Sam Cook writes on the problem of lateral violence in the Indigenous arts sector.
NATIONAL: When investigating lateral violence in the Indigenous Australian arts sector, I was struck by three key findings.
The first was a confirmation by way of confidential disclosures as to how widespread it is.
The second was general reluctance to come forward for fear of retribution primarily in the form of further loss of opportunity and loss of funding.
The third however, was the lack of knowledge around the definitions of lateral violence and the blatant acts of emotional and financial abuse that litter the whole spectrum of the Indigenous arts sector.
The third finding also created misunderstanding in that it was felt by some, that by raising profile on the issue of lateral violence in the Indigenous arts, was in itself an act of lateral violence against the Indigenous community, at the expense of diminishing the impacts of government, colonisation and racism.
So what is lateral violence?
Lateral violence is when oppressed groups or individuals internalise negative emotions such as anger and rage, and manifest their feelings through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, bullying, putdowns and blaming.
Lateral violence is a direct result of oppression and occurs when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both.
The definition of lateral violence, sits in alignment and is connected with other forms of abuse such as financial abuse, which by definition is recognised in a multitude of forms such as denying access to funds, making a group, organisation or individual solely responsible for all finances while the perpetrator handles money irresponsibly or illegally.
Money becomes a tool by which the abuser can further control the victim, ensuring financial dependence on them or obstructing the ability for the money to be managed appropriately.
Lateral violence also encompasses emotional abuse in power and control such as intimidation and using privilege to overpower situations.
All of which yield the same results such as depression, loss of self worth, anxiety and anger. It can also result in loss of career, innovation and compromised artistic outcomes.
For some it will result in artistic outcomes never being achieved, despite them being worthy or groundbreaking.
Examples of lateral violence in the Indigenous arts landscape take on many forms.
Most commonly they come from three key areas; individual arts practitioners or arts managers, organisational governance and Indigenous personnel in funding bodies.
In my findings there have been disclosures around bullying within funding bodies themselves in the form of “you fund my family members project or you won’t receive any support for your own”, government arts workers withholding project applications and notifying the party of being unsuccessful without due process or government arts workers taking the artistic opportunity for their own creative endeavours before the sector has the opportunity to bid for them.
Stacking boards with family and friends in order to overthrow individuals or destabilise organisations is another common example alongside personal attacks and character assassination.
A favoured device used by those perpetrating lateral violence is to challenge ones Indigenous identity or connection of community.
Running a close second is the use of the “cultural card” in order to manipulate situations negatively.
This again is a widespread and common practice within the Indigenous arts.
In reality, I could go on and on about the many, many examples found within the raft of confidential disclosures and findings within my research.
I could also go on about the many examples of lateral violence I’ve personally encountered at the hands of Indigenous individuals, boards and funding bodies.
Trust that I’m more than happy to share in appropriate forums and within safe spaces to which disclosures can be investigated accordingly, but as it stands, there is nowhere you can safely disclose acts of lateral violence within the arts community or by arts funding bodies.
This needs to be addressed nationally.
So what is the way forward?
Firstly, I think as arts practitioners and managers we need to identify lateral violence as it occurs and has historically occurred within the sector.
We need to individually be strong enough to label it as such and ultimately find a collective voice that is measured in the same level of strength to be able to speak out against it.
Silence clearly doesn’t work, it just keeps lateral violence hidden and firmly embedded, constantly attacking our arts practise, creativity and expression while personally inflicting trauma on individuals and organisations.
• Sam Cook is Program Director for the Dreaming Festival, and a monthly arts columnist for Tracker.