By Jackson Katz, Ph.D.
The Huffington Post
September 12, 2014
The video that TMZ leaked of Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in a casino elevator couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous moment. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which means that every year around this time women’s shelters and advocacy organizations expend a great deal of energy and not a small amount of their limited funds organizing events designed to call attention to the ongoing tragedy of men’s violence in families and relationships.
That “closed circuit” video has done more to raise awareness about domestic violence than untold numbers of public service announcements and billboard ads.
But the awareness it raised goes well beyond conventional pleas for understanding the plight of victims. Due to the powerful combination of Rice’s fame and status as a Super Bowl-winning, Pro Bowl football player, along with social media’s ability to transmit video, the entire country has been exposed to the stark realities of domestic violence in one of the most convincing ways possible: right in front of its eyes. Survivors of this type of violence — both its immediate targets and its “secondary” victims, such as children — don’t need a video to validate that what they experience is real.
But for millions of people who don’t know much about the issue, and only tune in when a high-profile case dominates the 24/7 news cycle for a few days, the Rice incident and its fall-out provide a powerful case study of what the cultural theorist Henry Giroux calls “public pedagogy.” It’s an opportunity for the general public to learn more about an important issue that even after all these years of tireless advocacy and consciousness-raising by the battered women’s movement and its allies remains shrouded in denial and misinformation.
Still, many of us in the gender violence prevention field know full well that trying to turn controversial public events into “teachable moments” can be an uphill fight. We know a lot about the causes of domestic and sexual violence — and we know a fair amount about how to prevent them. But in-depth discussion and analysis is typically not considered “good for TV ratings,” especially when it’s competing with cable television’s preferred script, which consists of staged debates between charismatic former prosecutors and defense attorneys arguing over the legal minutia of celebrity cases.
This one may turn out differently for the simple reason that the video of Rice punching his future wife in the face makes it difficult, if not impossible, for commentators to minimize his behavior or shroud it in euphemism. In the past, televised discussions about domestic violence often parroted the kind of trivializing language counselors who work with men who batter have heard for decades in their court-mandated programs: “It was just a domestic dispute,” or “They just had a little scuffle.”
Men who abuse women often use the passive voice to describe what led to their arrest: “She got herself beat up that night,” or “A fight broke out.” Media commentators play a similarly obfuscating role when they say things like “We don’t know the whole story,” or when teammates and team officials respond to domestic violence allegations against one of their own by saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with the couple at this difficult time.”
Their sentiments might be sincere, but they play a crucial role in shifting accountability away from the alleged perpetrator and onto either the victim, or the couple as a whole. There is a term for this in the domestic violence lexicon. It’s called “colluding with the batterer.”
Unlike previous high-profile cases, the existence of the elevator video has significantly diminished that kind of collusion by the media and by Rice’s peers.
In fact, one of the most notable developments in the Ray Rice case is the astounding number of men in the media and in public life who have stepped forward to strongly criticize Rice on the air and applaud the National Football League’s (NFL) decision to indefinitely suspend him. Among those men are many current and former professional athletes, whose vocal leadership on this incident represents a major shift from similar cases in the past.
The most promising aspect of this sad saga is that the presence of the video has contributed to a transformation already underway in the public’s understanding of gender-based violence.
The old way to approach the subject was to focus on the women and ask questions like: Why are they attracted to men who mistreat them? Why do they stay? For sure, these sorts of questions retain their allure: Janay Rice is under intense critical scrutiny for her tweets and declarations of love for the man who knocked her unconscious.
But the new paradigm for understanding domestic and sexual violence entails turning the spotlight around, onto men. These abuses are no longer something that happens to women. Rather, they are increasingly seen as something that is done to women by men. In the case of Ray Rice, (nearly) everyone is talking about him — what he did, why he did it, what it will mean for his career. The idea is not to negate Janay Rice’s experience; far from it. She is the actual victim in this case. But Ray Rice’s fateful act of violence, caught on video, says much more about him than it does about her.
And to the extent that the national conversation remains focused on all that’s happened as a result of his actions, as well as a consequence of how the NFL’s leadership mishandled the situation, it will say something hopeful about us.
It will say that our troubled society is finally beginning to place the responsibility for our tragic level of interpersonal violence not on its victims, but on those with power who abuse and misuse it.
Letter from Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women.
Dear Men and Boys of the World,
You may be aware that there are almost 3.6 billion women and girls in the world. They are your sisters, mothers, wives, partners, daughters, nieces, aunts, cousins and friends. They have hopes and beautiful dreams for themselves, their families, communities and the world. If many of their dreams were to come true, the world would be a much better place for all of humanity.
Today I am writing this letter to you, because there are more than 60 million girls worldwide who are denied access to education. One in three women in the world is a victim of physical or sexual violence, the most humiliating and dehumanizing form of discrimination. Most of this violence happens at the hand of a partner or relative within her own home. Today two-thirds of the global illiterate population is women. If trends continue in this way, poor girls in Sub-Saharan Africa will not reach universal access to primary education until 2086.
So gentlemen, can we talk? I know many of you desire a better world for women and girls, a few of you are actively working on bringing about positive changes. We now have rising evidence that everyone, not just women, benefits from gender equality. Did you know that if women farmers had the same tools and fertilizer as men in agriculture, we would reduce hunger by up to 150 million people? Fortune 500 companies with the most women managers were found to deliver a 34 per cent higher return to shareholders. Discriminating against women comes at a cost to humanity and nations and denies women and girls their inalienable rights.
Yes, women are strong, bold, and brave, but men and boys also have a big role to play in ending gender inequality. It is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. Take action and influence change in society. We need your action and your voices to be louder.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, I issue a call to men and boys and invite you to take action wherever you are and support the SHE Imperative. Make sure SHE is secured and Safe from gender-based violence. That SHE has her Human rights respected, including her re-productive rights. That She has Economic Empowerment through Education, participation and leadership.
This sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet if we applied this imperative, the world would be a very different and far better place. SHE would enjoy equal opportunity, access to education and no longer be the face of poverty, and her gender will not decide her status and place in society.
When we fought against apartheid, which the United Nations declared a crime against humanity, the whole world took a stand. All self-respecting people—leaders of nations, religious institutions, commerce and sports—crossed the line to be on the right side of history.
The unity and purpose of the people of the world played a major role in ushering in freedom for South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela, in whose cabinet I had the honour to serve. In Mandela, a force for good was unleashed, not just for South Africa but for all of humanity. He inspired those of us who worked with him, and countless millions around the world, to stand up for a just cause. He also emphasized that “For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women.” Now is your time to stand up for a just cause.
Men and women of the 21st century can make their mark by crossing the line united, and joining the women as a powerful force for gender equality. I invite you to join me and the women and men of the world who have led many long struggles for the gender equality.
In Africa, we have a saying that I want to leave with you: ‘If you go alone you go fast, but if we go together, we go far’. Let us go far together.