• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Dwelling on past injuries only distracts us from present and future possibilities

So Sydney City Council has decided that the arrival of Europeans in Australia was an invasion. Others insist that it was colonisation or a form of overseas settlement.

No doubt historians will wade in and offer their conflicting interpretation of what happened more than two centuries ago. But as is the case with so much of Australia’s preoccupation with the past, whatever label the City of Sydney opts for, it has nothing to do with the past and least of all with historical accuracy.

The fact so much energy is devoted towards transforming events that occurred in the 18th century into a 21st-century morality play indicates that the project of rewriting history is motivated by the impulse of reconstructing Australia’s cultural identity.

There is little doubt that Australia’s history has turned into a topic that stirs deep passions such as resentment, guilt and, above all, disorientation. And it is this politicisation of emotion that drives the rewriting of history.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s remark about her failure to keep the council from using the word “invasion” in the council’s strategic plan this week serves as a testimony to the therapeutic turn of Australian history.

She said she had underestimated the depth of feeling on this issue and that therefore it was not possible to gain agreement on any middle ground. In other words, it is the “depth of feeling” and not the intellectual quality of the argument, nor a genuine public debate, that legitimates the transformation of history into a form of therapy.

Yet the project of celebrating strong feelings about the misdeeds of the past serves to estrange Australians from their own immediate experience and distracts them from exploring their relationship to the future.

So back in 2008, when then prime minister Kevin Rudd offered his much-anticipated apology to Australia’s indigenous people, he was underlining the principle message of therapeutic history, which is that the misdeeds of the past define who we are today. Rudd’s ritual of apology was underwritten by a culture that continually incites people to confront their past as way of solving their emotional and existential problems today.

Just as individuals are encouraged to dwell on their childhood and regard their mistreatment as the cause of their adult troubles, so, too, nations and communities are told to regard their problems as a result of their historic victimisation.

The pressure to come to terms with the past is fuelled through popular culture, for example through Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Springer on television.

Grandparents who acknowledge their abusive behaviour towards their children are the moral equivalents of politicians who are big enough to issue an apology. Supporters of therapeutic history claim that through recognising the injustices of the past, members of the victimised group will be able to come to terms with their so-called trauma and move on.

Experience tells a different story. The transformation of history into a form of cultural therapy endows victim identity with permanence and a profound sense of irresponsibility.

Just as individuals blame mummy and daddy for their adult disappointment, so victims of a historical injustice are in danger of becoming overwhelmed by a narrative of fatalistic passivity.

What the Sydney City Council’s discussion of Australia’s past shows is the powerful influence of the therapeutic imagination over the proceedings.

This promiscuous transformation of memory into a political ritual is only outwardly about the feelings of the Aboriginal community. It is far more about the quest of white Australians for status through the public recollection of past misdeeds.

It represents a search for meaning and cultural identity. Through a self-conscious distancing from the nation’s past, the seven city councillors who voted for declaring the settlement as an invasion have made a statement that they “are not like the invaders”.

In this manner, individual meaning is achieved through a moral distancing from Australia’s past. In this way, history becomes customised as an instrument of individual therapy.

So what do the Aboriginal communities gain from the council’s journey back to the 18th century? Yet another statement of contrition for past wrongs and another infantilising gesture that communicates the idea of “good on you for surviving”.

As Moore stated, “despite the destructive impact of this invasion, Aboriginal culture endured and is now globally recognised as one of the world’s oldest cultures”.

Patronising remarks about the durability of one of the “world’s oldest cultures” can only distract from the very real problems confronting Aboriginal communities in the here and now. What really matters is the future and seeking refuge in the past can only sidetrack people from this task.

Unfortunately, the sense of moral accomplishment gained through reading history backwards comes at a price.

When history is used as therapy, people become distracted from confronting the problems and opportunities that confront them here and now. In such circumstances, for some people what really matters is not what they accomplish today but what happened to them a long time ago.

The council’s history-as-therapy increasingly distracts people from living in the present. Nothing they do can repair the damage inflicted on their people centuries ago. Instead of getting on with life, the put-upon historical victim is encouraged to live and relive past experience, over and over.

But history can never be reversed, and identities based on the experience of victimisation and injustice produce people who live their lives through an intense sense of injury. Tragically they are victims of an infantilising culture of victimhood.

The cultivation of victim identity and the politicisation of historic grievances also undermines the prospect for national reconciliation. Like every nation, Australia carries a burden of past injustices.

A nation needs to remember but not live through the past if it is to possess the moral and intellectual resources necessary to face the future. Genuine reconciliation requires a commitment to move on and to resist the temptation to indulge in competitive point-scoring about who did what in the 18th century.

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