issue 187 - September 1988
Escalating violence. Stranger-danger.
It's a wild world. But does our way of dealing
with personal violence keep it out - or lock it in?
Vanessa Baird sums up the issues.
The lock on the inside of the door sprang shut with a satisfied click. Nothing to worry about. Even the windows had bars across them. Whatever else might be happening out there in the darkening streets of Cali, Colombia, this hotel was safe. Peaceful even, as I lay on the bed and dozed off.
Suddenly a scream pierced the dusk. Followed by the sound of breaking glass. What was going on? Another cry, muffled in mid-course. Then a series of sharp slaps and dull thuds came from above. Two voices - one low, angry, swearing, the other wailing in protest. A third, much younger voice joined in, howling miserably. Evidently a domestic fracas. Upsetting, but none of my business.
The next scream was a true blood-curdler - one that seemed to come from the depths of terminal pain. Then silence fell - and hung there, eerily. I started up the stairs, but halted half-way. If my fears were justified it might not be wise to go alone. I went down to reception. The clerk looked up nonchalantly, aimlessly stroking an incipient moustache. He seemed unwilling to respond.
'It's just people arguing.'
'It sounds very violent.'
'It sounds like someone being killed,' I persisted.
This was harder to ignore and so, reluctantly, he plodded up the stairs behind me. When we reached the top he knocked on the door. There was no answer. Just a muffled sound.
'What is going on?'
No answer. The clerk tried the door. The lock was secure. Something moved inside. A click, the door opened slightly and a man's head appeared.
The clerk pushed the door slightly to get a look inside the room. Broken glass, torn clothing, blood stains. A woman sitting on the bed, clutching a small child. She looked up briefly - her face marked with tears and red blotches - then quickly down again.
'OK,' said the clerk. 'But keep it quiet will you? You are disturbing people with your noise.'
'Si, joven,' replied the man not unpleasantly and the door slammed shut again, the lock snapping back into place.
Climbing down the stairs the clerk turned to me and smiled. 'It's just a man and wife, you know.' And he made a sign of two fists banging against each other, and shrugged.
Neither of us felt good about the situation, or our role in it. But neither knew what to do. The problem was so common - and yet so private. After all, there is hardly a street in the world where domestic violence is not taking place as you read this. But in most cases it is viewed as a lesser form of violence than the spectacular violence of the streets and football stadiums or the criminal violence that breaks into our lives without warning.
That incident in the Cali hotel however set me wondering about our attitudes to personal violence and personal safety. It got me thinking about all those locking devices - both real and metaphorical - designed to keep others out. Perhaps they were actually locking us into the violence within.
The message from government, media and law enforcers is quite clear. Our society is plagued by violence. It's a crazy world out there. 'Stranger-danger' is the catch-phrase. Bolts, peepholes, steel doors and all manner of sophisticated locking devices are doing boom sales in New York, Toronto, London and Sydney. Neighbourhood crimewatch schemes are launched every other week and our New Morality elevates subway vigilantes à la Charles Bronson or Bernhard Goetz to the stature of national heroes.
Posited against this violent world outside is a powerful and deeply cherished ideal: The Family. The hearth. The bosom. A quasi-sacred institution offering those things so lacking in the mean streets. Love, security. A warm nest in which the young of the human species can develop at a leisurely, caring pace. Parents are rewarded with affection, with pride in their children and in poorer countries with their children's labour. From Amritsar to Auckland it sounds a good deal for all concerned. It can be.
Yet the statistics paint a less comforting picture. More than half of murders in the West (figures from Third World countries are harder to obtain) are the result of domestic disputes.1 Children are more likely to be abused by their own parents than anyone else.2 Most women are raped by people they know - in the home.3 To quote US sociologist Norval Morris: 'You are safer on the streets than at home, safer with a stranger than with a friend or relative.'4
Well Cain or Othello could tell us that. If you have ever felt like killing somebody the odds are it was someone you love. Our nearest and dearest can inspire the most intense rage. The consequence is that people do, in their own homes, get away with a level of physical and mental cruelty that would bring the law down on their backs if they tried the same outside.
Why does it happen and go on happening? First we have to look at what personal violence is and what it achieves. Defining it is not easy. Personal violence can take so many forms: physical, psychological, sexual, economic, even supernatural. But there are a few common denominators. Personal violence usually involves the perpetrator gaining power - or extra power - over the victim by causing them pain in a way that is humiliating or degrading. Such actions recognize no personal boundaries and show scant respect for the rights of the individual.
Now it is easier to do this to a person if you 'own' them. They become an object, a commodity that you can treat as you please. The brutal treatment of Africans sold into slavery is the most potent and shocking example of this. But the easiest thing of all has been for men to abuse women and adults to abuse children.
For centuries men have owned women and children and enjoyed the legal right to use violence against them. The words may not have been written upon it, but the marriage licence was effectively a hitting licence too. In many parts of the world it still is. A Turkish judge recently threw out a divorce request from a battered woman saying: 'A woman should not be left without a stick on her back and food in her stomach.' He added that women should be 'beaten regularly'.5 After all it is only 25 years since wife battering was made a crime in Britain. Today in most Western countries, women and children are no longer the legal property of men and many women are wage earners. But you only have to look at the steady increase in incest, rape and battering to know that attitudes are fundamentally unchanged. Patriarchy is still alive - and kicking with all its might.
And violence not only breeds violence. It also sets up its own logic. Studies have repeatedly shown that parents who batter their children were usually battered themselves as children.6 Many even use the same justifications that their own parents used: that the child 'deserves it'; it is for her/his 'own good'.
These parents are not simply unimaginative or sadistic. Often they are beating to rationalize their own painful and confusing childhood. To believe that the harm done to you by others was correct and just makes sense of a brutal world. In a world thus composed of cats and mice, batterers and battered, the mice may well grow up to feel that the only way they can stop being mice is by becoming cats. Using violence against others, they regain an element of control - even self respect.
Love and projection
More troubling even than this cat-and-mouse violence is projected violence. We do this in small ways much of the time. It may just be snapping at A because B has put you in a bad mood. In families the projection of violence often happens out of the need to direct anger away from its real object. For example, a child who has been ordered to show love, loyalty and obedience towards their parent (or else parental love will be withdrawn) may find it impossible to express their anger however badly the parent treats them. Now that anger - which is an essential part of the growing up and away process - must go somewhere. It cannot just disappear off the face of the earth. So where does it go?
Here is an extreme case of what can happen to it:
John (not his real name) sits before a television camera, eyes down. He is talking about his childhood. The interviewer asks him about his mother. She was always very cold towards him, John replies. She was always hitting him. If his brothers or sisters were naughty he would get the blame. He describes his childhood fantasies of killing people. Of stabbing other children in the playground. Across the TV screen flashes the information that this man is a double child-killer and a rapist. The interviewer asks him if he ever had any fantasies about doing harm to his mother.
'Oh no,' he says, apparently shocked at the suggestion. 'I could never do any harm to my mum.'
'Did you ever feel angry towards her?'
'Oh no. Not my mum. Never. I've never felt angry towards her.'7
Loyalty, love and forgiveness are virtues. But at the expense of honesty - and the lives of people who have never done you any harm? Moreover, bottled up over the years, anger becomes an extremely potent brew. Obedient children who never express anger towards their parents could be carrying a psychological time-bomb in their heads.
Now many men find an escape for their anger in what sociologists call 'compulsive masculinity'. Some join the armed forces, some go into aggressive cut-and-thrust business and some turn into street-fighting machines every Saturday night from about 11pm until 3am. This mindless confusion of virility with violence ensures that men are responsible for the vast majority of physical assaults.
The macho way (beloved of Hollywood movies with their laconic, strong heroes like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone) dictates that action speaks louder than words. The hero bottles up - and then explodes in a display of violent power and control. But behind this bravado lies a common but dangerous inadequacy: emotional illiteracy or the inability to express feelings until it is too late'.
One manifestation of this is child sexual abuse. Emotionally illiterate men may find it more desirable to have sexual relationships with children they easily dominate than with other adults with whom they have to emotionally negotiate.
Women on the other hand are more likely to internalize aggression, become depressed and turn violence against themselves. At the age when men are most likely to be violent towards others (14-29) girls are three to six times more likely to attempt suicide.8 Anorexia and tranquilizer dependency are typical symptoms of the same self-destructive urge and reflect the low self-esteem women have in a sexually unequal society.
So what are we to do about personal violence? At a personal level we should identify what or who is making us angry and express that as directly and constructively as possible. This can make the difference between taking positive political action to combat class, race or sexual oppression - or unleashing violence and frustration against racial minorities, gays or any other group we chose to scapegoat. On a day-to-day level the message has to be: expose violence whenever it happens. Only by pulling back the locks and getting personal violence out in the open can we begin to do something about it - even if that means sacrificing cherished ideals like family loyalty. And we should be deeply mistrustful of governments that promote 'family values' as a means of keeping women in the home where they are far more likely to suffer violence, be economically dependent on a male bread-winner and lack the support of a wider peer group.
In practical terms combatting personal violence involves providing more refuges to make it possible for women and children to leave violent men. It means making counselling readily available for people who are concerned about their own violence. It involves creating conditions where children can reveal sexual abuse - be believed and receive professional help. It means economic equality for women and respect for the rights of children. Indeed it means a lot more respect all round.
During the past decade women in particular have begun to seriously challenge the violence done to them. In some Lima shanty towns we have reached a point where if a man wants to beat his wife he has to reckon with a dozen women dragging him out on the street as soon as they hear the wife blowing her rescue whistle.9 In Kitwe, Zambia women have declared war on what they call an 'epidemic of male violence' and are setting up shelters for battered women. In Canada women are 'Taking Back the Night' with marches that give them confidence and a sense of control over their urban environment. While women in India are tackling the problem in a more radical way as they campaign for land rights that will give them economic independence from their menfolk.10 One can see in these scattered pockets of activity the outline for a growing global movement against personal violence.
So perhaps we should be looking at the so-called escalation in personal violence in another light. There is definitely an increase in the reporting of personal violence. But perhaps that also means an increase in protest, openness and honesty - and a growing belief among those who reject personal violence that they can change things for the better.
1 J H Goldstein, Aggression and Crimes of Violence, Oxford University Press, 1986.
2 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (UK), 1988.
3 D Warren Holland, D Rossell-Jones, R Stewart and Women Against Rape, Self-Defence for Women, Hamlyn 1987.
4 N Morris and G Hawkins, The Honest Politician's Guide to Crime Control, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
5 Turkey Newsletter Issue 72-73. 1987.
6. A Miller, For Your Own Good, Virago, 1987.
7 ITV/Channel 4, Men on Violence. July 1988.
8 James, The Violence Born From Depression, The Observer (London),July 17 1988
9. NI 175.
10 J Winters, Land in Women's Names, Manushi, No 44 1988.
Worth reading on. PERSONAL VIOLENCE
Books on violence tend - more than with most other subjects - to reflect the politics and prejudices of the writer. For a provocative and powerfully-argued view that the roots of violence lie in the tyrannical way we bring up children, Alice Miller's For Your Own Good (Virago, 1987) is a must. Especially fascinating is her analysis of Hitler's boyhood.
For a broader view of violence in society Aggression and Crimes of Violence by Jeffrey Goldstein (Oxford, 1986) is good, while Anthropology of Violence edited by David Riches (Basil Blackwell, 1986) contains some bizarre examples of how different cultures deal with aggression.
Janine Turner's Behind Closed Doors (Thorson's Publications, 1988) is in a more practical vein, giving advice to families with violence in the home, illustrated by real-life experiences. Most immediately useful, however, is Self-defence for Women by Diane Warren-Holland, Denise Rossell-Jones, Rachel Stewart and Women Against Rape (Hamlyn, 1987). Written from a sensible, vigorous, feminist viewpoint it is packed with useful advice and visual material to show techniques.
There are too many good books on the subject to list them all, but the London Rape Crisis Centre's Sexual Violence Against Women (The Women's Press Handbook Series, 1984) remains one of the best. It is practical, clear, well-researched and ideal for easy reference. Meanwhile Family Secrets (Feminist Review, No 28, Spring 1988) provides a deeper analysis of child sexual abuse.
Finally in quite a different vein is David Wigoder's Images of Destruction (RKP, 1987) - a vivid autobiography by a man caught in the grip of his own depressive and violent behaviour who finally found an exit through psychotherapy.
This special report appeared in the blow by blow - accounting for personal violence issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.