EP 23: Don’t wrestle with pigs! A conversation with Tyson Yunkaporta.

Having a parasitic relationship can be a good thing, just look at the benefits of a strangler fig on a tree. So says Tyson Yunkaporta, author and academic, who looks at western society through an indigenous lens and discusses truth-telling, wrong-story, yarning, pump and dump schemes, and the why some are hoping for the ‘rapture’. Oh, and the big takeaway, don’t wrestle with pigs! Listen and learn why.

Tyson Yunkaporta’s two books, Sand Talk and Right Story, Wrong Story, are available from Booktopia.com.au.


Manisha: Welcome to With, Not For, a podcast for the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Cammeraygal people here in North Sydney, Australia. Today’s episode is a little bit different. We’re not talking to somebody who works as a designer or within an organisation. We have the great privilege to talk to Tyson Yunkaporta. He’s the author of a book called Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. In his book, Sand Talk, we see a mixture of words and symbols putting an indigenous lens on our society which leads us to think and talk about our presence, our connection to place, time, and each other. And today’s free-flowing conversation is really about how some of these ideas may or may not work in organisations and in everyday life. Welcome Tyson.

Tyson: Hey, Manisha.

Manisha: Before we get into the book, what motivated you to write Sand Talk?

Tyson: Just I crashed my car, and I didn’t have a car [laughs].

Manisha: And that give you the time and space?

Tyson: I was broke and somebody read something I’d written in the Guardian, the publisher, and said, “Write me a book.”

Manisha: I’m actually really interested in the process that you went through as well in terms of listening to stories, creating artefacts, and then putting I guess squiggly lines on a page. And that process that you went through; because it seems to me that it’s almost like the opposite of the process that we use in organisations where we start with the squiggly lines on a page. Then we talk to people, or we decide on what we’re going to design or create. And then we talk to people to confirm that.

Tyson: Yeah. Look, everyone talks about consultation and evidence-based decision making, all these things, and being contextual in their design methods and all that. But it usually doesn’t happen that way. For us, everything begins in relation…and you have to take care of the relational obligations first. And so basically, it’s just a lifetime of relationships and a couple of decades of stories that come through those relationships. And then a couple of years of carving those things into objects because you keep this knowledge from landscapes of meaning. They’re in places and in relations with people, but you can put that into objects and have portable landscapes of meaning that you can carry with you.

And so a couple of years carving those objects for some of those stories and yarns, and sitting with those and analysing the world around me through that lens, and just some interesting complex problems, finding some metaphors and in the world, things like complexity science… and using some of that language to help translate some of the ideas. And then just spending a couple of weeks writing those things out, and that was a book. I didn’t know how hard it was to actually be an author because I wrote that really quickly. But this next one coming out this year, it took me a couple of years and it was really, really hard –

Manisha: Congratulations, yeah.

Tyson: – because I actually did it properly and fact checked and started to try and take some responsibility for what I was writing instead of dashing something out to get five grand for a new car.

Manisha: So I’m really interested in this idea that with the new book you fact checked a lot more and I guess the – I don’t know how to say this. But it’s this idea that the first time round it seems to me that you went through an incredibly thorough process because you spoke, you created. But it was just a different process to the process that we would normally engage in when we’re thinking about writing a book that’s I guess got academic legs to it.

Tyson: Yeah. Well, it was culturally rigorous. In terms of that, on that side, there’s a couple of decades of work there, and a lifetime of relationships. So it was rigorous, culturally. But it was un-rigorous in other ways. So how I applied that culture as a lens to the world, I was sitting strongly within our law and within our protocols of making embassy with other people and being respectful of other people’s stories. But at the same time, without a complete understanding of the way narratives have been weaponised in the world, and of the way like conversations/debates/just asking questions situations are disingenuous.

I don’t know. So I talk up – I exhort people in Sand Talk from my naïve perspective at the time of – to talk to everybody and listen closely and learn, no matter whether you disagree with them or not. And I gave the example of talking to flat earthers, and I talked about how productive that was for both of us.

But yeah, I hadn’t been doing that long enough at the time when I wrote Sand Talk because after a few more months of talking to such people online, then I find out what they’re really talking about which the flat earth is just a vehicle for opening people up for being able to receive other messages about eugenics, about just asking questions about regional IQ scores and differences and what this must mean for governance and really misogynistic, horrendous things about – well, just asking questions about should women really be voting? They have all these biological limitations. Hey, there are no female chess grand masters. That’s just a fact. I’m just stating the facts.

It doesn’t take long before you scratch the surface, and you find you’ve been yarning with people who haven’t been bringing the real story to the table of what they’re really talking about and what they’re really coming from. So the next book is trying to deal with that, and trying to deal with the fallout from Sand Talk of the damage that I’ve done in the world by talking to these people and listening for so long that even some of my own narratives became polluted. So if you look carefully at Sand Talk, you’ll see that there are a few weird things that come up from time to time in my analysis. You’ll see me just edging around the idea of geo-engineering which is giving a little nod to the chemtrails conspiracy theories. You’ll see me speaking favourably about Gadafi; a bit of Gadafi nostalgia there that was inhaled directly from Russian propaganda. So I mean, you’ll see quite a few indications in there. So my – I know I’m talking for a long time here, and apologies. But it’s important.

Manisha: No, I think it’s just really interesting.

Tyson: But I’ll get to a more important example: the education story, the Prussian education story as we go along.

Manisha: But I think this is really critical. One of the things that we grapple with a lot is constructive dialogue, and this idea of hearing everyone’s voices equally. It worries me a lot which is why I’m really interested in what you’re saying here because on one side, if we don’t break bread with people, we can’t understand the world. But on the other side, there seems to be – there’s already a disparity in language, in systems, in cultures, in processes. So we can’t treat the world as if it’s all equal and we can hear these voices equally. So what you’re saying …

Tyson: Yeah, people are weaponising.

Manisha: A hundred percent, and so what you’re saying is really interesting.

Tyson: If you’re somebody who’s prepared to reconsider your position, if you’re someone who’s prepared to always wonder, “Am I wrong here, what do I need to change?” which is a – that’s a reasonable person, and that’s somebody who’s walking with right story and responding to the flows of story and law, and moving with it. That’s right story. That’s a reasonable person. But if you’re operating in a knowledge landscape where people are not following those protocols, where people are actually weaponising those protocols back against you and against the world, then you’re in trouble. And most of your engagement is going to exacerbate harm in the world. We need new protocols. We need new ways of moving in these information landscapes.

And since I wrote Sand Talk, it was like not long after that the pandemic hit, and new methods of radicalisation that have been brewing for a long time. Old ones intensified. New ones were innovated. And half the world went crazy. And there are a lot of radicalised people out there and a lot of bad actors who are very well funded, and a lot of billionaires who want to avoid paying their taxes who are making sure there’s as much chaos as possible in the world. And institutions that are supposed to regulate the bad behaviour of the worst and most powerful people; that these are hampered and people no longer trust them. So there are narratives out there that they may utilise true facts but they’re coming with the wrong story. And you have to engage in a completely different way. And I actually don’t have the answers for that yet. I’m not quite sure how to engage with this world that’s emerged recently. And Sand Talk was written in a previous era with very naïve understandings and a lack of awareness of what was coming.

Manisha: But I think one of the things that you do, and this conversation is bringing up for me as well, is this idea that what we say at one point isn’t always the truth, the power and the right to learn from our experiences. Not to be held by the experiences that we’ve articulated in the past, and then to continue to learn or ideate or iterate from that spot; that our learning isn’t static, and our learning isn’t stagnant. And I think that whether it’s writing a book like Sand Talk and being brave enough to put it out in the world, not knowing what may or may not come out of it, and then being brave enough to actually write something as a critique on your critique. And to continue that process is something that I think we can learn from, or from in businesses as well, and in organisations, this idea that something might not be absolute. It might not be real or it might not be the full truth or the full perfection for us to take it – to bring it out; just as long as we’re willing to change from that perspective, not hold it.

Tyson: There’s the cultural things and the law from the old people in Sand Talk that remains, and it’s absolutely true, and that’ll all be true in a thousand years. My elaborations on that and my way of using that as a method of enquiry and my formation of ideas and opinions and stuff like that, that’s the stuff that’s – that the truth changes. It moves, it shifts as the context shifts, and you need to be able to do both. But you need to recognise when the thinking that you’ve used to elaborate on, when that has shifted, or when that is no longer right for the context, or that you might’ve been wrong headed at the time and that it was actually coming from ego or something like that.

I was talking to a rabbi this morning. They have a similar thing in the Jewish tradition. So he was telling me that they have the written Torah and the oral Torah. And the oral Torah is where you elaborate, and that’s why there’s so many different sects and so much diversity in the Jewish community, and even conflict and lateral violence and everything. The oral Torah is where you elaborate. That’s your individual thing where you find different story paths through the landscape of meaning. But the landscape of meaning itself, that’s the written Torah. And that must always hold and balance the oral Torah. And that can’t change.

The written Torah, that’s the landscape of meaning. Everything is inscribed on that from the – and that’s how they’re able to keep carrying a sense of place and a map of place with them wherever they go in the world, and to maintain language and culture and groundedness in our homeland was that that’s inscribed there. They’ve figured out a way to make landscapes with meaning portable which is really going to be important to most people in the world I think as climate crisis continues, and there’ll be more refugees, and everybody is going to end up having to shift from what they regard as permanent home.

Manisha: And this is –

Tyson: It’s a bit like that anyway. You’re right. There is stuff that is permanent. There is solid law that will always be there, and you move through that landscape and you flow with that, and you can elaborate and find your own story path through. But that story path; there’ll be wrong turns in that and you need to be able to recognise what is law, what is culture, and then what is just the stuff that you – your decisions as a sovereign being that have been right or wrong or otherwise. If you’re not able to shift with that, and you’re not able to fact check yourself and critique yourself and figure out where you’ve gone wrong, then you’re wrong headed, and you’re not in the law anymore. You’re not in right story. You’re in wrong story.

Manisha: It feels to me like a fundamental truth, and a universal truth as well, whether we’re talking about your context, my spiritual context, the context of the world that we live in. One of the things that interests me about this though is that when we talk about work practices, the way that we behave within the system that we work in. How do you see this playing out there?

Tyson: Well, in parasitic relation is really the only way to do this. See, most of us, as changemakers, we tend to try to behave like a pathogen in the systems that we seek to enter and occupy, in we seek to make change like a pathogen. We seek to have a narrative that we put forward that is compelling and that will recruit others to our cause. And we seek to inhabit and take over and sicken and change the organism that we’re within. And that’s how we do that revolution. I keep trying to encourage people to understand that every symbiosis starts out as a parasitic relation.

Every symbiosis you see in every ecosystem, every interrelation between different species; it starts in parasitic relation and it revolves over time. So you need to behave in your institution like a benign parasite, so you’ve got your truth. And you’re bringing your ways in, but your ways that will benefit in the short term the host organism and that they will – that will compel them to want to keep you around and not develop an immune response that will end up ‘DeSantis-ing’ you out of the state of Florida or something. You know what I mean? You’ve got to be a benign parasite to start with and then gradually, like a sandpaper – not a sandpaper fig, like a strangler fig if anybody knows that tree. Eventually, there’s still a tree there, but it’s a different tree.

Manisha: I think the thing about a strangler fig – and I’m no botanist – but often the tree that the strangler fig is on is often much bigger. It’s larger. It looks stronger. And this little fig sits on the side and slowly starts to create this beautiful web that changes the shape of that tree.

Tyson: Mm, and is beneficial to the health of that tree, the different species that it brings in. It helps bring nutrients to that tree for a very, very long time. And so the tree benefits from that. And “strangler” is the English word because that’s not really what it does. It doesn’t strangle it. It nurtures it. It takes it through its natural life cycle, and then it inherits the structure of the previous tree, and then reabsorbs and redistributes the – all of the nutrients and resources of that previous tree throughout the system again, and allows that cycle to continue.

I prefer to see myself in parasitic relation in terms of resistance, and particularly in terms of diversity and inclusion. You have to foster these mycelial networks which is, of course, a popular [laughs] metaphor now. But you also have to pay attention to the arboreal; what’s in the forest canopy, because that’s important. There is soil up there as well. And there are things happening. There is an interaction always between the canopy and the ground and everything in between. And you need to move in that. It’s just – it’s difficult in places where there’s clear felling to figure out how you’re going to bring – how you’re going to reintroduce diversity in there. In our way, that’s with fire. That’s how you do it.

And then you don’t plant trees because you don’t know where to put a tree. You’re a human being. Only the land knows where the trees are going to grow and where they need to grow. And so you burn. You burn that landscape and care for it. And the birds that are attracted in after the smoke clears, they drop the seeds. In their droppings, they drop the right seeds in the right place. And then the right things grow back, and then you continue to care for that and burn it periodically. And eventually, your forest comes back with everything in the right place. It’s a longer haul, and you need good story to do it. But that’s your way through with diversity and inclusion. It’s seldom with window dressing.

Manisha: So what we sometimes find is the companies that do something are often vilified or called out more than the companies that do nothing.

Tyson: Yeah, so these corporations, the ones who do – I mean, so Disney token pops up now just a little bit; they get flogged. They end up with a governor in Florida actually doing legislation to try and wipe them out; using the government to attack them because I don’t know, they had a vague hint of same sex attraction in one movie [laughs], and said they don’t support people who are anti-trans. Bud Light is still getting hammered. And this happens in Australia and people are always – have really reasonable arguments and reasonable just asking questions. But it’s always sitting in wrong story.

Manisha: Tell me more about wrong story.

Tyson: OK, here’s a sign that you’re looking at wrong story, is that the person who is promoting that narrative is absolutely certain they’re right. And if you talk to them six months later, they’re still absolutely certain they’re right. Even if the facts that we’re using were proven to be wrong, they will – they’re just moving onto the next thing and they’ll refuse to answer that. So they don’t do fact checking. They don’t do self-correction or anything like that. Yeah, certainty; if someone is speaking with absolute certainty and is not questioning or listening anymore, then they’re coming from wrong story. Wrong story is unilateral. Wrong story always has an agenda. So it’ll be coming from one think tank or one group or one person – usually some guru thinker that has lots of followers or something like that. Yeah, that’s wrong story, and it’s usually coming from that emu narcissism kind of place.

Manisha: Can I just say, your stories around emu make complete sense to me, and I love the way that you connect the physical world with the stories that we all need to hear. What I love about it is this idea that we don’t have to live in the middle of the bush to actually connect with country. And we also don’t need to connect with country physically to connect with country. So for instance –

Tyson: Yeah, and to be able to understand that law. And the cautionary tales around the emu is cautionary tales against narcissism and it also offers blueprints, strategies for how people must keep that narcissism in check within themselves but also in their communities; strategies for how to do it. It’s always a team effort, and it takes many different things. You look at that Tiddalik story, where you’ve got this – it’s an anti-trust dreaming story. I always think of it like that, that giant frog eating up all the waters. And then all the animals have to come together and do these different strategies to put an end to that.

Manisha: And I think one of the strengths there is that often when we hear about stories related to dreaming, they’re often written in a way that they’re for children. There’s an assumption that they are children’s stories rather than grown up stories.

Tyson: Mm. There are two different ways of looking at that and making sense of that, and one is the just-so story thing; the idea that these stories have been colonised by Rudyard Kipling, just-so narratives back from the age of discovery and colonisation. So there’s that. Another way to look at it is a more strength-based way in that in Aboriginal knowledge, there’s different stages and levels of knowledge. So you can only receive what you’re ready for. And you can still find the law and the ways of living in the children’s levels of stories, and that maybe most people – especially if you’re putting something out in the world and you don’t know who’s going to be picking it up. Then that story has to go out in the world at that children’s level. And it’s fine if it’s a little bit – if it’s changed and transformed in English a little bit because the real story and that true is still kept by elders and knowledge keepers who have to pass on and share with people who are ready to receive it.

Manisha: And to receive it in different ways I guess as well.

Tyson: Yeah, and to be responsible for carrying that knowledge and applying it in the world. And that’s the thing. [Laughs] That’s the trick. Anyway, so there’s two ways of looking at that. There are always many ways of looking at everything, I guess. I don’t know. If my totem wasn’t brolga, I would see emu story differently. And there’s lots of emu people who will hear the emu story and it’s a strong message about how to be a man who is – who meets his obligations of nurturance as a man. So there’s a whole model of masculinity that comes through emu story which is about a man who is humble and a man who has a nurturing role in the community for raising children because the female emu just lays the eggs and takes off. But the man stays and sits on the eggs and hatches the chicks and raises the chicks. So there are – there’s good story there with that emu one, too. It’s not like a dichotomy of good and evil. I would only see the negative emu stuff because I’m a brolga boy, and brolgas don’t get along with emus [laughs].

Manisha: But what I like about that is this idea of the difference between stories that are fixed, that people take with them and are unwilling to move from. And stories that are actually global, because as humans, not everything is right and wrong; that there’s complexity within that, that the truth sits between many, many different ways of knowing, and some of which we privilege more than others.

Tyson: That’s it. Look, if your sovereign law – if your central law, if your big story, the stuff that you carry with you, your central tenets of faith and ethics and everything else, that foundational rock of your life; if that system of belief is not encouraging you to be a sovereign being and find your own pathway, and to make mistakes and learn from them, then that’s probably a cult that you’re in, and not a true tradition. It’s probably – you’re probably in a faith that has been designed to control you and for some pretty horrendous purposes; usually purposes that end in violence and extraction and the death of the world.

Manisha: And we’re hearing about some of this at the moment, I think. We’ve had some information today. I was reading about a lot of people who have created AI talking about how AI may well lead to humans’ extinction. But I think it’s interesting that the people who are creating the technology are also the people who are worried about what they’re creating.

Tyson: Look, if you’re an indigenous pattern thinker, and you’re keeping half an eye on that story over a number of years, you’ll start to see a pattern emerging. Usually, so as an indigenous analyst within this space, I believe that these really obviously disingenuous panic narratives about AI destroying the Earth that are spun out there by people who are accelerationists and want to see the end of the Earth [laughs], who want to see the destruction of the system, and who are pretending to panic about it. It’s a pump and dump scheme. It seems really obvious to me and really clear, and I just think it’s – yeah. It’s wrong story. These are all people who have – a lot of these people have really horrendous rapture ideologies. There’s that sense that a golden age can’t begin, a new age can’t begin until everything else is burnt to ash.

Manisha: So as someone who thinks in a way that’s really different to the way that mainstream society sometimes thinks and feels – in our work we call ourselves edge users or edge thinkers. How do you actually maintain your own balance and how do you do this within mainstream organisations like the places you work in?

Tyson: Yeah, it’s weird being an edge thinker and an edge user in a landscape of edge lords.

Manisha: Yes, that’s right.

Tyson: If you know what I mean [laughs]. That’s most of them always edging around something horrendous. And they’re always just – they just slip out little feelers, little testers, and see if you’re going to slap it back. And it’s exhausting because it’s like you’re constantly slapping away all these little hands that are just like, “Whoops,” reaching out to pinch your bottom all day. And eventually, you’re like, “Just get off. Whatever. Pinch my bottom.” [Laughs] And then they pinch it and then they go, “Whoop, there, that’s consent,” and in they come. There’s edge lords everywhere.

So being an edge thinker or an edge user in an organisation is a frigging exhausting process. And you need to have your friends. You need to have your allies and you need to be building these networks of support and growing that strangler fig in these organisations. And you need to hang in there. It’s a hostile environment initially.

But the way that you can render it less hostile is to be bringing nutrients to the host. You have to be showing that your unique thinking is actually bringing them profit. And then they’ll allow your unique thinking to exist in the organisation; not just your face of colour on the poster or at the table or in the promotional material. But I’m sorry, you have to think like a white man while you’re here, and speak like a white man while you’re here. No. Instead, they’re actually going, “Hey, all right, this – wow. This perspective here has just made us half a million dollars. We need to nurture that.” It’s the only way to do it, to get enough space away from the pinching little hands of the edge lords.

Manisha: And if you had one thing that you could change in the way that the edge lords and the corporates worked so that it would make it a little bit easier for them to hear your message, what would that be?

Tyson: Mm. I wouldn’t. When people ask me magic-wand questions like that, I always say: the only thing that I would do that with that magic wand would be to make it destroy itself. Any singular decision or plan that would come from me would be ultimately destructive, no matter how good the intent was. You can’t have – that’s not what leadership is. If you have that, you have butterfly effects, you have knock-on effects you can’t even imagine that are big horrendous ripple effects. So I would not just – I would not ever change one thing if I had a magic wand.

Manisha: So sorry, when I say that, I don’t mean necessarily – I’m talking more about the mismatch. More than going, “You need to fix this in the world,” it’s more, “When you walk in that door, what could do …?” It’s tiring sometimes, right. It’s tiring walking in there. There’s lateral violence. There’s all sorts of shit that happens when we walk in that door. And sometimes – we were in a session yesterday and we were talking about respect and one person in the room said, “You know, from now on, if people just stop asking me what my religion means to me, I’ll just have that little bit more space.”

So it was a really powerful conversation actually within an organisation. And we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t ask about it. We didn’t say why or how or, “Why can’t we?” She just said, “Yeah, if that’s what you want in this today, no one is going to talk about that.” Not relevant, not important; it’s just important that we don’t talk about it because this person has said it is destructive. So I’m thinking about it more in that personal space rather than in the systems and pattern space because as someone who is constantly having those hands come at you, what is something people can do or organisations can do to actually give you a little bit more space to fight the good fight, really.

Tyson: I don’t know anybody from any tradition or ideology on the planet who doesn’t raise their kids to listen to other people and be respectful of other people around them. I don’t know. I mean, the most conservative repressive curriculum in a kindergarten will still teach kids to listen to each other and share, and respect the boundaries that each other has. It’s pretty frigging simple. I don’t understand why adults don’t get it. But maybe the message is just a bit more simple. Maybe it’s just – maybe we just complicate the message too much and we try and put too many specific rules around it. And if you’re not a millennial or a Gen Z, you can’t remember all them rules. And the Gen Xs and boomers [laughs] and silent generation, they can’t keep their head around all that stuff. So I just think some basic rules of interaction of just waiting, listening, deeply, having some empathy and feeling for what another person – if another person is feeling disturbed about something. It’s pretty simple. You just have a little bit of cultural responsiveness to the needs of everyone around you.

Manisha: Thank you so much for that. I did want to share – there’s a great thing that you talked about in your book. I read the sentence. I don’t know if you even remember it. But there was a piece in there about not wrestling pigs because you get shit all over you. And I mentioned this to the crew this morning and our new motto at work? Don’t wrestle the pigs [laughs].

Tyson: Let’s end on that. That’s your rule going in. Listen to everybody, be polite, be culturally responsive, but never wrestle a pig because you both get covered in shit and the pig likes it.

Manisha: Exactly. Well thank you so much for your time.

Tyson: Yeah, for sure.

Manisha: It’s been absolutely gorgeous speaking to you. And thank you everyone for listening to this episode of With, Not For. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au or see the show notes. So until next time, this is Manisha Amin for the Centre for Inclusive Design.