Don't just do something, sit there and listen


Don’t just do something, sit there and listenMr Howard’s initiative on Aboriginal sexual abuse has aroused a passionate response. Those who support the action generally see any questioning of it as damaging the children who have suffered. They accuse their opponents of just sitting there rather than doing something. The sentiments are noble, but they also reflect a moral anxiety. Experience suggests that when everyone wants to do something, the appropriate response is often, 'Don’t just do something. Sit there'.

The most telling questions about the Prime Minister’s plan focus on the involvement of the police and military in the absence of any broader strategy. It evokes the image of a war on sexual abuse and memories of Australia’s recent attempts to address evils. Intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, and the Solomons come to mind.

The image of warfare is attractive to politicians and to the public. We have seen wars against poverty, against AIDS, against pornography, against religion and against atheism. The image of war identifies clearly an enemy that must be destroyed, evokes a vigorous and organised campaign to deal with it, and summons a nation to a shared national purpose in struggle. It banishes ambiguities and brushes away complexities.

The image of warfare also suggests strategies. For warfare you need soldiers, a command structure, a plan to identify enemy strengths and to neutralise them. You must send advance forces to take key positions, take and hold territory. The population for whom the war is waged must be made secure, and order restored. Finally, the army must withdraw, leaving in place an administration with sufficient strength to govern the occupied territory.

This metaphor of war is seductive, but it has two limitations. It is often invoked to endorse actions that form only the first and easiest steps of a strategy, and it is an inappropriate means to understand what is involved in many social evils.

The war against terrorism has illustrated both these limitations of the war metaphor. It provided the formula under which Afghanistan and Iraq have been overrun and occupied. The initial stages of the military strategy seem to have been effective, based on overwhelming military superiority. The opposing forces were routed and the nations occupied by the invading armies. The invading armies have physically held the ground they took.

Don’t just do something, sit there and listenBut, as in so many invasions, little thought was given to the crucial later strategic steps. In neither country has the population been made secure. Nor has order returned to more than few cities. In neither nation can the armies be withdrawn without betraying the cause for which war was waged. But the continuing presence of the invading forces gathers recruits for the opposition to them. The military offer no hope that this position will change over ten, twenty or even fifty years.

Governments went to war against the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan seeking support from their people with the image of war as a quick, decisive and costless campaign. The image of war promised more than it could deliver, and no one was prepared for the reality.

More fundamentally, it has also been unhelpful to conceive the response to terrorism as a war. The problems posed by terrorism are not susceptible to a military strategy. Terrorists do not occupy territory; they live in other people’s territories and continue to move freely even after the territory is occupied. Military action against terrorists inevitably leads to pressure on civil society, to innocent deaths, to increased hostility towards those who conduct the war, and to erosion of the values which nations aggrieved by terrorism wish to defend. The values defended in the war against terrorism are lost in the prosecution of the war. Abu Ghraib is shorthand for this fact.

Experience should make us resist the military metaphor and campaigns when addressing social evils. We should rather study the situation, seek an appropriate image of a concerted campaign to redress the ill, and then outline an appropriate strategy.

In the case of child abuse, policing and enforcement will be part of this strategy, but the military metaphor is totally inappropriate. The contested ground lies in intimate places — in families and human bodies. To take over and pacify this ground implies entering homes and investigating bodies. That is not impossible, but what trust, what rule of law would you leave on the scorched earth when you removed your troops?

To address evils that touch such intimate areas we need to find less crude metaphors than military ones. They lie readily to hand: partnership, community building, cultural strengthening. These include policing as one element, but can also encompass the complexity of relationships involved. They also involve consultation. They urge the Government, 'Don’t just do something. Sit there and listen'.



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Existing comments

The negative flood of criticism that has met the Prime Minister's "national emergency" regarding the plight of the children and communities in the Northern Territory is really sad to see.

It signals rather a readiness to let the downward slide continue, even in the face of so very many failed efforts.

What irony there was in the dismal response of the State and Territory leaders...who have themselves presided over so much shamefulness in their own States and Territories.What a torrent of similar abuses are being revealed by the week in those same places.

WA is a stand-out example of that..refusing to contribute a single police officer and now...swamped by a sea of sexual assault cries out to the nation for help.

What the sea of dissenting writers could do is to prise themselves out of their comfy armchairs and actually do something. Too many, if not all, actually believe that their political moans are making a helpful contribution. They're not!

The decades of political and actual neglect have slipped by....let not what's left of the indigenous people be left to follow suit.

Actions speak louder than words. Be done with the shouting...put your shoulders to the wheel.

Brian Haill | 12 July 2007  

Honestly and truly - people who waffle on about what should be done are bad enough! But people who waffle on about what should NOT be done are beyond belief. What a pity people cannot see beyond a blinding Labor party "thwart the Prime Minister's every move" obsession.
Tell me what anyone has done except criticise the one and only very definite decision to get in there and save these brutally abused children from any further abuse.

And what is the holier than thou excuse for NOT doing anything - something similar I guess to that offered in the time the Polish people were being systematically wiped out for want of intervention from people who knew what was happening - but said oh no!, we must form a partnership - we must not show agression against this horrifying abuse - we must sit here and listen to the cries of children - and their siblings, their mothers - we must let these people sort it out for themselves.

The recent documentary where an aboriginal worker in the NT and two school teachers brought to the notice of the public, the terrible abuse that was going on in the Aboriginal communities? And what happened to them - they were open, inclusive, involved all the Aboriginal families in "talking", discussing it in "peaceful meetings". And what happened - NOTHING! A well-stacked meeting boo-hooing these very brave people - who were subsequently forced out of down and labelled "THE THREE STOOGES". And what about their opponents - the main man who led the assault on these genuinely concerned, fully informed people, killed in a brawl! - and the abused children? Back to square one - knowing full well nothing would ever be done to them because even the really good people who wanted to do something and tried to do something would always be stamped down. How do people sleep!
Thank God for someone like John Howard who just takes all the kicking and the knocking but does something!

Trish | 12 July 2007  

The criticism that has come forth is not a readiness to let the downslide continues but a deep fear that simply doing one more thing will in the end only make things worse for the people and their communities.

There is plenty of evidence around on how productive engagement with indigenous communities could provide support that would work for human and communal flourishing - CAEPR, ANTAR and the Productivity Commission all have documented evidence on how such engagement could proceed.

Has the Federal Government drawn on any of this evidence?

There is little sign of it to date.

The choice is not a binary one - support the form of Federal Government or do nothing.

There are always other things that can be done other ways to proceed and it is this message that lies behind much of the critical response to the intervention to date.

Doug Hynd | 12 July 2007  

Andrew Hamilton's analysis of the current situation is deeply perceptive. The myth of the value of war as a means of change is as pervasive as it is flawed. Remedies for the dire situation of aboriginal communities are all hard work, and no one wants to hear about them, let alone do something constructive. Yet many Australian do care, many already are working hard to help, and many aboriginal communities are working hard themselves and succeeding. Let's all listen to them, and agitate for better real support from government.

Christine Wood | 13 July 2007  

Once again Hamilton SJ has enlightened me. He exhibits a fine and noble mind as he shares his discernment of the spirits. | 13 July 2007  

Can the Prime Minister and the Minister for Family, Community and Indigenous Affairs give one valid reason why it is necessary to withdraw Aborigines' right to ownership of their land in order to take action to control the abuse of children. The Government's action is counter productive. It will not produce the result that the government claims to be pursuing and that is exactly what the governmemt wants. they are not concerned about the horrifying child abuse. If they were they would have acted ten years ago when they first became aware of the situation. The government want the Aborigines' land and they are using the Anderson/Wild report as a convenient opportunity to do it. If they were sincere they would implement the recommendations of the report not introduce their own tactics. Who do they think they are fooling?

bernard edwards | 14 July 2007  

thanks for your thoughts. i would like to add to this the need and right of the indigenous people to be empowered to address these issues from a cultural and sovereign position assisted where needed by Government as requested by the elders and leaders of their communities.

Scott Combridge | 19 July 2007  

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