Tribal People Cop Savage Treatment


Two apparently trivial events currently being played out in Australia are in fact episodes in a global battle which Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) people should be keenly interested in.

The first is American author Jared Diamond’s promotional tour for his new book "The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies?" The second is this week’s judicial review in the Federal Court of an ACMA ruling that Channel 7 broke the "racism clause" of the Broadcasting Code of Practice in its report on a Brazilian tribe.

The Channel 7 report, broadcast in September 2011, depicted the Suruwaha tribe of the Brazilian Amazon as child-killers, "Stone Age" relics, and "one of the worst human rights violators in the world". Survival International complained to Australia’s regulator ACMA after Channel 7 refused to issue a correction to its report.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry said at the time, "This was one of the worst reports about contemporary tribal people we’d ever seen. The Indians were made out to be cruel and inhuman monsters, in the spirit of 19th century colonialist scorn for ‘primitive savages’."

After a lengthy investigation, ACMA upheld Survival’s complaint, but Channel 7 instantly went to court to get the ruling overturned, not on the grounds that the finding was in itself wrong, but rather that ACMA’s interpretation of its own powers was faulty. That hearing opens in the Federal Court in Sydney on Wednesday.

What does that have to do with Jared Diamond? Currently on the Australian leg of a PR tour that’s already taken in the US and much of Europe, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s latest book is at first glance an uncontroversial look at how tribal societies have much to teach the West on subjects like child-rearing and treatment of the elderly.

But there is a sinister, and not-so-hidden, theme in the book which has received surprisingly little attention. It is that tribal peoples live in a state of constant warfare, are racked by violence, and need state control to be imposed on them in order to bring them peace.

I suspect many in the Aboriginal community would disagree with Diamond’s assertion that they’ve been much better off since the British colonised their lands and curbed their supposed constant violence. Across the Torres Strait, many in West Papua have reacted with outrage: when 100,000 of your people have been killed by Indonesian hit squads, state control doesn’t seem wonderful.

Diamond’s message, and the message of the Channel 7 report, are essentially the same: that tribal peoples are barbaric, violent killers — savages, in other words. Of course, Diamond’s book is phrased in much more nuanced and careful language than the Channel 7 report, but the underlying message is very similar.

Why does any of this matter? For one thing there’s the question of violence: there is a clear push on the part of a significant sector of intellectual opinion (Channel 7, I think, was reflecting this rather than shaping it) to promote the idea that tribal societies are much more violent than anyone else. The Harvard scientist and popular author Steven Pinker is perhaps the most prominent exponent of this campaign. Needless to say, this debate has been conducted without any involvement from indigenous peoples themselves.

There’s also the question of "today". For Channel 7, visiting the Suruwaha was "literally time-travelling back 10,000 years" (although to everyone else it still appeared to be 2011). For Diamond, tribal people are "yesterday’s" people, evolutionary relics who can tell us how "we" lived thousands of years ago.

The logical consequence, of course, of this belief is that the sooner today’s indigenous people "catch up" with the modern world, the better. I expect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may have a different view.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.