There was no great surprise that the right would go after Dylan Voller, the teenager featured in the Four Corners expose of the Don Dale detention centre. They’re sycophants to power, after all, and bullies to boot, otherwise they wouldn’t work, as most of them do, for News Corp, which regards bullying as a standard journalistic method. Psychologically, many would identify with the Don Dale guards, not only racially, but in terms of their power position — and the criticism they’re now getting.

Ever since the Four Corners Don Dale episode aired, the right have been in hysteria about it. It prompted Bill Leak’s cartoon (“righto, what’s his name then?”), which, through its visual rhetoric and rendering, portrayed every Aboriginal father as a dysfunctional adult, and the rest of the rat pack have been dying to have a go at Voller ever since. The more shocking the visuals — Voller, hooded, in a restraint chair — coupled with the unavoidable facts of institutional malaise running to sadism, the more desperate has been the effort to block out the news.

The effort put into this is in direct proportion to the nature of the report and the incidents themselves. This isn’t the sort of grey area stuff we have to deal with in northern affairs these days — education, housing and health policy, tackling difficult and multidimensional problems. Instead, a decaying, unsupervised, out-of-control penal system was caught on camera. It’s because the thing is so unarguable that it must be argued with. If that is let through, if some admission of institutional oppression is made, then what else must be admitted?

In the process, Voller must be made the focus of the attack. Institutionalised since the age of 10, with the vast majority of the assaults he is accused of occurring in that context, a user of “ice” when he is outside, Voller offers the right the opportunity to repudiate any form of social explanation for behaviour whatsoever, on the spurious grounds that it amounts to some denial of the importance of taking responsibility.

It doesn’t, but responsibility, impulse resistance, etc, is, for someone 10 years old and up, a learned behaviour, and one that can only be learned in contexts where taking responsibility makes a difference in your life. The characteristics of institutions such as Don Dale is that they propagate “learned helplessness” — the gradual understanding that no action on your part will make any difference to the outcome of matters for you. Such contexts produce resistant behaviour as a way of affirming self.

What else can you do when submerged by an institution but to re-establish your own existence and avoid the implicit logic of the institution, which is towards suicide? Voller, who requested permission to study in prison, was refused and has been repeatedly victimised by guards, is being punished and hated precisely because he is trying to be a human being. He is being punished, in part, for not having the good manners to off himself at an earlier time.

The right’s fury against Voller is redoubled by the fact that he is calm, articulate and persuasive on the witness stand, capable of giving an account of his situation, in terms of the institution itself, rather than in a cry of rage or self-pity. This is doubly verboten, since the argument is that Voller is being presented as a victim in the age of victimhood. But this argument works only when people who aren’t victims take on the status for its burst of meaning. Voller actually is a victim — but he also refuses to behave like one, when given a chance not to.

The damning of Dylan Voller has a wider agenda, of course. It’s part of a longer process of the right to create the idea of a surplus population, to suggest that the excluded have, en masse, brought their exclusion and oppression on themselves. The effort involves a reintroduction of the “Christian” notion of “wickedness”, that someone like Voller is rotten from the root, rather than being produced — in his current incarnation — by the institutionalisation process.

The idea of wickedness allows you to dismiss whole groups of people, and see social success, implicitly or explicitly, as a self-selecting group. With that in place, you can celebrate your own good luck, reject any and all systematic sociological thinking or reflection, demands that institutionalised teenagers be judged by the same measure as public citizens, and be relieved of any guilt or curiosity about how a ten, or eight, or six year old, can be taken from childhood to a violent, resistance adolescence in a matter of years.

The circumstances that produced someone like Dylan Voller, in his most resistant phase, are those of an underinvestment in society — in rural society, in northern society, together with a degree of less treatable problems to do with the centralisation of society, the collapse of the viability of regional and peripheral social life. That doesn’t mean ignoring violent behaviour, or that some adolescents might need to be in secure units. But the sadistic treatment of Voller followed by its justification has an agenda beyond this case. The right, in their pursuit of populist power, will sort the populi into the saved and the damned. For the latter, a restraint chair and a spit hood is the least they can expect.

Peter Fray

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