Letter from Roger Keyes, South Australia Regional Meeting

Duncan Frewin’s article, ‘Seeing my whiteness’ in the September 2010 Australian Friend (pp. 16-17) impressed me greatly in its depth and breadth of vision.

‘Would I ever really be able to transcend the “normalcy” of my own whiteness – the dominance of my own cultural group?’; ‘Would I ever be free of my part in oppression?’; ‘Is white ‘normal’?’ he asks.

These questions suggest a plethora of similar questions in my own mind. In principle … ‘Is Difference the same as Deviance?’; ‘Is the Other, ipso facto, Inferior?’ It’s the word ‘dominance’ which triggers questions for me. The dominance which we in the ‘developed world’ appear to have over the world in which we live seems to be born of a superiority complex founded on the heritage of the so-called Enlightenment. The Reformation of European Christendom, the turmoil out of which our own Religious Society was spawned, the birth of the Royal Society and the ‘scientific method’ are all undoubtedly important milestones in the long march of humanity.

They are the heritage that we in the ‘mainstream’ have been taught about from childhood, as though not much else was happening in those parts of the world which we had not yet ‘discovered’. Where it has been acknowledged that Arabs, Chinese and other ancient civilisations lived cultured and meaningful lives, we have been unable to escape the conclusion that our own is far superior.

Any person who bears testimony to Truth, Simplicity, Equity and Non-violence finds it difficult to abide by the theft of this continent and the establishment of what our news bulletins daily portray as a seriously dysfunctional society, in which competition, triumph, glamour and clever intrigue prevail over social cohesion, wealth-sharing and co-responsibility as our aspirations.

Acclaimed author and anthropologist Wade Davis in his 2009 Massey Lectures, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern Age, drew my attention to the same phenomenon as that to which Duncan is alluding … the arrogance of what is sometimes celebrated as ‘modern western capitalist and democratic’ culture in its presumption that all mankind should emulate its insights.

For me, it is almost as though the colour ‘whiteness’ is beside the point. The point seems to be that the whole world should adopt this colonising, exploitative, extravagant and wasteful lifestyle, perhaps, by the way, because it is so good for business, but with the sanction that we can go to the ballot box to establish this tyranny of numbers, rather than doing so directly at the whim of a tyrant.

Yet, if a people can wisely gauge the capacity of their country to sustain a happy life; if they can learn a sustainable stewardship or husbandry; if they can educate their children in these ways, and deal with wayward and undisciplined members of their society by restorative justice; if they can live well in their physical bodies by implementing a health system free of the corruptions and profiteering of drug companies; if a people were able to achieve these things ‘before the coming of the white man’, it seems as though we are incapable of accepting the situation and must step in to improve it.

The assumption has been, right up until we come to the infamous ‘Intervention’ in the lives of Australian Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, that we have the answer for all humanity.

Wade Davis points out …

Clearly, had humanity as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, the intellectual track laid down by these descendants of the first humans to walk out of Africa, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of industrial processes that by any scientific definition threaten the very life supports of the planet. (ABC Books, p. 159).

And again …

The genius of culture is the ability to survive in impossible conditions … We cannot afford to lose any of that variety of skills, because we are not only impoverished without it, we are vulnerable without it. (Massey Lectures website).

Although it is probably true that as a race we cannot simply return to aboriginality and, as it were, start again, I believe that there is much to learn from the ways of aboriginality, and that the dysfunction of the ‘modern West’ might well be addressed, in part, for example, by an aversion to the dictates of the stock market and the pressures of a greedy profiteering culture, and by taking much more time to pursue a respectful relationship with all around us, human and non-human. Indeed, our Quaker Testimonies point us in that direction; they certainly do not sit lightly with the capitalist agenda.

Duncan’s question ‘Would I ever be free of my own part in oppression?’ calls to mind Mohandas Gandhi’s suggestion that we cease to look for victory, full resolution or perfection, but that we take whatever opportunities to do Good as are presented; ‘that little good you can do, you must do’. And there is always Karl Popper’s version of the ‘golden rule’ … treating others as they would wish to be treated.

Roger Keyes

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