Gerry Georgatos works in the suicide prevention space. Here he discusses lateral violence and its impacts on community.
As the Black Lives Matter movement takes hold and prospers hope in Australia, it brings the reminder that lateral violence should have no seat at the table.
Lateral violence can be defined as displaced anger at adversaries that is misdirected at peers, supporters, friends or advocates.
The term is used to describe violence and bullying by marginalised peoples among themselves and is particularly evident in developed nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories.
While lateral violence became pronounced with European colonialism into Africa and Latin America, it is a polycultural concept that is evident throughout all recorded human history, including patriarchy’s control over women.
Gunditjmara author and filmmaker, Richard Frankland, theorised lateral violence as internalised colonialism:
“The organised, harmful behaviours that we do to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group: within our families; within our organisations and; within our communities.
“When we are consistently oppressed, we live with great fear and great anger and we often turn on those who are closest to us.”
Lateral violence is a destructive behaviour which undermines positive ways forward. Some of this violence comes from a negative self and can result in a downtrodden individual trying to keep everyone else within their circle downtrodden, too.
There is often competition with each other for what little opportunity there appears to be, and some will step over everyone to score that opportunity.
Unfortunately, lateral violence can be an accepted and learned pattern. It has been passed on through the generations. There are many who believe that during the generations of missions and reserves in Australia, others of their ‘own’ sold them out. Those who worked their way into the offices of white privilege were seen as leaving their people behind to rot on the missions and reserves.
Today, those who make it into public office are seen by many of their ‘own’ as leaving their people behind to rot in dirt-poor conditions, deprivation and jail cells.
Ultimately, lateral violence is a self-destructive behaviour. It is comprised of jealousy, gossiping, bullying, and shaming, and can culminate in families and community groups feuding. This is particularly problematic in small communities and townships as well as among small populations in the urban masses.
Lateral violence also carries over into organisations which are established to lend a helping hand to minorities. The anger and hatred that culminates from lateral violence stresses and saturates organisations, degrading their functions and capabilities.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of lateral violence notes some damage including “psychological harm, deprivation and maldevelopment”.
The WHO said there is “a growing recognition among researchers and practitioners of the need to include violence that does not necessarily result in injury or death, but that nonetheless poses a substantial burden on individuals, families, communities and healthcare systems worldwide”.
Lateral violence is traumatic and its intergenerational transmission perpetuates the constancy of trauma—from the cradle to the deathbed.
Narcua Langton of the Native Women’s Association of Canada said: “Those most at risk of lateral violence in its raw physical form are … the vulnerable members of the family: old people, women and children. Especially the children”.
Many theorists argue that through lateral violence, people take on behaviours and qualities of their oppressors. Theorists Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon argued that victims of colonialists took on negative views of themselves, their culture and their capabilities, causing them to adopt their oppressor’s behaviours.
Similarly, Jane Middelton-Moz argues: “When individuals feel inferior, inadequate, and afraid, they take on the qualities of the oppressor as a way of acquiring strength and an illusion of power.”
Though most social theorists agree with these views, I disagree. Not every oppressed individual has soaked up lateral violence behaviours or low-self-esteem.
Yes, colonisation robbed peoples of their autonomy and stole their lands. However, human beings are simpler than all of this, they just want to be included; people need people. This is a fundamental principle of identity—how we interact with each other and how we are treated.
In unequal societies there is inherent unfairness and discrimination. Our engagements with one another are always internalised. Negative engagements and put downs can translate into racism in some instances.
We do not fight against each other but fight to engage with each other.
So, what is the way forward? There is a lesson still to be learned today—right around the world—that we are in this life gig together despite the actions of colonialists and post-colonialists and the politics of identity they have established.
Lateral violence divides peoples and extends beyond peers to everyone who can make a difference to the lives of the marginalised in improving their lot.
Education is imperative for us to walk through life as neighbours and as equals. Collective learning has the power to bring people together.
By Gerry Georgatos
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the National Coordinator of the NSPTRP.
*Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article has been amended.