Vestigial indigeniety in the coloniser’s eye: from useless to nuisance

It’s the Day of Action against the Northern Territory invasion.

I’ve been toying with a different approach from my usual snarkrants. I’ve been exploring the coloniser world view, getting into the brains of those who are perpetuating the ongoing invasion. And I must say, it’s icky in here. No way this is going to last more than one post; skating this close to the sociopath mindset is kinda scary. Maybe to fight them, you have to understand them. But now that I’ve written this, I don’t know that I want to understand them. Meh, I’m sharing it anyway. Please bear in mind that the described mindset is not the way I think, and it’s pretty darn offensive stuff. The thoughts are half-formed, and the analogy imperfect; I welcome elaboration and extension of the ideas.


So. Vestiges. Evolutionary remnants.


[image source: “The vestigiality of the human vermiform appendix: A modern reappraisal”]

Here’s a list of vestigial body parts. A few examples:

  • EXTRINSIC EAR MUSCLES: This trio of muscles most likely made it possible for prehominids to move their ears independently of their heads, as rabbits and dogs do. We still have them, which is why most people can learn to wiggle their ears.
  • PALMARIS MUSCLE: This long, narrow muscle runs from the elbow to the wrist and is missing in 11 percent of modern humans. It may once have been important for hanging and climbing. Surgeons harvest it for reconstructive surgery.
  • APPENDIX: This narrow, muscular tube attached to the large intestine served as a special area to digest cellulose when the human diet consisted more of plant matter than animal protein. It also produces some white blood cells. Annually, more than 300,000 Americans have an appendectomy.
  • WISDOM TEETH: Early humans had to chew a lot of plants to get enough calories to survive, making another row of molars helpful. Only about 5 percent of the population has a healthy set of these third molars.
  • ERECTOR PILI: Bundles of smooth muscle fibers allow animals to puff up their fur for insulation or to intimidate others. Humans retain this ability (goose bumps are the indicator) but have obviously lost most of the fur.

Other examples of vestigial parts include whale leg bones, crab tails, dandelion petals, and vestigial gene sequences or “junk DNA”.

Some vestigial body parts may have borderline uses – lymphoid (immune system) tissue in the tonsils and appendix are examples. But they’re generally considered more or less irrelevant, and at worst irritating or actively harmful. A tonsil might get infected and ache, wisdom teeth might come through wonky or get impacted, a cervical rib might block blood flow, and an appendex can get clogged with crap and become life-threatening. But we’re stuck with these vestiges, for now. Down the track, they might persist as they are, they might repurpose and develop another function, or they might evolve out of existence if there’s enough selective pressure. Vestiges are used, often humorously, as one piece of evidence against the notion of “Intelligent Design”. Who in their right mind would invent sinuses?


Functionalism, in sociology, includes the idea that a human society can be compared to a human body. The different classes of people are like organs and tissues of the body. It’s just fine and dandy to have a quite rigid social hierarchy, because the collections of roles are interdependent, performing specific functions to maintain the homeostasis of the whole. The theory is, as you might expect, not readily able to cope with ideas such as social change, individual agency, and conflict between classes (defined in the broader sense: including gender, race, sexuality, disability as well as socioeconomic class.) It’s pretty much inherently amoral.


John Howard presents as a dominant rich white guy utilitarian functionalist (DRWGUF). He’s down with the ideas of functionalism, with the proviso that he and his cronies get to be the brain. This is a supreme and unquestioned primacy, the ultimate in unexamined self-centredness. In his mind, it’s Just The Way Things Are, and the Way Things Are is the Way Things Should Be. Every other organ in the body exists only to to be of use to the brain, their only functions to maintain cerebral viability. And, arguably, to the reproductive organs, but whether John Howard is best compared to a cerebrum or a scrotum is left as an exercise for the reader.

DRWGUFs think of Aboriginal people as vestiges hanging around here and there on the fringes of our real society, the conqueror’s society. To them, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal society are relics; degenerate, obsolete. They might sometimes be seen as useful, irrelevant, annoying, or downright harmful; but they are always viewed solely in terms of their relationship to the rich white guys who are running the place. They are only understood in terms of their status as the subordinate, the vestigial.

Through the DRWGUF lens, indigenous peoples are vestiges of a former, “primitive” time. They’re not current-day human nations going about their lives and co-existing with other peoples. They wouldn’t be here, if a society was the product of DRWGUF intelligent design, but we’re stuck with them for historical reasons. To DRWGUFs, the idea of Aboriginal people being autonomous is simply unthinkable. Ideas of self-determination, notions that Aboriginal peoples belong to sovereign nations, are as unthinkable as the idea that an tonsil should have a voice in its own fate. The idea of treaty with Aboriginal people is as bizarre to DRWGUFs as entering into negotiations with their own junk DNA. Who reconciles with their grumbling appendix?

Aboriginal communities are only thought about either in terms of their utility to the DRWGUF brain – or, on the flipside, as pathology to be managed, suppressed, removed. When Howard says that “we need to move Aboriginal people into real jobs”, he might as well be talking about a tendon transfer to repurpose his useless palmaris longus tendon to something that can be of service to him. When Howard talks about a unilateral decision to cut off porn and booze and impose unreasonable and racist punitive welfare systems, it’s as if he is mentioning that he has a bit of a smoker’s cough that he needs to take a course of antibiotics for, and that should clear it right up. When he talks about storming in to steal land, he may as well be talking about having surgery to cut off a few pesky skin cancers at risk of ulceration and metastasis. (The analogy doesn’t quite hold unless those cancer cells, once bottled, have a large untapped capacity for commercial exploitation, but work with me here.) He has convinced himself that his crimes are just him doing what is necessary to maintain homeostasis for the whole. Bleaching people of their personhood, their communities, their heritage, and their autonomy is necessary to maintain the “national interest” and “common destiny” myths in the DRWGUF brain.

Fix it

DRWGUFs, listen up. Your worldview is broken beyond repair. Aboriginal peoples aren’t withered obsolete organs, to be seen only in terms of their utility or troublesomeness. You don’t get to do whatever you want with them. You don’t GET to decide whether to keep them, treat them, or excise them. They are human beings to be respected, not irritating vestiges or evolutionary curiosities. They have societies and a dynamic heritage of their own, as well as being part of a broader Australian society. They form sovereign nations.

Start listening to equal humans, to equal nations. Treaty, now.

Categories: culture wars, indigenous, Politics, social justice

Tags: , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Remember that the average person (who isn’t all that smart, that small-l liberal, limited vocabulary, prone to emotional appeals) doesn’t react too well to red-faced cries of “coloniser” and “invasion” (and other such issue terms cf. the Tampa and the abortion debate) – it just makes left wingers look aggressive and crazy to them in comparison to conservatives who talk about “dealing with child abuse” and “helping people in need”.
    As they said about Margaret Thatcher: “She was lucky in her enemies”. Conservatives probably can’t believe their luck.
    If they keep being stupid and don’t understand the disconnect between them and the average person they will keep losing.

  2. Paul, I’m getting heartily sick of your “You should be more conciliatory” admonishments, which seem to be coming up again and again in my comments threads. Your concern trolling was just tiresome and annoying, but it’s now leapt over the line to outright rude.
    Angry, passionate reformists have been achieving real results for a long time now. Don’t like it? Don’t do it. Stop lecturing me on how I should express myself in my own space. Got it?

  3. I’m absolutely certain that this is an issue that should and must be met with outrage and with calling a spade a spade. The invasion is overtly racist, and appeals to commentators to pass over this immutable fact and act ‘reasonable’ in the face of the complete and utter unreason that characterises such acts as the NT intervention would, if followed, lead to a very bad place (I will restrain from invoking Godwin’s).
    Look at our society; innocent people are interned for years or charged with bogus terrorism offences, the press are documenting the ways in which the federal government is clamping down on their freedom to investigate and report, for years now the UN has been calling us on our actions in regard to human rights and our government has been arrogantly dismissing them.
    This is not a time for playing it safe, this is a time for passionate people who recognize where our society is headed to document each step on that dreadful journey and call loudly for a halt.

  4. Ick – ‘refrain’ not ‘restrain’. My dander was up, my lexical circuits disengaged.

  5. su: you can bring your dander here anytime.

  6. Speaking for the “average person” I’d like to ask how Paul makes his decisions and where he gets his information from. I think he’s being both condescending and insulting, and misrepresenting his purported constituency. Average Australians are perfectly capable of handling words like “colonialist” and “invader” – and they’re perfectly capable of handling them in the context of Australian Federal Government policy toward indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. Accuracy does make such a difference in word choice, you know.
    The state of health and welfare of indigenous Australians throughout the country has been a matter of concern for international bodies ranging from the United Nations to Amnesty International for decades. The Howard Liberal government was responsible for dismantling a lot of the previously existing support structures for indigenous Australian culture and welfare. The actions of the Howard Liberal government (purportedly) in response to the “Children are Sacred” report were nothing more or less than a return to the missions and camps of the early part of the twentieth century. Mr Howard didn’t quite say that he’d be removing children forcibly, but by golly it was implied strongly to be on the agenda.
    What’s even more irritating is this wasn’t even done to actually achieve anything for indigenous Australians. It’s just another one of the Howard Liberal government’s attempts at poisoning the political well before they leave.

  7. his crimes are just him doing what is necessary to maintain homeostasis for the whole

    Spot on. When he did his speech half-admitting that his own values are an impediment to self-determination, it was telling that he still said: “We are not a federation of tribes. We are one great tribe; one Australia.”
    So, is he mentions reconcilliation he can automatically claim a ‘tribe” and it’s still one where there’s only one, and he’s central? Classic example of disconnect/denial.

  8. What’s even more irritating is this wasn’t even done to actually achieve anything for indigenous Australians.

    Yep. They have ignored any recommendations that actually might make a difference. As Helen points out over at Cast Iron Balcony and Road to Surfdom, quoting the National Sorry Day commission:

    – there are the 339 Recommendations from the Deaths in Custody Report, released in 1990.
    – there are the 54 Recommendations from Bringing Them Home Report, released in 1997.
    – now there are another 97 Recommendations from the Little Children are Sacred Report, released in June 2007. This makes a grand a total of 490 recommendations.

    490 recommendations from experts and exhaustive inquiries into the appalling health and mortality status of our indigenous people, and virtually none of them have been implemented, and the NT “intervention” doesn’t address a single one of them either.

  9. Very nicely written and so accurate! I like the DRWGUF analogy! This must be a time for action, at the march in Darwin on Saturday we heard many good speakers but where was the crowd?
    Although many Aboriginal communities are obviously doing the best they can to make sense of the intervention.They appear to be doing this autonomously and without much outside help. I have heard there is fear in many communities that they are under siege but they are trying to make the best of a bad situation.
    Surely Australia can be sympathetic to their plight! This intervention is a wholesale attack on Australian values as expressed in the social advances we have made which affirm rights for Indigenous people! How can we stand back and watch as our country becomes an Apartheid state?

    Where is the love?

  10. Tsk I missed this National Day of Action.

    Good on your for doing something with it and writing such a thoughtful post.

  11. Well, and now Howard and Brough are ousted! Who knows what will happen next? Rudd did make a point of acknowledging indigenous people (and migrants) in his victory speech, though he did not come out clearly against the invasion during the campaign; while Howard burbled incoherently about our proud and prosperous land in his concession.
    If the Senate deadlocks, we will live in interesting times.


  1. Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony » Blog Archive » National day of Action on the Northern Territory “Intervention”
  2. The Road to Surfdom » Blog Archive » National day of Action on the Northern Territory “Intervention”
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