There seems to be a a great deal of commonality in the way people consider or approach ‘anger’ in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
Fred Myers’ description of the way Pintupi consider anger as an expression of frustration of one’s right to (and need of) relationships of identity and compassion, resonates strongly with the way Yolŋu consider anger in my experience. And Basil Sansom’s description of sociality in the Long-Grass in Darwin shares a lot in common with both these cases, particularly his meditation on ‘rules for witness’ and the like (1980).
The following is an excerpt from ~ Myers 1988, ‘The logic and meaning of anger among Pintupi Aborigines’ (in) Man Vol. 23, pp. 589-610:
‘The relative significance of ‘anger’ (in relation to compassion) is further clarified by the phenomenological image of turbulence it has for Pintupi. When one is ‘angry’, they maintain, one ‘loses one’s idea’. Following this understanding, ‘angry’ people are characterized as ‘ramarama’, which means ‘crazy’, ‘unheeeding’ or ‘deaf’ – a state they may share with unsocialised children. A persons who is ‘ramarama’ is unable to recognize his or her shared identity with others, unable to take notice of warnings, and might harm his or her own kin.
On the other hand, it seems unjustifiable to be angry if one is ‘nothing to do’ (mungutja), if the events do not concern one’s own relations. Pintupi, like many other Aborigines, have a clear sense of certain events ‘belonging’ to particular individuals (Sansom 1980). ‘That’s his business’, one hears; ‘I have nothing to do’. Defining these matters as irrelevant to others reflects a particular conception of the self’s relationship to the world. Onlookers commented humorously, on occasion, that a persona who joined a fight really had nothing to do with the circumstances: it caused him or her no harm. It appears that Pintupi become angry in relation to themselves, not for the rather abstract reason that, for example, so and so acted improperly’ (Myers 1988, p. 598).
If one infers from this that Indigenous people lack a sense of ‘responsibility’ or fail to take full responsibility for their actions then, well, you would be mistaken. It is just the opposite in fact.
The flip-side of the ‘nothing to do’ claim and non-interference is the moral and political expectation that, in the case that a person acts reprehensibly and causes some kind of conflict or disorder, it is that person’s closest kin who will or should redress the situation. This kind of socio-moral or political reparation usually requires or involves publicly attributing responsibility for the upset and often – in cases where someone has really stepped out of line and caused a seriously volatile situation – publicly holding them to account by giving them a good-old thump or beating.
Basil Sansom writes of this kind of thing, as an ‘act of moral violence’,
‘An act of moral violence is when ‘somebody ‘bin take hidin’, flogging, thrashin’, phrases which are definitive, for the essence of moral violence is in the victim’s passivity. [….] The victim is not restrained, he observes, but ‘suffers the flogging or beating or hiding without fighting back’ (1980, p. 92).
In my thesis chapter looking at issues of ‘blame and responsibility’ I conclude (in part) about a particular case-study thus:
‘It is notable that it was closest of kin that apportioned blame and enacted the punishment. [Person A] was the only person who apportioned blame to someone who was not her close kin and was subsequently rebuked by her own close kin for doing so. In the two cases where blame gave rise to the harshest punishment – in the case of [Woman B] and [Man A] – it was their closest kin, their same sex siblings, who respectively pointed the finger and gave them a ‘hiding’.
What does this suggest, or what is significant about the fact that it was the closest of kin who apportioned blame and met out punishment?
In general terms this is consistent with the idea that expectations of morality and responsibility are informed, organised and structured according to kinship relations and relative to the distance of relatedness and social action. […] It is significant also, I think, that if people are punished by their own close kin it likely reduces the risk that the punishment will be excessive, or involve excessive force. Further, if people are punished by their close kin in public, it likely also reduces the risk that ‘less close’ aggrieved parties will feel the need for revenge or retribution.’
These are instances in which people accept socio-moral and political responsibility to an extent that Western middle-class sensibilities would never allow. I dare to suggest that the rates of incarceration would be dramatically reduced if we took a leaf from the pages of these socio-moral books.