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Playing the culture card and losing

By Evert Rauwendaal - posted Monday, 3 July 2006

It seems to me our attention has been diverted in the past month or so. We have heard appeals against the creation of another stolen generation, attacks leveled at “political correctness” and the “bleeding-heart left”, mention of cultural law as a defence and finally the so called “cultural curtain” (see Gary Johns, May 30, 2006) - a formidable force that apparently immediately cripples any government attempts to reduce abuse in Indigenous communities.

But what's behind the diversionary tactics?

We currently sit back and listen to popular newspaper columnists and various politicians float ideas about “parental responsibility” and “mutual obligation”.


But what exactly are the government's responsibilities and when will they see fit to discharge their obligations? When will something be done about the life expectancy of Indigenous parents for example?

According to the AIHW, between 33 per cent and 43 per cent of Indigenous people die before they reach age 45. It’s a little hard to exercise parental responsibility from the grave.

Similarly, if we are to judge the discharge of the governmental duties to Indigenous children on grounds similar to those the current government has thought about judging Indigenous children’s, by [say] their school attendance records, then surely they must be penalised. There’s just no hotline to report them unfortunately!

Meanwhile, violence (including sexual) is not intrinsic to Indigenous culture, even though some pretend otherwise (read Miranda Devine, May 18, 2006; Rosemary Neill, May 19, 2006).

It is wrong to forge a link between cultural sensitivity and inaction. Inaction is not cultural sensitivity: ignoring child abuse is an abuse in itself. That cultural sensitivity is somehow to blame for acts of violence against children is simply absurd. The point is missed and obvious. Cultural sensitivity or political correctness does not cause child sexual assault. So what are the motives behind those attacking them?

Of course cultural sensitivity should never override the duty to protect our children from harm. But who, beyond the offender and their defence counsel, has ever argued that culture be placed above the right of a child to live unmolested? It is only when cultural explanations for violence are generally accepted that defence on these grounds (the “cultural defence”) becomes possible.


If anything, it's precisely because we’ve been incorrectly theorising the problem of child abuse as culture-normalised violence that it may have lead to acceptance of its inevitability and/or tolerance of its existence (Zon et al., 2004). Zon et al. go on to explain a problematic of this mistake in the delivery of “restricted and substandard child protection activity through fear that any proposed intervention is racist insofar as it necessarily insults or injures culture” (p. 291). If culture is clumsily conflated with violence, it certainly might be.

However, if the objective is to ensure the sentence of an offender, constructing sexual violence against children as “part of Indigenous culture” is counterproductive. The importance of understanding and establishing the distinction between culture and violence is resultantly paramount.

This is where columnists like Devine and Neill err when they cite Joan Kimm, author of A Fatal Conjunction: Two Laws, Two Cultures: "The sexual use of young girls by older men, indeed often much older men, was an intrinsic part of Aboriginal culture, a heritage that cannot be easily denied."

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About the Author

Evert Rauwendaal is a Bachelor of social work graduate.

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