Monday, 16 October 2017

On Gendered Violence

There is currently on social media a trend wherein women (and to a lesser extent men) write "Me too" in their statuses, as a declaration that they have suffered sexual harassment. This seems an appropriate occasion to think about gendered violence (and let's be clear: harassment is a form of violence--not necessarily physical, for physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg--in that it violates the person's dignity and sense of security) from a Lonerganian perspective. As Lonerganian scholars such as Robert Doran and John Dadosky have said about their own writing, in what follows I make no effort to distinguish between Lonergan's thought and my own, as the former has so fully informed the latter that such distinctions are difficult to make.

Most fundamentally, from a Lonerganian perspective violence--gendered or otherwise--is irrational and thus invariably irresponsible. This differs from force, the application of which can at times be quite rational and responsible. If a man assaults a woman, he uses force to exercise violence against her. This is in all cases irrational and irresponsible. If she uses force to resist, that very conceivable could be a rational attempt to avoid injury to self, and thus quite responsible. But more interesting than this basic set of observations is to ask why someone engages in the irrational and irresponsible act of violence in the first place. In Lonergan terms, this will be inexplicably linked to the idea of alienation.

The sort of alienation of which we speak here is in the first instance an alienation from the best version of oneself, i.e. the version of oneself that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. This supposes a view of the subject as something that can be cultivated. The attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility in view are not native capacities. Rather, they result from the intentional decision to develop the skills associated with observation (attentiveness), understanding (intelligence), judgment (reason), and decision (responsibility). Alienation is not simply a situation in which one is less than fully attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible, but rather a situation in which one actively (although not necessarily consciously) refuses to develop said skills. Instead, the energy that would otherwise be invested in cultivating these skills is invested in justifying the refusal to do so, as well as finding ways to function despite such fundamental impairments in these basic human capacities.

A person thus alienated from her or his best self becomes inevitably alienated also from reality. Precisely because it is through attentiveness, understanding, judgment, and decision that we come to truly know and fruitfully engage with reality, the person who refuses to cultivate these skills is fundamentally incapable of truly knowing or fruitfully engaging with reality. Such a person experiences the world in a fundamentally distorted fashion. Fear substitutes for attentiveness, suspicion for intelligence, paranoia for reason, aggression for responsibility. Unable to escape a bewildering world from which one is fundamentally and existentially estranged, one irresponsibly sets out to control the many aspects of that world that operate in defiance of one's unreasonable expectations. Such control almost inevitably violates the dignity and security of other persons in one way or another. Sometimes this occurs overtly, through acts of irresponsible force, and sometimes it occurs covertly, through various forms of abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.

Due to sexual dimorphism, which results in the reality that female human beings tend to be on average smaller than male human beings in any given population, it is not at all unusual to find that alienated men frequently engage in aggressive conduct towards women. Precisely because the alienated man (and the move to gender-exclusive language here is intentional) is irresponsible, he has a tendency to prefer the quick and easy path to satisfying his need to control. Indeed, entire societies can (dys)functionally adopt such aggressive conduct as a foundational principle, with cultures that become distorted in order to warrant such social dysfunction. Alienated aggression against women becomes normalized, such that women who resist are deemed to be "bitches" or the like, even as women who do not resist are deemed to be "sluts," etc. But of course all this is just projection: irrational and irresponsible men cannot conceive of the possibility that other persons--male or female--might be more rational and more responsible than they are, precisely because they do not actually know what it means to be rational and responsible.

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