote Aboriginal Australia has produced settlements where the number of people is several times larger than what's known as Dunbar's number. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a theory that has been influential in business management, anthropology and other disciplines that aim to understand human group behaviour. Dunbar's number is the maximum size of a group of people in which every individual has a social relationship with all other members of the group and – importantly – understands every social relationship within the community.

This number is thought to be about 150, certainly not larger than 250.

Several decades ago it was less common than it is now that remote Aborigines lived in groups that substantially exceeded this limit.

After a period of rapid growth, Cape York communities such as Aurukun and my home town of Hope Vale have more than doubled in size to 1200 inhabitants.

Cape York people are proud of our Aboriginal culture and our traditional values. We are at heart a generous and empathetic people.

I feel intensely the great tragedy that has befallen us: that our people's strong love for our children has been defeated by stronger forces in many places.

My formative thinking about these questions as a young student was Anastasia Shkilnyk's account of how a Canadian indigenous community was destroyed by alcohol and passive welfare. The title of her book was a quote from a woman in the community who tried to find an explanation for how alcohol and drug abuse resulted in the neglect and abuse of their children: A Poison Stronger than Love.

However, cultures are not only defined by our values of love and respect for other people; they also have material bases. Relationships between people are expressed as rules governing the production, acquisition and distribution of material goods.

Aboriginal culture is permeated by the strongest of cultural imperatives: demand sharing, whereby one is obliged to share material goods with one's kin. Demand sharing served us well in classical times. It seems to have been relatively compatible with life in Cape York settlements during the 20th century. Demand sharing was ultimately reciprocal and underpinned generosity and mutuality. But when demand sharing came into contact with passive welfare, alcohol, drugs and gambling, what was a valuable cultural tradition was highly susceptible to corruption and exploitation. Demand sharing when it comes to addictions is now a pathological culture.

There is a limit to how big communities such as my home town can grow before they become too large to be villages compatible with traditional Aboriginal values.

At a certain point small communities probably make a dialectical leap to an entirely different social system, where the people next door may well be strangers and each person has social relationships with a small subset of the population.

The most important challenge for Aboriginal communities, is the combination of alcohol, demand sharing and recent population growth to a size several times larger than Dunbar's number.

The density of Aboriginal social and cultural relationships within communities is the most important part of our heritage. The questions are: Can we keep those things that make up an Aboriginal community in this situation? Do we have to choose between grog and traditional values such as demand sharing?

I wrote three weeks ago (Inquirer, June 23) that “Aboriginal law, properly understood, is not the problem, it is the solution. When I say Aboriginal law, I just do not mean the laws that prevailed in our pre-colonial classical culture, I mean our contemporary values and expectations about behaviour. The old law did not deal with grog, drugs, gambling, money and private property.” The question is what we should define these contemporary values to be. We may arrive at the conclusion that our challenge is not only that classical culture does not have ways to deal with grog; it may also be that some of the surviving qualities of traditional culture greatly contribute to the defencelessness against epidemics of grog-induced dysfunction and that considerable cultural change or total abstinence from grog is necessary.

There are, of course, Aborigines in communities who use alcohol responsibly. But they have adopted mainstream mores, not only in relation to alcohol.

People living in communities who have internalised the mainstream way of responsible alcohol use necessarily live in relative isolation from their kin, much like the white staff who work in the communities.

There is also a group of people born in remote areas who have joined the urban mainstream. They still have a close connection with their homelands and to varying degrees they move in and out of their home communities.

If the proportions of people belonging to these two groups increase, the problems with alcohol among people with their roots in Cape York will decrease. But the urgent question is the situation of the large group of people who spend all their time in the communities and whose outlook is firmly rooted in the traditional norm of demand sharing and intense social relations.

The NT has long had a campaign called Living with Alcohol. Perhaps it is the case that our communities cannot live with alcohol, that the combination of traditional sharing of resources, supply of alcohol and the new way of living in larger communities is impossible.

Arguably, an ability to resist the potential dangers of alcohol will develop in Cape York communities only as a product of a comprehensive adoption of mainstream values.

There are many mainstream values that we need to make ours; most important, we need to value education. But I would regret if the devastating substance abuse epidemics make it necessary to abandon almost everything that defines us as Aborigines. Those of us who want communities to survive and prosper have to choose: do we want the precious and valuable things about our culture and social relationships or do we want the grog?

An abyss beyond the bottle