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Sit down, Shut up, Listen up

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Pentecost 5 – 2022 Luke 10:25-27 NAIDOC Week Marian Free

In the name of God who shows no distinction but values all people. Amen.

At the beginning of the year Professor Josh Mylne, the Chair of the planning committee for the International Congress on Plant Molecular Biology (IPMB) tweeted a poster for the upcoming Conference. The poster featured head shots of all the headline speakers and the chairs for the various sessions – over 90 people in total. Professor Mylne, who had been working on the Conference since 2018 was proud of the line-up, especially the diversity that it displayed. As he told the ABC programme Science Friction: “We had one of the best gender balances I’d seen, career-stage diversity with younger and older scientists, so much different science — more than ever before — chairs from all around the world, including for the first time Africa and India.”

The poster had been shown to hundreds of people before it was tweeted, all of whom responded positively. It was not surprising then that Professor Mylne was taken aback when one of the responses to the tweet was: “International, and no Africans.” Professor Mylne had just cycled home and, instead of stopping to think, he quickly replied: “Look harder”, directing the tweeter to the one African face among the 94.” Of course, potential attendees did look harder, and discovered that not only was there only one person from an African nation. While Asia was well-represented and there was a good gender balance, African and South America speakers were notable by their absence. A closer look also revealed that the website for a conference that was to be held in Australia failed to include an acknowledgement of country.

Instead of dampening the fire, Mylne’s response ignited a blazing fire with the eventual result that one of the sponsors withdrew their support and the Conference itself was postponed.

By taking the tweet personally and by responding hastily, Mylne made the sort of mistake that many of us make. Instead of recognising the hurt (and sense of exclusion) behind the critical tweet, Mylne responded defensively which turned the hurt into outrage. His response was interpreted as “disrespectful” and “tokenistic”. The situation was only made worse when an email was sent to one of the critics suggesting that it was up to people of colour to fix the problem.

It would be good to report that a occurence such as this is unusual, that seeing a situation only from one’s own perspective was a rare occurrence in today’s Australia, but sadly the failure to listen carefully is illustrative of a common reaction towards those who are different from ourselves – migrants, refugees and most egregiously our indigenous community. Our best efforts – when they do not include diverse voices – can be experienced as paternalistic and condescending. Our responses to criticism often demonstrate a failure to hear and an unwillingness to adequately address the concerns of those who outside our field of vision. When our failures are drawn to our attention, we too often become defensive instead of being open, and graciously listening and responding to the grievances of those whom we have (deliberately or inadvertently) excluded, patronised, or offended.

Not being heard or having one’s concerns ignored or carelessly dismissed are experiences that our first Nations people know only too well. There have been amply opportunities (particularly in the past 50 years) for white Australians, policy makers and members of industry to respond to the injustices wrought upon indigenous Australians for generations, and yet our responses have been inadequate at best and detrimental at worst.

To mention just a few – despite the apology, children of indigenous families are still being removed in greater numbers than children of other Australians, despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody people of indigenous background are still over represented in our prisons, despite laws protecting sacred sites it was still possible to blow up the Juukan caves in Western Australia, despite commitments by the former Federal Government and the Uluru Statement from the Heart, first Nations people are still waiting to be recognised in our constitution and given a voice in government.

Since colonisation, we have not only forced indigenous people from their land, taken away their culture and their language, removed their children from their care, but we have also failed to listen to their wisdom, to appreciate their history and to value their knowledge of this land.

We cannot say that we have not been told – and told – what the problems are and how they can be solved. I was shocked, for example, when I heard Rachel Perkins deliver the Boyer Lecture of 2019 and hear her raising issues that had been raised by Professor Marcia Langton AO when she gave the Boyer Lecture in 2012. Nothing, it seemed had changed in the seven years between those lectures. It was a sad indictment on our failure to truly hear what was said or, if we had heard, our failure to respond in ways that demonstrated that we had heard and understood.

There will be no discernible change in this nation until we truly listen to the members of the indigenous community, to their rage, their indignation, their sense of injustice, their grief and their grievances, their sense of loss and dispossession and until we recognise their willingness to work with us and understand that they know better than we do, what the solutions for their own people might be.

Of all the meanings of today’s parable of the good Samaritan, the one that speaks to us today is that the outsider, the despised and the oppressed have much to teach us about generosity, inclusion and forgiveness, and about seeing and responding to the needs of those who are different from themselves no matter how badly the other has treated them.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is Get up! Stand up! Show up!

Perhaps for white Australians it should be: “Sit down! Shut up! Listen up!”

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