We Need To Change Our Thinking About Violence

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Dr Melinda McPherson argues that the way we think about male violence runs the risks of entrenching it in our society forever.

*I have written this article knowing that information continues to emerge in the Port Lincoln case. I want to acknowledge this week’s statement by Melissa Little expressing the depth of love for her partner and children, and consequently the depth of her pain. This article is motivated by an interest in trying to build a better understanding of violence so that we can bring about change. It is not an easy topic to write about. Suffering never is.

This week’s news carries the heartbreaking story of two children who were allegedly shot and driven into a dam by their father. While the circumstances remain unclear, it is hard not to be reminded of the Farquharson case with its narrative of ex-spousal vengeance.

In the vacuum of facts, media is often forced to create a narrative; to ‘make sense’ of a story. Some of the media reporting around this week’s events has been a cause of concern for many anti-violence campaigners. In particular, Clementine Ford has questioned articles that have valorised Little’s character.

The insipid logic in these articles – or rather, the discourses underpinning them – follows a shadowy logic. That is: this man was a good man. Because he was a good man, he cannot have engaged in a ‘bad’ act. We must therefore look for another, individualised explanation. He must have ‘snapped’. His behaviour cannot therefore be categorised as part of a social, or individual, pattern of gendered control and violence.

Ford’s concerns mirror those of many feminists who have struggled to gain recognition for the systemic patriarchal nature of male violent behaviour.

In her work on gender based asylum claims in international law, Catharine MacKinnon (2006) has written eloquently about the phenomenon of denying the systemic nature of male violence. MacKinnon describes a kind of categorisation paradox in which women’s experiences are minimised or invisibilised either by labelling particular male violent behaviours as ‘normal’ or by casting more abhorrent incidents as ‘anomalous’.

Where violence is seen as normal, there is in effect no ‘violence’. And where violence crosses a line such that it cannot be ignored, it is categorised as ‘abnormal’, rendering it either beyond belief, or too rare to matter.

As MacKinnon characterises it, if violence is happening it’s not that bad; and if it is bad, it’s not really happening, at least not systemically. Each instance of violence is reduced to an individual incident, explainable within the paradox; a paradigm in which violence is not part of a patriarchal culture.

Ford’s analysis of the current reporting reflects elements of MacKinnon’s paradox. By continuing to categorise violence against women and children as either the aberrant acts of a few ‘bad’ men, or the mental snaps of ‘good men’, we effectively deny that acts of violence take place in a broader patriarchal culture.

Yet to create change we must be prepared to frame violent acts that have been considered ‘normal’ for so long, amongst even good men, as the toxic acts of power that they are. In other words, change depends on acknowledging that lots of ‘good men’ consciously or less consciously perpetrate acts of violence on a scale ranging from verbal sexism and harassment to filicide.

The reason such a distinction matters is because of its implications for change. If we reduce violent acts to individual mental health problems or the acts of a few ‘evil’ men, we risk not only misrepresenting the nature of mental illness, but also diminishing the social nature of male violent behaviour.

Our methods of addressing the problem remain constrained to engaging with those ‘few’ troubled men. We send them off for mental health care assessment and/or to gaol and the problem is somehow fixed.

This week Tara Moss has gently – but firmly – pointed to the danger of tarring mental illness with the brush of filicide. More importantly, we must recognise that much violence arises in the paradigm of a patriarchal social structure; that the types of violence we see arise from pervasive patriarchal thinking.

It is a paradigm in which one group of people benefits from the exercise of power over another. If we are ever to move forward, those beneficiaries must take responsibility for recognising the ways in which that power operates, and for effecting change.

To the commentators on Ford’s article asking why mental health should not be considered a factor in male perpetrated filicide, just as in female perpetrated filicide, the following point can be made.

Little may well have had a mental health issue, or an anger management issue, or some other kind of issue. Mental health issues should always be taken seriously and acted upon.

However the more pertinent question is why this man’s predicament manifested in the particular behaviour of killing children. The perpetrator could have self-harmed in any manner of ways – he could have screamed or cried with his mates; he could have graffitied the streets – there are any number of angry or sad or anti-social behaviours that could have arisen from his emotional state.

He did not engage in those behaviours. He killed himself and his children.

The question we must ask is not what led this man to drive himself and his children into the water (although that may be a question for mental health exploration). The question we must ask is, whatever the reason prompting his behaviour, why was this the behaviour he engaged in.

This is not a new question. Dr Deborah Kirkwood, author of ‘Just Say Goodbye’ (2012), argues that male filicidal behaviours usually occur in the context of a family breakdown and are often preceded by a pattern of violence or control within the family.

Her research points to the highly gendered nature of those acts; male perpetrators of filicide in particular hold the view that hurting children is a mechanism for hurting the (ex) spouse. It is an act irrevocably tied to patriarchal perspectives on the ownership of ‘family’ and the use of violence as a method for enforcing that ownership.

Even if in the current case retribution cannot be seen as a factor, locating the father’s action within a framework of mental health ‘snap’ immediately divorces it from a broader patriarchal narrative of violence against women and children. That is, this father may have had a mental health problem, however it manifested in a patriarchal form.

One thing is for certain; feminists are tired of hearing the voluminous acts of male violence against women and children explained away in a plethora of ‘individual’ circumstances. This explaining away turns gendered violence into a ‘figment of our imaginations’. It implies no systemic problem exists and, ergo, no systemic action is required.

Discourses are a set of views that seem like such common sense they can be almost impossible to identify and challenge. Patriarchy is one such discourse that normalises unequal relations of power in part through violent and marginalising actions against women.

Philosophers such as Foucault have counselled that social change is impossible without recognising the discourses that surround us. Systemically sanctioned male violence is insidious and pervasive. If we continue to individualise instances of violence as random events in need of individualised responses, we run the risk of never achieving change.

And a legacy of continuing denial or piecemeal action does a disservice both to those who have suffered and died, and to future victims who might otherwise be spared a similar experience.

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Dr Melinda McPherson

Dr Melinda McPherson is a social justice researcher and activist with an interest in gender, diversity, refugee issues, and education. Her recent book explores representations of refugee women in education. She has also written on women and violence, women and the asylum process, and women and the media. She is a past board member of the VIRWC and works professionally in education and social justice.

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