Opinion

Rod Bower
That feeling you have is called ‘moral injury’

On the Monday following the 2019 federal election, I spoke at a conference in Melbourne where hundreds of people gathered, all of whom had a passion for a more just society. The atmosphere was funereal. A pall of hopelessness covered the assembly, many of us questioning whether our quest for social justice was a pointless endeavour. Given the Australian electorate’s vote of confidence in the Morrison government, deep despair was expressed by those present that the majority of Australians did not care about a just society. Were we like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills? And if so, what was the point in continuing if we were only opposing an imaginary evil? I began to ask myself why would I continue to do what I had been doing.

On reflection, I came up with the usual answers to these questions. As a human being, let alone a Christian priest, I had a responsibility to advocate for and help the poor, the marginalised and the refugee. As a citizen of Earth, our only home, I was responsible for prolonging the viability of our habitat for as long as possible. As a grandfather, I found this imperative even more pressing. While these are all authentic and valid reasons for continuing, I now realise there was another, profoundly interior, motivation: the abiding need to mitigate the burden experienced by simply being part of this particular Australian society and culture at this specific time. I was experiencing moral injury.

Moral injury is not a new concept. Theologians, ethicists, philosophers and poets have deliberated it for millennia. The term itself emerges from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay argues that “moral injury is present when there has been (a) a betrayal of ‘what’s right’ ” either by a person in legitimate authority or by one’s self “in a high stakes situation”. Shay further defines this kind of betrayal as “leadership malpractice”. Those experiencing moral injury may suffer feelings of shame and guilt, remorse, outrage and despair, even if they are not personally responsible for or survivors of the events that lead to the injury. We can experience moral injury by simply being part of a society, agency or organisation that behaves unjustly or by being subject to corrupt, unethical or immoral leadership.

Australians have a long history of this kind of betrayal. For us, the foundational event of moral injury was the great lie of “terra nullius”. This abiding untruth has not only diminished the legacy of those who perpetrated it but, so much more devastatingly, it has irreversibly harmed the spiritual, social and economic existence of First Nations people. The untruth on which the foundations of this nation are built has inflicted a moral injury on our corporate psyche that continues to perpetuate abuse, denying us the opportunity to evolve into wise and mature people. That is what moral injury does.

In the 20th century, the world was defined by conflict and war. However, the most common reflection of veterans’ families is that they “never talk about the war”. I suspect the silence is not about a false sense of humility following courageous acts but rather an unwillingness to touch on the moral injury sustained due to having participated in war. What is the Anzac mythology if not an attempt to apply a cultural Band-Aid to the wound inflicted by such harm?

The culture wars surrounding our response to the threat of global heating have continued to inflict psychological pain upon emerging generations. The School Strike 4 Climate movement ignited by Greta Thunberg is a response not only to the genuine and imminent threat but to moral injury. As Thunberg said in Milan last year: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what is politically possible. We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah, blah, blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action. And hope always comes from the people.” These are the words of a generation  experiencing moral injury from leadership malpractice regarding global heating.

I watched in despair as Kevin Rudd, in the dying days of his government, attempted to save the furniture of his right-wing faction by politically commodifying refugees in offshore internment camps. The moral injury inflicted by this act of political bastardry seems somehow intensified by the sense of betrayal. Following the apology to the Stolen Generations, many were lulled into a false sense of security, hoping that perhaps we had a poet king who could lead us out of the darkness. We could never have imagined that this darkness was no darkness at all compared with the moral abyss we were to enter under the leadership of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton. It seemed then that, in the words of Dylan Thomas, all we could do was to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Inevitably this manifestation of moral injury becomes endemic when a democratically elected leader begins to act out of the delusion that he has been called by his God rather than elected by the people. For that leader, accountability to the people and the expectation of truthfulness becomes nothing more than a minor irritation. Power rather than service becomes the goal, and moral injury becomes systemic.

As so many of us stood outside Parliament House at the Women’s March 4 Justice in March last year, it became clear that moral injury would no longer be tolerated. As we listened to Brittany Higgins and other speakers detail their physical, sexual, cultural and social abuse, those present felt deeply morally injured, from simply being part of a culture and society where this abuse endured. The then prime minister, Scott Morrison, refused to face the gathering, and so it came to pass, from this day forward, that the election prospects of the Coalition began to diminish. Consequently, within this toxic cocktail of power, untruth and political narcissism lie the seeds of its destruction. This time it was more than a seed; it was a fully ripened harvest. Fifty per cent of the electorate was no longer prepared to receive moral injury at the hand of unjust political structures.

Although the Labor Party has now secured the required majority to govern, Anthony Albanese is far from having won the electorate’s hearts and minds. This will take time. Moral injury does not go away with a change of leader; this kind of injury must be addressed by truth-telling, justice and reconciliation. It remains to be seen if the Albanese government will have the moral integrity to lead us out of the hurt and shame of the past. It was heartening to hear that the first policy-related words out of the mouth of the prime minister-elect related to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. If we can honour the call to voice, treaty, truth, we will have taken steps towards healing the foundational moral injury in our national psyche. More immediately, many breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that the members of the Nadesalingam family are finally returning to their home in Biloela. This tragic episode is undoubtedly one of the most graphic examples of moral injury in recent times.

Healing cannot come without justice, so a national integrity commission with actual authority to administer distributive justice is essential. One can only hope that the billions of dollars spent abusing refugees – and those who benefited from that abuse – may come under scrutiny. The rising influence of the Greens and the climate-conscious independents will hold the government to account for their environmental promises and perhaps even move us closer to addressing the climate catastrophe and offering global leadership on the issue.

Until then, we wait and watch and hope that the moral injury we have sustained may soon begin to find some healing. As Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “you will see it when you go to fry the eggs”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "An injured nation".

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Rod Bower is the archdeacon for justice ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.

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