The Enemy Within—Identity

Joe Williams runs a program called ‘Defying The Enemy Within’. Joe is a proud Wiradjuri/Wolgalu, First Nations Aboriginal man born in Cowra, raised in Wagga NSW, Australia.  I first encountered Jo through his appearance on The Drum, talking about ‘the enemy within’.

I am the mother of mixed race sons.  My children’s father, Charles Lepani, is from the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea.  I met and married him when I was a student of sociology at UNSW, and where he was a student of Industrial Relations on an ACTU scholarship. I went to live with him in Port Moresby in February 1972, a few months before I gave birth to my eldest son, Genou Lepani. Four years later my second son, Justin Lepani was born.  I registered them at birth as Australian citizens so that they would have the option of where they lived in their later life.  After their father and I separated in late 1978, my sons came to live with me for three years in Sydney before then returning to live with their father and his new wife in PNG. Genou returned to live with me when he was thirteen, to go to high school.  Justin went with his father to Hawaii, when he moved there for three years to take up the position of Director of the East West Centre, before then joining Genou and me to start high school in Australia.

Both their father and I have been committed to helping them have a sense of identity that is at home in both countries.  However as many mixed race people know, this is not always easy.  An Australia that prides itself on being the world’s most multicultural society should make this easier.  Still, issues of identity remain contentious for those who do not easily ‘fit’ for reasons of ethnicity, religion or gender.


It was my own exposure to Trobriand Island society that first introduced me to other possibilities for masculine identity.  On my first visit to the village I encountered men wearing lots of ‘bilus’ – ornamentation in the form of necklaces, earrings, hair ornaments, and woven arm bands with perfumed flowers. They were also readily seen walking along the road with small children on their hips, while their women folk walked alongside them carrying food and other items in woven baskets on their heads.  At night the family gathered around to sing and talk.  The men cried easily in both joy and sorrow, and one could hear the sound of the reed flute in the surrounding jungle as teenagers engaged in romantic encounters.  Unfortunately since those days, Christianity, as the face of modernity, with its strange preoccupation with bodily covering and the repression of sexuality has taken its hold. I just hope the old spirit is strong and survives.

While Joe’s work has been inspired by his own battles with suicide and mental illness, his work is also a powerful pointer towards the importance of redefining ourselves from within against the forces that can bear down so heavily upon us.

His work speaks to issues that underpin masculine identity and domestic violence, as well as the lateral violence issues that can bubble up among groups who find themselves seething in frustration at their powerlessness.  This particularly applies to Australia’s First Nations people, as a result of colonisation and displacement, but is not exclusive to them and is experienced by most people who experience marginalisation from the society around them.

Although forging a successful professional sporting career, Joe battled the majority of his life with suicidal ideation and Bi Polar Disorder. After a suicide attempt in 2012, Joe felt his purpose was to help people who struggle with mental illness. Through customised workshops Joe talks of dealing with adversities, struggles, resilience, addiction, connection, emotional wellbeing & healing trauma in schools, communities, correctional services, sporting clubs and workplaces.

Joe was awarded the Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year in 2015 for his committed work within the community mental health and suicide prevention sectors and was named a finalist in the National Indigenous Human Rights Awards. In 2018 Joe was awarded Suicide Prevention Australia’s highest honour, a LiFE Award for his excellence in communities within the suicide prevention sector and in 2019 was named a dual winner of the Australian Mental Health Prize.

Now a published author, Joe’s autobiography ‘Defying The Enemy Within’ shares not only his life’s story but offer’s practical tools anyone can implement into their lives to improve and maintain their emotional wellbeing. Joe also contributed to the book ‘Transformation; Turning Tragedy into Triumph’ and features in the global documentary ‘Suicide: The Ripple Effect’.

Domestic Violence

Increasingly we are facing that pervasive violence is a feature of domestic life for many families and intimate partners.  And we have come to understand that the need for control is a strong driver of violence, often leading to homicide.  In Australia one woman every week has fallen victim to domestic violence homicide, and we know that the situation in friendly New Zealand is even worse.  Coercive Control is at the heart of domestic violence.

Yet we are societies of relative security in terms of human rights abuses and invasion.  Although that diverges markedly for First Nations Australians in terms of Australia’s criminal justice system, and in the pervasive and enduring racism that extends from the earliest days of colonial settlement and the frontier wars.

Violence in Aboriginal Communities

The problem of alcohol fuelled violence in Alice Springs has received much media coverage.  While many commentators are acknowledging that this problem is about more than grog, and is linked to enduring social disadvantage in housing and employment, the other issue that is not so readily acknowledged is the link between male identity and control in modern Australia and in many other nations.  We see it playing out vividly in India and rape culture, and in gender discrimination in Japan and China. We also see male violence playing out in the emergence of the ‘manosphere’ as a global community of influence, among young men, as well as older men that targets feminism as the source of their frustrations over identity and social success.

Senator Jacinta Price and Peter Dutton have made much of the issue of domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities to justify their opposition to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution and enshrining their constitutional right for a Voice to Parliament on matters impacting their communities across the spectrum of Stop the Gap measures. These measures are about eliminating the socio-economic gap in education, housing and employment between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the Australian population.  But there are deeper cultural and psychological issues at work that are not so easily encapsulated in these measure—issues of intergenerational trauma and psycho-cultural violence by modern society’s ‘white clothes’.

We have also recently seen a peak in youth violence and offending against property in a range of communities with high levels of First Nations people.  All these factors are at play.  Human beings need their identity to be honoured, they need social and spiritual purpose, and they need a loving and safe family environment to thrive. These issues are as foundationally important as educational performance and income.

It is widely acknowledged that past attempt to Stop the Gap through expenditure programs administered by predominantly non-Indigenous bureaucrats at the Commonwealth and State levels have not achieved value for money.  First Nations communities loudly proclaim they have the answers because they are close to the particular needs of particular communities, but that they are stymied by a series of pilot program with no guaranteed rollover funding, with all the funding soaked up by government administration costs.

Furthermore we hear about ridiculous outcomes whereby a program that trained Aboriginal people in housing construction and fitout while actually building the housing was dismantled in favour of the punitive CDEP program whereby the ‘work component’ became a box ticking exercise for the Department administering unemployment benefits.  And how soul destroying and disempowering this feels to communities

Lateral Violence and Control

One of my Aboriginal friends where I live pointed me to the issue of lateral violence in Australia’s Indigenous communities.  The Australian Human Rights Commission has analysed this issue for Australian Indigenous people. It explains that the concept of lateral violence has its origins in literature on colonialism from Africa and Latin America as well as the literature around the oppression of African Americans, Jewish people and women. The process of colonisation and other forms of oppression have their roots not only in the violent subjugation of groups but also more insidious forms of social control.

Like the failed attempts at resistance in other colonised countries, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples found there was effectively no way for them to challenge the colonisers as their power and resources were too great. This frustration planted the first seeds of lateral violence.

In order to establish power and control, the colonising powers positioned the groups being colonised as inferior to themselves, ignoring their basic humanity as well as their cultural identity, existing power structures and ways of life.

The Commission outlines how the process of colonisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia explains how colonisation creates the conditions for lateral violence through:

  • Powerlessness – colonisation sets up a power dynamic where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples felt powerless in the face of colonisers, breeding anger and frustration with no appropriate way for them to be vented.
  • Colonisation created a system where every aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives were controlled. This robbed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their right to self-determination.
  • The dismemberment of traditional roles, structures and knowledge –
    colonisation diminished traditional culture and roles as well as eroding the traditional structures for dealing with conflict.
  • Attacking and undermining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and humanity – colonisation denied the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. It was a fundamental attack on the humanity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our capacity to function as a society, community and family. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were seen as ‘lesser people’ with an ‘uncivilised culture’. Serious negative consequences were put in place for continuing to practice culture and language.
  • The violence of the colonisation process served to reinforce the apparent worthlessness of our peoples. In this environment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders began to adopt some of the behaviours and values of the colonisers and internalise some of the negative attitudes about their own culture in order to survive. This undermined pride and added to feelings of powerlessness.
  • Creating conflict about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity – government authorities began to decide who was Aboriginal or Torres
    Strait Islander, setting up divisions and jealousies in communities.


Male Identity, Control and Emasculation

Masculinity (male identity) in Western Christian and Secular Culture is anchored in the idea of ‘control’ with the corresponding fear of impotency, both societally and sexually. This also extends to other cultures, which we see playing out across many Islamic cultures, Hindu nationalism in India, and similar ideas in China, Korea and Japan.

It underpins the male fear of the female, the co-called ‘castration complex’, the all devouring vagina, the sharp tongue of the woman, the INCEL movement where their sexual needs are denied by women.  Understanding these psychological drivers of misogyny was a significant feature of the feminist literature of the sixties and seventies.  The works of Germain Greer and Ann Summers in Australia and of Dorothy Dinnerstein and May Daly, among a host of others, in the US.

Cultural Anthropological studies of societies where masculine identity did not align with the need for control over women’s bodies, sexuality and minds, helped us understand that the idea of masculinity is a cultural construct rather than a biological one.

Anthropological evidence reveals and contemporary research on Indigenous knowledge systems reveals that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been living together on our lands and with the environment for over 70 000 years. They have strong social structures, rich culture and complex ways of managing a harsh landscape. This included strong sophisticated systems of law. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had mechanisms to govern not only interpersonal relationships, but trade and territorial agreements between different nations, clans and groups. Men’s and women’s business, elders councils and ceremonies regulated all aspects of life and were used to remedy conflict.

Strict protocols for dispute and conflict resolution were developed and payback was limited to only the most severe offences like murder. Punishments were proportionate to the crime and physical violence was very rarely used. Instances of customary sanctioned violence were isolated instances of punishment governed by strict rules and regulations. Society was regulated through principles and values that determined everyone’s cultural and social responsibilities and breaching those responsibilities attracted punishment.

In Western culture, particularly Anglo-celtic and Northern European culture, the cultural idea of masculinity not only aligned with the idea of control of social power, it also aligned with the repression of emotion—’boys don’t cry’. The adoption of the European male suit of trouser, coat, shirt and tie, has become a powerful symbol of this psycho-aesthetic repression.  Whereas women have readily been able to explore trousers as female attire, it is been far less possible for men to explore dresses and skirts. The exception of this is the survival of the dhoti in India and of sarongs across the Pacific and SE Asia, as well as various forms in Africa and some First Nations cultures. How sad to see Japanese men in suits instead of their wonderful split skirts!

The Colonisation of Australia and its impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society brought with it the toxic mix of a cultural masculinity that required the exercise of socio-economic power and control. Deeply entrenched racism systematically denied this to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular (along with convicts – now translating into modern approaches to the ‘offshore penal colonies’ of asylum seekers and refugees). And of course the entire criminal justice system and incarceration is built on the driving home the powerlessness of the ‘guilty’ and the violence of the ‘state’ as exercised by the police the court system, and jail. We have recently seen how even children are not spared this.  Thus jails bread violence at vast expense to the taxpayer.

When this cultural construction of masculinity is combined with male cultural alignment to alcohol consumption in significant quantities, as a way of blunting the edges of frustration at not being able to meet the perceived requirements of masculinity, we should not be surprised  that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities would be susceptible to dulling their powerless and cultural rage with grog.  While drunkenness is not confined to men, it is women who have led the call for ‘dry communities’ where sale and consumption of grog is prohibited.

Lateral violence continues to play out in those part of our society where the requirement of control and power for masculine identity is systematically denied by society.  This is particularly evident in Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander  communities.  It should therefore be no surprise that the systematic emasculation of men in these communities through racism, cultural suppression, unemployment and cultural displacement, would result in  lateral violence translating into domestic violence and child abuse. It is a biological fact that men are usually physically stronger than both women and children—hence they are frequently the target of the violence of frustration and cultural rage.

Decolonisation and Violence

The Human Rights Commission repot asserts that the overwhelming position of power held by the colonisers, combined with internalised negative beliefs, fosters the sense that directing anger and violence toward the colonisers is too risky or fruitless. In this situation we are safer and more able to attack those closest to us who do not represent the potent threat of the colonisers.

Richard Frankland: Lateral violence comes from being colonised, invaded. It comes from being told you are worthless and treated as being worthless for a long period of time. Naturally you don’t want to be at the bottom of the pecking order, so you turn on your own.

Gregory Phillips: Lateral violence is trying to ‘feel powerful in a powerless situation’. Acts of lateral violence establish new hierarchies of power within colonised groups that mimic those of the colonisers. That means, not only are we dealing with the harm that lateral violence causes individuals, we are also dealing with the destruction that it causes to the traditional structure and roles in our societies as we abandon our own ways and become the image of those who oppress us.

As the Aboriginal activist Jo Williams says, we have to deal with the ‘Enemy Within’. Decolonisation therefore presents a number of challenges for the Australian Reconciliation Project:

  1. Acknowledging the value and legitimacy of different knowledge systems and ending the unconscious bias towards the hegemony of the Anglo-Western knowledge system
  2. Re-defining the idea of masculinity—what it means ‘to be a man’ in a society of gender and ethnic diversity, where equal opportunity for all people regardless of gender, ethnicity or cultural background is now part of the modern Australian identity project.
  3. Helping men in all socio-economic situations find a new story – the masculine liberation project, not the sort of regressive project being pursued by the likes of Jordan Petersen, or social media stars like Andrew Tate through the ‘manosphere’, but one that draws on tropes from other cultures where male control over women and related incipient misogyny does not define what it means to be a man.

The Manosphere

The masculine liberation project needs to address the rise of the manosphere, explored in the work of Ben Rich and Eva Bujalka from Curtin University.  They suggest this manosphere developed and exploited by the likes of Jordan and Tate is an “overlapping collection of online men’s support communities that have emerged as a response to feminism, female empowerment, and the alienating forces of neoliberalism. This manosphere appeals to its audience because it speaks to the very real lives of young men because it addresses frustrations arising from factors such as “romantic rejection, alienation, economic failure, loneliness, and a dim vision of the future”.

Rich and Bujalka conclude that such leading manosphere Influencers use social media, university thought leadership and media to expend huge amounts of energy and capital fomenting a sense of crisis around these issues, and positioning themselves at the centre.