The chain between words and violence

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

There has been a justified outpouring of national anger and fury over the past few weeks in response to the ongoing war on the bodies of girls and women. Yet we have been here before. Every now and then the rape and death of aparticularvictim galvanises us.
Will we, this time round, respond more productively and finally begin to fatally break the cycles of violence, including rape and femicide?

Everyone will recall the horrific gang rape of Anene Booysen in February 2013. She was disembowelled and left for dead, but managed to identify one of her attackers before she died several hours later. In the same month, model Reeva Steenkamp was murdered by Paralympian Oscar Pistorius. It was jarringly shocking news we woke up to on Valentine’s Day of 2013. Our collective anger did not end in a South Africa that is safer for every one of its citizens.

Those two cases also highlighted some other realities about rape and femicide in South Africa: the war on the bodies of girls and women is both class-blind and colour-blind. Ours, as has correctly been said time and again, is no country for women.

Over the past few days, we have again been yanked collectively out of our complacency — when it comes to living under these conditions of gender warfare, when the rape and murder of a young woman, 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene — “Nene” — Mrwetyana, left millions of South Africans in shock, and resulted in the pouring out of emotion from a deep well of anger, fury, sadness, and sheer bewilderment that there are truly no spaces where a woman in this country is safe.

A woman is not safe at home. She is not safe at the tavern. She is not safe at the post office. She is not safe at work. She is not safe at the club. She is not safe walking from the tavern to her home. She is not safe walking to the post office. She is not safe from the guns of her boyfriend that were supposedly bought to keep them both safe from strangers. She is not safe when she encounters a stranger. She may be even less safe when she is with someone she knows intimately. She is not safe when she is with an official working for the state. She is not safe when she is drinking with men she has known all her life.

She is a continued target of predatory men who have no regard for her intrinsic dignity and rights to bodily and psychological integrity. Which is why each South African woman has asked this week: “Am I next?”

There has also been a desperate plea for practical advice about what we should do. Although the expressions of fury are justified and competing descriptions of the full nature of the horror are archived across social media, news platforms and the blogosphere, there is a frantic desire for solutions to be listed so we can move from expressions of condemnation to changing our world.

It would take a series of articles and workshops to list, describe, debate and formulate the range of strategies and tactics needed to end gender-based violence. I cannot do so in an exhaustive way in this entry so I want to focus on one of the many important issues: the connection between language, attitudes and violence.

The history of slavery is instructive. An important ingredient in the psychology of white supremacists is the display of attitudes towards black people that reduce them to things. Black people who were owned by slave owners, to take the most extreme instantiation of white supremacy, were spoken of in terms that put them on a continuum with other things in the house that lacked intrinsic value. And so if you pick up a thing — be it a brick, a spade or your slave — then you can treat it however the hell you want to because it is not human. Only humans deserve respect. Only humans deserve to be recognised as having intrinsic self-worth and interests that should be protected by law.

Slaves could be beaten, raped and killed because their humanity was not recognised by their “masters” who simply saw them as property to be exploited.

We men speak of women as things over which we have ownership. Even men who perform allyship slip into the language of ownership — “our women” or “our girls” — coupled with the master’s sense of obligation to “take care” and “look after” girls and women. We infantilise women because we struggle, as men, to recognise their full humanity and personhood. And even when we display what appears like healthy emotional connections with girls and women, this is often underpinned by the kind of unhealthy paternalism that the less vicious owners might also have displayed over their favourite slaves.

We do not see girls and women truly. We see them as part of our dominion. A university acquaintance of mine, who is a well-read lawyer, recently participated in what he regarded as Facebook banter by asking his male Facebook friends how they feel when a guy compliments “[their] women”. The discussion that followed was exemplary of the kind of possessiveness that is taught boys and men in relation to girls and women. The agency of a woman who was being flirted with by a stranger was of no concern to these men. Their online locker-room banter about what is and what isn’t acceptable in how their possessions (girlfriends and wives) are treated by other men, also showed the extent to which this kind of language has been normalised.

And that is what we do not, as men, own up to. We think that if we do not rape or kill women, that we are doing enough. We think that if we would never have disembowelled Anene, then we are morally fit. We think that if we would never have shot Reeva, then we are one of the good guys. We choose to set the bar for what counts as wrongful behaviour that high so that we can never meet such demanding standards of wrongfulness. That is a mistake. It means that we are choosing to be blind to the causal connections between how we speak about women, what such language and these conversations demonstrate about our attitudes towards women, and how in turn, over time, this conduces to rape and femicide.

The man who raped and murdered Nene wasn’t born a murderer. His sense of entitlement to her body started with banter he heard, and participated in, which seeps into the belief system of a young boy, and eventually becomes part of our inner mental landscape including our attitudes.

The same with the rapists and murderers we wrongly describe as monsters or animals because of the gruesome detail that accompany some of the descriptions of the femicide. They are not monsters. They are not animals. They are everyday men like ourselves. And so we must ask about the childhoods of these men. Where and how did the toxicity start? The postoffice worker has a biography. How did it come to be that the cute little baby boy that he was at birth turned into a raping and killing machine? There are many parts of the story that await a fuller description, some specific to him as an individual and some general to the structure of our society.

The small thought I wanted to inscribe into our painful public meditation this week on the scourge of gender-based violence is that we should not, as part of the solution space, underestimate how the ways in which we talk about ourselves and others, and the thoughts we start thinking based on the language we use habitually, can be a powerful foundation for the worst kinds of violence later in life.

Respect isn’t only about language. But it starts with language, so be vigilant about how your raise your boy, taking care to both model behaviour that is decent, and also to have regard for what you say in front of and to him, soon after he has learned to say “daddy” or “mommy”.

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