Acknowledgments of Country

It has become commonplace in the last two decades for public meetings or gatherings in Australia or of Australians elsewhere in the world to open with an Acknowledgment of Country statement. This is a statement thanking the traditional indigenous community who inhabited the land on which the meeting is being held, and (usually) expressing respect to the traditional elders, past, present and emerging, of that community. Last night, for instance, a panel discussion held at King’s College London on the topic of the upcoming Voice Referendum began with such statements from several of the invited speakers acknowledging traditional custodians of parts of Australia where where they had grown up or studied. I have also witnessed such statements at private meetings and internal organizational meetings in Australia, even when these events were held online.

Sometimes, the Acknowledgment of Country may be combined with a Welcome to Country, where present-day elders of the particular local Australian aboriginal community welcome participants to the event. Each new session of the Australian Federal Parliament since the first premiership of Kevin Rudd, for example, now begins with a Welcome to Country ceremony. Even the formal installation of Father Gregory Homeming OCD, a Chinese-Australian Carmelite priest, as the Sixth Roman Catholic Bishop of Lismore in February 2017, began with a Welcome to Country ceremony.

I like this new custom for two reasons: Firstly, an Acknowledgment of Country is a statement of great politeness and civility, and opening a meeting with such a statement helps create an appropriate tone of respect for the subsequent public interactions. As is almost always the case, wokeness is how we are polite to people we do not know. Secondly, including these statements pushes back against the strong cultural tendency towards universality (as opposed to localness) and generality (as opposed to particularity) that Western-European culture has exhibited since Descartes. The philosopher of argumentation Stephen Toulmin was among the first to notice and argue against these trends in his book Cosmopolis. Hearing such a statement we know we are in Australia (or perhaps in Canada, or some parts of the USA), and perhaps we also know that we are among certain kinds of people.

For myself, I grew up in Far Northern Coastal New South Wales, on Bundjalung Country, while often visiting Gumbainggir Country just to the south, and Yuggera Country (around Brisbane) and Gubbi Gubbi Country (the Glass House Mountains), both to the north.

I recognize that statements such as these may be viewed as tokenistic, or worse, as virtue signalling. In response to such criticisms, I would agree that these statements certainly don’t by themselves overcome the effects or legacies of historical trauma such as colonial invasions. But while these statements don’t do everything, they don’t do nothing. It is not at all tokenistic to treat others with respect, as anyone who has sat in a room of corporate CEOs talking over one another can attest. And, by their repetition, a nation’s culture may change in such a way that greater actions to overcome or mitigate historical trauma are made politically possible. In the Voice Referendum just conducted in Australia, we learnt that our nation’s culture has yet to change sufficiently for us to acknowledge with respect the first human inhabitants of our islands.

As for virtue signalling, this is immensely preferable to the opposite.

POSTSCRIPT (Added 2023-11-16): I was privileged a few weeks ago to be invited to speak at an event organized by the Radleian Society, the alumni society of Radley College, Oxford. I was struck by how polite the students and Old Radleians (ORs) were, with no one talking over or interrupting anyone, and everyone listening closely to whomever was speaking. CEOs have a lot to learn from these gentlemen.

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