Although there are some around the shop who don’t seem to think that having an election changed anything, including culture warriors who can’t decide whether they’re triumphing or courageously flying the flag of dissent, there’s a fundamental flaw at the heart of the claim that minimising the differences during the campaign implies a continuation of Howardism by some other name. You only need to consider whether the “me too-ism” of John Howard in 1996 led to 11 years of continued Keatingism. Elections matter and elections bring change.
Symbolic acts, despite the false dichotomy between “symbolic” and “practical” reconciliation apparently cast aside by John Howard in his (electoral) deathbed conversion to an acknowledgement of Indigenous people in the Constitution, bring consequences in their train because language shapes how we act. That’s something that’s powerfully argued in an essay by Canadian philosopher James R Mensch at Open Democracy. Mensch, following the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argues that the rationale for violence is the recognition that mutilation of the body destroys the embodied capacity to act, and sometimes even to speak one’s own truth:
The role of the body in generating senses is, thus, one of enactment. Through a set of bodily activities, we enact senses by putting the objects to the uses that disclose their senses. We do so through our bodily “I can,” which may be anything from “I can eat with a spoon” to “I can drive a car.” Without this “I can,” a person’s words lose their lived sense. The loss of this “I can” is not, then, just the reduction of the body to a non-functioning object. It is also the loss of the person’s ability to enact and, hence, disclose for herself the senses that make up the world she shares with his others. When a person is subject to the amputation of hand or foot, the mutilation extends to her pragmatic understanding of her world and her being in it. The same holds for the linguistic meanings that express this understanding. Within certain limits-namely those set by the bodily mutilation-she, thus, becomes languageless. Her mutilation is not just “unspeakable” in the sense of being dreadful. It is also such as to place her outside of the context of the common meanings she once shared with her others. Not being able to enact them, they remain “symbolic,” that is, they possess a sense that she cannot personally experience. Here, the result of such violence is both an isolating and silencing of its victims. It removes them from a living participation in the context that would permit the articulation of their situation.
So it is with the symbolic and material violence that destroys the collective ability to act, something Mensch argues in relation to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples:
The violence that is destructive of the sense we make with others need not involve any direct physical violence. The destruction of the necessary conditions for collective behaviour is sufficient. A striking example of such is provided by the disruption of aboriginal cultures by European colonists. Their transformation of the land through enclosures and the destruction of habitats deprived the natives of their original means of supporting themselves. This brought with it a disruption of the contexts of sense by which the natives interpreted their world and themselves within it. Thus, once the land was divided up and enclosed for farming, the aboriginal hunter-gatherer activity became impossible. With this, the surrounding worlds such activity disclosed were no longer available. The inhabitants could, consequently, no longer understand themselves within their context. The men, for example, could no longer see themselves as hunters or pastoralists given that all the suitable land was enclosed by the settlers. Their loss was a loss of their sense of embodiment as hunters or pastoralists. This was not just a loss of a social function along with the recognition and status that this involved. It was also a loss of a bodily “I can,” one correlated to the specific projects that were no longer possible. It vanished along with the world such projects uncovered.
He goes on to make explicit reference to the Canadian equivalent of the Stolen Generation. The fact that the violent sundering of community and language diminishes the capacity to articulate that experience – because its motivation (“well meaning” or not) is literally to efface Indigenous in favour of colonising culture makes it extremely important that any apology be negotiated so that it speaks to those who’ve suffered dispossession – and speaks simultaneously, if it’s possible, in an Indigenous as well as whitefella voice. That’s the meaning of reconciliation. That’s why there’s so much hope inherent in the consultations currently going on to the wording of the apology with Indigenous representatives. I’ve seen the flip suggestion, in the context of Brendan Nelson’s negation of an apology in advance, that it wouldn’t cost him anything to say sorry. But sorry sometimes seems to be the hardest word, and that’s as it should be. It’s very important that an apology does cost us something, and that its verbal expression adds to the capacities of our Indigenous sisters and brothers as well as ours.