Saturday, January 24, 2009

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 2

In my last post "Clean, Clad and Courteous" - Jim Fletcher's History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales, I said that I was reading the book again, but this time with a different purpose. I wanted to understand certain things that would help me in my writing.

This means that I would have approached the book differently in any case . I first read it several years ago out of general interest. This time I wanted to fix dates and patterns in my mind as another building block in my planned history of New England.

As it happened, I read it yesterday having just written Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1, the start of my musings on the nature of groups. There I said in part:

The starting point in these (anthropological and sociological) studies lies in the separation of the observer and the observed. The group under study - town, village, tribe, club - is recognised as distinct. The aim is to understand its structure and behaviour.

I make this point because a lot of the political and social commentary that I read starts from one set of group assumptions and realities (the commentator's) that are then applied to and used to interpret or critique the behaviour of another group or groups with its (their) own sets of assumptions and realities.

As I read Jim Fletcher's book, I was struck by the way the profound incomprehension of the best intentioned people in London and Sydney created barriers to any real understanding of Aboriginal societies as societies. I kept wanting to say but you can't think that.

This is in no way a moral judgement, simply an observation about perception and behaviour.

Jim Fletcher wrote his book well before the concept of evidence based public policy became popular. However, his book is a useful corrective to the views expressed by some of the more dedicated exponents of evidence based approaches. I have Australia's current Prime Minister in mind here.

Early official policies towards the Aborigines in general and Aboriginal education in particular failed, as they were bound to fail, because they were based upon views held in the newly dominant group formed independent of and imposed upon the other group.

The reasons for failure were much debated, even agonized over. They formed the subject of committees of inquiries and official reports. The evidence presented and the conclusions drawn from that evidence were to influence policies and approaches for generations to the further detriment of NSW's Aboriginal peoples.

Again I kept wanting to say but you can't think that.

Just as the first policy approaches were formed within a frame set by the dominant group view and then imposed, so the subsequent reviews and assessments were carried out within the same frame. This meant that both were equally flawed.

There have been enormous advances in our understanding of societies, cultures and groups since the foundation of NSW. Yet similar problems continue.

At the end of my first post in this muse, I suggested that President Bush's policies in the "War on Terror" helped create the very thing that it was intended to destroy. I also suggested that the knowledge was available to pin-point some of the potential errors in advance. It simply wasn't applied.

Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of groups and group dynamics. The internal world of the group is just too powerful. It dominates to the exclusion of other views.

Particular problems arise when, as in the Bush case, a gap appears between the internal reality of the group and the external world.

The actual trigger for this muse was the situation in Zimbabwe. There is a weird Kafka like feel to Zimbabwe. The country is in a state of collapse, yet the world of Mr Mugabe and his colleagues continues as though nothing was happening.

To get a feel for just how strange the situation has become, have a browse of the stories on the Zimbabwe Situation, a compendium of daily stories about or from Zimbabwe.

To my mind, and I am surprised that no one has really commented on this, the most remarkable thing about Zimbabwe is that the country continues to function at all. Somehow, elements of order and civil society survive.

While this adds to the Kafka feel, it is a quite remarkable and indeed inspiring story in its own right. When Mr Mugabe goes, and go he will along with his cronies, it gives me hope for Zimbabwe's future.

I will finish this muse in my next post.

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