Wielding the whiplash

People suffer, often deeply, as a result of other people's violence. And people also suffer, often deeply, from self-inflicted violence, often at the instigation of or with the active collusion of others.

Violence exists in many forms: the most visible, and the easiest to legislate against, is physical violence, but also occurs - perhaps more often, and perhaps more traumatically - in many non-physical forms, such as emotional manipulation, denigration, financial restriction or deprivation, and so on.

Violence hurts. It's a very real human problem.

Which is interesting, because, according to 'politically correct' feminism, it isn't: it's a male problem, something that only men do. [1] Men do it to each other, perhaps; but especially men do it to women. Wherever there is violence, especially between the genders, men are invariably portrayed as the aggressors, and women as the victims:

"Violence will stop only when men stop being violent and the community stops condoning it" - National Committee on Violence Against Women [2]

So 'pro-feminist' men's groups have rushed to take up the challenge, to show men that they are responsible for resolving the issue of violence: it's "Men's Work, to stop the violence that tears our lives apart" - the title of one typical book in the field, by Paul Kivel of the Oakland Men's Project. [3] The book, like the groups' workshops, uses fictionalised rôle-plays to show men how they are violent, to show that acting violently is a choice - albeit often habitual or reflex - and how to learn to change this choice. Important that men should do this: no doubt about that.

But there's not a single suggestion that women should do likewise. Quite the opposite: women are often invited, in the book, to comment critically on men's attitudes, men's behaviour [4] - though women's right to behave as they wish is never questioned. Violence is a male problem: men alone must deal with it - all of it. And yet the only example of actual - as opposed to fictionalised - violence in the whole book is between two schoolgirls, who immediately come to blows when one insults the other in front of the class. [5] Clearly violence is not exclusively a male problem...

It used to be said that the last hidden crime was 'wife-bashing': domestic violence - men against women, men oppressing women. In fact - or rather, as close as we can come to facts in the highly politicised region of domestic violence - it might be more accurate to say that 'the last hidden crime' is 'husband-bashing': a variety of surveys suggest not only that women initiate physical violence in the home at least three times as often as men, but that at least a quarter of all those needing hospital treatment after domestic-violence incidents - usually the most severely injured - are men. [6] Women are violent - just as much as men.

Men's violence is a problem; so is women's. Violence is a problem that has gendered overtones, but it is, above all, a human problem. And we all need to face it, starting with our own - being honest about it, and owning it and the responsibility for it. If we're not willing to do this, do we really "have the right to cast the first stone"? I know I don't: which is why I choose to tackle the problem as a whole.

But there's a curious amnesia about women's violence. It's deemed not to exist. It's not just that the 'feminist thought-police' - to quote that woman comedian - have strong views on the matter: it's also that, perhaps because of the strong imagery of 'woman as victim', women often seem incapable of seeing it in themselves. Or perhaps it's just that some women have heard the phrase "it's not OK to hit a woman" so often that they believe that it is OK to hit a man... A first-hand example of this: a few weeks back, one of my neighbours came knocking on my door late at night, saying that her housemate "had beaten her up again". No doubt that something had happened: she showed me the bruises. Clearly something had to be done if they were to coexist in that house: I agreed to mediate.

They both told their stories: both agreed that the other's story was fair. What had happened? He'd wanted to watch the news on television; so he'd turned off her stereo - in the middle of her favourite song. Furious, she'd launched herself at him, flailing at his back with her fists. As much to protect himself as anything, he'd pushed her back; she'd fallen back over a chair, and bruised her legs. There was no doubt that she'd attacked him: she agreed as much. But she was convinced that because she was the one who ended up with the bruises, he had attacked her. She believed that for her to hit him repeatedly was not in any way violent; yet for him to defend himself - not hit back, but just to stop her from hitting him - was 'assault'. And according to the current law in this state, he would be the one charged with assault, too. [7]

Double-think. Selective amnesia. Or the tortuous self-dishonesty of what Neil Lyndon calls 'Sisterspeak'. [8] It doesn't help if we're trying to get to the bottom of the problem of violence...

Perhaps the most serious problem of refusing to acknowledge women's violence is how much it denies women either tools to resolve their own anger and violence, or acknowledgement of their pain if they have been abused by other women - the latter point being one which many women I know have stressed. For example, coincident with a new campaign against male violence in this state, there is a poster-campaign about the "Red Cross Men's Referral Service", which provides tools to assist men to resolve their violence. But what tools are available for the many women who so publicly take out their frustrations on their children in shops and supermarkets? None, apparently... somehow it's all men's fault, so men alone should fix it. But the anger is the woman's, not a man's: she may blame her partner (if she has one), but it won't actually help her in resolving her own issues. The only thing that begins the process of resolution is for the violent one - man or woman - to acknowledge and own their violence. And this process cannot begin until we acknowledge that women are violent too: just as violent as men. [9]

And women are abused not just by men, but by women too: if we refuse to acknowledge this as violence, in order to protect the myth of 'woman as victim', those abused women are denied any support. [10] So whilst - to take one example - there is increasing concern being shown about the molesting of young boys by priests, nothing much is either said or done about the enormous physical and non-physical violence dumped on girls by nuns in convent schools - a continuing violence which creates permanent scars in many women's lives. [11] And so on: women get hurt by the denial of women's violence.

I'll admit that I also have a personal interest in this. I grew up in a middle-class family, both parents working as professionals, in a household utterly dominated by a violent sister - a situation with which my parents, who had both suffered similarly in their own childhoods, were simply not able to cope. All families have their problems: this happened to be one of ours. But as the principal target of my elder sister's rages, I was told that my injuries were entirely my own fault - that since she was supposedly incapable of restraining her violence, and that neither parent felt able to do anything about it, the responsibility for minimising her impact was mine alone. I should either not react in any way to her incessant assaults, or else 'take it like a man'. These are not the easiest of concepts for a three- or four- or five-year-old to understand...

Like many others in that situation - one that is far better understood or acknowledged for women than for men - I was, in effect, told that I was personally reponsible for another's refusal to be responsible for their own behaviour. This much-reinforced statement led to a learned habit of self-blame, self-scapegoating (which supposedly only women are conditioned to do). And, as can be imagined, it was not a useful habit to have ingrained in an eight-year-old boy being sent off to boarding-school for the majority of his schooldays... It's taken me a long time to recover from that...

Boys learn violence, if nowhere else, on the playground. Another neat piece of selective amnesia is that it's also the place where the girls learn theirs. [12] The culture in which we live does, to some extent, condone physical violence by males, especially boys; but it also condones non-physical violence by girls, by women. Watch a group of girls interacting with each other on the playground: the violence is mainly verbal - insinuation, shaming - but is also in what is not said, is not done. Emotional manipulation, denigration, exclusion, isolation, "controlling more subtle resources - information, approval, love" [13]: these forms of violence are refined to a fine art on the playground and in the classroom. And all of it easily deniable: "Me, Miss? No, I didn't do anything to her", she says, as another girl huddles in a corner in tears...

[The bullying in the girls' school] was very, very relentless, mostly geared to making you get order marks for which you were then punished [by the teachers]: putting salt on your food, locking you in lavatories so that you were late for prayers. They used to cover my prep book with ink so that I got an order mark for being messy.
They used to link arms and run up against me in the playground. Once I tried to fight them, and I got through two and then I hit a girl who was a head taller and she made mincemeat of me... [14]

The 'cattiness' and 'bitchiness' of the schoolyard - somehow less than human - live on, in the verbal violence of the 'feminist thought-police': "we must learn about men and their archetypes in order to put them back in their place - they are an aberration and out of control..." Words whose intention is to hurt, to maim: words that are intensely violent. I remember once a woman in a feminist bookshop saying that she thought I was cringing from the bookshelves, as though they were all accusing me: but that's exactly what they were doing. The woman had clearly never read the books from a man's perspective: for every writer represented in that shop was demanding that I, as a man, was personally responsible for their pain - an entire shop-full of accusation, verbal blows like whiplashes coming from every direction.

Perhaps you might think this is overdoing it a bit. After all, we've all been told the adage:

"Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me"

It would have been said to all of us - especially boys - many times in our childhood. But think about that for a moment: is it really true? Or do we - as ordered - simply pretend that it's true? Pretend that these words don't hurt? And then, of course, be accused of being emotionless, because we don't show that we're hurt?

Much of feminism depends on this kind of double-bind to maintain its selective amnesia - to maintain the myth that women are not, are never, responsible for what they do. Yet sometimes the whiplash of words is necessary, to break through men's selective amnesia about their own violence. That too is feminism: but it is a true feminism, focussed on the humanness of all, rather than the self-centred concerns of women against men.

Two women I've known for many years immediately come to mind to illustrate this difference. Both are well-known as feminists: one as a scriptwriter and novelist, the other as an artist and writer. (I won't name them: you can find out easily enough if you want, but it really doesn't matter.) Both are about ten years older than me, both were of a similar heavy-set build, both lived close to the small country town where I'd lived for a decade, and both had been born in a foreign country. Both had had to struggle at many times in their life; both had had children, all of them sons. There their similarities ended: for their attitudes to life were entirely different.

The novelist delighted in the world's mischievous ironies. She delighted in people: everything she did spoke of that - she was often to be found gossipping, 'large as life and twice as natural', at the various gatherings on the local scene. Her books were invariably about women, real women in sometimes rather unreal situations, but always observed with a wry and often decidedly bawdy humour. In one of her stories, based in part on actual people we both knew, a 'nouveau-riche' woman is abandoned by her husband, and finds herself slowly sinking down through the layers of society to end up eking out a chaotic hippie-like existence in a broken-down caravan in a rural lane - but into this depiction of personal tragedy, and of the harsh realities so many women face, the novelist interweaves the comedy, the absurdity that makes our lives human.

Her women characters are real, believable, vibrant, strong: full of the crazy jealousies and even wilder sharing that make women's lives so rich; yet her male characters, although equally well observed with that same shrewd eye for the foibles of humanity, somehow tend to be shallower, weaker - for their real role is to act as a backdrop, bit-players in her wider story. The whiplash cracks at times - but in the air above us, painless but enough to make us jump; and there's always the laughter, the mischievous laughter, behind it, which she shares with the world. Judging by the number of times I see her books on women-friends' shelves, she does speak for women: a true feminist.

The artist, by contrast, has very little humour: life is far too bitter and too serious for that. What she shares with the world of women is a deep richness in her art, which I know means so much to so many; and what she shares with the world at large is an anger and an arrogance - one woman publisher described her brusquely as 'a thug' - which mask a deep pathos that I know she refuses to face. I've talked with her many times: after I've spent an hour or so, listening to her rages, permitting her to wield the whiplash without respect or care, she suddenly relaxes, her mask drops, and her power, her gentleness, her inner beauty shine through - for a very brief moment, and then the rage returns...

The pathos is real: of her three sons, for example, only one still lives - the youngest killed as a teenager by 'patriarchal technology' (as she terms it), and the next a few years later by leukaemia. Not easy for anyone: but the anger makes it worse. I met her again at a conference a few years ago: it was once again the anniversary of her young son's death, and she was angry and upset. I spoke with her a while, listening, listening; listening deeper, I said, gently, that she needed to find a way to complete her mourning, so that she could live again. She, and the women around her, exploded: how could I insult her so? How could a mere man know what it would be like for a mother to lose her child? Chastened, and saddened, I left, as demanded. A few minutes later, though, one of the women came out, and spoke: "I've just realised what you said. You didn't say 'stop mourning', you said 'complete your mourning'. You're right... she has to... it's killing her..."

Killing everyone else too: that's the hard part. Unwilling to face the hurt, she wants everyone else to face it for her: everyone else must bear the whiplash she wields with such anger, with such despair. And such dishonesty...

The novelist stands out by her honesty; the artist's dishonesty - her self-dishonesty - is concealed, but dominates her life. Her young son: what on earth was the 'patriarchal technology' that killed him? A car, as it happens. On a pedestrian crossing. In southern France. Forbidden by virtue of his gender to enter the building where his mother was attending a women-only conference, he pressed the button to cross the street, looked the wrong way, and walked straight out... And the mother who had thrust him out to wander on his own in a foreign town denies all responsibility on her part or his, and blames 'patriarchal technology' instead... Not exactly honest...

Saddest of all was something I read in her latest book - supposedly decrying the paternalism of the New Age, but in fact doing so only to promote something even more wildly contorted and confused. She writes about her second son: dying of leukaemia, with enormous gentleness and courage, he tells her "The only thing that matters is love; absolutely the only thing that matters is love". And yet just three paragraphs later she quotes another writer to say "There comes a time when only anger is love" - and uses that as her sole guide in a book filled with spitting rage at the world in general and men - all men other than her own - in particular. Why, oh why does it have to be this way?

It doesn't, is the real answer. But to reach beyond that means an end to dependency on the whiplash: yet this seems to be the one thing this woman dare not do. Unlike the novelist, her 'feminism', proclaimed as strength, and power, and freedom, is little more than a cage in which she can hide from her fear - and a means to entrap others to face it on her behalf. Her personal issues, their painful reality obsessively denied, are projected onto the outer world, the body politic - an obscene mockery of the spirit of the slogan "the personal is the political".

The anger, and the laughter: both are true. Yet of the whiplash, or wit and wisdom: which would you choose? The novelist speaks for women, and uses the whiplash wisely; the artist, selfishly, demands that others must speak for her - so that she does not have to face her own responsibility in her life. And yet both are 'feminists'...

That is the true tragedy of feminism: that it has been betrayed so easily, and so foolishly, that it is now so hard to find the wisdom or the power that underly it.

But central to the betrayal and the foolishness is a confusion over the concept of power. Women feel powerless; 'politically correct' feminism assumes that therefore men must have it, and that women should demand to be given their fair share. "It is in the nature of power that it is impossible for one to have more without others having less" [15]: so men should surrender the power that is due to women, that has been wrongly taken from them. But like those two college girls in the Indian restaurant, what this 'feminism' fails to grasp is that men don't have power either - certainly not in a form in which it can be taken from them; in fact most men are looking to women to resolve their own sense of powerlessness!

Feeling powerless, each is afraid of the other; each depends on the other to be powerful - in order to take power from them - yet each dare not allow the other to be powerful. Self-styled 'pro-feminist' Paul Kivel berates the 'men's movement', saying that "it would have us believe that women are powerful, that men are weak and vulnerable... These are clearly lies that attempt to shift our focus from eliminating inequality and violence to helping individual men become more powerful." [16] What he fails to understand, in this tirade, is that the end-result of this attitude is that no-one is powerful: which is exactly why nothing gets done. Before we can move on, we need to build a very different understanding of power - what it is, where it comes from, where it goes - and how it can so easily be lost in the tangled webs of violence.

[1] There's an inordinate concern in feminist circles about violence in lesbian relationships, because, according to 'politically correct' theory, it's impossible. Reality Department, however, has other ideas - hence a sad comment in an article in the current (undated, 1993) issue of the LaTrobe University [Melbourne] students' magazine "Rebellious", that the Domestic Violence Unit's greatest problem in tackling the all-too-common issue of domestic violence in lesbian relationships between students was "a myth that only men are violent"...

[2] NCVAW 'Position Paper', May 1991. The Committee is part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of the Australian government; currently (1993) advertising campaigns are underway, and new instructions to social-work departments and new legislation under development, based on the Committee's position that violence is exclusively male.

[3] Paul Kivel, 1992 - see booklist.

[4] Such as (ibid.), p.51.

[5] Ibid., p.231.

[6] See Chapter 8, 'Battered Husbands', in David Thomas, "Not Guilty".

[7] David Thomas argues, with good reason, that this is one reason why the domestic-violence statistics seem to indicate a disproportionate degree of male violence: men who do report being assaulted by their partners often find themselves being charged for assault (see chapter 8, 'Battered Husbands' in Thomas, "Not Guilty"). In both Britain and Australia, this is partly the result of social-work and police instructions which insist that the woman is always the 'victim', regardless of the circumstances; and in a classic example of a circular 'proof', the resultant statistics of assault charges are used to assert the validity of the instructions...

[8] Neil Lyndon, "No More Sex War", p.88.

[9] Arguably more so: "Women can be very, very violent. The two most violent people I've ever had to deal with were women. I'd much rather fight a man - I'd stand more chance of winning" (Detective Inspector Sylvia Aston, West Midlands Police, quoted in David Thomas, "Not Guilty", p.213).

[10] This point came up in conversation with a lesbian friend last night: a social worker, she'd been verbally abused and ostracised at a conference on domestic violence for asking about women's violence - and she was informed, very forcefully, that the many physical assaults she'd received from her former lover "could not possibly have happened", because her lover had been a woman.

[11] Another woman colleague described a scene, repeated many times at her convent school: being led in front of a particularly gory crucifix and being told by the nuns, "you, with your sinfulness, are personally to blame for the pain and suffering of Our Lord"... an extreme form of emotional and spiritual violence, especially to a young girl in the throes of puberty.

[12] See Naomi Wolf, "Fire With Fire", pp.288-300, for an unusually perceptive view of the abusive socialization of and by girls in same-sex groups which leads directly to a self-limiting 'feminine fear of power'.

[13] Starhawk, "Truth or Dare", p.9 - a list which she attributes, however, primarily to men.

[14] 'Days of enchantment, days of despair': novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard describing to Nicholas Roe her experiences in a girls' school in the late 1930s, in "The Independent" [London], 19 December 93; note that the bulk of the bullying was centred on using someone else - the teachers, in this case - to do the actual physical assault, in order to be able to maintain 'deniability'.

[15] Sebastian James, in "XY: Men, Sex and Politics", Vol.1 No.3 (Spring 1991), ISSN 1036 7209.

[16] Kivel, op. cit., p.272.