On the relativism of cultural relativism

I finished The Protectors the other day, and have now started on Raft – a book of short stories written by a doctor who has visited many remote communities. I may finish that on the plane, or I may decide that it’s a bit heavy-going. The One Arm Point story, for example, was about the death of a very senior woman, and I’m pretty sure I know who the main person in the story is. Although the author has disguised the identities of the people involved, because he identifies communities, the number of possible identities is very small. This is a book written, it seems, with the presumption that those with first-hand knowledge of those communities will not read it. It is elegiac, but the message is bleak and disempowering.

But back to the Protectors. This is a very strange book. I could never quite work out whether the author – Stephen Gray – was trying to set himself up as an apologist for the policies that led to the Stolen Generations. On the one hand, he spends a fair amount of time discussing genocide, reactions and justifications of the perpetrators of genocide, and the parallels and non-parallels between Australia, South Africa, and Nazi Germany. On the other hand, however, his stance about motives is highly relativistic. He seems to be arguing that although Aboriginal people have suffered, we have to take into account the motives of the actions of the people who most proximately caused that suffering; such actions were always argued to be in the best interests of  aboriginal people and their children.

This is not a little ironic. One of the justifications for removing children from their families has been a cultural and moral absolutism: all children must be protected, no Australian should have to put up with domestic violence, and so on. All deserve equal protection under the law, along with full access to the rights of law. If one is going to go down the cultural absolutism path, at least it could be applied consistently.

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