Why are we violent towards others?

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st Anene Booysen Neil Baynes TRACING VIOLENCE: Family and friends watch as Anene Booysens coffin is lowered into her grave. This columnist asks if the power of understanding isnt more transformative in the end than the rhetoric of retribution. Picture: Neil Baynes

The rape and murder of Anene Booysen of Bredasdorp by a group of men last week has horrified the country.

It has also reverberated across the world, sharpening the focus on a society that is increasingly gaining worldwide notoriety for its gender and sexual violence.

The anger is palpable.

Equally palpable is a sense of helplessness. I get a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realise that the country will soon move on and forget, just like it did with Alison, just like it did with Baby Tshepang and just like it did with countless others.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela might soon release her report on President Jacob Zuma’s security upgrade, a well-known person might die, something else will happen. We’ll move on.

We’ll also move on from the violence that is so prevalent.

The violent language used against all manner of people thought to be the “problem” has shocked me.

“It’s an insult to dogs to say men are dogs. Dogs don’t rape,” said one. Another proposed hanging, castration, public flogging, the list goes on.

This violent disposition is not peculiar to the latest angry discourse about gender violence. It’s a regular feature of our public life.

We’re not shocked any more by name-calling, by the gruesome things people wish on each other or the debased insults people in politics sling at those with whom they disagree. It has become a part of who we are.

On occasion, there’ll be outrage at a violent incident, like when a young man beat an elderly man to death in Ekurhuleni some years ago. Despite our initial fury, most of us neither remember the elderly man’s name nor do we know what happened to the young man who killed him.

We’ll sometimes condone objective violence in the name of political discourse. We’ll sit idly by listening to accusations that Helen Zille has sexual relations with her entire cabinet, to the insults aimed at Mamphela Ramphele concerning her relationship with the married Steve Biko. How must it make them feel? That doesn’t seem to matter to us. They belong to the “other” side, they’re politicians, so their humanity is beside the point.

Curiously, we’re surprised when some among us take our generally violent dispositions to their logical conclusion and perpetrate subjective violence against those weaker than ourselves or those with whom we disagree.

Then, we use more violent language and propose more violent remedies without seemingly trying to understand anything.

Yet, if we are to find solutions to what makes us so angry, it’s important to ask the kind of questions that none of us has the inclination or the time for.

Some of these questions have become taboo because, on the face of it, they do not appear to support a popular narrative.

We react with the most violent words to those who propose them because we consider any attempt to reflect upon the problem a waste of time – an apology on behalf of those who make our homes and communities so unsafe.

As a father of young boys who may become victims or perpetrators of rape one day, I need to understand a few things.

I want to understand why so many men rape to begin with.

I want to know why they don’t think rape is wrong or consider the destruction it causes.

I want to understand who is most vulnerable to rape as well as who is most likely to rape.

Is it a teacher, a coach or an uncle?

I want to be able to exercise my parental duties with awareness and care.

A law enforcement specialist might want to know in which sectors of our society rape is most prevalent and why.

Equally important, I want to know why some men do not rape or abuse their partners.

I need to understand this behaviour as much as its opposite because I want this problem to be dealt with successfully.

For now, the public space and my own mind are preoccupied with a level of violent retribution I believe would scare any man who even thinks of raping a woman, a wife, a girlfriend, a baby, a daughter, a sister or a grandmother.

It’s easy to understand the vulnerability of women to violence given the status our society forces on them – a status that still too many of them appear ready to accept.

It’s not surprising that in such a violent society, they are the most likely targets of violence.

But that is too broad.

I need to understand more, but the process of further enquiry is beset with difficulties I believe many find too daunting to overcome.

It’s true that no child or adult should be living in fear of rape.

But can we start reducing the pandemic if we do not ask whether children in informal areas are not at greater risk?

Their parents often leave before sunrise and return after sunset because their working and living conditions demand that they do or they wouldn’t be able to eke out a living.

In most instances, they can’t afford a minder to see to it that their children are not harmed.

Can we make an assumption that these children are at a similar level of risk to those who live behind high walls and electric fences with minders to watch their every step?

Asking such questions is a frightening exercise because of the many implications, the things words might imply, the ease with which one can hurt those who feel either singled out or ignored.

They are questions it is safer not to ask.

But surely, it is better not to make blanket assumptions that we hope will give us optimal solutions when we know, they actually won’t.

We must be careful not to let go of some principles and just accept the collateral damage, in order to validate our collective anger and desire for violent retribution.

We might well be approaching an age where it will no longer be possible for anyone to be wrongly accused of rape.

We can expect 100 percent conviction rate, and hell’s gates to open if anyone is ever acquitted.

Yet it feels so inappropriate to even care about this principle right now.

I’m not aware that rape is a genetic peculiarity, so no child is born either a rapist or an abuser of women.

Society teaches boys attitudes and behaviours which make it appear acceptable to perpetrate such horrors against the opposite sex. Violent behaviour is often seen as appropriate male behaviour.

What is clear is that we do not fully understand what it is we do that results in so much gender-based violence.

It’s also clear that enquiry into this question is regarded as inane, so we are not likely to know and, therefore, take the small steps that are so necessary to start turning the tide.

That is almost as tragic as the reality that countless more women were raped yesterday, are being raped today as you read this, and will be raped tomorrow.


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