Good men who turn bad

A friend of mine called me from a police precinct the other day. He said it was the last call he was making before being locked up for domestic violence.

He is a reasonable guy at the best of times. Never in the many years that I have known and socialised with him has he been violent, not even against other men. We are talking here not about some nerd carrying lots of pens in his short-sleeved shirt pocket and wearing a tie, but a Soweto-born and bred streetwise man. So what happened and why did he do it?

While pondering the issue, news came in about a relative who had stabbed his girlfriend after a domestic squabble. Again, the perpetrator is not known for violence. In fact, he is one of the jolliest men I know.

Gut reaction is to blame the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act, which detractors say make it easy to arrest and jail arbitrarily men accused of domestic violence.

Researchers who study crime and violence have always shown that the victims and the perpetrators are often known to each other and often socialise together. In other words, we should choose our friends and spouses a bit more carefully.

The feminist line is that men do it because it is the manifestation of the power relations between the sexes and because they know that, at least in South Africa, they can get away with it lightly.

I am sure both reasons have merit. But I am still not satisfied. There must be another reason why good men do bad things. I can imagine you, dear reader, wondering whether I am looking for explanations for these men. In a way, I am. But I know that explanations are not the same things as justifications, and I am certainly not seeking to justify their actions.

There are very few instances when violence is justifiable, such as when saving one or another’s life, and it should always be the last resort.

My friend and relative explained their actions by saying they had been provoked by their dearly beloveds. Both said, in varying language, that their partners had driven them to act in a manner that all of us who know them agreed was out of character.

The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. Both brothers had failed to take responsibility for their circumstances when it really mattered.

The ability to take responsibility for our actions is a requirement, almost a given, driven through from very early on in our lives. The ability to control our reaction is, however, the beginning of self-mastery that is not given as much attention as it should.

Mastery of anything is not easy. And when we are hardly the proper focus of our own attention, it is easy to accept the caricature of self by others as definitive.

Men have always been told that they are not to cry, not to show any other type of emotion except anger.

We are gradually being told that men are actually a bit stupid; take a couple of television and radio advertisements. One radio ad, explaining why women get preferential car insurance premiums, paints a picture of a couple about to enjoy a romantic dinner when the man decides to catch up on the rugby score. The punchline is that “men just don’t get it”.

There is another ad showing a man trying to put a nappy on, I presume, his son. He fumbles on until the boy pisses on his shirt. I am sure there are many who find such ads funny; I suspect they are meant to be. My gripe with these ads, and a whole lot of media depictions of men, is that they create an impression that men are somewhat inherently deficient. They cannot be expected to make rational decisions when required to do so.

Men must take responsibility for the way they are depicted in the mass media. We are not daft and, yes, we can take responsibility for our actions and our reactions. Maybe we should see more adverts showing us how we react intelligently to provocative situations.

The law may, as many men complain and as was the subject of the Constitutional Court case Omar v The Government of South Africa and Others, be unfairly loaded against men especially when it comes to gender violence cases. But the ability to decide how to react in each situation lies squarely with us.

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