When people from two, vastly different cultures meet for the first time, the results can be awkward, even volatile. Scholars have written extensively on the problem of cross-cultural communication in the business and other contexts, but it’s not too much of an over-simplification to summarise this literature as indicating that it takes time, patience, and a willingness to accept a different way of doing and seeing things before a harmonious, trusting relationship can begin to be built.
This week, starting on Wednesday the 26th of February, 2014, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will be holding public hearings into the Parramatta Girls’ Training School and the associated / annexed Hay Institution for Girls as its ‘Case Study 7’. As readers of my father’s post about these dreadful places will recall, the girls were required to bow their heads and look downwards at all times. Without doubt, this was intentional, and designed to humiliate, disempower, and crush their spirits.
Indeed, this practice was rife in other children’s homes as well, again, almost certainly done intentionally as an abuse of power and an attempt to take away children’s humanity and dignity and thereby ensure their compliance. (Another way of de-personalising children included the common practice of calling children by a number, and requiring them to refer to each other by numbers, and punishing them brutally when they used their real names).
Officially, Commission protocol states that it is “customary” that people (including witnesses) stand and bow their heads to the commissioners whenever a commissioner enters or leaves the hearing room. The fact sheet on the protocol says:
“When you enter and exit the hearing room, it is customary to pause and bow your head towards the Australian coat of arms above where the Commissioners sit. When a Commissioner enters or leaves the hearing room, it is customary to stand and bow your head. You should remain standing until each Commissioner has entered the room and been seated or has left the room, or until the Presiding Commissioner indicates for people to be seated.”
A few days before my father died, he was working behind the scenes to garner support for a call for the Royal Commission to dispense with its protocol regarding bowing to the commissioners in this week’s hearings, amongst other matters. He received a reply from Greens Senator Penny Wright, and Senator Wright wrote (140510_let to Royal Commission re Parramatta girls training school) to the commission on the 10th of February, 2014, raising the concerns my father mentioned, including dispensing with the protocol about head-bowing for the up-coming hearings.
While the women who will give evidence about these institutions will be brave and spirited people, and were so as children as well (for more information about the girls’ courage in these hell-holes, read Dad’s post about these institutions), it may well be extremely ‘triggering’ for them to have to bow their heads to the commissioners. I have no training in psychology or psychiatry, but I understand the concept very well from my own personal experiences, so although this is a simple way of explaining things, it’s pretty accurate:
A trigger to a traumatised person is something that brings a person back to the time and place of the initial trauma. This ‘something’ can be a smell, a sound, a phrase, a face, a person’s expression, a thing, or having to do something, amongst other things. Being ‘brought back’ can take many forms, including having a flashback, feeling the way you felt at the time you were being abused, or other distressing feelings / outcomes. Whatever form it takes, it’s horrible. And it prevents you from thinking clearly.
As the Royal Commission goes about its work, meeting with and hearing from victims of institutional abuse, what’s happening is just as challenging as when people from two different countries with radically different cultures meet for the first time. Offence will be given without an intention to do so. There will be instances when commission staff actually re-traumatise victims inadvertently. Victims may lose patience with commission staff and become angry, and commission staff might not understand why. Unfortunately, there may even be times in the future when a skilled legal representative of an abusive institution being called to account for its abuses who is knowledgeable about triggers may even deliberately ‘press the button’ of witnesses with the intention of destabilising them; it is very much hoped that if this happens, the commissioners will be alert to what’s going on and step in the moment they detect anything of the sort.
Anyway, things may be a bit rocky, even after a year of work by the Commission and its staff, and things will sometimes go horribly wrong in a ‘clash of cultures’. But, over time, with patience, a genuine desire to understand, and a willingness to change how things are done, things will go more smoothly, and the path for victims to tell their stories will become easier to tread. And the country will be better for that.
It will be an ordeal for the women of Parramatta/Hay who give their testimony to speak, but they are accepting the challenge with bravery. The country needs to hear what they have to say. Every effort possible should therefore be made to ensure that the women are given the best possible chance to tell their stories in a way that does not unduly upset them or prevent them from speaking with as much clarity as they can.
To this end, I hope that the Commission has received and understood Senator Wright’s letter and has made a decision that it won’t require the witnesses to bow their heads for this week’s hearings. Further, given that a version of an ‘eyes to the floor’ policy was in fact present in a lot of church- and state-run institutions, it is hoped that the Commission will eventually, as it learns more and understands things better, dispense with this element of the protocol altogether.
[Postscript: Thank you to Bonney Djuric from the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project for okaying the broad thrust of this post, and thank you to Senator Wright for giving me permission to include her letter to the Commission in this post.]
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