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You are Guilty of Gender Violence. Yes, You.

I don’t exactly have a rule against wearing a ribbon during this period of Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence. But as a general guideline, I don’t buy into these sorts of awareness campaigns that require the wearing of special attire to highlight social issues. And I’ll tell you why, now that I’ve offended my primary school English teachers by beginning sentences with conjunctions.

Now listen very carefully, and read all the way through even if you are offended, because I think this is an important point – if you are a member of this society in which we live – especially but not exclusively if you are male, you are ‘guilty’ of the aforementioned gender violence that this period of activism is intended to protest.

I write the word ‘guilty’ in quotes because quite probably in your eyes you have never, ever committed an act of violence against another person, and are therefore innocent of gender violence. Awareness is implied in an emotional experience of guilt, though not in a legal definition, and so you are not emotionally guilty (yet). Possibly ‘complicit’ would be a better word, anyway – if you are reading this, you are complicit.

Thou dost protest too much

If you are anything like me, and have not explored this line of thinking before, you are probably offended at this point. It is not in our nature to accept accusations – especially those we believe to be false. Perhaps it is because we expect reparation or punishment to be the immediate repercussion of acknowledging guilt. Yet, if you are reading this, you are complicit.

You live in a world which includes forced marriage, honour killing, corrective rape, acid attacks, female genital mutilation (even in the United States), and much, much more. You live in a country in which an estimated 500,000 people, mostly women, are raped every year. You live in a country in which one in four men commit acts of rape. You live in a country where sexual violence is rife. This is probably not news to you, but if it is, read this wiki entry on sexual violence in South Africa.

You may be able to argue that you are far enough removed from honour-killings in Pakistan that you bear no responsibility for them, but the prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa is just so staggering that, statistically, there is violence – somewhere – very close to you. People you know, almost certainly, have been victims of sexual violence. You – and I – are complicit.

You may not – I hope – have raped someone. You may not – I hope – be guilty of hitting your partner. But perhaps you see no problem with society’s obsession with the use of the word ‘alleged’ as pertains to rape claims. Possibly you have quite the collection of sexist jokes. Possibly your go-to defence in an online argument is the suggestion that the women in question is suffering from PMS. Perhaps you have been in a situation in which someone has made belittling remarks about women and you chose not to challenge them. Perhaps you think Oscar has served his time and learnt his lesson. Perhaps you are an avid campaigner against gender violence, but in the face of abuse, have had to (necessarily?) resort to a little counter-abuse yourself.

What do any of THOSE things have to do with gender violence? A sexist comment is just a joke. The legal process must be followed – innocent until proven guilty – and what about ‘those women’ who accuse falsely? She must surely bear some responsibility – regret is not rape. She was asking for it. Men and women are not the same – they were made for different roles.

You. Are. Complicit.

You are less complicit – much less – than the serial rapist or child abuser, but you are complicit.

You are complicit through your lack of awareness. You are complicit through your lack of understanding of heinously unbalanced gender dynamics in this country. Your are complicit as a result of the gender stereotypes you unconsciously hold. It is NOT POSSIBLE to be a member of society without being influenced by that society, and in a society as unbalanced as ours is, it is virtually impossible that you are not at least slightly broken.

Admission of guilt

The reason I don’t wear a ribbon is because it seems to me that the ribbon, apart from promoting ‘awareness’, makes the following statement – “This symbol states that there is a problem, and because I am willing to state that there is a problem, I am innocent of that problem.” Lest I offend anyone unintentionally, let me make it clear that I do not accuse any ribbon-wearers of hypocrisy. I simply feel it would be hypocrisy to wear one myself.

But lest anyone not be offended by this piece, let me once more emphasise – your admission of guilt is essential to resolving the problem. If Sixteen Days is to have a purpose, it is to create awareness that WE – all of us – are part of the problem.

How does grudging acknowledgement of guilt change anything, I hear you ask?

Because if the way we think is influenced by society, then the way we deliberately choose to think in turn influences society. By growing our awareness of the issues at hand, we educate and arm ourselves against ignorance, and increase our ability to educate and arm the people around us through our own greater understanding. As they say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Before we can grow in our knowledge of gender violence (and thus effectively combat it), we must admit that our understanding of gender violence is poor.

Someone who learns to stop making sexist jokes influence the men around him to stop verbally abusing their wives, who in turn influence the men around them to stop beating their wives. That’s grossly oversimplified, of course, but you get the idea.

What will not work, on the other hand, is constant denial. It takes but an admittedly difficult few moments to acknowledge that you are part of a problem (during which time you are only successful if you dismiss all occurrences of the word ‘but’ from you thought processes), before you can begin the real work of resolving gender issues.



{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Octavo 1 December 2015, 9:01 am

    Therefore all people are complicit in all atrocities. All Muslims are complicit in all Islamist terrorist attacks. All white people are complicit in racism. Where does the self-flagellation end?

    • Chris 1 December 2015, 9:32 am

      So I’m saying everyone is guilty of everything? But an extremely important question, and a good opportunity for some clarification.

      First, this is about personal responsibility and a commitment to understanding, not societal / legal responsibility. It addresses the fact that there is overemphasis in society to absolve itself of guilt, or transfer it elsewhere, and that the effort we dedicate to proving we are innocent can be better spent improving our own understanding of the relevant issues. More specifically, deciding that we are not guilty is generally an excuse for refusing to think about the issue any more.

      Second, it does not suggest that everyone be held accountable in the legal sense, and it does not suggest we should all suddenly dedicate our entire lives to resolving every social ill.

      Third, there is a point beyond which responsibility is effectively diluted into irrelevance, absolutely. South African responsibility for Islamic terror attacks is such an example – South African responsibility for sexual violence is not.

      Fourth, self-flagellation is a complete waste of time. The purpose is not to ‘feel bad’, the purpose is to start thinking…or to stop ‘not thinking’.

      In fact, I am suggesting that ‘all’ that is required is a paradigm shift from ‘I am not guilty and therefore I am not required to understand any more than I do or let to go of my assumptions’ to ‘I can benefit from understanding this thing better’ – further improvement will happen as an inevitable consequence.

  • Octavo 1 December 2015, 9:40 am

    You speak of guilt and being complicit and acknowledging these facts, but then claim the purpose is not to feel bad about it, but to start thinking instead. Do you think your approach in this article matches your desired outcome?

    I guess I’m just struggling to understand why I should devote my energy to an undertaking that as far as I can see amounts to “think more about this stuff” when really, most of my energy is devoted to things like “How the hell am I going to afford my rent next month”.

    • Chris 1 December 2015, 10:01 am

      Another interesting dilemma. If one takes a moderate approach, one is a fence-sitter. If one makes less ambiguous statements, one engenders (enGENDER, HA!) defensiveness.

      An aggressively phrased piece will no doubt speak to some people, and alienate others, while the reverse will be true for a gentle piece. Both will be superior to no piece at all.

  • Octavo 1 December 2015, 9:45 am

    I think my central point is that if you post a combative or accusative post, no matter how you couch and caveat it, the response it will generate will always be defensive. This is why serious, factual anti-religious screeds are seldom useful except as cheer material for the side-line atheists.

    • Chris 1 December 2015, 9:53 am

      This highlights an interesting dilemma in society. If the issue is pointed out, the response is defensive, which arguably achieves nothing. But if the issue is not pointed out, there is no catalyst for change, which arguably achieves nothing.

      But perhaps change in society is a cumulation of tiny changes. And perhaps serious anti-anything screeds that appear to achieve nothing do, in fact, make tiny contributions that over time amount to something tangible.

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