Airing Dirty Laundry

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane at

Let’s talk about Lateral Violence

Lateral (or horizontal) violence rears its ugly head in many places and guises. You may not have called it by name before, but most likely you have felt or seen the damage it leaves in its wake.

Lateral violence is where negative and destructive behaviour between individuals occurs across groups of people with a commonality, as opposed to coming from ‘above’. It’s when people in similar circumstances and environments turn on each other, rather than address the problems. And it happens more often than what you may expect.

  • Workplace and Community Groups / Committeesmany, if not all, would have experienced unhealthy workplaces and/or community groups; the ones where moral is low, conditions poor and things are just not feeling right. Under unfavourable conditions, or in toxic environments, people can turn on their colleagues. There are probably four main drivers that can lead to lateral violence in these situations: 1) Lack of Leadership 2) Changing Group Culture 3) Inefficient Management Structures/Governance and/or 4) Poor Communication.
  • Families – competition, misunderstandings and low emotional intelligence can lead to lateral violence in families. If not addressed, whole families can be torn apart.
  • Peoples and Nations – this is too huge to cover respectfully here, but briefly: war, conflict, colonisation, oppression, slavery, widespread poverty, and other types of human rights infringements can turn people on each other, as opposed to the perpetrators. In simple terms, it’s a mentality of dog eat dog; being forced to fight over meagre bones to survive.

For example, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced lateral violence. The cause of such behaviour can be linked to the massive change post-colonisation, including: dispossession/loss of land; restrictions on movement and incarceration (from missions/reserves to prisons); forced removal of children; loss of sovereign rights; racism; world-view bias; loss of traditional food sources; food insecurity; equity and access barriers; changes to law and social structures; and reduced decision-making.

All of the above lead to inter-generational issues, impacting on the social-emotional well-being of individuals, families and communities. Poor health, suicide, poverty, unemployment, homelessness are all legacies of colonisation, and side-effects of systemic racism, power & privilege and inflexible world-views. Navigating new social structures, where the goal posts feel as if they are constantly being changed, can contribute to lateral violence.

Some people say it’s best not to air dirty laundry in public. And I usually agree with that sentiment. Drawing attention to internal issues raises fears of funding cuts, or changes in who manages programs and services. Even if problems arise, its important that communities manage their own services and programs, especially where these have been proven to be effective; such as community controlled health. Supplying resources and other supports for communities to build capacity and achieve their own aspirations is the best strategy, as a paternalistic approach can contribute to generational disadvantage.

Let’s have the tough conversations, but let’s talk about lateral violence in a way that does not lay blame. What do I mean?

Know the origins of Lateral Violence and Take Action

I have personally experienced lateral violence and, I must confess, I have expressed lateral violence towards others. If I am to walk the talk, then its important that I address my own behaviour and thinking. Easier said than done.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would like to put forward the below suggestions (some of which I have been attempting to adopt/learn):

  • start a conversation – in your workplace, with your family, with the person showing signs of lateral violence.
  • choose not to participate – familiarise yourself with the signs/behaviours of lateral violence (bullying, with-holding information, excluding, gossiping, cronyism, bias, etc) and first address them in yourself.
  • extend a hand – ask people ‘how they’re tracking’, be there for others.
  • look beyond the surface – understand why a person / group is behaving in a negative or destructive manner, things are not always what they seem.
  • acknowledge where the problem comes from, and be a change-maker – for example, understand the ongoing impact of colonisation and instead practice decolonisation.
  • recognise yourself in others – awaken to yourself, show compassion, know thy own faults.
  • deep listening – put down that phone, stop thinking of your to-do list, and really listen to people.
  • support re-culturalisation – be strong in your own culture, heritage and identity; and respect others’ rights to their own sense of identity.
  • find your collective voice – advocate, learn how to speak up in a constructive not destructive way.
  • learn about lateral love – created by Uncle Brian Butler, this concept is spreading world-wide (see the below links)
  • we all deserve a share of the pie and there is enough to go around.

Each drop of water contributes to the ocean of change 

We are each a drop of water, all coming from the same source. It is a fallacy that we are of many races; there is only one human race. Our difference is in ethnicity and sense of identity; in our place of origin and our sense belonging to where we live; our culture, world-views and values. We are all diverse, but still of the same race. It’s all part of the great duality – just like a drop of water is unique but, at the same time, is just like all the other drops. All drops return to the clouds, pools, rivers, gutters and puddles – to mix with the other drops, to become part of a whole.

Eventually, every drop once again finds its way to the great ocean.


Read what Brian Butler and friends have to say about Lateral Love:

Lateral Love Australia

Brian Butler’s Blog

Find out more about Lateral Violence:

Audio explanation by Richard Franklin (via ABC Radio Mildura) –

Lateral Violence and First Nations Australians (Human Rights Commission) –

Fact Sheet (and video links) by Native Women’s Association of Canada –

Lateral Violence in the Workplace (nursing) –