Earlier this year, Mark Latham stirred up controversy with these comments on domestic violence on his TripleM podcast:
“… it’s about how the men look at themselves. Blokes have lost self-esteem, they’ve lost their job, they’re welfare dependent, and they’ve got other troubles, drugs, alcohol, in their life. It’s that loss of self-esteem where I think they use the domestic violence as a coping mechanism to get over all the other crap they’ve got in their lives. So demonising men and making them feel worse about themselves is not going to solve the problem…”
Outrage ensued. Wendy Tuohy called him “wilfully dangerous”. Larissa Waters said his comments were “appalling” and “shockingly sexist”. Tracey Spicer said it was “shameful” he had a platform to say them. Clementine Ford described it as a “toilet show”.
So when I sat down over a coffee to read Amy McQuire’s critique of my recent article in The Australian, I could scarcely believe it. A young feminist trotting out similar apologism for domestic violence by Indigenous men.
Her article was a response to my public condemnation of silence and inaction over the epidemic of domestic violence in Indigenous communities. Headlined “If you think Aboriginal women are silent about domestic violence, you’re not listening”, half her article was actually devoted, not to domestic violence, but to the sufferings of perpetrators.
McQuire quotes statistics from the 1992 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody – which covered the period of the 1980s and earlier – that 40% of men who had died in custody were from the Stolen Generation. She referenced research from another study of Indigenous men incarcerated for violent crime which found the majority had symptoms of PTSD and concludes that high rates of Indigenous incarceration for violent crimes “could be due to a history of widespread traumatic stressors that are being transmitted across the generations”. She said youth detention of traumatised children produces traumatised adults who go on to unleash anger on their families. She linked family violence to intergenerational trauma and communities having control “ripped away from them”. And she warned: “simply demonising Aboriginal men in the media, doesn’t help Aboriginal women and children. In fact, it makes it worse.”
But it was this that had me choking on my coffee:
“To simplify a very complicated area, Aboriginal family violence is very different from domestic violence within non-Indigenous communities. It comes from a different place, from a different history, and therefore, will require different solutions.
While mainstream commentators and feminists talk about domestic violence in the context of the criminal justice system for their own communities, they don’t understand that for Aboriginal women, the criminal justice system can be just as violent, and these high rates of incarceration actually create and drive new forms of violence. So while the solution seems to be locking up more blackfellas, while it is overwhelmingly focused on “punishment”, the reality is far more complex.”
In this worldview Indigenous perpetrators and victims are different from everyone else. The mainstream criminal justice system, with its incarceration and “punishment”, produces more violence and doesn’t work - for Indigenous offenders or victims. Indigenous offenders deserve pity. It follows that violence against Indigenous women should be treated more leniently than violence against other women.
This worldview relies on a premise that Indigenous men are programmed by history, our life experiences, even those of our ancestors’, to be violent abusers.
Time for a reality check.
All Indigenous Australians are colonised peoples. All of us have experienced intergenerational trauma and racism. I certainly have, especially living under the Aborigines Protection Act until I was 13; my father over half his life. I grew up with Aboriginal men like him. Strong men. Proud fighters, workers and providers who never hit women no matter what was going on in their lives. They suffered more racism than any Indigenous person under 40 will ever suffer.
The argument that jail breeds other problems isn’t new, nor limited to Indigenous offenders. And victims of abuse and violence are overly represented in all prison populations. For example, child sex abuse victims are 5 times more likely to commit crime and a high proportion of child sex offenders were themselves abuse victims.
But the reverse isn’t true. Most victims don’t become abusers or criminals.
Even amid an Indigenous violence epidemic, most Indigenous men aren’t violent. Most aren’t abusers. But those who are should face the same consequences as others. And Indigenous victims deserve the same justice.
My statements on Indigenous violence generated much refutation and finger pointing. None confronted the elephants in the room.
None addressed Jacinta Price’s observations in her lecture Homeland Truths: The Unspoken Epidemic of Violence in Indigenous Communities that traditional culture “accepts violence and in many ways desensitises those living the culture to violence”; her accounts of “promised brides”, of girls being given to men for sex, and using customary law as a defence for child rape; or that women in her culture avoid certain roads during ceremony lest they be killed as punishment for accidentally coming across a ceremonial party.
None addressed Suzanne Ingram’s paper Silent Drivers/Driving Silence — Aboriginal Women’s Voices on Domestic Violence. She says Indigenous women are pressured to prioritise racial solidarity over speaking about domestic abuse, such that Indigenous women now tolerate disproportionate rates of violence.
None addressed the litany of reports on child abuse and family violence documenting community leaders turning a blind eye, adults not intervening, communities protecting perpetrators, victims fearing retribution and payback, families who report abuse being blocked from housing controlled by Indigenous organisations and women pressured not to talk to enquiries. I’ve sat on enquiries and seen it myself.
There’s no evidence family violence is linked to communities losing control. Many communities referred to in these reports are administered by Indigenous controlled organisations.
I’m under no illusions as to the criminal justice system’s ability to fix family violence. In the non-Indigenous world, where McQuire imagines the system is more relevant, the system has been pathetic. Go back a few decades you’ll find useless to non-existent law enforcement. Until the 1980’s, rape in marriage wasn’t even a crime in Australia. The resolve by Australian authorities and society to tackle family violence is relatively recent. Even now the system fails.
What sits at the core of the Indigenous family violence epidemic isn’t racism or colonisation, but communities and families not functioning as they should. Intergenerational trauma is better described as the cycle of family violence.
It’s not enough to jail offenders. It’s not even enough to provide shelters. Punishing offenders and sheltering victims are responses to violence, not prevention.
Ultimately, McQuire offered no solutions (different or otherwise). But here’s a few of mine.
Violence won’t end without zero tolerance for violence by families and communities, regardless of what the law or lore used to say. If a culture tolerates violence it needs to change, as other cultures have done.
Violence won’t end if communities are dysfunctional, if leadership wields power for personal gain, if people abuse drugs and alcohol and don’t take responsibility.
Violence won’t end if parents don’t take care of their children, including by sending them to school.
Violence won’t end if Indigenous adults languish on welfare and don’t work. Welfare is state-sponsored disadvantage. A job supports self-worth and autonomy.
Violence won’t end by throwing money at complex webs of overlapping, untested programs. If programs aren’t demonstrated to work by the outcomes they deliver, defund them, reallocate funding and keep testing programs until we find those that do.
At a minimum, governments, communities and individuals must embrace these objectives or family violence will continue to destroy Indigenous communities.
Indigenous family violence comes from the same place as all other family violence – the hands of the offenders. I’m sick of people peddling excuses for men who rape and kill and bash and maim women and children, whether those men are white or black.
An edited version of this article was published in The Spectator Australia on 15 October 2016.
Black women's lives matter too
15 October 2016
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO