There is no middle ground in an invasion that has never ended

And as I said when I spoke in support of the original motion here in this place on the other side of the Chamber fourteen years ago, sorry can never be given without any expectation of forgiveness. … I said an apology ‘involves … standing in the middle ground exposed, vulnerable and seeking forgiveness’. … Forgiveness transcends all of that. It’s an act of grace. It’s an act of courage. And it is a gift that only those who have been wounded, damaged and destroyed can offer. I also said fourteen years ago, ‘sorry is not the hardest word to say, the hardest is I forgive you’. But I do know that such a path of forgiveness does lead to healing. It does open up a new opportunity. It does offer up release from the bondage of pain and suffering that no simple apology on its own can achieve.

Scott Morrison on the 14th Anniversary of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples

As an Aboriginal person, and as a human being, I am disturbed by the convoluted qualifications placed on the concept of an apology by the Prime Minister’s speech on the 14th Anniversary of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. Etymologically, apology comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning a speech in defence of something, a justification. The modern sense of it as an expression of contrition or regret is closer to the Christian theological emphasis on acts of repentance. This etymology is ironic, given that Morrison, a public Pentecostal seems caught between definitions. The Prime Minister’s linkage of the act of an apology to the expectation of forgiveness seems to have more in common with the original sense, implying that the transgression was in some sense originally justifiable, and therefore foreclosing the ethical need for an apology in the first place.

In his Spiritual Exercises (1548) Ignatius of Loyola argued for the linked significance of thought, word and action in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In another entanglement of sacred and secular, it is arguable that Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises informed Theo Van Boven’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on the right to reparations to victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law which in turn shaped the five reparative components of the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report. These consisted of acknowledgement and apology; guarantees against repetition; restitution, rehabilitation, and compensation. In that reparative spirit a meaningful apology surely consists of the honest recognition of the wrong done, a public statement of regret, a determination not to reoffend, and compensation for the harm. An apology is meaningless when only offered in the expectation of forgiveness.

Kevin Rudd’s apology, which Morrison was nominally commemorating, was informed in turn by Paul Keating’s famous 1992 Redfern Park Speech. It’s easy to celebrate Keating’s oratory in individual terms, but he was responding to the recommendations of the RCADIC, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, ATSIC, and the Mabo case. Today, however, most of RCADIC recommendations remain unrealised. Reconciliation and ATSIC were disbanded in 2005 by Howard, and contrary to its representation in the Settler imaginary, the Native Title Act strangles access to land rights, while effectively legitimating the freehold title of settlers. Closing the Gap, established in the wake of the 2007 Apology, is a metric of failure. Aboriginal life expectancy, morbidity, housing, education, employment, incarceration remain a painful indictment of settler society. Collectively they reveal what Deborah Bird Rose calls ‘deep colonizing practices’ and manifest Patrick Wolfe’s penetrating observation that invasion is a structure rather than a historical event.

It is in this shameful context of failure that the Prime Minister’s expectation of forgiveness becomes insidious. The anthropologist WE Stanner described the history of European society in Australia as a history of indifference and contempt towards Aboriginal life staining ‘the moral foundation of Australian development.’ With Stanner’s judgement in mind, I wonder how the moral evasions of invasion can be addressed. To extend George Costanza’s assurance to Jerry Seinfeld that a lie is not a lie if you believe it; we should consider settlement’s constitutive lie as a socio-cultural structure. The longer an untruth circulates without contradiction the more natural, or ‘truthful’ it becomes. If the condition of all truth, as Adorno wrote, is to lend voice to suffering, then the condition of settlement is a fundamental untruth, and truth cannot be spoken or heard here.

Significantly, Adorno was one of the few Jewish academics to return to Germany after the war to participate in its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process of recognition and recognition following the Shoah. Justice, for Adorno, was not an end in itself; rather, it is an ongoing and possibly unfinishable process with far-reaching consequences. He begins with survivor guilt, common in all minority groups who have been exposed to genocide. As an Aboriginal writer, holding a mirror up to settler society, I carry the simultaneous burden of massacres in the past and indifference to injustice in the present. But in Adorno also extends a version of survivor guilt from those with blood on their hands, to those living comfortably on bloodstained land, which in the Australian context would include the beneficiaries of invasion. Writing and thinking in contexts of horror and complicity, as he understood it, required suspending the reifying assumptions of prefabricated categories, and ‘openness to whatever experience presents itself to the mind.’ This involves regarding the Other as something possessing inherent qualitative values, rather than a quantity. One implication of this is that reconciliation in the sense of absorbing the Other into the dominant majority is a fallacy, another lie, another avoidance, another reification.

Working through Prospero’s dark backward abysm of time begins with Paul’s darkling glass of I Corinthians 13, which simultaneously conceals, obscures, reflects and reveals. Somewhat ironically, as Adorno has it, ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass available.’[1] The methodology of this process is a dialectic of negation, questioning all assumptions of settler society, stripping back the layers of concealment that constitute the settler narrative. It takes the reader to the edge of the abyss to confront the horror, not to be perverted by it, as was Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; but to recognise human evil in all its corrupt ugliness, to meet the gaze of the victims of invasion and perhaps recognise one’s self.

Returning to Corinthians, ‘charity’ may be the pilgrim’s staff on the path of atonement. Charity has a long and complicated etymology. The Hebrew ‘chesed’ has as one meaning repairing the world’ In the Latin Vulgate Bible and the King James Bible, chesed was translated as lovingkindness. In the multi-layered interwoven fabric of this stolen continent, apologies, statements of regret, no matter how well-felt are only superficial, and perhaps unconscious, moves to innocence. To end suffering, there is no choice apart from ‘doing justice’, deconstructing and rewriting the settler narrative. The first step in doing justice, may be, to paraphrase Frederick Turner, thinking of the difference between Country considered as Thou and Country considered as It. And, if you are a beneficiary of invasion, contemplate an Acknowledgement of Country beginning, ‘I am a beneficiary of invasion, standing on stolen Country …’

Of course, returning to Morrison’s expectation of forgiveness, dismantling the structures that bedevil the lives of Aboriginal people does not mean that Aboriginal anger will cool, or that anything will be forgiven – it is far too late for that – but for the beneficiaries of settlement it might be the first step in a necessary process of self-recognition. For us Aboriginal people, it might signal the beginnings of the end of invasion. Never forget that consensual decision-making was, and remains, a moral foundation of Aboriginal culture. Perhaps its extension into mainstream Australian culture could be the beginning of something more truthful.


Image: An audience member at the Redfern Community Centre in inner-city Sydney during the screening of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s formal apology to the indigenous people of Australia. Flickr.

Barry Corr

Barry Corr lives in the Hawkesbury and writes about the ways in which the Hawkesbury’s Frontier War is remembered, or not remembered. His writings on Aboriginal perspectives of settler-coloniality have been published in Meanjin, Overland and Honi Soit. His essay “Knowing Even as We Are Known” is published in Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory.

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