Reflections on ‘lateral violence’ and the autistic community 

I was the note-taker for my workplace’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employee Network annual workshop last week. While I no longer work in Human Resources I still do this role as I really enjoy it and apparently my notes are good and my presence appreciated. Each year a different facilitator has led the workshop. The facilitator this year was incredible. Her thinking resonated very strongly with me. She introduced a lot of different concepts around work and life and one of these really struck me: the idea of lateral violence. 

Lateral violence – as far as I know from a two day workshop – is an experience where oppressed people who have been attacked for generations turn that oppression inwards and instead of fighting the power, fight one another. In relation to Indigenous peoples it  is apparently directly related to the experience of colonisation and happens in countries around the world. The facilitator showed a video from Canada focussing on First Nations people talking about lateral violence. There was also a scripted drama bit which illustrated the ideas – in this case it was mostly about gossip and undermining other Aboriginal people in the workplace. As I watched this an, idea formed in my mind. It may not be a very helpful idea – I’m not sure – but what I saw in the video and the discussion seemed to be a phenomenon I know very well in my own life and have seen in the communities which I belong to.

I would love to be able to say that most of the jealousy, undermining  and snippiness I have experienced in life has come from other people and has been aimed against me but sadly the opposite is true. For many years  I was very insecure around others in the autistic community who were doing well – or at least, appeared to be doing well from where I was sitting. I would feel stressed and inadequate when someone got an award. I struggled to see autistic colleagues in news media, regardless of how important their work was. In fact the more influential their work, the more insecure and stressed I would get. I am a kind person so I didn’t ever want to act on what I saw as my shameful jealousy but it was definitely there. I just figured I was a horrible, petty person. It used to horrify me the thoughts which would come through my mind. I tried to tell myself that anyone’s good work for the community was a good thing but I seemed unable to get past the mean thoughts I had about other people, even though I knew they were essentially working for the same outcomes as I was and making things better for all of us. I saw this as a very big problem and it resulted in me feeling very guilty and sad to be apparently such an awful human being.

In recent years this has thankfully changed. In fact the final nail in the coffin of my poor thinking seems to have been linked to my coming out as non-binary gender recently. This was an affirmation. What the socialist in my history might call a festival of the oppressed perhaps. I finally saw myself as I am and was happy to be entirely ‘me.’ I didn’t need to compete or bring people down because the place I occupied didn’t need such things. I was also in a place of personal and professional empowerment and influence. The facilitator at the workshop talked about lateral violence being an expression of being powerless, a sort of deferred aggression which, instead of fighting to address the oppression, makes people fight others who are similarly oppressed. So lateral violence relates to powerlessness – perceived and real – so I guess it could be said that once I no longer felt powerless I no longer needed to want to bring down people around me and could focus on making positive change. 

I would never wish to appropriate an experience of Indigenous peoples or belittle their experience so I am quite tentative with drawing this parallel between autistic experience and something related to colonisation and the ongoing trauma from that which is still occurring today. However, the experience described in the workshop made sense to me. In my case, when I stopped being closeted as non-binary and started to get some influence and recognition as an autism advocate I could start to focus on the problem which actually needs addressing – ableism and discrimination. I don’t know if this is the same or a similar phenomenon to what was covered at the workshop, but the two definitely seem related.

Maybe this is something that many oppressed groups experience, deflecting oppression and prejudice into an unhelpful place and turning it on one another in the community? I suppose the difference this ‘lens’ of understanding presents is that the issues of jealousy, undermining fellow autistics, harsh criticism and competitiveness which ca happen in our community is more about powerlessness than individuals behaving poorly and being jealous of each other. If this actually is the case, it suggests that increasing our power and respect and pride – as individuals and as a community – might decrease the issue of turning things inwards to attack and criticise one another.

My thinking on this also suggests that to address this issue we need to work together and challenge that wish to be critical. We need to recognise it as another part of ableism and oppression that needs fighting just as much as bigotry, bullying or structural discrimination. I’m just sharing some thinking I guess but the workshop I attended was very unsell and enlightening. (And I took some very comprehensive notes with legible handwriting so, other than learning lots of very helpful information and expanding my thinking, I also did my job well!)

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