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Blame and responsibility: Part three

This is the third in a series of posts looking at the way Yolŋu people consider issues of blame and responsibility. You can find the introduction here, and the case study, here.

In the following, part three, I will work back through the anatomy of events in the case study using the Bernard Wiener’s framework for ‘the responsibility process’ – who was rebuked or punished? Who was considered blameworthy? And finally, what did people determine was the cause of the event that triggered reparatory action in the first place?

Who was rebuked or punished?

The first question to ask is who was rebuked or punished. Recall that Gaymarani’s younger brother, Ḏikarr, was physically attacked by his two older brothers out on one of the community streets. The following day Gaymarani’s alleged lover, Ḻäwuk, was given a public hiding by her two older sisters. Of subsequent note is that Ḻäwuk was shamed by Gaymarani’s mother, Batjikali, who was then, in turn, reproached by her older brother, Rawala. The punishment handed out to Ḻäwuk and Ḏikarr, as we will see, reflects the allocation of blame as marked by commentary at the time. This, along with the public nature of hidings and the fact that the victims did not fight back, nor onlookers come to their defense, suggests to me that these were acts of what Basil Sansom refers to as moral violence (1980: 92-102). ‘Acts of moral violence’, Sansom writes, ‘have a judicial character. They are due punishment, executed with due attention to formal witnessing by others’ (1980:92).

Who was considered blameworthy?

In the first instance Ḏikarr was subject to the anger of his actual older brothers who clearly thought he was to blame in some way. Later the following day Ḻäwuk was subject to the anger of her actual older sisters who clearly considered her to blame. (I’m using ‘actual’, here, in contrast to classificatory.) Batjikali pointed the finger at Ḻäwuk at the meeting. Batjikali was subsequently rebuked by her close older brother for doing so.

It is important to note that it was close kin who apportioned blame and held people to account in each case. Batjikali was the only person who apportioned blame to someone who was not her close kin, when she publicly shamed Ḻäwuk, and was subsequently rebuked by her close older brother for doing so. In the two instances in which blame gave rise to physical beatings (in the case of Ḻäwuk and Ḏikarr), it was the closest of kin, their same-sex siblings, who enacted the punishment.

In general terms this is consistent with the idea that expectations of responsibility are informed, organised, and structured by kinship relations and proximal relatedness. (See part one.) In the Yolŋu kinship system same-sex siblings are more alike or ‘the same’ than any other kin. They are, in effect, the same structural ‘ego.’ They stand in the exact same structural relation to everyone else within the kinship universe. The same people are their ŋändi (M, Mz), for example, and their ŋändi all call them waku, the same people are their bäpa (F, FB) and their bäpa all call them all gäthu, the same people are their märi (Mb, MMB) and their märi all call them gutharra, and so on and so forth. For sisters, the same men are potential husbands (dhuway) and for brothers the same women are potential wives (galay) – and the same women potential mother in laws (mukul rumaru). It used to be the case, and is still quite common that actual sisters marry the same man as co-wives. It used to be the case also, that if women were widowed they would take up residence and become wives of their late husband’s brother.

As the closest of relations, who are more alike than any other kin, same-sex siblings are more responsible for one another and accountable to one another than any other kin. This sense of mutual accountability is also relative to social distance, as one might expect, with co-residents and consociates generally more responsible for and accountable to one another than those separated by geography and distance. It is significant, I think, that if people are punished by their actual close kin it likely reduces the risk that the punishment will be excessive, or involve excessive force. Further, if people are punished by their close kin in public, it likely also reduces the risk that ‘less close’ aggrieved parties will feel the need for revenge or retribution.

Who was judged responsible for what reprehensible act?’

The moral transgressions that were marked by commentary were those of Ḻäwuk, Ḏikarr and Batjikali. In the first instance Ḻäwuk was said to have dhukun gäma. This expression or idiom is comprised of the term dhukun’ (rubbish, litter, trash) and the transitive verb gäma (to carry). Literally, it refers to someone carrying something spoiled, messy or soiled. In this instance it refers to someone carrying a spoiled, messy or soiled state of relations. This is one of the most common expressions used to refer to or describe disruptive, unsettled social relations and is often glossed by English speakers as a situation that is mess’d. It is worth noting here that dhukun’ often connotes a sense of threat or danger. A person or social situation that is described as dhukun’-mirri carries a sense of disruption, volatility, or implied danger. So Ḻäwuk was considered responsible for carrying the messy, soiled relations and a volatile social situation. She was also said to have gora wikaŋala (given a state of sense of shame) to her close kin.

Ḏikarr, who took a hiding from his older brothers, was said to have ganydjarr wekaŋala (given the power, strength). This expression is often glossed by English speakers as ‘giving the power’ or ‘giving the pressure.’ A related term, though used less often, is gur’kur-yun, which is a transitive verb meaning ‘to push, incite or expert pressure.’ As early as the 1920s, anthropologist W. L. Warner observed something similar in the region, which he refers to as ‘pushing’:

The ‘pusher’ (pidgin English word describing the instigator) is a social personality most prominent in the narrup warfare. When young men kill, everyone speculates on who did the ‘pushing’, for it is always assumed that an old man is really responsible. Although not always true, it is a rule of pragmatic value for a clan to follow when meteing out vengeance. (1937:158)

Warner also observes that both the ‘killers’ and the ‘pushers’ run the gauntlet of spears in the conflict-resolution ceremony (1937:163-165). The ‘pushers’ are made targets of spears with the spear-head removed and run through the ceremonial space first while the ‘killers,’ who run second ‘after emotions have subsided,’ are made the target of spears with the spear-head still in-tact. They are also, Warner notes, subject to a subsequent ritual spearing in the thigh (1937:165).

These networks through which responsibility is dispersed are still evident in the way that people make judgments of responsibility, as in the case of Ḏikarr. ‘Giving the power,’ ‘giving the pressure’ or ‘pushing’ – these all describe an affective chain or ‘string’ of interpersonal influence, through of for which people may be held to account. Sanction and approval may give encouragement, encouragement give confidence, confidence give strength, which may be the impetus or momentum – the power or force for a person to act. Ḏikarr was clearly considered to have influenced or affected Gaymarani’s actions in some way, though how and to what extent is still not yet clear.

What was Batjikali’s reprehensible act for which she was reproached? The general opinion was that she had not dhukarr ŋäma ŋäthili (first looked to see the path), or followed up the raki’ (string, rope). She had just yurru-yun (spat [out]) her dhäruk (story, message), instead of proceeding slowly and speaking in a diplomatic and circumspect or indirect manner.

So, in answer to who was considered responsible for what reprehensible act: Ḻäwuk was responsible for having gora wekaŋala (given a state or sense of shame) to her close kin, and for having dhukun’ gäma (carried the spoiled, messy, soiled [state of relations]). Ḏikarr was responsible for influencing or affecting Gaymarani in some way, though we’re still not sure exactly how, and Batjikali was responsible for ‘spitting out’, for not following up the strings of relatedness among or between those involved. But there is still the question of Gaymarani and how he seemed to avoid all blame and responsibility. Even in Warner’s example where the ‘pushers’ were held to account it was the killers or central protagonists that were dealt the heaviest hand. I will carry this question forward as one of causality.

What did people determine was the cause of the event?

This is not at all straightforward and the exegesis thus slightly meandering so please bear with me.

We cannot be sure whether it was true or not that Gaymarani and Ḻäwuk were lovers. We do know, however, that Ḻäwuk publicly claimed that it was so. The significance of this public statement, I suggest, was not actually the potential truth in it. It is not exactly an earth shattering claim. In fact, it is generally assumed that most young adults, married or not, have some kind of secret sweetheart. Ḻäwuk is married to a man many years her senior, and while it is not necessarily appropriate or ‘good’ to have a secret sweetheart, it is not altogether unexpected. As a promising young ceremonial man this is perhaps even truer in Gaymarani’s case. No one would ‘blame’ him for having a sweetheart. In both cases I think it is fair to say that being sweethearts would not necessary be considered a blameworthy act – that is, unless or until it negatively affects the state or sense of feeling among and between people.

The significance of Ḻäwuk’s public claim, I suggest, was less about her relationship or potential relationship with Gaymarani and more about the way that it affected the state or sense of feeling – the state of relations – between those involved. Not only was it a straightforward example of ŋayaŋu wutthuna-mirri rom (law or manner of doing things that affronts or assaults the state of feeling), but it was an act of speaking napuŋga’-ŋura. To speak in public is described in Yolŋu-matha as talking or speaking napuŋga’-ŋura (in the middle or in between). A person who speaks or acts napuŋga’-ŋura is generally understood to assume responsibility for mediating between, for steering or controlling (for want of a better description), the string of relatedness between those involved. Thus, if people become disaffected or the state of relations a mess’d it will be, in all likelihood, the person who acted napuŋga’-ŋura who will be held to account. This was clearly what happened in the case of Ḻäwuk.

Further (poor Ḻäwuk), Ḻäwuk did not just act in between any old relations – she acted ‘in the middle’ or ‘in between’ what are galki (close, near), dhunupa (straight, correct), rumbal (true, body, trunk) relations between Gaymarani and Gayit, and their respective bäpurru which have been closely tied through marriage and ceremonial relations for as long as anyone can remember. Straight romantic relationships are those between two people who call each other dhuway and galay (a reciprocal or dyadic pair). Close, straight ‘true’ romantic relationships are those between people who call each other dhuway and galay and whose relationship is consistent with or ‘follows up’ the socio-centric strings of relatedness between their respective bäpurru. So Ḻäwuk’s public claim was an act of speaking ‘in the middle’ or ‘in between’ a close, straight, ‘true’ relationship between two people, and by extension their respective bäpurru. This led to a state of ‘soiled’ and ‘messy’ relations, which created a volatile social situation – all of which gave her close kin a state or sense of shame – which was the probable cause of her getting a hiding. So not unexpected.

What then do we make of Gaymarani’s public protest and threat of self harm? Gaymarani’s public rage, I suggest, was a legitimate act of what Sansom refers to as ‘proclaiming’ (1980). Proclaiming, Sansom writes (in the context of the fringe camps in Darwin):

is entering a demand for a specific verdict on a defined issue. This gives the purpose of proclamation. Its style is nagging and vociferous. Its duration is extended. Its prime message is thrusting and simple. The grounds for the demand, however, are presented as a set of detailed assertions. Because it is an immediate form of expressive activity, proclaiming (like commentary) is full of details. A deal of energy is expended and words are presently used with liberality in the attempt to make and imprint a social fact that will live on as a verdict, eventually to be sparely and simply stated. (1980:89)

‘Proclaiming lasts and proclaimers must have stamina,’ he goes on, ‘any sympathy is to be created, not assumed’ (1980:89). Gaymarani’s act of proclaiming, I suggest, was an attempt to assuage the unsettled state of feeling between those involved, to dhunupa kuma ŋayi raki-nha (straighten out the strings [of relatedness]), or at least stop them from being severed. Indeed, if Gaymarani had not put forth such an impassioned public defense, I am almost certain the situation would have been a lot worse (and would have quickly drawn in a great deal more people from the various bäpurru involved). But did this absolve him of all responsibility? And what of Ḏikarr? How or why was he understood to have caused or brought the situation about?

While Gaymarani’s threat of self harm (threatening to set himself alight) was very dramatic it did not, in fact, warrant intervention. It was certainly not yet a ‘berserk’ (Sansom 1980). ‘A beserk,’ Sansom writes, ‘is an involuntary response to what has become an extreme situation.’ ‘In the man who goes wild or goes mad the campers recognise a person in extremis’:

No one can go wild in private and so the berserk is always an essay in communicative work. The sight of a crowd, in fact, provokes it. The objectively deprived person’s awareness of his social isolation is only fully realised in a crowd made up of more fortunate others. What the act of going wild has sociologically to say about its social context relates to the basic demand that governs the more ordinary witnessing of undramatic everyday events. In ordinary witnessing, witnesses are required to express indifference to what is deemed to be the ‘own business’ of others. Indifference is the most general and ordinary expression required in run of the mill witnessing. And the berserk is the ultimate protest, the emotional overflow of the lonely man to whom all others in his current world seem to be collectively indifferent. (1980:101)

A berserk evokes a rally for emergencies, placing an onus on all those present to act to put an end to the crisis, with those close up to the protagonist leading the way. However, the nature of the emergency represented by berserks is not of a self-evident kind, and as Sansom suggests, needs to be defined with reference to local conceptions (1980:99).

This, I suggest, was not a beserk.

During a separate incident involving a young man who was (known to be) psychologically unstable, I witnessed the response to a situation in which there was absolutely no doubt he was truly out of control, or gone berserk. In this case, the reaction of kin was strikingly similar to that Sansom describes, with people moving to shield the berserker from serious harm and from seriously harming others. If Gaymarani really had lost control and was liable to bawa-yurra (do something crazy, do anything), the community of kin that was present would, I have no doubt, have immediately rallied to action. Gaymarani was in the middle of a public defense, a legitimate act of proclaiming.

So, with regard to Ḏikarr, it is important to note that intervening and grabbing the lighter was an unusual thing to do. By intervening and grabbing the lighter off Gaymarani when he did, Ḏikarr somehow implicated himself as being involved in the drama. We know that he was said to have ganydjarr wekama (given the power, strength) to Gaymarani – to have influenced or affected him in some way – but we cannot be sure exactly how or to what degree this was the case. In my own estimation I cannot imagine Ḏikarr would or could have heavily pressured nor ‘forced’ Gaymarani to do anything. The two young men are roughly the same age and Gaymarani is quite a steadfast and strong personality. Indeed, he is something of a moral exemplar of the ‘good’ young man. The main difference between the brothers is that Gaymarani is married with twin boys and carries a great deal of responsibility as a young ceremonial figure, while Ḏikarr is still a yawirriny’ (an initiated, unmarried young man). Perhaps it was the case that Ḏikarr had been encouraging or pestering Gaymarani to carry on like a yawirriny’ and ‘chase after two legged’, as my sisters would say?

In any case, while we cannot be sure how or to what extent Ḏikarr was involved, I am certain that the brothers who apportioned blame and enacted the punishment knew exactly what he had, or had not done. The two brothers who reacted to Ḏikarr grabbing the lighter, along with Gaymarani, are the closest of consociates and are rarely seen without one another. So while we cannot say for sure how Ḏikarr was involved, it is fair to assume that his brothers knew very well. Further to note on this point is the fact that by intervening and grabbing the lighter Ḏikarr not only implicated himself in the drama, but – as same-sex siblings and the closest of consociates – he implicated his brothers as well. Thus, his brother’s reaction to him grabbing the lighter and the reason they gave him a hiding, I suggest, was likely: a) for whatever it was that they knew he had done and how he’d been involved; b) for being stupid enough to implicate himself – in public – at the height of the drama, and; c) for being stupid enough, not only to have implicated himself but, by association, to have implicated them as well. Their reaction should also be seen, in part, as a defense of the close, straight relations between those involved (themselves and their bäpurru included).

That brings us back to the beginning of the responsibility process, but there is still the question of Gaymarani and how or why he managed to avoid all blame and responsibility. The most we can say of mitigating circumstances that might have reduced his personal responsibility is that Ḏikarr, who is not a particularly strong personality, may have encouraged or pestered him to chase after women. This did not, surely, reduce Gaymarani’s personal responsibility to zero. Whatever it was that determined who was responsible, the point at issue doesn’t seem to be that of personal causality.


 – concluding remarks (as well as a list of works cited) in the final, part four.