Your Success Is Not Your Fault: How We Blame The Kids For Don Dale


Precisely when Australia became a nation that looks down on the poor and blames them for their poverty, Nelly Thomas is not sure. But it’s not the nation she remembers growing up in.

So, I’ve watched a bit of Oprah. When I say “a bit” I could reliably quote at least half the episodes. I have no excuse – just a combination of university, sick days and later, motherhood.

I’ve seen Oprah laugh, cry, dance and wobble her arm fat. I’ve seen her endorse t-shirt sheets, Tom Cruise jump on her couch and KKK members call her a monkey. I’ve envied her friendship with Gail and marvelled at her ability to get people to tell THE WORLD stuff about their VJJ’s.

I know it’s terribly uncool to dig someone who promotes The Secret and knows a lot of things For Sure, but despite all that guff, she’s still a fat, black, un-married, abuse-surviving WOMAN who made it the top against all the odds.

Oprah is a problematic figure to love, but put aside your dislike for some of her content and at least acknowledge the journey.

Ok, good.

US media personality, Oprah Winfrey.
US media personality, Oprah Winfrey.

Now, the problem with all that is it assumes Oprah earned her power. I’m paraphrasing, but I’m thinking she’d say her success can be attributed to a combination of talent, good energy/The Universe (The Secret) and hard work (What I Know for Sure).

Her mantra closely follows that of the American Dream – if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. She’d add that you need to have a Vision Board and send out the Right Vibes to the Universe, but it’s best not to dwell on that lest your brain starts to bleed.

You don’t have to be a Mensa scholar to unpack Oprah-ese, but suffice to say “vibes your honour” doesn’t seem to be an adequate defence for black men in America’s justice system and working two jobs to pay rent and raise your kids as a single mum is very hard. But it sure doesn’t mean you can achieve “anything you want”. I won’t even dignify the Vision Board.

Now, I’m going to tell you why all this is a problem and not just an irritation. Australians have started to believe this shit too. When I grew up in rural West Australia in the 1970s and 1980s (in Wilson Tuckey territory thank you very much), as socially conservative as my surrounds were, no-one attributed individual success – or just as importantly, failure – to individual actions or characteristics alone.

If I can put it another way, if someone was out of work, they were assumed to be down on their luck (or have a crappy boss), not lazy. If someone was poor, they were assumed to be in a rough patch or in need of help, not an embarrassment. If someone was an alcoholic, it was assumed they had some sort of trauma in their background.

Even if someone went to jail, they were not automatically assumed to be a bad person. It was a rural working class environment – we all knew someone who had gone to jail, or who would.

Don’t get me wrong, this was by no means an ideal environment – I know full well why Pauline Hanson is popular, I’ve lived in the middle of her ideas – but it was culturally assumed that individuals cannot be understood outside their circumstances. Social, economic, structural and other barriers are real and have tangible effects on people’s lives. When you’re poor (or even poor-ish) you get that.

What a radical thought these days.

Which brings me to Don Dale – again – and the thing that prompted me to write this piece.

A screencap from the July 25 Four Corners program.
A screencap from the July 25 Four Corners program.

Last week, I heard a conservative commentator on local ABC radio suggest that Dylan Voller had to take some “personal responsibility” for his crimes. The context was a discussion about the now infamous Bill Leak cartoon.

The commentator essentially said that while she didn’t agree with the abuse of children, if Dylan hadn’t done anything wrong, he wouldn’t have been in Don Dale in the first place.

Please take a deep breath and think of a fluffy bunny or something as you chew on that. While it is simply staggering that an intelligent adult would in any way suggest that a 10-year-old boy could do anything that warranted being abused – and we all seem to acknowledge now that that is precisely what those boys’ treatment amounted to – what I want to focus on here is that this should not be unexpected.

In fact, it is the logical conclusion of the Neo-Liberal understanding of society as a group of rational, contained individuals with pure free will.

A kid in detention is not a child who has been neglected, abused, subjected to racism, failed by society and then acted out (where it is all repeated); he’s a bad kid – or at the very least, he’s a kid who made a bad choice. In both instances, he’s at fault and therefore (kind of) gets what he deserves.

This logic can also be applied to other prisoners, the homeless, refugees or whomever we don’t like at the moment.

When did this shift happen in Australia, and why? How did this now pervasive disdain for the struggling and marginal filter down from the elite to the working classes and propel Hanson et al to power?

These are complicated questions for people more skilled than me, but I’m going to offer two things to think about.

The most obvious is the influence of American culture and the American dream. You only have to look on every street corner at the giant yellow M’s to see that. Let alone turn on the television.

But I also think there’s a deeper psychological explanation for the rise of The Individual. At the risk of mixing my day-time-TV metaphors, I’m going to Dr Phil you now: those of us with privilege and power want to believe we earned it. It’s not nice to think that lots of it landed in our lap or even more distressing – came at someone else’s expense. We’d prefer instead, to understand our success as the result of talent, smarts and hard work.

The conservative commentator I spoke about before is white, grew up in a wealthy and powerful family, went to an elite private school and was probably loved and respected by her family. I’m sure she’s smart, talented and a hard worker too.

But to face the reality that if she’d had Dylan Voller’s life and personal and cultural history she wouldn’t be anywhere near as comfortable or successful as she is now (she may even be inside a cell herself) is, perhaps, simply too much to bear? Too much for many.

For my own part, I can tell you with 99 per cent certainty, that if it weren’t for Whitlam I would never have gone to university and therefore had anything like the social, cultural and economic capital I now have.

Both my parents are very intelligent, but neither of them even finished school. If I was born into the same family now, with $100,000 university degrees in the offing, I’m sure I would have opted for a job instead – when you’ve lived unemployment, you don’t seek “fulfilment” in work, you seek work. My point being, my success is not all – or even mostly – my own and unlike many, I wasn’t even born with it.

The Oprah’s of the world are remarkable, but do they facilitate the elevation and understanding of struggle-street? No. Worse, they sell us the myth that if we are there, we’re just not trying hard enough.

This radically distorted thinking leads to the logical conclusion that an abused child deserves punishment and more abuse and not a fair go and a cuddle; that it is him who needs to change and not us.

We need to change. There are a lot of secrets around, perhaps that’s the biggest one of all.

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.