Best of 2019: Living at ground level
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Best of 2019: Curse of territoriality


ADELAIDE - As an enthusiastic amateur historian, I spend far too much time puzzling over why human history has worked out the way it has. Usually, the facts are not in dispute: it is their interpretation and meaning that creates problems.

Many historic events seem to defy an agreed explanation amongst historians because so many personal, cultural, social, economic, geographic and other factors have interacted to shape and drive those events in particular directions.

Even worse, just when broad agreement is reached, it is often the case that new facts emerge that tend to confound or at least call into doubt the agreed interpretation of events. Just ask any paleontologist or archaeologist if you think this is not a problem.

In such circumstances, it can be both useful and convenient to conduct a thought experiment, whereby the many confounding factors surrounding events are stripped away, leaving only the bare bones of the matter on display.

Put another way, it helps to look at human behaviour as we would any other animal species, rather than confer upon humans the specialness that we habitually claim as this planet’s current dominant predator.

This is a useful way of thinking about the historic problems deriving from what I believe to be an instinctive human territoriality and a related impulse to colonise or otherwise dominate others.

History demonstrates conclusively that humans will fight ferociously over territory, even to the death. It sometimes is a question of survival to do so.

Humans also will fight equally ferociously to seize territory and impose their will upon its occupants or, in extreme circumstances, kill, enslave or displace them.

(As an aside, I think that we frequently underestimate how savagely aggressive our species actually is. What we call civilisation is but a thin veneer that disguises both from ourselves and others the true nature of our species.)

Displacement can take many forms ranging from a few intrepid individuals heading off to make a life elsewhere or, sometimes, vast numbers of people driven to migrate by population pressure or deprivation or warfare or politics or some combination of these forces.

There are so many examples of this phenomenon in history that I will mention only a few of the most well-known.

These include the original Jewish Diaspora of around 800 BCE; the expansion of the Roman Empire into Europe, Britain and the Middle East; the conquest of Britain by a relative handful of Norman soldiers and the destruction of its Anglo-Saxon ruling elite; the forced immigration of the Irish in the mid-19th century; the massive expansion of the slave trade that saw the forced displacement of millions of Africans; and the mass migration of displaced Europeans in the immediate post World War II period.

Most recently, of course, we have people fleeing various authoritarian regimes and war torn regions across the globe, especially from countries in the Middle East and Africa. While most of these people clearly are refugees, a significant minority are really economic migrants seeking opportunities in western countries denied them in their homelands.

It is the problem of managing this latter group in particular, which is at the centre of so much political debate and angst in the USA, Europe and Australia.

In a nutshell, while there is a great deal of public sympathy for those recognized as genuine refugees, especially little children, there also is a great deal of public hostility to those understood to be illegal immigrants, especially unaccompanied young men.

The policy problem is that there often is a fine line between what constitutes a genuine refugee as distinct from an illegal immigrant. To some extent, this is an example of a false dichotomy, but the practical socio-political difficulties associated with it are profound.

Also, across the world there is major public concern in many countries about their capacity to absorb large numbers of new comers from places that are socially and culturally very different. The opportunities for misunderstandings and conflict are considerable if the process is not well managed.

The criminal behaviour of a tiny minority of religious and ultra-nationalist extremists has hugely compounded this problem.

As a general observation, migration has been a huge positive for places like the USA, Australia and Canada, all of which originally conceived of themselves as entirely Caucasian nations.

They might now be more accurately described as immigrant countries, where citizenship can be achieved by making a personal commitment to the country and its values rather than being gained entirely through an accident of birth.

These immigrant countries have managed the often tricky and difficult task of successfully absorbing huge numbers of people from non-Caucasian backgrounds, albeit not without various social, political and cultural problems, notably residual racism.

The latter, contrary to popular belief, is not the exclusive province of white Caucasians. It remains a virulent force in places like Japan, China and even Africa.

Now we see places like Germany and France which, historically speaking, have been ethnically, culturally and linguistically homogenous countries, grappling with the consequences of accepting large numbers of people who do not necessarily share the same world view.

It would be fair to say that they are struggling to manage this process well. There has been serious socio-political unease about immigration, ignited by re-emergent nationalistic sentiment, which is now threatening to upset what was thought to be an established liberal democratic order.

So, for example, the previously powerful German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been politically crippled as a direct consequence of her decision to admit over one million migrants to Germany.

To my way of thinking racism is to some degree an instinctive human tendency, being an expression of an existential “fear of the other” or suspicion of that which is different or unknown.

Whatever its origins, this tendency often is being deliberately inflamed for political purposes in public discourse about immigration. This makes it much harder to formulate and debate acceptable solutions to a very difficult public policy problem.

All this is being gleefully observed by authoritarian regimes across the world, the leaders of which happily contrast the superficial appearance of strong social cohesion, stability and certainty under their rule with the supposedly unstable and volatile nature of liberal democracies.

History tells us that such claims by authoritarians are invariably a lie, but they are repeated anyway and, worse still, often believed.

Papua New Guineans know a great deal about territoriality and the problems that arise from it. Indeed, the struggle for possession of land was and remains the central characteristic of the various traditional PNG societies.

As a patrol officer in PNG (1969-74), I was often called upon to attempt to settle arguments about land or the consequences of previous arguments about land. These arguments ranged over who owned or had custody over land or had hunting and gardening rights.

At that time, it seemed to me that such arguments could never really be settled because the various parties could never come to accept any outcome other than that which they wanted. Compromise was rarely seen as acceptable.

I have to confess that it never occurred to me at the time that such arguments were other than peculiar to PNG and other ‘primitive’ societies.

Without even consciously knowing why, I held a confident but entirely wrong belief that western civilisation had long since solved such problems by recourse to a complex legal system governing land ownership and use and the movement of people.

Now, of course, I know better.

Nothing has happened or is happening in PNG in relation to land ownership or the movement of people into places they did not traditionally occupy that does not happen elsewhere.

It now is apparent to me that the land disputes and conflict that accompany them in PNG are merely an expression of the perennial human problems associated with territoriality and population movements, be they voluntary or involuntary.

Of course, knowing this is one thing: figuring out how to deal with it is another.

Right now, my sense is that the world’s immigrant countries have mostly got it right, although they continue to struggle with things like the fate of the displaced indigenous populations and the capacity of their societies to cope with the influx of people with sometimes very different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Like Keith Jackson, I think it is reprehensible to mock and deride immigrants who have collectively enriched Australia hugely. I have many good reasons to be mightily grateful for living in an immigrant country, not least of them being my wife.

However, given the human propensities I have described above, I do not believe that the hugely difficult public policy issues surrounding asylum seekers and immigration more broadly will disappear anytime soon.

My best guess is that, in Australia at least, we will muddle our way to some sort of consensus that, while not satisfying either some refugee advocates or their ultranationalist antagonists, will work sufficiently well to satisfy the vast majority of Australians.

This is, in fact, usually the way we humans work things out. History is not kind to extremists of any type for very long: pragmatism and a desire for peace and justice combine to crush extremist fantasies eventually. Sadly, this process is rarely quick and painless and the transaction costs can be very high indeed.

As for PNG, it will undoubtedly face its own particular crises related to instinctive territoriality and fear of the other.

PNG’s burgeoning population must surely be exerting political and socio-economic pressures that will almost inevitably lead to more conflict over resources, including land.

There already have been large movements of people from their traditional lands to the emergent urban centres in PNG. Of necessity, this means that the internal immigrants are intruding onto what once were the traditionally held lands of other tribes. Managing this process has the potential to become very fraught as population pressures rise.

Even within relatively homogeneous and related groups of peoples, the pressure on land for subsistence purposes, combined with efforts to exploit natural resources like gold, gas and copper, seems certain to produce both inter and intra-communal antagonism and conflict.

All these pressures will be compounded by the fact that PNG’s political, government and business elites are now thoroughly enmeshed in the winner takes all form of neo-liberal capitalism that dominates the global economy.

The long grasping fingers of neo-liberal capitalism now can touch even the remotest PNG village.

The neo-liberal philosophy is profoundly at odds with PNG’s traditional communalist cultures, in which resources and power were carefully shared, both for survival reasons and to help ensure the maintenance of social harmony. The inherently selfish nature of capitalism must inevitably compound the problems of territoriality that I have described.

Maybe the mythical Melanesian Way can somehow be invoked to find workable solutions to problems like Bougainville and other incipient signs of separatism that, potentially at least, threaten the very existence of PNG as a sovereign entity.

It may come as a slight comfort to PNG’s beleaguered policy makers to know that such problems are not unique to PNG, merely an expression of age old human propensities.

We are all going to struggle to reconcile our instinctive territoriality and fear of the other with the evident need to ensure that the world’s resources are much more fairly managed and distributed.

In this struggle, we humans have one thing going for us: we can choose to override our instincts and make a conscious decision to do things differently. In that sense at least, we are indeed special animals.


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