Why we need more words than sorry

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.

Posted in culture, indigenous, politics, sociology
33 comments on “Why we need more words than sorry
  1. paul walter says:

    You have perhaps had the questionable fortune to read you former sparring patner Julie Szego’s op ed, “real victims of abuse should not be forgotten” just out, 13/12, in the “Age”
    A fair enough piece and much in it that loosely pertains to, “Why we need more words ( and money, deeds?? ) than sorry”.
    Except for a couple of remarkable and confusing key sentences:
    ” The oldest of the gang was 25: a man of low IQ, a follower rather than a leader, who…wouldn’t (couldn’t?) have given much thought to the age disparities or the “legal niceties of consent”. These later observations are offered- bizzarely- in support of leniency”.
    Why “bizarrely”?
    We appear to be given a description of a dysfunstional wretch created out of a dysfuctional community, a situation this way because of two centuries of white brutality and middle-class greed. “Community” is the word applied as to Arakun; the madness that whites created of the lives of these people.
    But this is a reason given not for understanding, but heavier sentencing, presumably to a very brutal incarceration Indeed, for a proffered reason of public protection.
    The question is, does it come from a person who begrudged tax cuts, say, for more spending repairing the white fellas mess, human and material at a previous time?
    Since the fellow is also a victim, how about some remedial therapy for him and the other likely dehumanised perps as well as the girl, who is more obvious as a victim because the hrm was done on the outside.
    The twenty-five tyear old will do as a convenient scape goat for people who were never truly dinkum about ending aboriginal suffering themselves.
    I add here that in an earlier thread at LP I said I found the judge’s leniency a bit hard to follow too, within the general subject of soft sentencing for violent crimes in general.
    But what I suspect elements of the tabloid media are about is actually a bit of old fashioned KKK lynch-law for a cheap story. A Hansonist rather than balanced approach that refuses consideration what the situation up there is REALLY about.

  2. paul walter says:

    A late ps.
    The vile myth that the court went soft on the Arukun offenders because they are brown, out of middle clas guilt over aboriginals, should not be allowed to thrive further.
    The judiciary are soft on whites too, as a case recently in Adelaide demonstrates.
    Here, a group of young people spiked out a friend during a big night out, and when the victim was unconscious, raped him anally with a vibrator whilst this was filmed for the amusement of others watching elsewhere. Some physical damge was apparently done.
    You guessed it; no time to be served, a verbal slap on the wrist.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve no time for Dubya justice, Texas-style.Thats why I would like to see the tabloid hounds baying for blood over Arukun called back to kennel before they do further harm in quest of their own selfish objectives.
    For I see that people far more in control of themselves than most of the Aborigines charged at Arukun are let off scot-free for serious violent crimes. If not whites for violence then not blacks.
    It is, of course, dead right to ask angrily why at least no short (?) custodial sentence and/ or community orders, in both cases, at least?
    Let’s not encourage media hysteria over the Arukun outrage with its virtual lynch law- its not a “soft on aborigines” thing.
    But let’s try to find out what’s wrong with law officials across the country, as to soft sentencing on violent crime, as well as developing a response that deals with dysfunctional communities white or black, rather than scapegoating isolated individuals because the comunity at large is too stingy to forgo tax cuts for monies required for real situations.

  3. philiptravers says:

    I think there is sufficient upset about this case,to not entirely describe the response in terms of matters Aboriginal.That is , more simple equality in being disturbed by other humans activity to others.Similar crimes by other racial groups have occured in Australia and elsewhere.To have as a response a matter of philosophy as here,doesnt change the nature of participators who are obviously not skilled in those notions of I, as a function of philosophy that then begins activity as… can.They,[participators] may have some unusual peculiarities of concept building that is distinctly the various ages and not necessarily traditional as attitude.I looked up the name Woolla ,which led me to a NT community being legalised as that in 1981.The name Petit was the named officer of that Community then.It would seem to me that a problem of description of self,in that young mans life is the difficulty he may of faced before as sexual offender,so it could be whatever way others call him or name him,unless by some type of confronting…he may simply not understand.Which is somewhat different to a potential to have a insight into him or him to have a philosophical insight to himself.The name Petit,although obvious another human being,[and I imply nothing about him here], is really an ambiguous name,with a number of meanings,which are European and French in origin,how this plays as a insight into self as a non-European with some traditional understandings, would be difficult to self assess.Myself with two royal given names,I cannot always potentialise that in a manner that adds to my own self-awareness,because the names are still remote.More so because there are other Philips and Andrews and the P&A Royals, I am not interested in consciously accepting them as in emulating ,but find a source of experience of my life as is ,to be ready to criticise and reject them.My sense of I isnt something that abounds with great residual energy.Should it!?When there are many ways to assess momentum of self!

  4. Klaus K says:

    Yes, well put Mark, and thanks for the reference to Mensch. Into the thesis it goes…

  5. Sam Ward says:

    We appear to be given a description of a dysfunstional wretch created out of a dysfuctional community, a situation this way because of two centuries of white brutality and middle-class greed.

    This is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

    Is there anything in the world that isn’t the fault of the white middle class?

    I swear to god if the earth was hit by a comet you idiots would try to blame it on Shane Warne.

  6. Klaus K says:

    Well, if you’re going to take paul walter as a representative of any group at all other than himself then it’s pretty safe to assume that you’re trolling, Sam.

    On second thought, would you like to explain why “two centuries of white brutality and middle-class greed” is a stupid idea? It would be difficult to argue that these don’t form at least an aspect of Australia’s past, although we might dispute their relative significance.

    Also, any thoughts on the actual post?

  7. FDB says:

    Yeah, Sam, Paul is pretty much a philiptravers in training. Don’t you pay too much mind.

  8. Ken Lovell says:

    In the linked Switzer piece, he claims that anti-conservatives want right wing media voices silenced and this ‘amounts to a request for the curtailment of free speech and public debate.’

    This completely misconceives the criticisms that have been made by so many people of the columnists he lists. People aren’t trying to suppress alternative opinions; they do however object to media hacks who confuse media imagery with substance and then try to manipulate the imagery so that they become central figures in the grand scheme of things, of at least equal importance to the people they write about.

    I’m all for conservative columnists who write with wit and style, who refrain from blatant distortion of the truth, and who are not insufferably obsessed with their own pompous self-importance. I’m afraid most of the people on Switzer’s list fail miserably to meet those benchmarks.

  9. mbahnisch says:

    The link to Switzer was really just context, Ken. There’s more discussion on his article on this thread, where I agree with you:


  10. John Greenfield says:

    Just the aborigines need! Luvvies quoting Parisienne pomo posseurs! You people are beyond treatment. Seriously. Why don’t you all sign an “emergency petition” demanding free copies of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan (the people of Mutijulu have surely suffered without a daily dose of ‘the Other’ for long enough), and Lucy Irigay!? Perhaps Judith Butler could wing in and stage Waiting for Biame with a special dedication to Susan Sontag? No doubt Germaine Greer will receive her customary permission from “the leaders of the tribe” to make said dedication?

    Perhaps there is no need, as they are already well aware that any apology will not, like the Gulf War, have really happened. To wit, the apology will really only be simulacra of contrition.

    For the love of god, luvvies, I have begged you people before; PLEASE leave our indigenous people alone!

  11. kimberella says:

    Merleau-Ponty died before po/mo was invented.

    Just sayin…

    But thanks for the comedic relief, JG.

  12. Casey says:

    Mark, what a beautiful post. Really invaluable. Im currently writing up a chapter on Gail Jones’s “Sorry”. I would like to reference these links and you. Is that OK?
    In essence, and still writing in the shadows of the Howard era which squandered its moment to do it, Jones asks if the moment to say sorry has passed? I wonder if you’ve read this novel. I wonder what you make of the question, in light of this post.

    I have my thoughts, but I would love to know what you think.

    Its been an amazing time, to have written all the other chapters knowing that reconciliation had left the national stage and was only a memory to most. Then to start this chapter in an era when it has returned to the centre, this sorry thing, this hope of a nation in the process of reconcilation again.

    Sorry is not just a word. Its a hard gesture that will cost the nation much. Thats why so much resistance to it was whipped up by the Howard govt.

    Years ago (and I know every rockstar and their fans did this – but long before Peter Garrett and the Olympics) I used to wear a sorry t-shirt – coloured red, black and yellow -round the place. The responses I used to get to it in those early days indicated that its more than just a word. I had a red faced man shout at me at a restaurant once that we had nothing to be sorry for, I watched often out of the corner of my eye how people would shift away, as if somehow the moral burden of the nation had been emblazoned on my front. I saw Aboriginal people stare at me with interest in pubs, wondering what the hell I was doing wearing that in Rooty Hill or wherever the hell I was. People laughed and they derided or they smiled. After a while it got hard to wear it cause it always got a reaction. Once it became fashionable, I stopped doing it, mostly cause it lost its impact (and I didnt want to look like a Garrett groupie). But those times taught me one thing. It will cost the white nation much to say sorry. It goes to the heart of our own identity. It fragments an easy acceptance of that discourse of benevolence which feeds peaceful myths of settlement. To say sorry to to give presence to a people. To give presence is to acknowledge a fault in the history of the nation, to willingly diminish oneself in favour of the other, to relinquish power in a way, to raise the Other onto an equal field. To begin the process of going forward together. Its quite a powerful gesture.

    “Sorry? why should I say sorry? I didnt do anything?” – I hear this all the time. Those people should consider that while they did nothing personally, they are beneficiaries in the present of the actions of the past. We all are.

  13. mbahnisch says:

    Thanks very much, Casey. Sure, I’m more than happy for you to cite the post.

    I haven’t read Gail Jones’ novel – could you perhaps expand a little on what she’s getting at with the question?

    Sorry is not just a word. Its a hard gesture that will cost the nation much.

    Couldn’t agree more!

    I also like what Lowitja O’Donoghue had to say in Crikey today:

    Nelson’s are the mean-spirited responses of denial that diminish him as a person and diminish Australia as a nation. At the very historical moment when new, courageous collaboration is possible, this new Liberal leader, just like Howard before him, fuels the fires of division.

    What they fail to grasp, or refuse to see, is that we cannot move forward until the legacies of the past are properly dealt with. This means acknowledging the truth of history, providing justice and allowing the process of healing to occur.

    We are not just talking here of the brutality of a time gone by – though that was certainly a shameful reality. We are talking of the present, of the ways in which the legacy of the past lives on for every single Aboriginal person and their families.

    It is time for non-Indigenous Australians to turn their reflective gaze inwards. It is time to look at non-Indigenous privilege – and to ask the question: ‘What was the cost of this advantage – and who paid the price?’


  14. Klaus K says:

    Nice screed, John Greenfield, but I have to second kimberella. Also, if you can’t tell the difference between Judith Butler, Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer then your usefulness as entertainment is going to be limited to the dilettantes and dabblers only.

  15. John Greenfield says:


    MP not part of the canon of French pomo onanism? ROFLMAO. And if you lack the synaptic connections to follow the Butler-Sontag-Greer link wrt to remote shell-shocked communities, it is not me who will be grinding the organ, luvvies.

    But once again, for you people, the aborigines are only ever an instrument, aren’t they?

  16. kimberella says:

    Whereas the depth of your moral seriousness about Indigenous issues is demonstrated by your using this thread to take your predictable and tedious potshots in theory/culture wars of obsessive interest only to you?

  17. FDB says:

    We need many more words than sorry because of the way this whole saga has progressed. We need to be very bloody careful of not saying “sorry for not having said it earlier”. It needs specifics.

    And yes, thanks Mark and Casey for articulating what I’ve been flailing for every time someone tells me it’s just a word that won’t change anything.

    It will cost us – but it won’t be the loss of waste, rather an investment with potentially huge returns.

    It will be divisive – but the division will be between those who believe white Australia has done wrong by Indigenous Australia and those who don’t. I’m okay with that frankly.

    Whereas to say sorry while trying to avoid the costs and division truly would risk being meaningless.

  18. mbahnisch says:

    Indeed it would be, FDB. That’s why, as I say, I’m extremely pleased that the issue is being treated seriously by the Rudd government – something O’Donoghue also notes.

  19. wmmbb says:

    Apparently some people who have us believe that others can be objects for whose suffering we feel no compassion. They are lying or deceiving themselves because they too are human beings.

    As Mark said those who have suffered from the invisible effects to us of racism are our brothers and sisters, if I may be permitted, albeit partially, to adopt a Quaker view of the world. At some deep level, which we may feel but not fully comprehend or adequately express, their suffering is our suffering. For example, my mother was born and raised in Perth, a city from which Aboriginal people were excluded. I would prefer not to live with that legacy of injustice, and all the other examples of racism, not forgetting the separation of children from their families and cultures, which I am told has echoed from one generation to the next. Therefore, I demand truth and justice, and if that realization in words and deeds adds to the capacities of those affected, so much the better.

  20. mbahnisch says:

    Well said, wmmbb.

  21. Klaus K says:

    “And if you lack the synaptic connections to follow the Butler-Sontag-Greer link wrt to remote shell-shocked communities, it is not me who will be grinding the organ, luvvies.”


    This is the bit where Greenfield shows our supreme ignorance of ‘our own’ canon: a canon that only exists in his mind, and is supposed to be bound together by a set of arcane connections that he has discerned but the weak-minded intelligentsia have failed to arrive at, despite being utterly beholden to them. This is a perfect example of a pseudointellectual stance.

  22. mbahnisch says:

    Don’t feed, troll, etc.

  23. Klaus K says:

    Apologies, Mark. I missed John Greenfield while he was away, and my sentimentality got the better of me.

  24. Klaus K says:

    And for some reason that went through twice…

    “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.”

    The way that Mensch understands the links between the epistemic violence of colonialism and the ‘enclosure’ of land is particularly enlightening. I don’t think I’ve seen that connection borne out so effectively in other accounts of epistemic violence.

  25. mbahnisch says:

    Klaus, Charles Taylor makes a similar point in this piece:

    A culture’s disappearing means that a people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can’t draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.”


    I blogged about it here:


    Obviously there’s some good thinking on these issues from Canadian philosophers!

  26. Klaus K says:

    Indeed, there does seem to be. I’ve been using Canadian anthropologists for some time as well, although Australia has some fine thinkers in that discipline also.

    For me, Mensch seems particularly useful because he provides another way of thinking the significance of land. I mean, a democratic and ethical response would already recognise the importance of land because of the emphasis on land in Aboriginal political activity, (which can be traced right through the various groups and movements even where they are seeking civil as opposed to land rights) but accounts of epistemic violence and radical cultural difference have emerged from literary fields and struggle to think culture in ways that parallel that Aboriginal position, emphasising textuality instead.

  27. philiptravers says:

    I think John Greenfield made a valid point,and it was lost on many here in the embellishments of it.Suggest you all go back and read what he says,because in the context of this particular legal case, rather than care for Aboriginality generally,and there is no good reason to believe John doesnt care at all,not transposing a attitude onto them,is a similar attitude I have, about considering me, not having reasons for contempt for those who misread matters re employment.I do not think what John has to say here would be found to be offensive in nature,to Aboriginals generally.Take the point.FDB a funny fellow…..since when is it necessary to select two words or four letters, I can, and decide as a function of… the complete use of the English language, in reference to matters of what motivates humanity, into specific sets of behaviour can actually be the starting point of the transition to a philosophical mode!?I did stuff like that in poetry when I was in my teens with a borrowed Oxford dictionary learning more about the meaning of words and how they were connected.Shit!I dont mean to be over critical,but, I think it is a pathetic choice. I can, but does that mean my me does can?Limited as I am,in not being any longer a teenage man,it is like what I read about e-mails in the U.S.A. 95% all spam! Style, rules of grammar and commas are avoiding me.

  28. Jack Strocchi says:

    Mark says:

    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.

    I would not consider it seriously. In 1996 Howard went with “small target”, mainly on the Class War. Definitely not “me-tooism” in the Culture War. He ran on a strong program opposing cultural elitist special interests – exactly the opposite of Keatings “reconciliation, refugee and republican” program. His election jingle still rings true, given the Cultural Left’s ignorance of social science and arrogance about social policy:

    I watched as things began to change around me
    The fancy dancers got to have their say
    They changed the vision, spurned the wisdom
    And made Australia change to suit their way.

    In a democracy elections change govts, not the people. To argue otherwise is to take on a revolutionary elitist, rather than evolutionary populist, philosophy of govt. That “constructivist” arrogance was the source of most of the 20thC political woes.

    Keating did change the country somewhat with his economic rationalist policy. But then most Anglo countries went through this change so perhaps it had a populist base after all. Self funded superannuation and treating the family home as a leveraging asset are pretty popular after all.

    However Keating failed in his cultural elitist program. Howard won elections because “the times suited him” ie the people were receptive to a social conservatism “corporalist” philosophy of governance. Sick of social constructivism and the degenerate form of liberalism on offer by the New Left and New Right.

  29. Jack Strocchi says:

    Comment by kimberella — December 13, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

    Whereas the depth of your moral seriousness about Indigenous issues is demonstrated by your using this thread to take your predictable and tedious potshots in theory/culture wars of obsessive interest only to you?

    The missionaries did a better job than a generation of massively funded Cultural Leftists in teaching useful knowledge and good values, by the admission of black fellas I know up there. Liberal-Leftist cultural policy for indigenes: As if indigenous people need more sit down money and access to abusive substances.

    You people had your chance with indigenous affairs and blew it.

  30. paul walter says:

    re the conversation between Mark and Klaus, the Charles Taylor quote, confirmed by the “Lear” quote, reveals the significance and implication emeging from an encouraged created state of lawlessness in a society, that the Hansonists will surely miss, that has them at the same level of consciousness that afflicts the worst offenders of Arukun.
    Because what they fail to grasp is, that once lawlessness is affirmed as a rule it applies to all. “Property is theft”.
    What is going around will surely come around and others in the future may look back to this time as an idyllic Dreaming for a society due for a nasty awakening.
    A civilisation might be only as strong as its weakest link and if we persist in disempowering indigenes, haven’t we created a weakness in all society. Better we remove the weaknesses that caused the aboriginal genocide and hence the current problems also from our white part of society ( ourselves ) and get back to drawing on the better part, if it still exists. For the only way to heal society is to help heal the indigines, even if there is a cost involved. From ignorance derives arrogance and vice verca.

  31. John Greenfield says:

    Nowhere through all this is there is any hint of what shall be apologised for and how it will be expressed? No doubt it will be a (non)poetic piece of deconstructed decollatage; a wreath adorning some memorial somewhere. Australia’s very own ‘gash of shame,’ per chance?

    I expect Luvvies and paid up members of the Aboriginal Industries will have quite lengthy lists including colonialism, imperialism, the Battle of Actium, Al Andalus, genocide (actual, cutltural, and confected), Zionism, child removals, Dawn Casey’s replacement at the National Museum, and so on.

    Not one person will be satisfied and the whole shit fight will flare up again, and the stench will be just as acrid. Never mind, our pomo teachers tell us and our children the past cen never be known, let alone be recaptured, they still insisit on the bloodletting.

    People are very odd, aren’t they?

  32. John Greenfield says:

    Paul Walter

    The weaknesses were inherent in aboriginal “civilisation,” not foisted upon it.

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