Monday, July 14, 2008

Linguistics And Meaning Of "Why Did She Stay?"

In response to Feministe: Why did she stay? which I commented on here there is a post Rambling On: Feminist language, where Lottie writes:

My perspective, is that feminists typically blacklist questions that they don’t have answers to. Why do victims of domestic violence stay? There isn’t a nice, neat, blanket response to that. Domestic violence crosses every border imaginable. It is not restricted to race, age, economic status, social status, level of education, (dis)ability, religion, sexual orientation, gender, genetics, blood type, name, rank or serial number. Domestic violence is an equal opportunity social problem. This being the case, how can we possibly answer the question of why? There doesn’t seem to be an answer at the moment.

Feminists can’t fix it, and so they quell the question.

Language control is directly related to thought control. If feminists (or anyone else) can control our language, they can control how our thoughts are perceived by others. This also allows them to control the dialogue which, in turn, helps create the illusion that they have all the answers, simply by eliminating some of the questions. They stifle the flow of discussion and exchange of ideas, under the guise of supporting women and minorities, and more specifically to this topic, victims of domestic violence.

Lottie is right in saying that there is no dominant answer to, "Why did she stay?" but I see that lack of a common answer as being meaningful and educational. This lack of a dominant answer contradicts much of the mythology about domestic violence.

There is much more commonality and meaning in the answer to, "Why did he (or she) abuse or murder someone that person had a relationship with?"

Therefore the only general meaning which can be derived by looking at why victims stay is to examine failed prevention steps and to look at the barriers which prevent domestic violence victims from leaving safely and the barriers to their safety if they don't leave for whatever reason.

With that in mind the better questions would be, "How do we more effectively help victims and potential victims of domestic violence remain safe?" and "How can we more effectively reduce the harm done by abusers?" These questions both involve commitment on the part of the questioner.

It makes sense to begin by getting a broad grasp of the problem. A CDC study found that 23.6 percent of women and 11.5 percent of men have experienced intimate partner violence.

From Endabuse.org:

In 2001, intimate partner violence made up 20 percent of violent crime against women. The same year, intimate partners committed three percent of all violent crime against men.

Since the problem of domestic violence is systemic -- and more so against women than men --then much of the solution needs to be systemic as well.

Hennepin County, Minnesota put together a Fatality Review Report "to provide in-depth case reviews of the events and circumstances surrounding domestic homicides to identify responses and strategies to prevent similar tragedies in the future."

Another systemic approach which focuses on child victims of domestic abuse is the National child protection training center in Winona, Minnesota. The idea is simple. Have professionals make mistakes in training rather than on the job. This will help identify abuse sooner and then result in a more effective response.

As Lottie said, language reflects thought. Otherwise requests to reframe our language couldn't be a form of thought control. That means those who hear about murdered anti-violence advocate, Jana Mackey and react by focusing on her decisions are communicating how they think about crimes such as this by their choice of words.

Here is one of the comments which people reacted to as falling into the "Why did she stay?" trap, this one written by Jane:

I don’t understand how someone so involved in the fight against domestic violence ended up in such a dangerous situation herself. I’m sure it’s an extremely complicated answer.

What an extraordinary woman. I just wish I could understand why people–and I think most people do this at some point–afford others the kindness they can’t or won’t extend to themselves.

This comment definitely takes a strictly individual view as it passes judgment on the murdered woman. It isn't my interpretation or oversensitivity which makes me see this.

Here's the claim: A murdered woman couldn't or wouldn't extend kindness to herself by avoiding a dangerous situation.

It's important to note that this comment does not actually ask any questions despite 2 declarations of not understanding the behavior of victims of domestic abuse.

What is a dangerous situation for women? Dating? Marriage? Breaking off a relationship? How wide of a net do we throw when judging the decisions of those who become victims of domestic violence? And what of those who make these same decisions but who never get abused?

If someone has made a bad decision prior to becoming a victim of domestic violence shouldn't we judge all those who make the same bad decisions equally whether or not they are subsequently abused or murdered?

If we don't put the violent at the center of our talk about "Why?" that says that the only thing which can be done is to change the behavior of the abused. But this isn't true. In the Hennepin County study I mentioned earlier in this post they referenced a 2005 change in Minnesota law so that strangulation during domestic abuse became a felony.

Here is a section of a story about Mackey's ex-boyfriend who committed suicide while in police custody because of her murder:

It wasn’t until after [Sally] Piller [owner of a Lawrence gallery where Garcia-Nunez exhibited his paintings] agreed to have a show for Garcia-Nunez’s work earlier this year that she learned about his criminal past. He was sentenced in 2005 on assault and burglary charges, was incarcerated and released on parole in August 2006.

The Lawrence Journal-World reported that prosecutors charged Garcia-Nunez after he assaulted a 29-year-old former girlfriend in her home in 2004. The police report stated he choked and beat her, and then cut her arm with a knife before she was able to flee.

With this history of violence shouldn't those who want to know "Why?" focus on how a man who was sentenced for assault and burglary against an ex-girlfriend could be released the very next year. If the criminal justice system treated his 2004 crime this lightly why should we expect private citizens to view this person as a potential murderer?

From the description of the violence in 2004 that previous victim may have avoided being a murder victim by only a small margin. If the original sentence were in line with the seriousness of the crime he committed in 2004, Garcia-Nunez would still be imprisoned today and Mackey would still be alive.

Where was the criminal justice system's kindness to victims of domestic violence in the handling of Garcia-Nunez's 2004 crime?

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 7:48 AM   4 comments links to this post

4 Comments:

At July 14, 2008 9:48 AM, Anonymous Lottie said...

First I'd like to say that you have written an excellent post here. I appreciate the manner in which you have stated your objections. I had anticipated a great deal of hostility in response to my post. Thank you for not taking that approach.

You said:

Therefore the only general meaning which can be derived by looking at why victims stay is to examine failed prevention steps and to look at the barriers which prevent domestic violence victims from leaving safely and the barriers to their safety if they don't leave for whatever reason.

With that in mind the better questions would be, "How do we more effectively help victims and potential victims of domestic violence remain safe?" and "How can we more effectively reduce the harm done by abusers?" These questions both involve commitment on the part of the questioner.


I don't think that these questions and the question of why she stays are mutually exclusive. We can ask them all, with the goal being to help remove barriers which prevent victims from leaving.

If we don't put the violent at the center of our talk about "Why?" that says that the only thing which can be done is to change the behavior of the abused.

This is where we part ways. I believe that we can ask "why?" and keep the abused at the center of it. I disagree what asking why she stayed automatically places the blame on her for doing so.

The longest abusive relationship I was in lasted fourteen years. The abuse was his fault, and his fault alone. He was also solely responsible for the fact that I was unable to get away. Asking why I stayed does put him at the center of the question. I believe that is the case in every situation, because I believe the reasons women stay are always the direct responsibility of the abusers.

All that said, I know that there are people who ask the question in a way which places the blame on the victim. I see no reason to allow their ignorance to stifle our questioning and limit our exploration of the issue. The fact that some people use the question as an accusation does not make the question inherently accusatory, which was the focus of my post on the subject. Here is another quote from it:

I was in an abusive relationship with an extremely jealous man. Any time he asked me where I had been or what I had done that day, the question was a poorly disguised accusation that I had done something wrong. Does that make the question inherently accusatory? Of course it doesn’t. It can also be a question of genuine interest or curiosity. Intent is what makes it one or the other. Intent matters, whether people accept it or not.

Frankly, I think it's cruel to keep telling abuse victims and survivors that every time the question is asked, they are being blamed for their own abuse. It's absolutely not true, so why burden them further by trying to convince them of such? In closing, here is another quote from my post:

Part of the danger of redefining and restricting language in this context is that it has the potential to convince victims and survivors that they’re being blamed for their own abuse even when they’re not. As I’ve already stated, intent is completely relevant in determining whether or not someone is being blamed or accused of something.

I appreciate you addressing this subject and keeping it open for discussion. I can't promise to return here any time soon, as I have a lot on my plate at the moment. But I do appreciate the opportunity to address these few points and further share my thoughts on the subject.

 
At July 14, 2008 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lottie, regardless of intent, the comment by Jane did manage to place responsibility for the victimization on the victim (i.e. in stating that the victim couldn't or wouldn't extend kindness to herself by avoiding a dangerous situation). Besides, Marcella recognizes that it wasn't intentional, when she refers to it as "falling into a trap".

-Kali

 
At July 18, 2008 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please somebody comment! Unfortunately, I have no recource because of the Statutes in the State of Georgia. I was brutally attacked (gang raped) 46 years ago, but suppressed the memories until 2005. Even though I know the names and whereabouts of witnesses, my hands are tied. How do I get this story out there? How do I expose the sleaze who set up the gang rape?
Thank you.
Georgia Girl

 
At July 19, 2008 11:13 AM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Georgia Girl,

My heart goes out to you.

I suggest calling the RAINN hotline (1-800-656-4673) if you haven't already to make absolutely sure that you don't have any legal options left.

If the police where you were gang raped have good attitudes about the type of crime committed against you (local advocates may be able to help determine this), it may be worth talking to them since those who commit these crimes are often serial criminals. The information you have may be helpful in other cases involving your rapists which are more recent.

There are likely some newspaper reporters in your area who would be glad to highlight your story with or without your name attached. They might not publish other people's names but often they will include plenty of characteristics which people would recognize.

Once one person breaks their silence, that can lead to others who thought they were alone to do the same.

Even if you can't expose your rapists by name, you can expose them by their actions and their attitudes.

 

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