Saturday, February 16, 2008

David is Sorry

I had the good fortune to be in Canberra on Wednesday 13 February 2008 and stand in Federation Mall to watch the apology to the stolen generations on the big screens. I turned my back on Dr Nelso when he tried to justify the intervention - a policy no doubt well intentioned by the militarist Mal Brough but only supported by John Howard (as with so much) in the hope it could "wedge" the ALP.

I was dismayed to find some of my acquaintances and one of the local papers still objecting - both I think because of the usage "stolen generation" and their observation there was no "generation" stolen. This objection is based on the use of the word “generation”.

Let's start with the definition of the word "generation" that means all those people in a family or group (or nation) born at about the same time. Clearly the facts state that most of the indigenous children born at any time in the first seven decades of the twentieth century got to live their lives with their parents. But we do know that between one in ten and one in three was taken from its family. That is a lot.

We talk freely of the generation that went to war - in reference to both the first and second world wars - yet the proportion was certainly below one in three and for most areas and age groups less than one in ten. Clearly ordinary usage permits the use of the word "generation" to refer to circumstances that affect a significant proportion of that population but not all of it. To use the word "generation' in the context of stolen generations is acceptable within ordinary usage.

A second meaning of "generation" is the period of time between one generation and the next - so we hear phrases like "a once in a generation opportunity". This period is usually considered to be 25-30 years, though it can be as short as 15 years in some usage (e.g. generation X and Y refer to two fifteen year periods).

The period of seventy years over which the policies applied constitute two or more generations in this meaning of the word and the "stolen generations" can be interpreted as referring to this time (and it is because of the length of time of the policy that the original "stolen generation" became "stolen generations" as used in the apology).

If you want me to go through all the other limbs of objection I will but let me summarise; They weren't stolen - well yes a lot could be argued to have been taken under the same conditions as DOCS would take kids today, but we do know there were some who were taken merely because they were half-caste, we know a different standard on separation was applied to blacks than whites and we know that after separation they were treated far differently than ay white children taken on the basis of inadequate home life - most especially the habitual separation of siblings from each other.

It was well intentioned - yes, but it was based on race and race alone in many cases and that is inexcusable in hindsight. Was Hitler "well intentioned" in seeking racial purity in Germany and does that justify his actions.

So "stolen generations" is arguably acceptable language to refer to the systematic removal of children from their homes on racial grounds, though it is not the language I would choose.

We aren't responsible for actions made by previous generations - we're not taking responsibility just expressing regret and apologising. When I say "I'm sorry" to someone whose close relative has died I am not saying I was responsible for their death. You could equally argue we shouldn't be proud of anything in history.

Finally, if just saying sorry is going to make the aggrieved people, many of whom are still alive, feel better then it is a good thing to do. .