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The Aborigines do not appear to have had in their languages any abstract concept, or any isolated behaviour pattern in their cultures, which exactly duplicated what we mean by privacy or its pursuit. But [if] an intense dislike of intrusion or crowding by others; of public disparagement and embarrassment, cause for shame; and of the misappropriation and misuse of precious symbols of their identity as individual persons and as groups; come somewhere near the core of our notion of privacy, then the Aborigines share much common ground with us.

They appear widely to be increasingly conscious of and resentful about the invasive curiosity, the enforced close company, and the unremitting influence and authority of Europeans, and of what they interpret as our continuous and inveterate misrepresentation and disparagement of their essential selves and the misappropriation and misuse of their expressive symbols.

Direct comparison with European concepts feelings and social habits are unwise and have to be hedged around by much that is idiosyncratic, but it is nevertheless a reasonable inference from Aboriginal linguistic concepts and behaviour patterns to conclude that they are irritated about and vexed by much the same developments of modern Europeanism that have made our own homes into less than our castles and our private and personal lives less than inviolable realms.

Every anthropologist with field experience can document the common ground and the reasonable inference by case-histories of insensitive intrusion, enforced over-crowding on an unprecedented scale, arbitrary acts of authority, publicdisparagement of things held dear, and the exploitation for commercial or private European ends of parts of the symbolic culture which according to Aboriginal philosophy is intrinsic to each person’s essential self.

General propositions of this kind, though readily supportable factually and far from revolutionary, may still need argumentative support because of the generally poor understanding of Aboriginal society and culture amongst white Australians.Just as in the past the new colonists, judging by the externals of Aboriginal society and culture, could not conceive of a landed native people because they did not enclose land, build upon it, or stock or till it, so in the recent past and present Aboriginal social habits which are visible are taken to show that Aborigines cannot possibly put any value on privacy.

Since the growing resentment felt by Aborigines cannot well be denied, it is assumed to be due to the spread of European values (including fallacious doctrines) by assimilation. Just as the land-use patterns which developed only in agricultural society were mistakenly projected, with enormous anachronism, on to hunter-forager society, so the psycho-social patterns of industrial society are being projected on to the remnants of a society required to live under conditions foreign to their tradition and by all appearances to their wishes.

Some of the externals of Aboriginal life give apparent support to the simplistic views. A traditional camp could be seen through from end to end. Rudimentary shelters or huts were so disposed that anyone could see almost everything that anyone else did, at least until the fires died down late at night.

The society was one without walls, a community of the eye, in which people did apparently live almost entirely in public view.If a person went about solitarily or in an apparently secretive way, it invited attention, gossip and speculation, which later might harden into suspicion or accusation of mischief-making of black magic.

There were other features too — the sharing of food and possessions, the division of labour, the arrangements of domestic life, the patterns of residence and sleeping in collocations of several scores, the frequency with which children were looked after by people other than their parents, the obvious fact that people watch each other like hawks (an Aboriginal folk-saying) — which made it easy to miss a less visible reality, that the community of the eye was thoroughly Nelsonian.

Anyone could see through a camp from end to end, and almost everything that anyone did, but it was thought offensively intrusive to notice, draw attention to, or even mention
much that happened, and it was a matter of high shame to behave openly in ways that under ruling norms should happen only in seclusion (e.g., the display of affection or intimacy between spouses, defecation, sexual intercourse).

An onlooker from another culture could easily miss the fact that the space filled by a camp was divided into zones or realms each of which was declaratory of a right of persons or groups to enjoy a domain of individuality and comparative autonomy and to rebuff intruders. Each camp, for example, had a surround which was wholly unmarked but through which a visitor, especially a comparative stranger, might not pass until invited. A visitor from another descent group, even of the same totem, might be expected to make his camp outside his host’s and in the direction of his own clan-country. Within a camp there was a protocol for the placement of fires and nuclear families. A man and his wife’s brother could share a fire but it would have been thought horrendous for a man and his wife’s mother. To step over a fire or to pass across one on the inside of a camp were to infringe the personal space of a fire possessor.

The Aborigines were by long tradition a people who positively preferred to live at close quarters with kith and kin for about as long as ecological considerations made agreeable and the state of socio-political relationships made prudent. At such close quarters sociability was premial.Coarse, boorish or inconsiderate behaviour and hard and insulting language seldom occurred unless open conflict suddenly flared or (more recently) the abuse of alcohol had started.In such circumstances a careful avoidance of any conduct invasive or abusive of another essential self, or, in other words, a high value on privacy might seem almost a logical corollary, as it certainly was a practical necessity of social life.

One of the physical patterns of their life is no longer universally visible, and some of the truths it expressed can be seen only in caricature, which in part has led to the false idea that privacy and Aboriginal society have always been poles apart. For example, the former cycle of livelihood tended to have two phases — one of assembly, one of dispersal. During the phase of assembly into large collocations tensions built up and grievances multiplied, particularly in the oppressive climatic conditions of the sub-tropical and tropical north, and if elsewhere the assembly lasted over-long. When the time for dispersal came, and especially when it was possible to move widely over a regenerated bushland, it was as though life were made up of a new and marvellous compound of withdrawal, self-reliance, contemplation and concentration, which is one observation concerning the European sense of privacy that fits the Aboriginal scene quite well.[2]

The models of privacy suggested by psychologist and sociologists do not suit Aboriginal conditions at all well, although the constituents and the functional needs which are suggested often evoke a distinct resonance. For example, a well known analysis of four basic states or constituents of privacy, and some related functional needs, might well be applied to clarify conditions on some of the large, restive mission and government settlements in north Australia.[3] The suggestion is that privacy can be expressed in four basic things: solitude (in the sense of freedom from observation by other people), intimacy (in the sense of privacy for members of small self-chosen groups, such as families), anonymity (in the sense of freedom from public surveillance and accountability), and reserve (in the sense of a right to withhold one’s essential self from public disclosure). There is a further suggestion of consequent basic needs — a need for personal autonomy (the right to choose privacy when and if it is desired); a need for emotional release from unbearable pressure through solitude, intimacy, or anonymity; a need for periods of self-evaluation to ponder and decide the course of future behaviour, and to establish psychological and social distance from others;a need for determining when and what information one should make available to others about oneself.

Two suggestions are particularly interesting;that the element of personal autonomy in privacy is clearly related to territorial control, because men cannot realize or experience true privacy except through the strengthened sense of a self who commands a particular space;and that one of the privacies that Aborigines, as artists in the broad sense may most need is creative privacy, sufficient to let them draw stimuli from their new environment but not to be subject to its hectoring demands.

Although Aboriginal languages may not have verbalized concepts of privacy in the European sense, they do have concepts which taken together cover much the same ground. One of the relevant concepts has to do with causing shame to others or exposing oneself to it (in Murinbata, ‘shame’ = jidiwe). It is possibly the strongest emotion generated in Aboriginal social life producing by way of remorse, revenge or attempted exculpation a response which may be very violent or reckless or disproportionate. A list of shaming things would be very long and variegated. It would include, among many others, such simple things as the mode of approach to and entry into camps, the placing and use of fires, and the constant begging of food, and complexities such as the correct choice between avoidance, high formality, incivility, licentious wordplay and mock-hostility in dealing with certain relatives.

Such things are not to be dismissed as interesting facts of custom.They are value-laden evidence of realms of social life which are deemed by decent-minded Aborigines to be too destructive of their own or others’ self-esteem to be handled indelicately. It could be argued that shame in the Aboriginal sense is a dramatization of breaches of personal or group privacy, brought about by intrusions upon realms so private that the acts show shamelessness in the intruders. The Murinbata concept of shamelessness means, literally, without head lice, perhaps connoting lacking something with ordinary, decent people have in plenty. The least acquaintance with Aborigines will produce evidence of their care to avoid, and to shield others from, public embarrassment or shame.It was thought decently considerate to warn others of likely causes e.g., the unseen approach or presence of relatives needing to be ignored or received with formality by the person warned.Indeed, the whole space filled by an Aboriginal society was veiled invisibly into public and private divisions or realms, and most Europeans are thought by Aborigines to be unspeakably gauche in not knowing which is which.

It will be obvious from these examples that the distinctiveness of Aboriginal social structure and culture must be fully appreciated if what is idiosyncratic in their concept of privacy is to be understood. Some of the more obvious facts are widely known if insufficiently understood, e.g., the requirement that a man and his wife’s mother should never meet face to face, mention the other’s personal name, acknowledge his or her presence, or give things to or receive things from the other in a direct way. Even in a modern encampment or settlement, at least when the inhabitants can arrange the residence pattern, a wife’s mother and daughter’s husband will seldom if ever be found living next door to or directly opposite each other, or in positions from which the unwritten rules of avoidance cannot be obeyed.

It may not be as well known that quite intense rules restrict free social intercourse between brothers, brothers and sisters, and close affines. Brothers, when fully grown, had to be somewhat circumspect in sitting together so that knees, legs and elbows did not touch. The social disjunction between brother and sister went beyond formality. A brother could be polluted by and need ritual cleansing from his sister’s exuviae, even by her bedding, he would never use her personal name or even the most chaste endearment, but would use some uncivil or even demeaning form of address (e.g., rubbish). At the approach of a brother-in-law or other male affine it as thought appropriate to use expletive sounds which acknowledged the approach but said nothing. These are idiosyncrasies of Aboriginal culture by which there is a public recognition of a realm private to particular persons or groups of persons:a rule of generality, applied regularly, in a way such that a norm is upheld by sanctions.

There are certain other linguistic conceptions that need mentioning.Two contrasts may readily be made in any Aboriginal language I have heard spoken. One is the contrast between things which are matters of public knowledge and things which are secret to the class of initiated men and that sense are private to them.In the same way, the things which can be secret and private to women as a class. Special, usually secret terms apply to such things, and not seldom, a special, secret language. Secret things may have inside and outside names or terms, only the outside terms being used by the unauthorised. A second contrast is between things which are secret and private in this sense and personal matters which are private to a particular person, and by convention are not to be raised, questioned, or bruited around.

My general contention is that in spite of the apparently collectivist emphasis of Aboriginal society, there was–and still is–an intrinsic concern with the essential self of individual persons, and therefore with the private personality, the inner most idea of privacy. For example, a man could not speak to a child who had been given the same personalnameas his, until a public ceremony had taken place and valuable gifts exchanged. Two siblings, regarded as structurally equivalent, i.e., as substitutable for each other for certain purposes in matters turning on considerations of kinship, could not conceivably be confused in other social reckonings.

A general account of Aboriginal privacy and its exposure to damage or erosion by European law, law-officers or general administrators requires an appreciation of values enshrined in the Aboriginal conception of the individual person as bearer of a distinctive culture and as exponent of the reality stressed by it. The subject [of privacy] is inseparable from the philosophical considerations.


[1] MS # 400 on the Barwick List. Editor.
[2]Cf. Chemayaff and Alexander, 1963.
[3]Cf. Westin, 1963.