One of the most noticeable – and most regrettable – features of commentary on the coronavirus pandemic is the failure to make an appropriately clear and strict dividing line between epidemiology and emotion. The worst instances make no distinction at all, casually switching between the two perspectives until they blur into a fog which which is neither and devalues both. The epidemiological – or scientific – approach is only useful to the extent that it sets emotion aside, while the emotional perspective is intolerant of anything which acts as if to diminish the worth of victims by reducing them to percentages or points on a graph. Epidemiology is concerned with understanding, mitigating and preventing the spread of disease. Emotion is entirely about regretting the effects of disease and mourning the lives it has taken. Clearly, two very different things. All too many commentators fail to respect that difference.
The diverse misfortunes and malfunctions which beset humanity and society cannot be understood in terms of grief. Grief, in turn, is not assuaged by efforts at scientific understanding. Rather, grief is aggravated by analysis perceived as cold and heartless – because that’s what it is. That’s what it has to be. Epidemiologists are always required to issue a disclaimer acknowledging that their analysis involves abstractions and that the victims and those close to them must be considered. The grieving are never expected to acknowledge that the whatever deprived them of their loved one is statistically very rare.
When commenting on the likes of the pandemic it is essential to decide at the outset whether you are approaching the matter from the coldly analytical scientific perspective or whether the purpose is to capture and convey the emotional impact on the afflicted and the bereaved. If both are to be essayed the utmost care should be taken not to let either impinge upon the other.
What is true of the pandemic is also true in the case of other issues which tend to be emotive and are consequently politicised – in the widest sense of that term – as the power of emotion is manipulated and deployed in the service of a particular agenda. Take the issue of male violence against women, for example. This is the topic of Joanna Cherry’s column in The National today.
It’s a powerful piece. An impassioned plea for society to act to stem the tsunami of male-on-female violence. See what I did there? I resorted to some highly emotive language. The kind of language which deters any attempt at dispassionate analysis. Whis definitively counterproductive given that action to address any problem can only be effective if the problem is first identified and understood. Which absolutely requires the kind of cold, hard analysis that is disallowed by a strident insistence that the issue should be dealt with on the basis of an almost exclusively emotional appreciation.
(To see this at its most extreme one need only look at the issue of what is generally referred to under the rubric of ‘paedophilia’ – the sexual molestation of children. If ever an issue needed to be understood it is this. But any effort to explain the behaviour is inevitably portrayed as an attempt to excuse it. As if it ever could be excused.)
Now, I am not saying that Joanna Cherry is guilty of using emotive language to discourage – intentionally or otherwise – proper study of what is undoubtedly a serious issue. I’m merely saying that the issue of male violence against women is one of those where this tends to happen. It is impractical to discuss this in relation to sexual offences against children because any attempt to do so very quickly falls victim to the overbearing attentions of the ‘hang-the-bastards-first-then-ask-questions’ faction. Pointing out the glaring illogic of this approach tends to earn the one doing the pointing a virtual tarring and feathering with a sign hung around their neck identifying them as a ‘PEDO!’. Or if the mob is in generous mood the tar-and-featheree might get off with being declare merely a ‘PEDO SIMPATHISER!’
Hopefully, Ms Cherry’s article may be allowed to prompt discussion in a slightly less febrile atmosphere.
Nowhere in her article is it stated or suggested that male on female violence is explained by the ‘fact’ that men hate women. But it cannot be denied that this is a recurring theme in discourse on this topic. As an explanation it is distinctly lacking in power to explain. It is simplistic to the point of idiocy. While it may be an understandable emotional response from those affected by such crimes, it really tells us nothing about why the crimes are committed. It tells us nothing about the causes of this behaviour. It reduces male human behaviour to a limited series of mechanical stimulus/response episodes driven by the basest of animalistic urges. It recognises none of the complexity of either individual psychology or the psychology involved in social interaction. Quite simply, misogyny doesn’t work as an explanation for male on female violence because a hatred of women, however occasioned, is neither necessary nor sufficient.
Men don’t hate women. Not in any general way. Hatred of women such as might manifest as violence cannot be ubiquitous or the violence would be also. And if hatred of women is as common as the ‘explanation’ would have us accept this suggests that there are a lot of men who are women-haters but don’t resort to violence. The reality is that it is not necessary for a man to hate a woman – or women as a subset of our species – to visit violence upon them. Neither is a hatred of women sufficient to provoke men to act violently towards them. The very hypothesis on which the ‘explanation’ is based discounts this.
Clearly, we need a better explanation of male on female violence if our hope is to understand the matter in a way that might allow the discovery of a ‘solution’. Let’s see if we can find anything in Joanna Cherry’s column which might helpfully inform our search for a better explanation. It need hardly be stated that this is not an academic exercise. It is more in the way of a thought exercise. Is there any hope that that it will be received as such? I doubt it. But here goes anyway.
For the purposes of this thought exercise I’m not going to treat the article as a whole. Rather, I intend to pick out a few phrases that jumped out at me as I read. Remarks or claims which prompted questions in my mind.
unique problems women face in our society
Unique? Are only women the targets of violent behaviour by males? It is certainly evident that women are disproportionately the victims of this behaviour. There may even be evidence that suggests the injuries suffered by women are relatively worse than those suffered by male victims. A variety of physiological factors may come into play, such as weight differentials. But this is less well established than the incontestable fact that more women than men are the victims of male violence. Or should that be reported male violence? Is it not possible that women are more likely to report acts of violence against them? Or maybe that should be looked at the other way around. Is it not at least credible that men are less likely to report such incidents? This could be because it started as a ‘straight go’ or from some macho reluctance to admit taking a beating or an equally macho determination to seek personal revenge or any of a number of reasons. Including that their attacker was a friend or family member and they don’t want them to get them into bother.
At the very least, the claim of this being unique to women is questionable. There exist problems which are unique to women. But probably far fewer than most would suppose. Men get breast cancer too.
If a phenomenon is to be examined with a view to gaining a greater understanding then it must first be properly identified. Male violence may be a particular problem for women, but it is not “unique” to women. The problem, therefore, is more correctly identified as the tendency of males towards violent behaviour. The tendency for this to affect women disproportionately follows from this. It is no less a problem for being a symptom or effect of a more general problem. To suppose this to be an attempt to diminish the seriousness of that problem is to indulge an emotional reaction to what is intended as a dispassionate analysis.
a lack of will to tackle root causes.
The question that popped into my head on reading this was, is it a lack a lack of will? Or is it a failure to identify those root causes? If the latter, what might be the reasons for this failure? Might it be that the simplistic appeal of misogyny as a total explanation at least hinders any effort to seek those root causes? Is it possible that the search for root causes makes little progress because it is constantly beset by accusations of being a search for rationalisations?
Violent behaviour – mainly attributable to males – is a huge problem for society. The human and economic costs are respectively heart-rending and eye-watering. Is it really credible that there might be a lack of will to tackle any aspect such a massive problem? Is it likely that there might be such nonchalance about the issue as would prevent any progress at all being made in tackling the problem? Is it not at least intuitively more believable that this lack of progress is due to a failure to adequately understand the root causes rather than a lack of will?
women are uniquely vulnerable to men’s violence because men are so much stronger than us
A statistical fact. Men and women are different. The physiologic differences are bound to be a factor in any violent incident. Differentials of weight, height, reach as well as physical strength will largely determine the outcome of any physical altercation and the amount of damage done by the individual with the advantage. But women – some women – would be quick to point out that not all women are small and weak, relative to men in general. Some women are as capable as the average man of inflicting physical harm on another person. Again, true. As is the corollary that some men are just as small and weak, relatively speaking, as most women. The – perhaps awkward – question I ask is whether small weak men are as likely to be the victims of male violence as small weak women.
If we are looking for common factors, does it make sense to stop at sex? Does it make sense to say that women are victims because they are women when relative vulnerability is the common factor across the population as a whole? Of course sex is the main factor if you’re looking exclusively at female victims – as the research referred to by Joanna Cherry does. If you take a more holistic approach then might it not be that it is relative vulnerability that comes closer to being identifiable as a “root cause”. The hypothesis is that women are more likely to be the victims of male violence not because they are women but because men are more prone to violent behaviour and also more likely to select victims on the basis of their perceived vulnerability. Is this not at least worth considering?
Women are sick to the back teeth of being told we must be careful
I dare say they are. But to present this as them being told to “take responsibility for the problem of male violence” is to resort to the kind of rhetoric that does great disservice to rational analysis – even if it does make for a good sound-bite. If a householder is advised to avoid leaving downstairs windows open or motorists told not to leave valuables plainly visible in their parked car, are they being told to “take responsibility” for the problem of opportunistic thievery? No! they are being asked to take responsibility for the security of their property.
If women are advised not to walk home drunk and alone through the dark and deserted streets of a very early Sunday morning, is this asking them to take responsibility for male violence? No! It is advising them to take responsibility for their own physical safety. Is it a restriction of freedom to ask women to take sensible precautions? Maybe it is. But no more than the need to avoid being victims restricts everybody’s freedom to do absolutely anything they please as if we lived in a world free of threats. There are predators out there. By definition, predators prey on things that look like prey. They prey on the vulnerable. They prey on the weak. So if you are weak then it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female you have to take due account of the threat and avoid putting yourself in situations that increase your vulnerability.
It’s not just women. We all have to avoid being victims . Because we are all relatively weak to someone. We are all potential prey to something. We are all potential victims of violence because there is enough violence available to make a victim of any of us.
I repeat – for all the good it will do – that nothing said here in any way diminishes the problem of male violence against women. The whole point is to try and ask the questions and prompt the thinking which might lead to an improved understanding of the whole problem of male violence and/or violent behaviour in general in order to be better equipped to tackle the problem of male violence against women.
This is society’s problem It affects the whole of society even if not everybody equally. It is not a ‘women’s problem’ and should not be portrayed as such. It is a problem for all of us. Each and every one of us benefits from a reduction in violent behaviour and thereby a lessening of the insecurity which is the biggest problem of all.
I am bound to be castigated by some for not offering any ‘solutions’. As if it was likely that I would have such a thing. More sensibly, I might be accused of failing come up with any explanations of my own for the phenomenon of male violence against women. That was not my purpose here, as I have stressed. Needless to say, I have thoughts on the matters. I am firmly persuaded that the explanations for most and maybe all aberrant social behaviours will be provided by or principally informed by the science of evolutionary psychology. That is far too big a topic to get into here. But I shall inevitably touch on the matter again.
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