Thursday, May 16, 2013

The importance of the Aboriginal concept of respect

This post is for my Aboriginal friends including Callum and Susan. I was emailed about a proposed Aboriginal monument in Armidale. I will do a post on that in another place. Following the email, I put a status report up on Facebook to test what I might say in response. There I said in part:

If it aids Aboriginal advancement, respect, pride and things like the rediscovery of language and the education of the broader community into Aboriginal life over the millennia, and especially if it reinforces other initiatives to encourage people to explore and learn, then it would be worthwhile.

A little later, I added:

Thank you, Callum. Just focusing on the word respect, maybe at some point I should do a post on the Aboriginal concept of the word respect. In my contact with Aboriginal people and especially communities, I have learned to use that word in a very particular way. It fits with aspects of Australian culture, but it is also very Aboriginal. The word comes up all the time, in every meeting. Its use reflects traditional Aboriginal culture, but also the treatment of Aboriginal people. I haven't actually seen anybody write on it, but I suspect that it's important. What do you think?

Both Callum and Susan liked this comment. This post is a response. It's not a long post. I'm just making a few simple points.

I have written in the past about what I perceive to be the decline in respect in Australia.

We talk about Prime Minister Gillard or Opposition Leader Abbott as Gillard or Abbott. We may have no time for either. But in talking in this way, we are disrespectful of and denigrate the positions they hold. Would anyone deny that those position are critical to our democracy and hence deserve respect regardless of the person who holds the office? 

Take another example, the sometimes use by commentators of the word punter to describe voters. This is disrespectful and indeed contemptuous. I feel like throttling the speakers.

The word respect is central to Aboriginal society, past and present. Respect for elders, respect for traditions. This doesn't mean that you have to like the elders or even the traditions, but they deserve respect.

Over recent years I have been privileged to meet many Aboriginal people and to sit in on community meetings. When talking about the social disruption that has taken place in certain places over the last few decades, a common complaint is that the young have lost respect. They respect neither the elders nor the traditions. In so doing, they have lost their pride.

To a society in which respect is central, the sometimes contemptuous treatment of Aboriginal people by other parts of Australian society, public as well as private, is deeply hurtful. It hurts at a personal level, it hurts at a group level. I am not talking here about ethnic or racial prejudice, although that exists. Rather, a far more deeply ingrained unthinking that actually denies the validity of the Aboriginal experience.

Respect does not mean blind acceptance of existing structures or the past. It does not mean accepting gross wrongs . It does mean manners, politeness, thought for the other person. recognition of roles, traditions and institutions.

I think that Australia would be a lot better off if we as society adopted a little more of the Aboriginal concept of respect.          


Winton Bates said...

I don't think reference to the prime minister and the leader of the opposition by their family names necessarily implies lack of respect. At the same time, it is easy to think of terms often used to refer to our political leaders that do imply lack of respect.

In my view respect is a basic human need. I remember a person who had an official role in an American prison telling me that respect was the basic requirement survival. "It is all about respect, man".

Rummuser said...

I do not quite know how the informality in all our conversations came about with the use of first names even for elders. At least till I was well into my forties, we used Mr. and Mrs, Sir and Madam extensively and no one dared to call and elder by his first name.

This informality has spread quite widely in the English speaking world though in the English also speaking world like mine, the two different addresses exist quite comfortably with each other. For instance someone much younger than I am will call me Ramana in a conversation but in using Hindi or Marathi to converse will use the plural form of address like thee and thou.

Coming to politicians however, at least in my country, they have lost all respect of the public and are treated with the contempt that they so richly deserve. You would have seen my many posts on FB about our worthies. The most flattering thing that I can think of for all of them is clown. Similarly bureaucrats too have lost all respect of the public because they are perceived to be venal and self serving.

May be Australia is different in some ways, but in some I find a lot of similarity.

For some entertainment, you may like to revisit

Evan said...

I do like informality.

I am wondering if respect has to do with honour/shame.

My feeling (based on hugely limited experience) is that the aboriginal sense of respect has a greater feeling of being personal than our idea of 'respecting the office not the person'.

Keen to hear from others with more experience.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, I agree totally with your last para. On the first, I think that it's in part the way the surname is used.

Thank you for reminding me of that post. Ramana. Australians have always been more informal than, say, the English and, like Evan, I like that. However, this is a different thing. Commentators do not say Gillard or Abbott to be informal. Further, those same commentators in interviewing them will generally say Prime Minister or Mr Abbott. So you get the contrast.

On Indian polies, I have indeed read your FB posts! I still think Oz is better!

Evan, I'm not sure that's quite right. But what is, I think, right and its something I meant to say is that Aboriginal respect does link to letting people talk and listening.