/ 14 November 2022

Gender-based violence is an interpersonal and societal problem

Police records reveal that more than 100 women are raped each day in South Africa. (Photo: AFP/Marco Longari)

Despite initiatives such as the Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide interventions and good intentions, there is a grave misdiagnosis of GBVF.

Philosopher Mabogo Percy More highlights that the tendency to reduce a phenomenon may be traced to the laws of thought as articulated in classical formal logic. In terms of the law of contradiction, something cannot be different from itself, or cannot be simultaneously true and false. The problem that arises here is the law of the excluded middle, which states that something is either A or it is not A. 

More argues that this law of the excluded middle produces the general error of the belief that certain things have to be either this or that but not both, which is the black-white fallacy. Further, he explains that this fallacy is a product of Aristotelian logic, that things oppose and mutually exclude each other in reality. 

Regarding gender-based violence, the law of the excluded middle produces binary, essentialist and reductive views of the problem. This is a knee-jerk reaction to the frightening manifestations of gender-based violence, such as physical assault, sexual assault and murder. It is true that society is in crisis because of what some have called a gender war. But, in our panic to try and mitigate gender-based violence, we misdiagnose the symptoms and prescribe inadequate interventions. 

If we are able to surmount the prevalent binary logic, we could simultaneously accommodate several truths, which might at face value appear contradictory, about the causes and effects of gender-based violence. 

We would understand that gender-based violence is both an interpersonal and systemic problem. This is the comprehension that our political, economic and cultural climate triggers individual and group psychological dysfunction. Material inequality, unemployment, poverty, greed, exploitation, crime and corruption produce unhealthy psychosocial states across race, culture, class and gender.

One cannot predict the psychological effect of poverty on every individual or group. But empirical evidence shows that poverty often leads to mental health problems, substance abuse in attempts to cope, crime as a means to meet material needs and interpersonal violence, because of desperation, conflict and dysfunction. 

What studies do not dwell on is that even the wealthy and middle-class also evidence these dysfunctions. They are assumed to be morally superior to the poor simply because they have professions, assets, money and status. As perpetrators, their material privilege can shield them from many of the consequences of their actions. As victims, they are taught to preserve the façade of superiority.

The system creates conditions that breed dysfunction and deviance and then blames the victims of such a system for their deviance, by treating them as disposable. Concurrently, those who are more advantaged within the system are not held accountable for their deviance because they are considered to be more valuable to society.

It is equally true that not all males seek to dominate and control, and that not all females are victims. That said, in moments of conflict provocation does not justify retaliation, while self-defence should be proportionate to the attack. 

With respect to social gender construction and socialisation, society has taken the cue of female and male biological and physical differences to mean that the sexes have differentiated, although complementary reasons for existence. Much has been said about the supposed “natural” roles of females and males in society. On the one extreme are the gender conservatives who insist on the model of male-authority-female-submission; and conversely, the liberals, progressives or poststructuralists are of the view that biology or anatomy is not destiny. 

In between, there is an ever-growing spectrum of sexual and gender identity. So, we now find that the binary meanings of masculinity and femininity are no longer stable. Historically, males were conferred with superiority and authority by culture, religion and politics. This came with the accompanying responsibility to provide for and protect females and children, who were expected to comply and cooperate with their benevolent patriarch or benevolent sexism

Not all male authority figures were benevolent. Instead, male domination and violence increasingly became the face of masculinity. Women, children, and ironically men themselves, have suffered the malevolence of aggression, hostility, violence and abuse for as long as humanity’s history has been documented. 

Paradoxically, while most females might not be as physically strong as most males, they are equally capable of being aggressive, hostile and abusive to males, children and other females. Contrary to the mutually exclusive male-perpetrator and female-victim binary, empirical evidence shows that both males and females are complicit with violence. 

Additionally, what feminist literary scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola terms “the cult of femininity”, colludes and is complicit with patriarchy by promoting male domination in exchange for preferential treatment. When one engages in the manifestation of gender-based violence, it is a mistaken diagnosis to simply reduce this to a problem of toxic masculinity.

Third, verbal, mental, emotional, spiritual and financial abuse are just as harmful as physical and sexual violence. The former types of abuse are usually gateways to the latter. People encounter abuse in relationships with family, friends, colleagues, associates and strangers, in a variety of ways. It is difficult to understand and identify most types of abuse because they are intangible, but they usually lead to concrete consequences. 

An individual dysfunctional family is usually the birthing place of all manner of social ills suffered by them and dozens of other people they subsequently abuse. Irrespective of the household configuration — a married couple nuclear family, a single-parent household, a multi-generational or extended family household and so on — the structure of the family does not inoculate it from violence, abuse and their consequences. 

Abuse begets abuse. Hurting people hurt people. For example, a child who is emotionally abused by a domineering father might initially appear to come from a stable family. He subsequently becomes a present husband who provides adequately for his family, but secretly he is a perpetrator of marital rape against his wife, in attempts to assert himself. Through accumulated and misdirected rage caused by the incidents of rape, his wife often verbally abuses their children. 

Their daughter turns to alcohol and drugs for solace and becomes both a victim and perpetrator of intimate partner violence when she is under the influence. One of their sons becomes a pastor who ends up spiritually abusing his congregation by monitoring and controlling all aspects of their lives. A member of his congregation, who is his henchman that is in charge of surveillance over other members, later murders a woman because he considers her to be ungodly and immoral. The other two children somehow manage to find healthy coping mechanisms, and it is reductively assumed that it is because they came from a stable two-parent family. 

Now multiply this example of dysfunctional families by millions of households throughout society, and it becomes clear that it cannot be that only deviant strangers are responsible for gender-based violence.

Fourth, it is not only a minority of “bad” males or strangers who are perpetrators of gender-based violence, but rather millions of children, women and men who practise violence against others in varying degrees. Usually, when interventions are made to protect females from harm, the assumption is that females are merely passive victims of bad males, who are always the perpetrators. 

Philosopher David Benatar, in his book The Second Sexism, writes about the sex-based discrimination suffered by boys and men because of their gender. He contrasts this with what he calls the first sexism that targets girls and women specifically. He argues that partisan feminists who advocate against the discrimination and abuse of females usually offer various defences for excluding males in their advocacy. 

He says that one of the reasons partisan feminists give for their focus, is the costs of dominance argument — that males suffer discrimination and harm as a side-effect or by-product of their patriarchal dominance due to being the privileged sex.  

Many abused boy children and adult males face vulnerability and victimisation in isolation due to the prevalence of the costs of dominance argument. At the same time, even when there is recognition of their vulnerability, especially when considering that males are the overwhelming majority of victims of violence and murder, there is fear that attending to them will foreground them at the expense of females. 

The danger of not factoring in the excluded middle, is we think that we can put the wellbeing of males on pause while we tackle the harms caused by male domination. Conversely, if we downplay the structural and interpersonal damage done by males who subscribe to both benevolent and malevolent patriarchy, we risk upholding a culture of misogyny. 

Accommodating both these views allows for three outcomes — intolerance towards any form of abuse; empathy, compassion and support for victims, male or female; and accountability from perpetrators, male or female. Where someone is both a victim and perpetrator, both states have to be addressed. 

Because of the unfair burden that many women bear with respect to the care of their children, partners and extended families, the fallacy has taken root that they are naturally nurturing and caring and thus are unlikely to harm others. 

In recent times, there has been an organised backlash from men’s rights groups to expose female malevolence. Some resort to misogynistic rage to do so, which results in their protests falling on deaf ears. 

I do not have a suggestion for how gender-based violence can be successfully addressed. There are too many dynamics at play that, as I claim, have largely been misdiagnosed. But I do not think that the answer lies in a call to revert to traditional masculinity and femininity. This is because the inadequacy of this biological paradigm of gender roles is the very reason why we have both females and males rebelling against it. It no longer works.

Neither does the radical feminist view that males have to abandon masculinity, and instead gravitate towards a more feminine ethics of care. This view pathologises masculinity and manhood while romanticising femininity and womanhood. It appears to me that we have to surmount this dichotomy of masculinity-femininity. 

More, in his book Biko: Philosophy, Identity and Liberation (2017), offers a plausible path to transcending this binary when he argues that: “Any collective order established by human beings can be transcended towards other orders, and any systemic limits placed on the individual can be crossed; … the system of values current in society reflects the structure of that society, and tends to preserve it; … [but it can] always be transcended towards other systems, which are not yet clearly perceived since the society of which they are the expression does not yet exist”. 

But the first step requires that we incorporate the excluded middle in our diagnosis of the causes of gender-based violence.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.