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The import of knowing what you donít know

By Graham Ring - posted Wednesday, 9 April 2008


Modern methods have failed to deliver a better life for many black Australians, as government quick-fixes crash and burn one after another.

Going back a good while there was a bloke by the name of Socrates wandering around Athens. He was given to yarning up with the locals and more often than not leaving them scratching their chins. Soc was a bright spark, you see, and he had a habit of asking unsettling questions that got up people’s noses. He was widely regarded as a Very Smart Cookie.

Anyhow, one Friday evening, Socrates and his cobbers had ensconced themselves at the local boozer and were having a few quiet ones, exchanging war stories about another hard week of philosophising. “How do you do it Soc?” one of the boys asked him. “How do you keep coming up with those curly ones?”

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At this, Socrates took a sip from his schooner, smiled enigmatically at his mates and told them that it was because “I know that I do not know”.

Then he went off to the bar to buy a round of drinks, leaving the rest of the mob nonplussed.

Now, I may not have got the dialogue or the setting exactly right, but this is pretty much the substance of the conversation. It was all Greek to me initially, but after a certain amount of brain-strain, I twigged to the possibility that Soc was applauding the value of being aware of what you don’t know.

It’s actually a pretty handy skill when you give it some thought. It stops us jumping to conclusions, or thinking that we know all the answers. It encourages us to ask questions of others, and to listen carefully to their responses.

These techniques should be pretty useful in any field of public policy, but nowhere more so than on the troubled terrain of Indigenous affairs. Imagine the benefits which would accrue if governments could be convinced to think more carefully before they acted?

Federal governments in this country are prisoners of the three-year electoral cycle. The third year is always spent in “election mode”, which means that they have little more than a miserable 24-month window to put a score on the board.

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This sudden-death arrangement might work okay in some policy areas where the levers just need a little bit of tweaking, but when it comes to Indigenous affairs, things are a bit more complicated. Let’s face it - 200 years of horrendous bungling cannot be put right in 24 months.

Sadly, settling down to the hard slog of slow, careful work carried out in full consultation with Aboriginal people is not seen as a realistic option. Instead, governments of all political persuasions seek silver bullets, magic elixirs and quick fixes.

Without exception these half-baked plans are born of great expectations - and most expire in their infancy. Or worse, they linger and grow weaker, eventually dying a public death, and confirming for the sages of the suburbs that, as far as Indigenous Australia is concerned, there is no answer.

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First published in the National Indigenous Times, Issue 149, on March 20, 2008.



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About the Author

Graham Ring is an award-winning writer and a fortnightly National Indigenous Times columnist. He is based in Alice Springs.

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