The house I live in sits about three blocks up Chester Park Drive from the one where Ryan Jazdzewski stabbed the life out of his wife, Nicole, as at least one of their daughters watched, a bit after 8:00 on the evening of Sunday, June 2. While he was doing that, then when he stopped because the daughter asked him not to kill her mom, and while he called his own mom to say, “Mom, I think I just killed my wife,” while an across-the-alley neighbor called 911 after encountering the blood-covered seven-year-old behind their houses, as cops showed up and the girl ran back to her dad and asked cops not to kill him, while officers entered the house to find Nicole dying on the kitchen floor, and while Nicole was pronounced dead at St. Luke’s, my wife, Shannon, and I were watching TV. We live at 1126. They lived at 818.
From our couch, looking northwest through living-room windows to the right of our TV, Shannon and I can see into a neighbor’s front yard and up a 40-meter stretch of Chester Park Drive two houses before it dead-ends. Chester Bowl hiking and mountain biking trails begin just past a barrier of big rocks. Every now and then that Sunday night, a cyclist or two chugged up or flowed down the hill, or a dog with a couple humans strolled by. Fading sunlight was beginning to glow golden in cedars on the edge of the neighbor’s front yard, where two or three rambunctious grey squirrels and a couple tiny rabbits bounced around looking for snacks. A frenetic chipmunk zoomed by every so often. The pleasant, almost-too-chilly breeze coming through the windows could have been from late September instead of early June. We had a small fire going. The combination of cool, fresh air and a warm woodstove felt nice. I might have been sipping a Glendalough Irish whiskey, neat. All seemed lovely and serene on our part of the street.
The breeze would have been gently rustling golden leaves and branches a few blocks down, too. Every yard along Chester Park Drive, from Ninth Street up to the dead end, is full of big oaks, maples, or evergreens. Those trees sustain all kinds of birds and critters. Since last fall we’ve been hearing an owl that always sounds very close to our house. We saw it for the first time a few weeks ago. During an evening perambulation with our dogs we heard muffled hoots. While trying in vain to locate the sounds’ source we encountered a neighbor guy and his five-year-old boy, both accustomed to people with craned necks wandering past their back yard in the alley just off West Kent Road, who kindly pointed out the great horned creature on a white pine branch 40 or 50 feet off the ground. The six of us stood there, close to where Kent meets Chester Park and Skyline drives, looked at the giant bird looking at us from its perch, chatted quietly for a couple minutes, then moseyed our separate ways.
Most of the way up Chester Park Drive from Ninth, the Chester Creek ravine sits close enough (just across the street, to the south) to feel almost like an extra, expansive front yard. Where we live, the street gains altitude and curves away from Skyline, creating a gorgeous vantage of the ravine and beyond. From our house we can hear the waterfall that’s just below Chester Bowl’s Skyline entrance; in spring and autumn, before and after leaves fill branches, we can see it. Looking south from where the drive ends provides an expansive view in all seasons at all times of day: Skyline Drive’s elegant curve around the ravine, past the park entrance, and on west toward where it meets Kenwood Avenue; the waterfall; the dense canopy of branches and leaves arising from trees on both steep sides of the creek’s ravine; a tiny patch of Lake Superior; the Aerial Lift Bridge; some of Minnesota Point; Duluth-Superior Harbor; St. Louis Bay; Superior industrial sites that from so far away look like hazy footage from a vintage film documentary about iron ore mining and transport history; at night a few hundred thousand twinkling lights; during the day a few million treetops south of Superior as far as it’s possible to see. If it’s clear on the Fourth of July, the dead end vantage affords a view of both Duluth’s and Superior’s fireworks. On densely foggy days only misty grey abyss seems to exist.
We feel lucky every day to live where we do. It’s an unusually pleasant neighborhood. Idyllic in some ways. And it’s exactly the type of neighborhood where men kill women who say they want divorces. Where men cover the mouths and noses of women who won’t just shut up. Where men who believe in punishing noncompliant women use whatever levels and forms of force are necessary to get what they believe they are entitled to. Where women negotiate and survive men’s force in ways so subtle most people, including some of those women and almost all men, have no idea it’s even happening. Where most people choose to see a man killing a woman as an aberration that proves how good most women actually have it in relationships with men.
Does it strike you as absurd that one sign of an ostensibly good relationship between a woman and a man is that he supposedly doesn’t use violence against her? Think about that for as long as you can stand to. The basic possibility of a boy or man using violence against a girl or woman in a relationship is such a definitive aspect of our lived experiences that not only are we pretty much always conscious of it, but we require girls and women to account for it in every aspect of their existence. We also assume a certain amount of it is simply just going to occur. And we praise boys and men who seem to choose against it.
Nothing about our constant conscience of that possibility comes from boys and men being “naturally violent” or inherently problematic. Jordan Peterson and men’s rights activists will try to convince you that feminists and their accomplices believe violence is natural and inherent in boys and men. No feminist I know, even the radical, legitimately angry ones, believes any such thing. Most of them agree that the possibility of boys and men using violence against girls and women is omnipresent because we all, whether we realize it or not, abide social norms that allow boys and men to punish girls and women for failing to put boys and men first. The first time someone told those things I responded indignantly. It all felt dismissive of me and other “good men.” I probably called it something like “reverse sexism,” whatever that is. My perspective has changed quite a bit since then.
Ryan Jazdzewski’s violence against Nicole is not an aberration. While it’s true that most men don’t directly kill women, it’s also true — and a lot of you are going to disagree with this for reasons ranging from radical misogyny to radical feminism — that men killing women they’re in relationships with is a natural consequence of cultural norms that protect men’s unearned primacy at the expense of women’s basic health and safety.
Men who kill, beat, smother, slap, push, restrain, intimidate, isolate, shame, coerce, manipulate, dismiss, infantilize, and otherwise use violence against women are acting within, not against, dominant social norms. Most of us — most men — don’t (have to) use overt violence to keep women in line. Cultural norms that privilege men at the expense of women do much of the work for us. Most of us use subtle versions of control, and collude with peers who use all forms, more often than we realize. Every goddamn one of us benefits from how normal it is for pretty much everyone to take boys and men more seriously than we take girls and women: to protect boys and men at the cost of girls and women; to require far less of “good” boys and men than we require of “good” girls and women; to express far more contempt for femininity than for masculinity. All that stuff is part of the air we breathe. It’s so normal that it’s easy for a lot of us to live according to its dictates while never noticing it exists.
It’s also normal for us to discuss “domestic violence” in ways that ignore its prevalence among all kinds of human beings in all kinds and combinations of relationships. I use binary heteronormative terms and examples because my personal experiences and the non-violence work I do are based in cis-binary and heterosexual relationships. A lot more needs to be acknowledged, written, and discussed, among people protected by dominant norms, about violence used and survived by people whose lives and relationships transcend the cis-binary-hetero norm. I have a lot to learn from and about folks whose lives and experiences I’ll never live, and who know a lot more about me than I know in return. If you’re patient with this piece’s limited perspective I appreciate that. If you’re impatient I appreciate that, too. A lot of people have good reasons to feel impatient with wordy, well-intentioned apologies for more of the same from people like me.
I’ve stayed in apartments and houses in a lot of nice and shabby Duluth neighborhoods since August 1989: 219B Oakland Apartments; 8C Village Apartments; 724 North Eighteenth Avenue East; 1516 East Fourth Street; 607 East Ninth Street; 1110 East Sixth Street; 522 East Seventh Street; 625 North Seventeenth Avenue East; 707 East Thirteenth Street; 1803 East Fifth Street; 1934 West Kent; 1126 Chester Park Drive. All those UMD campus and Central Hillside addresses are in exactly the types of neighborhoods where men abuse and kill women. So are the ones west and east of where I’ve lived in Duluth. Same with the ones I lived in for a few months at a time in a gritty part of St. Paul and shiny parts of Minneapolis. So were the white, middle-class neighborhoods where I grew up in Grand Rapids, MN, Huntington, IN, and Rochester, MN.
They’re all exactly that type of neighborhood. So are yours. So is every other one. Like I’ve said, there was a time when I resented someone saying the same thing to me. I’ve learned a lot, about myself and fellow human beings, since then. I’ve learned I was wrong about a lot of things I thought I knew about which men use violence against which women and why.
Whether or not you choose to acknowledge or believe it, men you know are using violence in all types of neighborhoods against women you know. Women you know are surviving violence used by men you know. That violence takes more forms than you might wish or know how to perceive until you listen carefully to experiences of women who have survived and are surviving it. I may stop believing some of those things some day, but if I do it will require pretending I don’t know them.
Ryan Jazdzewski stabbing Nicole Jazdzewski to death in their kitchen has been messing me up for reasons that include and transcend the event’s proximity to where I live. Like every other incidence of a man using violence to punish a woman, Ryan’s violence against Nicole is simultaneously banal and mind-bendingly horrific. Everything about what he did to her and how some folks have responded to it adds serious weight to the crushing sorrow and rage I’ve accumulated and struggled to do something productive with during more than a decade of working to understand and end men’s violence against women. Presence in that work has helped me build knowledge and perspective a lot of people don’t have. That’s where everything I’m trying to express in this essay comes from. I pay more attention to men’s violence against women than most people, and especially most men, do. I am not an unusually good or smart human being. That’s not what led me to the work. It’s just that for reasons other than virtue or intelligence — for reasons including a guilty conscience, deep regret, a desire to make amends, and slowly growing consciousness of how to be a mindful social-change accomplice — I am impelled toward knowing and seeing difficult things a lot of people choose to ignore.
I know and see that even though it’s fairly obvious all types of men abuse and kill all types of women in all types of neighborhoods, a lot of people choose to protect themselves by believing they and their neighborhoods are exceptions. Among my peers — mostly white, cis, straight, highly educated, NPR-listening, Democratic-voting, virtuous-liberalism-espousing, craft-beer-drinking, ecumenical-spirituality-claiming, social-justice-article-posting Duluth residents who are very into being super-Duluthy — those exceptions usually take the form of believing the problem exists somewhere other than within and amid us. We’re not the only folks whose self-congratulating stories focus on the belief that we’re above the problem. Everyone tailors those self-congratulatory stories to fit our specific cultures and sub-cultures. Folks from every culture tell stories that protect men who use violence, further isolate and endanger women already trying to survive men’s violence, and protect most of us from seeing where and how we’re unquestionably complicit.
I spent almost 10 years working with men arrested for using violence against women — having long, deep conversations with them about the intentions and beliefs that support emotional and physical violence as justifiable choices. I seek opportunities to learn from women who have survived and are surviving men’s violence, and from women who work as advocates in shelters and other programs for survivors. I pay close attention to how what I learn in those situations relates to examples of force I experience directly and indirectly in my own life. And through that ongoing process I have come to many troubling realizations about myself and the cultures I inhabit. I’ve learned a lot about white people, men, straight people, cis people, people who have decent physical and mental health, people who work at colleges and universities, bicyclists and other athletes, people who have stable jobs and places to live, music nerds, and people of many other privileged characteristics I share. Not long into my consciousness-raising process I came to believe that violence, including men’s violence against women, is a fundamental force in maintaining the hierarchies that define or permeate every social, cultural, and professional culture I’m part of. The details of my beliefs are constantly shifting, but the general belief has remained steady. The existence of every culture I inhabit depends on punishing anyone who resists its hierarchical order. That punishment rarely fits the narrow definition of violence I subscribed to up until about 15 years ago. I used to define “real violence” as almost exclusively physical and super-overt. I now define it as any person using force to impose their will upon a fellow human being. Every cultural hierarchy I’m part of has its own codes for when, why, and how it’s acceptable, even necessary, to use force against people who step out of line. I’m not opposed to all uses of violence. I very much oppose every use of force in which the will of people in dominant positions is used to punish people in subordinate positions for failing to comply, defer, or submit. A lot of folks in dominant positions see and portray themselves as victims. They aren’t, but they can almost always deceive even very sharp people into believing they are. I promise you have been deceived that way.
Experience tells me that everything I’ve said so far in this piece helps explain why some men kill women. That might make sense to a few of you. It probably feels like some sort of faux-philosophical Yoda-type cipher to many of you. I’m not trying to create the illusion of wise insight by being inscrutable. I’m not nearly that clever. I’m also not trying to make excuses for well-intentioned but clumsy writing. I know what I’m talking about, but I’m aware of my intellectual limitations, and I know that everything I’m trying to help you expand your perspective about gets unbearably complicated. There are literally zero easy or clear answers. I think that’s why a lot of people lose interest in the topic or choose to adopt “answers” (anger, alcohol and drugs, unresolved trauma, mental illness, poverty and other stress, and a few others) so oversimplistic they just make the problem worse because they completely miss the point in a way that enables men who use violence.
From here until the end I’ll try to speak more directly and clearly. That doesn’t mean you’ll start agreeing with me if you haven’t so far. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll actually achieve directness and clarity or you’ll understand what I’m saying. A lot of what I believe now has taken me years to grasp, and I’m still figuring out how to convey it understandably.
Here’s the thing: most people don’t consciously want boys and men to use violence against girls and women. As far as most of us know, we’re actively against boys and men doing those things. But they — we boys and men — still do. Way more boys and men than most of us realize or want to admit use physical and emotional violence to punish girls and women.
My explanations for why those things happen are different from what they would have been ten or 15 years ago. They’re still evolving. The sense I make of my experiences — as a straight, white, cis, Christian-raised, Midwestern, football-playing, educated, anxious and depressed, physically healthy, financially comfortable, insatiably curious, etc. boy and man who’s spent a lot of time trying to learn from fellow human beings who live with more damage and vulnerability than I do — is still evolving.
I don’t claim to have empirical evidence that “proves” why some men kill and hurt women. To be honest I distrust almost all quantitative and qualitative academic research that purports to illuminate any aspect of the problem. Some of my distrust almost certainly stems from my own intellectual deficiencies and super-strong (if not officially diagnosed) oppositional-defiant disorder. Some of it stems from knowing how unintentionally deceptive the conception, implementation, and conclusions of that research can be. I have a thoughtful, tangled, informed perspective on the matter. My beliefs are distinct, credible, and hard-earned. Here, as clearly and as directly as I can manage, are some of them.
Why do some men kill women?
Because every one of us is still taught to take boys and men more seriously than girls and women, and most of us do.
Because most of us just generally care less about girls and women than about boys and men, and it shows everywhere, all the time.
(By the way: the most badass feminists I know have helped me see all these things without trying to convince me of them. They have helped me name concepts that fit with every experience I’ve had as a boy and man around girls and women from elementary school until right now. I have also been told, in conversations with other women who refer to themselves as feminists, that they resent a supposedly allied man telling them that women are less important than men. I used to try to explain myself in those situations. Now I just say something like, “For a lot of reasons, we may see some of these things differently,” and leave it be.)
Because few people really care enough to do what would be required to end men’s violence against women. The general response to even prominent examples of it is superficial outrage followed by indifference, especially when responding in a way that matters is guaranteed to be scary, annoying, complicated, unsettling, destabilizing, ambiguous, or otherwise just really, really difficult. We do that a lot. We claim to want change as long as it requires nothing difficult of us. Listen: if you’re a man and you want to help create a world that’s safer for women, it’s not enough to participate in “empowering women” (whatever that means). You will have to give some things up. Please don’t trust any idea about creating more safety for girls and women that leaves things exactly as they are for boys and men. A world that’s safer for girls and women will almost certainly feel like (and be) a world that’s more difficult, complicated, and scary, in some ways, for boys and men.
Because of everything in this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s essay “Writing the Male Character,” published in a book of her non-fiction titled Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982:
“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine… “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. “Undercut their world view.” Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.
Because in conversations about this topic a lot of people will say, “Well women abuse men, too, you know,” as if they’re naming a real inequity in how domestic violence happens and is addressed. I used to say the same thing and believe it. I thought I was sticking up for men and respecting the full humanity of women. I knew a lot less then than I know now. No one who believes or says it is inherently stupid, but whether it’s said in a scholarly article or a troll’s Facebook comment, it’s a ridiculous, defensive, grasping distraction from any real conversation about men’s and women’s use of violence against each other in relationships.
Because — sort of getting back to the Atwood anecdote — most of us prioritize men’s comfort over women’s humanity and safety. Directly and indirectly, girls and women are taught there can be great danger in even unintentionally doing something a boy or man believes makes him look or feel foolish. And boys and men learn that a primary characteristic of “good” girls and women is that they subordinate themselves in order to uplift boys and men. (Girls and women learn the same thing, along with the consequences for not performing it.) We — boys and men — also learn that reprimanding girls and women who don’t uplift us is both acceptable and necessary. They — girls and women — learn that our approval defines their human value, and that if we disapprove they must have done something to deserve it. And maybe it’s something that makes us look so stupid we’ll “just lose it” and have to express our embarrassment by punishing them for their mistake. You see this happen more often than you realize in everyday social situations.
Because the people who could enforce meaningful consequences upon men for using violence against women usually — for very understandable reasons ranging from protecting personal safety to avoiding social awkwardness or ostracization — simply choose not to. The people who could do that include those men’s colleagues, department heads and other bosses, athletic-endeavor bros, beer-drinking partners, and other professional and social contacts. A lot of women have been trying to end men’s violence against women for a long time. Ask them how seriously most men (and many women who ally with men) take the issue when it’s described and analyzed by women. Men using violence against women is a problem for men to solve in true partnership with and according to guidance from women who know things about it we never will.
Because people who tell the truth about men using violence against women get punished by colleagues, peers, and “friends” who choose to ally with and protect those men.
Because we have been taught an unwisely narrow view of what constitutes men’s violence against women, which leads many of us to have no idea how men’s violence affects the women who are surviving it or the rest of the world around men who use it and women who survive it. These are three of many relevant resources:
• “20 Reasons Why She Stays: A Guide for Those Who Want to Help Battered Women,” by Susan McGee;
• No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, by Rachel Louise Snyder;
• Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview (audio and transcript) with Snyder and crisis center CEO Suzanne Dubus.
Because many “woke” men who believe toxic masculinity is a thing and claim to oppose it still can’t bring themselves to be honest about their own or their friends’ expressions of and reliance on it.
Because most of us very effectively learn intentional and unintentional lessons telling us that men are more important than women and that women’s value lies in how pleasing — how compliant, deferential, attractive, submissive, available, receptive, sympathetic, acquiescing, accommodating, obliging, reassuring, indulgent, complimentary, subordinate, generous, self-abnegating, and supportive — they are to men.
Because “feminine” is almost always coded and perceived as of less worth than “masculine.”
Some of these statements repeat the same concepts in slightly different wording. That’s OK.
Because too many of us protect ourselves, boys, and men, at the expense of girls and women, by believing inaccurate stories about which boys and men use violence, why they use it, and which girls and women they use it against.
Because a lot of us, if only for a ghost of a subconscious moment, believe she must have done something to deserve it.
Because every time a man uses violence against a woman, one of the most common responses is, “She must have really done something to piss him off. That poor guy.” And because when a woman uses violence against a man one of the most common responses is, “There must be something wrong with her. That poor guy.”
Because we accept anger more than other expressions of emotion among men, and we equate anger with violence. It’s possible to express deep anger in a way that’s not threatening or punishing. It’s possible to infuse expression of anger with love. Anger is undoubtedly a component in a lot of men’s violence against women, but it’s never a sole explanation for it. Here’s what author and violence survivor Rachel Louse Snyder said to Terry Gross on Fresh Air:
Narcissism is one of the key components of an abuser. … [Most] abusers, in fact, are not people with anger problems. Generally speaking, they are about power and control over one person or the people in their family. They’re often very gregarious. Only about a quarter of the abusers fit that stereotypical definition of someone who is, you know, generally angry. And so the narcissism plays out in the idea that they are owed something, in the idea that they are entitled to their authority, that their partners have to be subservient to them. There’s very often traditional gender dynamics in abusive relationships.
That fits my experiences. You know those guys. I promise. Many of them are very charming and quite talented at maintaining a public image that makes it difficult for anyone to believe how cruelly they treat their wives and girlfriends. Sometimes they show themselves very clearly, especially to people who know what to look for and are more invested in the truth than what feels comfortable. Sometimes they hide in plain sight until their authority or image is threatened. A handful of them I know about show up all the time in friends’ posts on my Facebook feed.
Because very few of us have the will or courage to be as vulnerable or as socially disruptive as acting against normative sexism, misogyny, and men’s primacy requires being.
Because even when it becomes obvious that an adult man has misused his position of authority to stalk or harrass or have sex with a girl or very young woman, many people who claim to abhor such behavior among powerful men will excuse the man and blame the girl or woman for putting him in a difficult position. There are still people who have trouble admitting the basic and obvious fact that in addition to all Bill Clinton’s legitimate political gifts and accomplishments, and even though Monica Lewinsky was a young adult with agency when she and President Clinton did sex stuff, he abused his position to exploit her for his own benefit. He behaved as a cad at best and abusively at worst, and a lot of people just can’t or won’t admit that. Anyone who believes she’s the only woman he’s treated abusively is telling themselves some questionable stories. He’s definitely not the only one who gets protected like that. Among the many, he might baffle me the most.
Because our fear of disrupting a boy’s or man’s life — his teaching or other professional position, his athletic career, his status in the community, his artistic expression, or whatever — generally overpowers our desire to acknowledge how giving him a pass will damage the life of the girl or woman he hurt. Have I said we’ve all been taught to value boys and men more than we value girls and women, and that most of us take boys and men more seriously than we take girls and women? If not I should have.
Because even when I use the actual names of the multiple Duluth men I know who use and have used violence against women and kids, it doesn’t matter. (And if you believe it’s possible for a man to abuse a mother and not simultaneoulsy be abusing her kids — even kids he doesn’t live with or see — please have a chat with folks who work at First Witness Child Advocacy Center and the Duluth Family Visitation Center.) Whether it’s me or another person saying the names out loud it doesn’t matter. People already know. Those guys’ names are public, and it doesn’t matter. They’ll have you believe they’re victims of unspeakable tribulations at the hands of difficult women and “misandrist” legal factions. You will be tempted to believe and help them. They will be playing you — coercing you into helping or vouching for them as part of a long-term ploy to portray themselves as solid, admirable guys who are just trying to do their best in an unfortunate situation with a crazy woman. That ploy is at least as much about making her look bad as it is about making them look good, by the way, and you’re probably helping them do that to her. Some of those guys have definitely had to deal with annoying legal formalities, which they can use to accentuate how much they’re just really struggling and trying to do the right thing. Some of them are very good at crying for effect. If a few former friends or all their kids won’t have anything to do with them anymore, that’s just evidence of how wholly their ex and the system have managed to unfairly defame them. Their social and professional repercussions have been nil. Actually — and this is something that happens a lot — being named publicly has garnered them super-vigorous support among some friends and coworkers. True depictions of their violence leads some of their friends to believe they’re the victims of smear campaigns, jealousy, or hypocritical political-correctness zealotry. Then they get supported as one might support, say, an actual survivor of violence. Donald Trump supporters share a lot of thinking and behavior with liberal, effete advocates for men who have incontrovertibly used violence against women and kids. Let me say that differently: liberals who support men who have undoubtedly used violence against women are, in some fundamental ways, behaving exactly as Trump and his supporters behave.
Because a lot of us believe what we say when we use comments like these to dismiss women who say they’re surviving or have survived a man’s violence:
“Huh. He’s always been nice to me.”
“I mean, if we’re being honest she’s the one who seems kind of difficult.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile. That’s gotta be tough to live with.”
“I think she drinks.”
“I don’t think he’d drink if she was nicer to him.”
“I’ve never seen it happen, so I don’t feel like I can judge.”
“How bad could it be? There are no marks on her face or throat.”
“Every couple fights, don’t they?”
“I’d probably be in jail if there had been witnesses for some of the lovers’ quarrels I’ve been in.”
“I’m not saying he should have done it, but I understand. If mine bruised easy I’d be in some trouble.”
“I know him. He’s just not that kind of guy.”
“He always seems so nice and chill.”
“He’s such a good, fun dad.”
“All a woman has to do is say a guy hit her and his life is ruined. The whole system is rigged against men, especially dads. Women today know they have that power, and they use it. Especially in Minnesota.”
And so on.
And so on.
And so on.
I used to say and believe and think a lot of those same things, usually in what I thought was the interest of equality but was actually just evidence of ignorance and cowardice. “Women use violence too!” can be a really effective way for liberals to avoid a bunch of difficult gender-based-violence truths about ourselves. (I chastise the liberals so often because they populate my bubble and I feel more qualified to call out their hypocrisy than hypocrisy among conservative, libertarian, or any other types of folks.)
The part of me that operates according to habits of mind I’m trying to describe feels tempted to tell you it’s OK if you say and believe any of those things in that litany above. I feel seduced by the comfort of reassuring you that believing those types of things doesn’t mean you’re ignorant, acting cowardly, or colluding with men who use violence at the expense of women they use it against. On some days I give into that temptation by telling myself being gentle with the truth is part of embodying the compassion and patience I want to see in the world. On other days I give in because I am lazy and afraid.
See how we protect ourselves and each other?
The truth is this: if you say and believe any of those things, or things like them, you really probably are — from ignorance, cowardice, indifference, or a bunch of other places — supporting men’s violence at the expense of women surviving it. You’re not alone.
If you’re like most people — if you’re how I still am more often than I prefer — there’s a lot you don’t know about men’s violence against women, and you’re probably not acting with much courage or self-sacrifice on what you do know. That doesn’t make you a “bad person.” If it does make you a bad person it means pretty much everyone you know is also one. It means you might want to engage in some deep critical inquiry about what you believe, what your intentions are, and how you act. If you do that work properly it’s arduous, painful, self-abnegating, and eternal.
I don’t mean to say we’re all rotten and selfish and the matter is hopeless. I do mean to say that every one of us has huge opportunities to more actively disrupt social norms that underly a lot of men’s violence against women. We can all do better, but not until we’re honest about what we usually do and why. Ending collusive behavior is a start. Changing the intentions and beliefs that support collusion is the answer.
I don’t want to retributively abuse men who have used violence against women or have anyone else do it. I want to help prevent them from hurting people more than they already have. If they prove they can’t or won’t stop on their own I want to help the people and systems who suspend or eliminate their access to things they value. I want them to lose access to whatever privileges are meaningful enough — professional positions, friends, guns, vehicles and drivers licenses, alcohol, hobbies such as photography, cycling, skiing, traveling, or whatever else it is that they actually hold dear — that desire to get them back motivates them to at minimum change their behavior and ideally change their intentions and beliefs.
I believe anyone can change if they want and believe they need to. Very few of the guys I’ve known who have used violence against women have believed they have anything to change about themselves. They often believe the violence they use is an unfortunate but justifiable response to a woman or a world that’s aligned against them and depriving them of respect they deserve. They believe that if women didn’t provoke men, men wouldn’t use violence against women, so it’s women that need to change. Or they do believe they need to change, but the stuff they think should be different — “I need to stop dating crazy chicks,” or “I guess I just need to keep my mouth shut and admit everything she says is right and everything I do is wrong,” — shows how self-centered and entitled to deference their beliefs are.
A lot of boys and men use violence against girls and women for simply failing to comply, acquiesce, defer, submit, agree, or do whatever would be most pleasing. A lot of girls and women know a lot about how to accommodate and negotiate boys and men by doing what it takes to avoid coming across as displeasing. Most boys and men have no idea how constantly girls and women are deftly adjusting many aspects of themselves to placate our unexamined senses of physical and emotional entitlement. Paying attention to what happens when a guy doesn’t get what he believes a girl or woman owes him in any interaction will tell you a lot about his intentions and beliefs regarding her, himself, and their relationship. You’ll see clear evidence of what he most cares about. If he values her compliance more than her right to an autonomous life, it will show.
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