A few weeks ago I received an email from someone I know who reads my blog – let’s call him / her “Sam”. Sam made a connection between Turner’s The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite: Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale (see 12-Oct-2013) and The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville (see 24-Oct-2013). Sam suggested one could compare the reactions of the captain on the ship with those of the defenders at Rorke’s drift, each facing an elemental onslaught – one by nature the other by the Zulu – one deserting his post the others standing resolute.
I had an instant reaction of outrage – comparing the Zulu to acts of nature is to dehumanise them, making them a mindless force that the valiant British face with courage, rather than a valiant people fighting for their country against invaders. It is racism, totally unacceptable and abhorrent.
Sam I think had no intention to be racist. Her / his idea was about otherness and the choices made by someone faced by an overwhelming external force. The racism inherent in this may be unconscious, but it is there and insidious and deeply wrong.
However Sam is a person who knows a lot more about some things than I do. So I had to question this automatic response I felt. Was this instinctive reaction misplaced? For example, is it appropriate in scholarly debate to consider ideas which one finds anathema? In the end, no. There are some things that are bedrock and cannot be called into question. Respect for the fundamental humanity of each individual is part of my bedrock. My very vague recollections of Descartes is that he gave precedence to the bedrock of his God before he started building again with “I think therefore I am”. Yes, that may have been politically expedient, but one could get lost forever in loops of cynicism. For me, I am less human if I deny the humanity of others. For me a debate premised on the non-humanity of others is meaningless and dangerous and racist.
Could it be that Sam was considering the attitudes of most people at the time those two paintings were produced? Given our wider discussion, which I haven’t repeated here, I don’t think so. Possibly I am mistaken – in which case part of the fault is mine, but I think if discussing anathema one should be very clear about placing it at a distance. Personally I would prefer to avoid it altogether.
“Personally” is a revealing word. While researching ProppaNow (see 5-Jan-2014) I read the phrase “scratch a white Australian and you’ll find a racist”. I so much don’t want that to be true, and fear that in my case it is. Australia is built on racism. I “own” the land my house is built upon on the basis of terra nullius – on the basis of a lie. Yet this country is my home and I love it. Sam is from a country that has not been conquered in centuries. I can’t speak for Sam and his/her country, but in Australia racism is active and current and toxic and must be called out and challenged where-ever it is found. I will not treat it as an intellectual curiosity.
Is this censorship of myself and others? Of a sort. I don’t like censorship but fighting racism, making sacrifices to address the wrongs done and the ongoing disadvantage of Australian indigenous people is more important. And on a personal level it’s not actually censorship or a sacrifice to try to act like the person I would like to be.
This may make me less of a scholar, this emotional reaction. So be it. I think it really means that I am making my studies relevant to myself and my life. I first noticed this back near the beginning of the course when I mused about the meaning of being Australian (see 26-Apr-2013). I noted difficulties about past ideas and attitudes when researching the Enlightenment (10-Oct-2013). I chose proppaNOW as my focus on art in the last thirty years (see 5-Jan-2014). I was in Canberra again for a few days this week and went to the National Portrait Gallery (www.portrait.gov.au/) as part of my preparation for Assignment 4. The artworks I have chosen to research will continue the theme.
Related reading: A recent newspaper opinion piece suggests cautious optimism for progress – once impossible, now extremely difficult. See Gordon, M. (2014) “Five reasons to be optimistic” In The Age 15-February-2014 [online] Available from www.theage.com.au/comment/five-reasons-to-be-optimistic-20140214-32rf2.html (Accessed 15-Feb-2014)
Edit 3-March-2014: There are many ways of measuring physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. A very blunt indicator is life expectancy. 2 in 3 Indigenous Australians died before age 65 (2004–2008) compared to 1 in 5 non-Indigenous Australians. Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare http://www.aihw.gov.au/deaths/