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Reporting on domestic violence; why the blame game isn’t going to provide any answers

April 2, 2014

*Throughout this passage I will be using the term “victim”. It is not a term I particularly like, as it reduces people down to one event in their life, but it is the term that serves as most convenient for the purposes of this article.*

It’s difficult to know how to start this piece without automatically sounding like a jerk. I’ve covered victim blaming before and how widespread it is, but I’ve noticed that coverage about perpetrators is not much different.

There, see, you’re probably already annoyed. “Of course you should blame the perpetrator! It’s the perpetrator, the person who is, by definition, to blame for the whole thing!”

Well… Yes and no.

In a world that still obsesses over good and evil, it is convenient to think of things purely in terms of victims and aggressors. It’s harder for victims when they are reduced in this way, but it also diminishes our understanding of the issues. I won’t go on here about the cycle of abuse. There is too much good literature already in existence about it. I think the point that is more commonly overlooked is that domestic violence is ordinary, what I’d call an “ordinary evil”. It exists everywhere and in any direction you turn. It doesn’t always wreck lives and lead to deaths. It is a widespread social problem of extreme importance that is not helped an iota by being discussed in the same terms by the same people whose understanding of it stretches as far as: “Well, that’s just not cricket.”

First of all, instances of domestic violence (note: as distinct from “domestic abuse”) are often aggravated. That is not to say they are deserved – the two are very different. When I say “aggravated”, I mean that something happened between the two (or more) people – an argument or an event that sparked a violent reaction, often spur of the moment and a first incident. “Deserved”, on the other hand, suggests that if you caused that argument, you got what you asked for. It is a judgement call rather than an observation.

Though there are some who do not agree, I believe that no one deserves to be harmed physically, that even as a punitive or preventative measure it lowers us as a species and that violence begets violence. If that were our collective world view, we would not confuse aggravation with deservedness. We would be able to view the facts, including the facts of someone’s general nature and intent, without needing to whip out or pre-packaged moral code and read from its list of commandments. We would not need to identify someone as as “good” (and thus, a “victim”) in order to claim that violence against them was wrong. Our insistence on good, evil, victims, perpetrators, just deserts and undeservedness or all things black and white only serves to cloud the issue, causing us to evaluate a person based on our insignificant snapshot impression of their life and personality, rather than report objectively the facts of any given case.

As a result, our understanding lessens. In our minds, these aggressors attack without motivation, without mercy and without repentance. In our minds, they lack the redeeming characteristics that make them human. They are our convenient symbols of absolute morality and immorality. It isn’t enough that we have deceased, megalomaniac serial killers to set the bar; we trivialise them and instead demonise the people who are closer to us in their expression and mode of living. Perhaps their similarity makes us uncomfortable for us to observe, whereas those already distanced from us culturally and ideologically are easy to safely dismiss. Those who no longer pose a threat are open season for mockery, because their atrocities are nothing more to us than the fabric of history.

When reporters write news items, they add what’s known as “colour.” Colour is detail to the story that brings it off the page. You could say that reporting and entertaining with “colour” but without being lurid and salacious is a fine art (I don’t think I would be so charitable, but you could claim it). Stories of domestic disputes are the ones that are always done badly; either the focus is on aspects of the victim that out to be considered irrelevant such as clothes or physical characteristics, the details of what occurred during the dispute is curiously missing. If the case goes to court, all these details must come out.

I’m not aware there’s any legislation about printing these details. I can only imagine that the reason they are not printed is because arbitrarily, reporters decide that this would look too much like victim blaming (whereas describing the clothes of a rape victim apparently doesn’t), or at the very least, it might take the bit out of their story to indicate that anything less dramatic than a soap opera occurred. The stripped news coverage of domestic disputes suggests that the aggressor stormed in, punched the victim in the face and stormed out again. Arguments, if covered at all, are only touched upon and will be in the vein of “because he believed she was having an affair,” or, even “she was possibly having an affair”. Once again, this enough seems like victim blaming. Would printing what she said, or what he said, really make that reporting less judgemental?

I consider it in the public interest to print these details. Domestic abuse is one of the most complex, least understood crimes. Its frequency, its manifestations, its typical victims and perpetrators are not known by the public, who are then more at risk of becoming victims themselves. You cannot be expected to know, without education, what domestic abuse looks like. It does not always start with soap opera-esque drama and it when it does, it is all too easy for a perpetrators and victims alike who are mutually in love (as much as one believes that they can be, under the circumstances) to wave the event away as a one-off, trivial, an accident, or an understandable reaction.

When it comes to other people’s relationships, only they can fully understand the situation. It may take years of perspective and they may not agree with each other over the nature of their relationship, but the law is not able to determine the difference between a domestically abusive relationship and a violent act. Thus, it concentrates on the latter, which is both provable and tangible. As a result, so do the press, and so do the public. That violent act, should it not go to court, may well be meaningless to the people involved if nothing of the sort ever happens again and they live on peaceably for anther 20 years.

Or, that one act, or complete absence of violence, could be a sign on-going abusive relationship. I have mocked soap operas, but in actuality, soap operas have not done such a bad job at portraying its subtleties. I stopped watching some time ago, but I remember a storyline in Eastenders once where the perpetrator was so pathetic that it never felt as though he had real power over his ex-partner, herself a much more forceful character than him. All he had was proximity and opportunity. Coronation Street went one better and showed a domestically abusive relationship that was not violent at all, but the aggressor was so intimidating and controlling that he drove his partner to terrifying extremes of self abuse just to please him. Soap operas, due to their vivid nature, also have the foresight to offer their viewers a helpline if they are affected by issues.

The reason that you give these details and give a voice to both the accused and the accuser is to paint this picture of the dark side of relationships. We don’t teach younger people enough about relationships. Learning all the good from Disney will not help when you discover that relationships have a dark side, and that dark side is obsession and possessiveness. A bad relationship needn’t be branded as “abusive” versus “not abusive” if we can recognise that the whole experience of it, and the spectrum of occurrences within it, are valid parts of human relationships.

It isn’t only victims that are seriously misled by our limited portrayal of relationships. It is common, partially because of laws and partially because of social stigma, for perpetrators to baldly refuse to entertain so much as the notion that they may have behaved inappropriately. If a perpetrators’ words and thoughts were in print, the more self-aware person might recognise that the patterns of thought and behaviour match their own. As it is, accusations of abuse become a fight for one person’s reputation over another’s, with no recognition that “reputation” is a sideshow, a concept that relies entirely on the behaviour of the media, not the perpetrator.

Simply telling people: “Domestic abuse is bad and it is against the law,” is so unhelpful, eight-year-olds would laugh you down for it. Yet as adults, we internalise this message unquestioningly every day. Instead, the question: “What is domestic abuse?” is brushed off as a kid’s question, when actually it is a very good one. It takes some people years of personal experience to get a handle on the definition of it, so the best option to to allow those people who think they do know to describe their experiences, not merely within the confides of “He Hit Me And Now I Am Sad” campaigns, but everywhere – in the news, in the soaps and dramas, on reality TV.

Fuck it: on The X Factor. Why not.


From → Gender Politics

One Comment
  1. I think you made a really articulate point about Domestic Violence, that it is usually a two way street, and that the underlying dynamics of the two personalities can make for a rather stormy set of circumstances, where it would be hard to determine who was the aggressor. At least, this is what i thought you were saying.

    Anyway. It was true in my own fucked up relationship with my ex-husband… like a chicken and the egg mantra i did because she did because he did because she did…..on and on into eternity.

    However, I do believe this kind of toxic relationship rests on the inability for either party to take responsibility for their own actions.


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