A pluralistic approach to the anthropology of morality: Yolŋu reverse role-play

‘The array of distinct assumptions about issues regarding moral variability, the nature of the moral domain, and how individual freedom factors into moral action can all result in the study of different theoretical ideas that end up being cast as if they were the same topic.’

– Cassaniti & Hickman 2014:252.


I read Cassaniti and Hickman’s New Directions in the Anthropology of Morality the other day and really enjoyed it. The authors put forward some great points, chief among which is their argument for a pluralistic approach to moral variation – one which seeks to ‘reconcile humanity’s propensity toward moral realism with overwhelming ethnographic evidence of moral variability’ (253). I also found merit in the argument for better defining the moral domain – figuring out what counts as moral, ‘what kinds of thing are uniquely moral in each ethnographic setting’ (257) and identifying domains of experience that are ‘morally saturated’ in each ethnographic context (with an understanding that domains of experience that become heavily moralised will necessarily vary cross-culturally). The points I found most interesting and compelling, however, were also those that I found myself critically mulling over days later.

This is all well and good, I found myself thinking, but Yolŋu people have been advocating for a pluralistic approach to morality and law since balanda (white people, Europeans) would listen.’† When is anthropology going to start taking Indigenous theories seriously instead of subjecting them to their own analyses and theorising about them? (I’m sure it’s not just Yolŋu people who have been advocating for such an approach or stance.) Beyond advocacy, in fact, Yolŋu have been doggedly persistent in their attempt to educate balanda about the necessity of such a stance – not only how it is possible, but why it is both necessary and just. And they continue to do so in good humour despite our blunt, closed ears. The video below is but one example of this.

Said video is a ‘reverse role play’ created by the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service to ‘illustrate the difficulties of interpretation in a legal context.’ However, I’d like to present it here as a comment on the importance of a pluralistic stance in approaches to moral variation in conversation with the aforementioned paper. Not only does it speak to a number of key points raised in Cassaniti and Hickman’s paper but it addresses a crucial element that I found missing – namely, power. (Surely it is a privileged position to have never had to navigate different if not conflicting moral codes, especially as manifest in law?)

The video is quite long but it worth watching right through. It would make a great teaching-aid, methinks. I have included a break-down of the video below with a few additional notes.



@ 3:00 The charges are read out.

The ‘kinds of things’ that the defendant is charged with are all unique to the ethnographic setting. He is charged with: Entering a ceremony ground while ceremony is taking place; Causing a state of galŋa yatj-yun-nha (literally ‘skin + making bad, wrong, not good’) and thus disrupting ceremony; Performing a ceremonial dance incorrectly; Refusing to follow proper practice (re: dancing) when shown by the Djuŋgayi††† of a ceremony; Refusing to leave when directed to do so by the Djuŋgayi of a ceremony, and; Assaulting the Djuŋgayi of a ceremony while ceremony is in progress.

@ 7:00: Discussion of previous offences.

As above, the ‘kinds of things’ that the defendant was previously charged with are unique to the ethnographic setting. The defendant was previously found guilty of ‘Speaking the names of the recently deceased’. This is a definite, definite no-no in the Yolŋu context.

@ 10:50: Discussion of defendant’s ‘character.’

This speaks to the question of how the moral domain relates to personhood and, among things, ‘sociability’. The defendant, it is revealed, does not live with his close kin, nor his extended kin. (This would be considered aberrant if not a form of neglect in Yolŋu terms.) And while the defendant claims to be what he refers to as a ‘Judge’ for reasons detailed later in the piece he is considered to be unemployed or djäma-miriw (lacking or without work) by the Magistrate.

@ 15:00: Discussion about the serious nature of the ‘crimes’ committed.

@ 20:00: The Magistrate delivers the verdict and the sentence/’punishment’.

Again, the ‘sentence’ or punishment is unique to the ethnographic context (and does not involve incarceration).


One final note – when they are asking ‘how do you plead, guilty or not-guilty?’ the expression used is ‘buku-gora wo yaka buku-gora?‘ (literally, ‘forehead-shamed or forehead-not shamed’). This is primarily a question about a person’s state of feeling. Indeed, the exact same term – buku-gora – is later translated as ‘remorseful.’

While the audience is laughing in this piece, you can imagine how terrifying, alienating and humiliating this experience would be for a Yolŋu person in a balanda court of law, not to mention how unfair and unjust the outcome. If there is anything unclear that you’d like translated or further clarification on, just drop a note in the comments below.




† Obviously I can’t go into this in depth here but take a look, per esempio, at Frances Morphy’s Performing the Law: The Yolngu of Blue Mud Bay meet the Native Title process and also Howard Morphy’s, Mutual Conversion? The Methodist Church and Yolngu people.

†† Yolngu people have always advocated a ‘Two Laws’ approach, see dhuwala, for example.

††† ‘Djuŋgayi’ is an authoritative ‘care-taker’ role played by a person or group for their Mother’s ceremony (i.e. you are Djuŋgayi for your Mother’s clan and ceremony). The role of the Djuŋgayi is sometimes described as that of a ‘manager’, ‘lawyer’ or ‘policeman’ .

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