Self-harm or State-inflicted-harm. What role does language play in the displacement of one and the other? Who gains from this?
In this revealing article, poet Janet Galbraith* tells of her own experiences and identifies wider causes and culprits.
A while ago I started writing an article about the notion of what is often called ‘self-harm’. I had felt saturated by this word and angry about the ways in which it is used to refer to a whole range of experiences. But I found it really hard to write. I wanted to research and come up with something that would articulate what I was feeling in a way that would be understood to have some gravitas. In the end, I did not finish it. But tonight, after speaking over the past days with people in detention who are in such dire situations that so-called ‘self-harm’ feels inevitable I decided just to write from experience.
I, myself, have had periods of my life when I have ‘self-harmed’, as, I imagine have many of you who read this. Self-harm comes in many forms, some socially acceptable, others that are not. I was someone who found some relief in cutting. And I have often been asked, ‘Why? What does this achieve?’ It is not something I can explain clearly. At different times in my life cutting was the result of various stresses or states or traumas I had or was experiencing at the time. At times it brought relief, at times it felt beyond my control, at times it was a scream for help. And at times I could not tell you why I needed to do this.
Many people have responded to my scars, or evidence of cutting, in anger or with what seems to be a sense of derision. But few people have really understood that the majority of those who ‘self-harm’ do so because of stresses that are placed on us by experiences that are bigger than ourselves.
At the moment there is much mention of ‘self-harm’ by people who are incarcerated in so-called immigration detention. Each time I read this I have a visceral reaction. This is not self-harm. To call this self-harm displaces the responsibility for the effects of torture and trauma onto the individual bodies of those who are being actively and deliberately harmed by successive Australian governments, and by those in Australia who acquiesce to, or actively encourage, their policies and behaviours.
As we have seen, language matters. The power of language and (mis)naming to disempower, control and construct certain groups of people as less than human or at least of less value than another has been essential to the process of creating a milieu where much of the Australian public will allow the torture and slow killing of refugees. This has a long history in this continent/country, this use of language to attempt to construct some as less than human so to shore up the anxious power of a white-supremacist nation operating in stolen lands. Since I was young I remember hearing people speak of the ‘Aboriginal Problem’. Of course now it is obvious that the only problem First Nations peoples caused was to those intent on invading and stealing lands, children and resources from them. But still this abhorrent displacement of ‘the problem’ continues.
When I think of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ I hear again the mis-naming of certain people – here people fleeing persecution and looking for refuge – as a problem. As many are aware, it is not these people who are a problem but rather the racism and unacknowledged history of Australia that seeps through the constant attempts at whitewash, that is the problem. It is the use and deliberate sacrificing of thousands of people in order for the mainstream political parties to grow their power and relationships with the monied, big business, the prison industry, the war criminals, that is the problem. It is the fact that many of us who live privileged and unsustainable lives enabled by the machinations of globalisation do not pay the dues for our greed. Instead there is the constant deferral onto others, those lives deemed not of value, those people who we allow to be sacrificed, that is the problem.
It may seem strange that I have gone on to speak of this but I see that in the processes of mis-naming, power constantly returns to the oppressors. Those who are oppressed are constantly mis-named as the problem and the actions of states are dis-placed onto individual bodies and psyches.
With Australian run detention centres, huge and irreversible harm is being actively and deliberately done to many, many, many men, women and children. When one or more of these people tie a sheet around their neck in order to die, or cut open their veins, or drink bleach … this is not self-harm. This is not about an individual harming themselves. This is state-inflicted-harm. This is the processes of slowly killing people with impunity.
- Janet is the author of “Re-membering”, Walleah Press, 2013.