Lateral violence is displaced anger that is misdirected at one’s peers, supporters, friends, to advocates though on their behalf. In general, though there should be no place for any form of violence, the anger at one’s adversaries is misguidedly shifted to one’s peers. This premise is used to describe the violence and bullying by marginalised peoples, particularly in developed nations, among themselves. Nations, particularly middle and high income nations, with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories contain marginalised minorities who are stressed by lateral violence.
We understand and recognise the historical and contemporary factors which underwrite and bring about lateral violence however the education must continue, there is no place for any form of violence, bullying, coercion, or threatening behaviour in our society. These behaviours only serve to undermine the overarching positive ways forward and damage the functions and objectives of communities and families.
For the marginalised and minorities to benefit from profound relationships with, for instance the broader Australian community, with governments, and importantly within their own communities, they must mitigate the eruptions of anger and hate among each other and the sad divisive and dangerous harms that only serve to keep people downtrodden.
Richard Franklin 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 aberrant behaviour which undermines positive ways forward. In fact lateral violence is in conflict with the positive ways forward. Some of the violence comes out of a negative self and in the chaotic desperation there is a near nihilistic desperation for a downtrodden individual to keep everyone within their circle of concern as downtrodden. There is also the competing with each other for the ‘crumbs’. There is the competing with each other for what little opportunity there appears to be in the form of a pecuniary benefit and some will step over everyone to score that opportunity – even to the point of a-one-person-stampede. Among the oppressed and downtrodden unfortunately lateral violence can be an accepted learned pattern. It has been passed on through the generations. There are many who believe that during the generations of the missions and reserves in Australia that others of their ‘own’ sold them out, those who worked their way into the offices of white privilege but who were seen as leaving their people behind to rot on the missions and reserves. Today those who make it out, and in particular those who make it into public office, they are seen by many of their ‘own’ as leaving their people behind to rot in dirt-poor conditions, in deprivation, in the jail cells, and to suicide.
Ultimately, lateral violence is a self-destructive behaviour. It can cut people from assistance and it can isolate the perpetrators and their families. Lateral violence invades the family and damages the functions and dynamics of the family. It is corrosive.
Lateral violence is pronounced in marginalised and historically oppressed peoples. Along the spectrum we find it is comprised of jealousy, gossiping, bullying, and shaming. It can culminate in families and community groups feuding. This is particularly problematic in small communities and townships and among small population groups in the urban masses. The lateral violence continues perniciously into organisations that were established by affirmative action policies for one’s own people to lend a helping hand to the rest of their people. The anger and hatred that culminates from lateral violence pervades into the organisations and can stress the organisation, degrading its functions and capabilities.
Lateral violence can escalate from individual behaviour to a collective carry-on. When a number of people collectivise the attacks they can undermine and the anger and hatred become primary. It is one thing to have your say and another thing to derail hope by turning on people through bullying, mobbing, and coercive and threatening behaviours. The constancy of trauma continues among the downtrodden and they remain as if oppressed.
Hatred can degenerate people to not just psychological wounds but to the irrecoverable. The World Health Organisation definition of lateral violence notes some of the damage and ‘including psychological harm, deprivation and maldevelopment’ and reflecting ‘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.’
It is argued that the concept of lateral violence became pronounced with European colonialism into Africa and Latin America but it is indisputably evident that it is a human narrative as long as is recorded human history. Lateral violence includes patriarchy’s control over women. Theorists Paulo Friere and Frantz Fannon argued that the victims of the colonialists took on negative views of themselves, of their culture and of their capabilities and that this lent to adopting behaviours of the oppressor.
Jane Middleton-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. Human beings are simpler than all this, they just want to be included; people need people, in this is borne the elemental principles of identity – in how we interact with each other, in how we are treated: as equals or as second-class citizens or as inferior. Our engagements with one another are always internalised. The negative engagements and put downs translate toxically as ‘racism’. In unequal societies there is inherent unfairness and discrimination and this hurts – it goes to the psychosocial self – and in fact we do not fight against each other but fight to engage with each other; we need each other.
The British colonialists were the world’s most significant slum builders – but for the oppressed, whether for the majority of the population in the Indian subcontinent, whether for the descendants of Terra Nullius’ First Peoples through the segregation and missions and reserves there was a corralling and tormenting – there were physical and psychosocial deprivations. The Belgians committed despicable atrocities in the Congo, the Portuguese and Spanish impoverished and indentured peoples through Africa and Central and South America. The majority of the European colonisers were cruel. Had the colonialists included the local peoples they dispossessed of not only their lands but of their humanity everything today would be different. But this cruelty is a human narrative not limited to the European colonialists. Throughout human history the invader dominated and indentured and discriminated. In general throughout history there have been no binaries with the oppressor and the oppressed, only dichotomies. Had the colonialists welcomed everyone’s children to school, and if they were open to business and venture with everyone – those who arrived and those who were present – and delved into humanity instead of entrenching and normalising differences we’d have a whole different world story today and a zeitgeist to embrace. So, for those relative few from within the oppressed who worked up favour from the oppressor, whether they became trackers, native police, advisers, or bureaucrats – many within their people saw a pathway out of the cruelties but many others perceived that those who made it out left their people behind to rot on the missions and reserves, in the shanties. Lateral violence is a mixed bag in terms of its causality and it came out of moralisations within the predicament of racism and segregation, from within the act of oppression and of a hatred of the oppressor.
What of the ways forward? How best to understand the way to the positive self? There is a lesson still to be learned today – right around the world – that we are in this life gig together, all of us and despite the politics of identity that the oppressor has established, despite what the colonialists and post-colonialists have done, whether we are black, brown, white, we are equal and in this fact we must work together, not in silos or otherwise we perpetuate some of the negatives of past wrongs and the psychological and spiritual wounds will not heal. There were some schools in ‘early Sydney’ that included several Aboriginal students but racism kicked them out once some began to excel educationally. Had the colonialists’ mandate been that they reach out to everyone, live together instead of killing fields, genocide and apartheid cruelties we would have less burden today, and much love. The anger has always been at the injustices by the oppressor, the major frustration of the exclusion and that the act of exclusion was aided and abetted by persecution.
Lateral violence divides peoples as oppression divide peoples. Lateral violence extends beyond peers to everyone who can make a difference to the lives of the marginalised in improving their lot.
Educating the ways forward for us all to walk through life as neighbours and as equals is imperative and this learning can bring people together. There is a context of new meanings, maybe even a dawn of new meanings we need to give birth to that carry us together into humanity where equality is inalienably lived, where there is no oppressing. Lateral violence is traumatic and its intergenerational transmission perpetuates the constancy of trauma – from the cradle to the deathbed. Displaced anger and the presumptive negative premises that drive lateral violence can become internalised to the point it can affect the brain’s amygdala. There occurs degeneration from disordered thinking to serious psychological wounds. The positive self becomes a bridge too far.
Narcua Langton of the Native Women’s Association of Canada says “Those most at risk of lateral violence in its raw physical form are family members and, in the main, the vulnerable members of the family: old people, women and children. Especially the children.”
* Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of national projects to further develop suicide prevention, and well-being and education programs in prisons. Gerry’s research has a focus on trauma recovery and restorative approaches. He works first-hand with the critically vulnerable and marginalised. He is also a prolific writer on the understanding of racism and on the ways forward from racism.