Wives, mothers and daughters – or people?

This post was linked in the comments to a different blog, and I found it fascinating. I had never seen an argument like this before. I’ve only read a handful of the 1000+ comments (!!), some of which mirrored my thoughts. Others were agreeing with the post and trying to explain why, but none of those helped me agree. The general gist is that when talking to men about sexual assault, you shouldn’t use phrases like “They are our wives, daughters, mothers,” to explain why violence against women is bad, because women have value as humans, not because they are related to men.

You don’t have to do much psychology (or philosophy, or ethics, or anthropology, or sociology, etc etc) to understand just how important the ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to humans. There are people like us, and there are people who aren’t like us. The first group gets most of our empathy and understanding. The second group gets a variety of other reactions – misunderstanding at the least, fear, hatred, exclusion, active oppression at the most. Of course, who you personally place into these groups depends on who you are in the first place. But for those of us in the majority, the ‘other’ is necessarily the minority – groups already marginalised and usually disadvantaged in some (or many) ways. The more you see a person as being ‘other’, the less they will matter (although this might show itself in a very active oppression or other reaction on your part, rather than just ignoring them). The closer a person is to your in group – whether it’s real or perceived closeness – the more they will matter, the more of your empathy they’ll get.

It’s pretty basic and we see it all the time.

Sometimes it can lead to good things – for example this is why a Republican senator might change his vote on marriage equality once he learns his son is gay. People can change their minds for the better on all sorts of issues once a person or group becomes less ‘them’ and more ‘us’, which is why public figures are generally applauded when they speak about their depression, for example – it’s breaking some of the stigma. Programs like those that link up police officers with local young’uns – for boxing lessons or something – are based on same idea of familiarity. Breast cancer awareness is off the charts, partly in thanks to the number of high profile women and men affected by it who can then talk about it in the public arena or even establish things like the Jane McGrath foundation.

But obviously the same phenomenon leads to pretty much all the bad stuff in the world, ever. Once people are ‘them’ and not ‘us’ it is very easy to dehumanise them, to deny their rights or their very existence. Hello genocide, slavery, colonisation, asylum seeker policy, abortion laws or same-sex marriage.

The post that has had me thinking about this the last couple of weeks was talking about this in the context of Steubenville and other cases like that, cases where women have been assaulted and people who are sympathising more with their attackers are told to imagine that the woman is their ‘wife, sister or mother’. The writer claims that this reduces women’s value to their relationship to men. This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, women also have wives, sisters and mothers. Secondly, using phrases like this is acknowledging the fact that people naturally divide others into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and one of the ways to better understand a situation is to imagine it is affecting ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

When I find myself speeding through a road work zone with actual people working on it (as opposed to an empty one), I slow down and remind myself that if that was Toby working on the road I wouldn’t want people zipping past him at 60 km/h. When I hear of a cyclist or motorcyclist in an accident, my stomach clenches as I imagine it’s my dad or Toby being hit and say a quick thankyou that it’s not them. I imagine the families of pilots or skydivers or fishing enthusiasts do the same when they hear of a plane crash or a landing gone wrong or a freak wave. When we hear of terrible things happening overseas in familiar places – bombings in Bali, London or Boston- we think of the people we know who live there, or were just visiting a week ago. When the old Canberra hospital was disastrously imploded and killed a 12 year old girl, grandma rang mum just to make sure it wasn’t my sister, who was 12 at the time. Anyone who’s had a child would surely agree with me that while hearing stories of babies or children being hurt is never easy, once you have your own it becomes gut wrenchingly awful. There is just something in us that makes our ears prick up when a story affects people we know, or it could.

This doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t mean the lives of our loved ones are intrinsically more valuable than anyone else’s and it doesn’t mean we don’t care about anyone except our very nearest and dearest. It doesn’t mean that if a bombing happens in a place we’ve never heard of, to people not like us, that would never affect someone we know, that we don’t care. We do care, but at the same time if we let ourselves feel everything for everyone, we would never get out of bed. We need to have a circle of care, getting less intense the further out you look, because that is the only way we can function. And between all of us and our different circles, we can care about almost everything and everyone. The problem of course is when a person or group of people doesn’t feature in anyone’s circle, because then they are likely to be forgotten – and no one will slow down in the road works.

All this is to say, I don’t think using the ‘wives, sisters, mothers’ argument reduces women as victims of violence. It is attempting to do the opposite. Part of the problem with rape culture is that it assumes that some women, on some level, deserve to be raped or otherwise treated as objects for others’ amusement or pleasure – these women belong to ‘them’. And other women – those who are like ‘us’ – don’t. People who believe this to be true would never include the deserving women in their circle. But the girl who was raped at a party no more deserved to be raped than your sister or wife or mother would deserve it, drunk or sober or anything else the media and courts somehow see fit to include in their descriptions of a crime. That is the point people are trying to make, to imagine that your teenage daughter got drunk at a party with her friends, people she knew well, and imagine she is attacked – maybe while conscious, maybe not – and then imagine it’s her fault. Can’t imagine it? Exactly.



One thought on “Wives, mothers and daughters – or people?

  1. Here are some of my initial thoughts on this subject – keeping in mind that I haven’t read the article this is in response to. And I only just googled the Steubenville case – I can’t believe the media coverage of that.

    Firstly, I tend to approach violence towards women as something that exists in a patriarchal society where the subjugation of women is that status quo.

    The ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy goes a long way in explaining group bias, prejudice, and violence. I remember the end scene of ‘A Time to Kill’ where the lawyer is explaining in detail the rape of an 8 year old girl to a white jury in Mississippi. And he closes his statement by saying, “now imagine she is white”. In this scenario, the Us = white and the them = black. In that single statement by the lawyer he removes the barrier that prevented the jury from being able to see this girl as one of their own, as being human.

    But at the same point, when we talk about violence against women, who is the ‘us’ and who is the ‘them’? If the us = our families, and the them = drunk girl at a party, then talking about victims as mothers, wives and daughters is important. However, If the us = men and the them = women, then does thinking about the victims in terms of mothers, wives and daughters remove that binary? If violence towards women happens in a patriarchal society as I mentioned before, then continuing to identify women solely in terms of their relationship to men only furthers that patriarchy and does not remove or challenge the Us and Them. As ugly as it is to say, I assume that there are mothers, wives and daughters out there who have been abused by sons, husbands, brothers and fathers, in fact my understanding of sexual abuse is that it is more likely to be from a relative or close family friend.

    While I think it important, escpeically from an empathetic view point, to view victims as wives, mothers and daughters. I also believe we need to use language the elevates that status of women, that removes the binary of Us = men and Them = women, where we can just be Us = human.

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