And I want to share with you this exercise, that illustrates on a sentence structure level how the way that we think, literally the way that we use language, conspires to keep our attention off of men. This is about domestic violence in particular but you can plug in other analogues. This comes from the work of the feminist linguist Julia Penelope. It starts with a very basic English sentence “John beat Mary” – that’s a good English sentence, John is the subject, beat is the verb, Mary is the object. Good sentence.
Now we’re going to move to the second sentence which says the same thing in the passive voice: “Mary was beaten by John” and now a whole lot has happened in one sentence. We’ve gone from “John beat Mary” to “Mary was beaten by John”, we’ve shifted our focus in one sentence, from John to Mary. And you can see John is very close to the end of the sentence, close to dropping off the map of our psychic plane.
The third sentence, John is dropped, and we have, “Mary was beaten” and now it’s all about Mary. We’re not even thinking about John, it’s totally focused on Mary. Over the past generation the term we’ve used synonymous with beaten is battered, so we have, “Mary was battered.” And the final sentence in this sequence, flowing from the others, is “Mary is a battered woman.” So now Mary’s very identity, “Mary is a battered woman,” is what was done to her by John in the first instance, but we’ve demonstrated that John has long ago left the conversation. Now those of us who work in domestic and sexual violence field know that victim blaming is pervasive in this realm, which is to say blaming the person to whom something was done rather than the person who did it. And we say things like, why do these women go out with these men? Why are they attracted to these men? Why do they keep going back? What was she wearing at that party? What a stupid thing to do! Why was she drinking with this group of guys in that hotel room? This is victim blaming. And there are numerous reasons for it, but one of them is that our whole cognitive structure is set up to blame victims. It’s all unconscious, our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about women and women’s choices, and what they are doing, thinking and wearing. And I’m not going to shout down people who ask questions about women, it’s a legitimate thing to ask.
But let’s be clear. Asking questions about Mary is not going to get us anywhere in terms of preventing violence. We have to ask a different set of questions and you can see where I’m going with this, right? The questions are not about Mary, they are about John. The questions include things like, why does John beat Mary? Why is domestic violence still a big problem in the Unites States and all over the world? What’s going on? Why so many men abuse physically, emotionally, verbally and in other ways the women and girls and the men and boys that they claim to love? What’s going on with men? Why do so many adult men sexually abuse little girls and little boys? Why is that a common problem in our society and all over the world today? Why we hear over and over again about new scandals erupting in major institutions like the Catholic Church or the Penn State Football Program or the Boy Scouts of America? On and on and on! And in local communities all over the country and all over the world. We hear about it all the time – sexual abuse of children. What’s going on with men? Why do so many men rape women in our society and around the world? Why do so many men rape other men? What is going on with men?
And then – what is the role of the various institutions in our society that are helping to produce the abuse of men at pandemic rates? Because this is not about individual perpetrators. That’s a naive way of understanding what is a much deeper and more systematic social problem. You know, the perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness. That’s a very naive notion, right? Perpetrators are much more normal than that and everyday than that. So the questions is, What are we doing here in our society and in the world? What are the roles of various institutions in helping to produce abusive men? What is the role of religious belief systems? The sports culture, the pornography culture, the family structure, economics? And how that intersects? And race and ethnicity and how that intersects? How does all this work?
And then, once we start making those kinds of connections and asking those important and big questions, then we can talk about how can we be transformative. How can we do something differently, how can we change the practices? How can we change the socialization of boys and the definitions of manhood that lead to these current outcomes? These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking and the kind of work that we need to be doing. But if we’re endlessly focused on what women are doing and thinking in relationships or elsewhere we’re not going to get to that piece.
Now I understand that a lot of women who have been trying to speak out about these issues today and yesterday and for years and years often get shouted down for their efforts. They get called nasty names like male-basher and man-hater and the disgusting and offensive feminazi. Right? And you know what all this is about? It’s called “kill the messenger”. It’s because the women who are standing up and speaking up for themselves and for other women as well as for men and boys, it’s a statement to them to sit down and shut up. Keep this current system in place because we don’t like it when people rock the boat, we don’t like it when people challenge our power. You better sit down and shut up, basically. And thank goodness that women haven’t done that. Thank goodness that we live in a world where there is so much women’s leadership that can counteract that.