Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Rob Ford is Gone but the Violence and Bullying go Merrily on. . .

The death of Rob Ford (and the upcoming verdict in the Gomeshi trial) has gotten me thinking about violence in our society. First of all, let's be clear, I think Rob Ford was a really bad guy at both the personal and ideological level. In public he continually used nasty and violent language, by many accounts he was implicated in occurrences of domestic violence, he was accused of sexual assault by peers like Sarah Thomson, and he and his close associates were involved with known gang members. And yet, as often happens after someone's untimely death, Ford is being widely praised even by critics. Just this morning I saw a female reporter in Ottawa talking about how "charming" and "vulnerable" Rob Ford was much of the time.

What all of this reminds me of is the degree to which, despite paying lip-service to the need to reduce violence and bullying, we live in a society that continues to be shockingly tolerant of these things. For example, according to the Canadian's Women's Foundation, only 1 in 3 Canadians understand what sexual consent is. More disturbingly, every day over three thousand Canadian women are forced to sleep in shelters due to domestic violence and every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. (And keep in mind that as frightening as these stats are, overall Canada is lower on the worldwide scale of domestic violence) At a more prosaic level, bullying is endemic in our society, it is everywhere you look and for a decade became the modus operandi of the federal government. Now, looking south of the border we have the front-runner Republican candidate who is actively and openly advocating violence by his supporters and saying he will cover their legal costs if they are indicted for such violence.

There are, of course, many people working actively to overcome violence in our society. But it is a difficult task when we, as a society, tolerate and even laud people who are bullies, abusers, and perpetrators of violence. Take our society's treatment of indigenous children, and their most famous advocate Cindy Blackstock. A decade ago activist Cindy Blackstock brought a case against the Federal Government at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for their racist treatment of indigenous youth. The Harper government did everything it could to obstruct and block Blackstock's efforts to expose the systemic violence perpetrated against the indigenous children of our society. And for years Blackstock was subject to continual secret government surveillance. According to Save the Children Canada, more than 40% of indigenous children live in poverty. In many cases this poverty is extreme to the degree that if average Canadians truly understood it they would find it difficult to believe. Yet the government has knowingly and systematically failed to fund services for indigenous children to anything like the level of non-indigenous children. This is, straight-up, a willful act of systemic violence that has been ignored for decades and the Harper government actively tried to hide it from public view. We should also keep in mind that the Harper government spend nearly a decade resisting a public investigation into murdered and missing women, and one of the primary messages of this resistance was that such violence is only an isolated phenomenon perpetrated by criminal individuals and has no social or systemic reality.

At an international level, we have governments who actively support violent and repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel, while regularly and smugly contemning violence perpetrated by other nations that are not close allies. Rona Ambrose's recent whining about Trudeau's decision to stop dropping bombs on Syria speaks volumes about how eager many of our political "leaders" are to continue our active involvement in violence at any and every opportunity. I remember a couple of years ago amid the furor over Trudeau's comments about the need to think about the origins of terrorist violence, I saw a Conservative Party MP (I can't remember which one, though it may have been Michelle Rempel) actually say, "I don't want to know why Terrorists commit violence." The import of this comment is obvious. Like anything, you can only put an end to violence if you find its causes. In suggesting that they don't want to understand its causes, many politicians are de facto saying that they don't really want to put an end to it. And I think it should be clear that many politicians (particularly rightwing ones) don't want to put an end to violence and bullying because not only does it feed their vicious base and keep them getting elected, but because it supports their world-view.

The Gomeshi case has demonstrated how we actively undermine victims of sexual violence. Though things are better than they once were, most victims of sexual violence today (particularly women) who go public are opening themselves up to ridicule and public shaming. And women who have been victims of sexual violence are treated differently according to their social and professional status, as though working-class women or those with less "successful" careers are more apt to lie or worse, somehow 'deserve' it. I don't know if Gomeshi will be convicted on Thursday, but even if he is found guilty, much of the damage has already been done by his lawyer who suggested that women who didn't instantly go to police must be lying. This is one of the deep prejudices of our society, the failure to understand the long-term damaging effects of violence. Victims of violence have not only been physically damaged but also emotionally traumatized, and as a result they often partially blame themselves. This trauma can also have a generational effect that is only now being investigated and understood.

One of the most frightening aspects of public violence is the way we give a pass to state-sponsored and supported violence and condemn those who struggle against it as 'trouble-makers' and 'low-lifes.' Just yesterday, activists from "Black Lives Matter" who were peacefully demonstrating against police violence were themselves treated with violence with little hesitation and a dearth of media coverage.  Overall, people are very ready to believe in the legitimacy of state-sponsored violence, and deeply unsympathetic to anyone who might fight back.

As long as we simply laugh at men like Rob Ford, or think of Trump's calls to violence as something 'folksy' rather than the serious acts of criminality that they are, we will be a long way from tackling our society's addiction to violence. As long as we automatically assume that police must be 'justified' in their use of violence, and treat domestic violence relatively lightly compared to other crimes, we are only confirming our lack of seriousness concerning the violence endemic in our culture. As long as we condemn bullying in our schools, yet ignore the way teachers bully and cajole our children, we will be failing to understand the ways we are inadvertently justifying violence. As long as we let our kids play Grand Theft Auto but avert their eyes from even relatively innocent acts of love, we will be condemning the future to more of the same. As long as we ignore violence against women or treat indigenous people as second-class citizens, the more we are demonstrated that we just aren't willing to grow up as a people.


the salamander said...

.. exceptional essay.. thanks ! Will get several careful rereads to absorb & reflect on !

Kirby Evans said...

Thank you Salamander for the words of encouragement!

Owen Gray said...

As you correctly point out, Kirby, if we don't want to discover the causes of something, we don't want to do anything about it.