A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence

[Content note: domestic violence and abuse]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about how journalists and pundits can do a better job of covering stories about domestic violence.

Until I read Michael Powell’s recent New York Times column about suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, I had no idea that domestic violence could possibly be delivered in a “professional” manner. Powell cleared that up:

Say this for Ray Rice: His left cross was of professional quality, a short, explosive punch. And his fiancée’s head snapped back as if she’d been shot.

You watch that video and you get the national freakout.

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade had some unsolicited advice for Janay Rice: “The message is, take the stairs.” (He has sinceapologized.)

Domestic violence is a difficult subject to talk about sensitively. Humor, blame, unsolicited advice, speculation—these are all ways in which people try to ease the discomfort of confronting such a serious thing head-on. But they don’t necessarily lead to a productive or respectful discussion.

In honor of Michael Powell, Brian Kilmeade, and every other journalist and pundit who can’t seem to cover this issue appropriately, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you write about or discuss domestic violence.

1) Extend the benefit of the doubt to the survivor.

When someone is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are always asked by that person’s fans and defenders to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” Generally, this means, “Assume the survivor is lying or very confused” or “Assume the accused had a good reason to do what they did.”

How about giving the benefit of the doubt to the survivor?

Believe the survivor. Assume they are telling the truth unless there’s actually good evidence that they aren’t, because the vast majority of these types of accusations are not false. Assume that they are speaking out because they want safety and justice, not just because they want to “ruin” their abuser’s life or career.

Assume the survivor stayed with their abuser for as long as they did because abusers deliberately make it difficult or even impossible to leave, not because the survivor is somehow weak, stupid, or incompetent.

Assume the survivor was quite aware of the danger that they (and possibly their children) were in and doesn’t need to be patronizingly informed that staying with an abuser can be dangerous. So can trying to leave.

Assume the survivor is the best authority on their own experience.

2) Avoid speculation.

Whenever there’s a high-profile domestic abuse case, journalists and commenters alike love to speculate. Why did the abuser abuse? Why didn’t the survivor leave? What happened to either of them in their childhood that could’ve led to this? Why didn’t the survivor’s family help? Why would the survivor have been attracted to their abuser in the first place?

This amateur psychoanalysis is not useful. At best, it’s a distraction from the important questions: How do we help the survivor? How do we make sure this never happens again? At worst, it spreads misinformation and stereotypes. People especially enjoy speculating about what the survivor might have done to “provoke” the abuse. Did they cheat? Dress “inappropriately?” Say something mean?

Abuse cannot be “provoked.” Abusers know what they’re doing, and they do it intentionally. They may wait for something to happen that they can then attribute the abuse to, but that’s not the same as being “provoked.”

Read the rest here.

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A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence
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3 thoughts on “A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence

  1. 1

    I don’t think Michael Powell was using the term “professional” to describe the punch in a laudatory way. I think he was trying to convey how coldly and brutally Ray Rice was trying to injure his (then) girlfriend. Considering how prior to the release of the elevator tape, many people were trying to justify his actions as “self defense”, calling it “professional” was his way of dismissing that argument.

  2. 2

    @drken: I think the point here was that he was making a joke about a seriously painful subject and he half assed it, causing the joke to fall flat and be painful rather than cathartic.
    The comedian Curtis Luciani had a great explanation in response to Daniel Tosh’s rape joke fiasco:

    http://austin.culturemap.com/news/city-life/07-12-12-14-37-the-best-response-weve-heard-to-daniel-toshs-misquoted-rape-jokes/

    and a similar sentiment was echoed by Dennis Leary commenting on Michael Richards’ n-word rant (I read about it in an Maxim article, and I have no link). Short version: Yes, you can make jokes about anything, and it’s important that no topic ever be considered off-limits or taboo. So it’s okay for a white guy to say the n-word or for a man to make jokes about women getting raped…
    …but…
    …But the thing is, if you’re dealing with a subject that is genuinely painful and horrible for a good percentage of the human population, you need to be sensitive, you need to brilliant, and if you screw it up, you have no one to blame but yourself. Just as you have every right (freeze peach!) to say whatever you want, your audience has every right to not find you funny. And if you find yourself on stage amidst a sea of silent hostility, you can’t demand laughter on the grounds that “You just don’t understand my comedic genius!”
    This (I think) is the problem that Miri is pointing out: We’re dealing with a seriously ugly and painful situation that’s going to strike a nerve with A LOT of people, and these two chuckle-heads quoted above not only had the audacity to make jokes about it, but the jokes were half-assed and lazy (and in the case of Kilmeade, it could actually be mistaken for serious advice).
    If Micheal Powell had written his column as a straight-faced assessment of Ray Rice’s prospects as an MMA fighter (maybe noting-as a punch line-that his “elevator match” could get him barred from the UFC for participating in an unsanctioned boute) or if Brian Kilmeade had framed his “take the stairs” advice as a send up of those “rape prevention tips” articles except that it was aimed at protecting abusers from being “victimized” by police, well you could at least say they were trying. Even if the joke failed (not everybody can do the Jonathan Swift thing) it would be possible to look at the attempt and say “Okay, I see what you were trying for there,” and it would make their later excuses (“It was just a joke!”) that much more plausible.
    But they didn’t.
    They just tossed out casual jokes about a man knocking his future wife out cold in an elevator, and acted surprised when people got honked off. Fuck that shit. You don’t get to go tap dancing into a minefield then act surprised when things start blowing up around you.

  3. 3

    Problem easily solved: Do not put the victim in a shelter. Put all abusers in a shelter instead. Educate them. Rehabilitate them. And put the blame where it should always be: on the perpatrator. He should be the one to move. And instead of asking the victim: why do you stay. Ask the abuser: why do YOU stay? Why do YOU abuse your woman. Problem solved. Or at least begun to be solved. Let’s do it!

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