Everyone has a story.
When I first started considering the new job at Polaris, I spent hours and days and weeks learning about the organization, its history, its mission, and its values. One of the organizational values is non-violence and respect, which seems pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. But when I read the description, it really struck a chord with me.
Here’s the detailed explanation from the website:
Polaris strives to encourage the practice of non-violence among our staff and volunteers, not only because we believe it is right, but also because we believe it is most effective. The practice of non-violence requires us to first ask how we can be better or help others be better, rather than destructively criticize or support the disempowerment of others or other organizations. It is the ethic that helps protect movements from destructive internal politics and in-fighting, while encouraging self-improvement as organizations, and mutual constructive support and collaboration.
The practice of non-violence reminds us that even those who commit the most heinous acts are human beings, and should be understood and cared about even as their behaviors are condemned and their ability to cause further suffering is curtailed. Humanization of all parties leads to a more realistic understanding of the motivations and experiences underlying the behaviors, and facilitates more effective and comprehensive solutions.
Non-violence as a personal practice among staff and volunteers helps transform the self-defensive reaction to being attacked or criticized into an attitude of love, appreciation, and groundedness. This practice supports growth and openness and helps protect against the risk of burn-out.
The most important part of this value of nonviolence/respect, I think, is that it serves to remind us that we’re all human. Even those who commit the most heinous acts. Even people who enslave and traffic others. Even people who abuse, rape, and kill.
The Ray Rices and the Chris Browns and even the Peter Bronkemas of the world have their stories, too.
I think it’s necessary to follow up my last post, as it was originally written about a year ago, with a more thoughtful look at the situation, not just from the perspective of a domestic violence survivor but as a fellow human being.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t blame myself for the abuse. I don’t believe in victim-blaming, but I also think that demonizing someone isn’t an effective way to understand their motives and the causes of their actions and thereby fix greater problems like the worldwide epidemic of violence against women.
Because it is an epidemic. You can blame the individual only so much before you recognize that misogyny is ingrained in and reinforced by our culture — and by cultures across the globe.
I don’t mean to say that individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions, but I think we need to look harder at the ways that we’re holding people accountable and we need to do more about the systemic problems that cause people to behave the way that they do, particularly when the behavior is aggressive or violent. We need to look more closely at cultural problems like racism and sexism. We need to consider mental illness, and we need to consider addiction. We need to remember that mental illness and addiction are sicknesses and not shameful personality traits. We need to think about the way we treat both sicknesses and the accessibility of those treatments.
So, here we’ve got these guys, and they objectify women, and they seek to control women, and they abuse women. What do we do about it? Sometimes we strike back; that’s never a good idea. Sometimes we send them to jail, but “prison magnifies these kinds of sexist attitudes and can intensify acts of gendered violence.”
We need to tackle the problem at its core. We need to fix the culture. Where to begin? One idea is to crack down on gender-segregated settings like football teams and fraternities in which misogynistic beliefs are tolerated and reinforced.
My ex was hazed in his college fraternity. When I first met him, he would regularly recite chants from his fraternity days. Usually — well, always — it was completely out of context and totally confusing. It was like he’d been reprogrammed or brainwashed.
Add his addiction to the mix, and you had a recipe for disaster.
Here’s this guy who had no control – his brain was wired to make him feel dependent upon alcohol; he had misogynistic views drilled into him; even after multiple arrests and car accidents, he couldn’t stop drinking; even after multiple failed relationships, he couldn’t stop abusing the women he loved. And suddenly it’s not “What a terrible, cruel, abusive monster.” Suddenly he’s not just the villain; he’s a victim himself.
It’s not easy to remember to humanize people who commit cruelty. If all the problems in the world were black and white – villain vs. hero(ine) – we could just lock up the bad guys and wash our hands clean. Identifying the cultural, social, and systemic factors driving some people to behave violently is essential to tackling the problem at its core…and it requires a lot more work.