MY inclination to defend anything topical concerning Papua New Guinea might be compared to my approach when contemplating former BFFs (best friends forever).
Acknowledge issues exist, accept the friendship breakdown (for the time being) but be damned if I sit silently if ever their names are dragged through the proverbial mud.
Phil Fitzpatrick and Ed Brumby in their reflections* exercised little restraint in their assessment of the aftermath of reactions fuelled by Papua New Guinean readers and contributors to Keith Jackson’s initial and later (thank goodness!) retracted announcement.
‘Stoic, apathetic and ripe for exploitation’,‘ self-indulgent helplessness’, ‘ talk big, promise lots but do nothing brigade in Papua New Guinea’. Woah, geez, steady on now.
I’d doubt any Papua New Guinean’s humanity if they didn’t take an inkling of offence to this talk. Characterising a group of people like that. Our group of people!
Sure, when I’ve had Papua New Guinean family and friends dish it out in not-so-endearing terms, I’m apt to react with nonchalance, even acceptance. But when an expatriate says the same, it’s different. It’s anger-provoking because, well, the truth hurts.
Several hurtful truths were highlighted again in Gary Juffa’s impassioned article, ‘I will not go down like a coward, and I hope you won’t either’. Here the Oro Governor makes another call for the marginalised majority to take tangible action to diminish the all-pervading gross inequalities across PNG.
But whether it’s the ongoing development of PNG writers and literature, or the larger much-sought positive societal change demanded by so many people, the question remains, as asked by Paul Oates, ‘husait inap a?’
I found Chris Overland’s comment in response to ‘The apathy and ennui of the Papua New Guinean people’ the most plausible in its understanding of the stagnant reaction often observed when such a question (‘who’s up to it?’) is asked.
This reaction can perhaps be visualised as a stationary cloud precipitating nothing other than utter weariness, discontent and lack of interest throughout the nation. A weariness overwhelming Papua New Guineans of countless generations and clearly frustrating many non- Papua New Guineans.
Led by a reference to liberal democracy, Chris’s discussion entailed a comparison between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’. He proposes that contemporary PNG has stopped short of a full transition from one to the other.
The core of his explanation is that whilst ‘civilisation’ and its formal structures urge all to adhere to a highly structured society governed by known laws, in PNG it plays second fiddle to ‘barbarism’, which rejects this preferring an anarchical and highly fragmented collection of loosely affiliated communities of interest which compete with the public good.
The strain is inevitable. It overarches our communities as people struggle to function in what purports to be democracy but which lacks the broad cultural acceptance of democratic norms. Generation after generation.
Yep! Sounds like the Papua New Guinea I know.
Governor Juffa’s plea to ‘live every moment as if it is your last and remember the faces of your children and ask yourself, where will they be tomorrow if I fail them today’ rightfully implicates every Papua New Guinean to the task-at-hand.
But the reality is we’ll need to sit this out as most of us unlearn the ingrained behaviours of apathy and ennui.
And so whilst that runs its course, perhaps (as noted by Phil and others) there is a need to increase pressure on the capable sector of society - students, academics, researchers, universities, professionals - to promote the growth of PNG writers and literature and also to facilitate nationwide pro-social change.
Education’s curse seems to be its ability to espouse in some people a highly inflated sense of worth, delusions of superiority and notions of selective pedigree based on a refined ability to regurgitate, cite, footnote and reference another’s ideas and ideologies.
But, like Chris and Phil, I’m inclined to suggest that rather than being leverage, the sanctuary of academic elitism serves only to mask fear.
Fear of what? Fear of standing out? Fear of not knowing enough? Fear of the power of government? Fear of each other? It could all of these, and then some.
I yearn for the demise of the ‘Papua New Guinean shrug of regret and the sound of feet shuffling into the distance’. This is also manifested in my Generation X counterparts and our successors (the Millennials), particularly those of us who’ve been the recipients of a high standard of education, some abroad.
We are a sad paradox, we muffled voices. The end-product of exposure to settings that required active participation if we were to thrive in an effective liberal democracy but where we failed to so participate.
Imagine the momentum we might gain if everyone just waddled down from their damn ivory towers and strove for organisation and action.
To be fair, several people have gone on to create advocacy groups, organisations and charities – activities that are all crucial and admirable.
In their own way, these people are facilitating much- needed change in PNG. Others epitomise their vocal strength in social media. And still more utilising written expression across various forms of communication.
But a definitive choice is required. Civilisation or barbarism? Where is the marginalised majority of Papua New Guineans determined be?
The former will disintegrate the overhanging cloud. The latter will continue to ruthlessly oppress and continue to breed apathy and ennui amongst our people.
* See ‘PNG Attitude – let’s celebrate a fine achievement’, ‘Why don’t we roll over and go back to sleep’, ‘The apathy and ennui of the Papua New Guinean people’ and ‘PNG Attitude & Croc Prize: an opportunity and obligation’