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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Making Excuses for Violence

“In Paris during the sixteenth century it was one of the festive pleasures of Midsummer Day to burn alive one or two dozen cats. This ceremony was very famous. The populace assembled. Solemn music was played. Under a kind of scaffold an enormous pyre was erected. The sack or basket containing the cats was hung from the scaffold. The sack or basket began to smolder. The cats fell into the fire and were burned to death, while the crowd reveled in their caterwauling. Usually the king and queen were present. Sometimes the king or dauphin was given the honour of lighting the pyre. And we hear that once, at the special request of King Charles IX, a fox was caught and burned as well.”
– from Norbert Elias, ‘The Civilizing Process’.

Our attitude to violence changes. European royalty are no longer allowed to burn cats alive; in the last few decades, New Zealand has gone from seeing drunk-driving as an administrative crime to an unacceptable potential act of violence; and so on. When London’s Metropolitan Police Force was set up at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the cops were supposed to be the line of last resort: if people were otherwise unable to defend themselves or resolve their disputes. Nowadays, if you injure your rapist in self-defence you can be convicted, implying that you should take your beating until the cops show up.

Using prisons and a police force to hold undesirables allows us to go about being generally non-violent, relying upon the state’s monopoly of violence to suffice. We haven’t eradicated violence, just attempted to hide it behind Spandau or Mount Eden’s cold stones. But it keeps bubbling up…

The “It’s not that bad” excuse.

“I’m not a monster,” 73-year-old Josef Fritzl, 73, recently told the German newspaper Bild via his lawyer. I am deeply fascinated by Fritzl’s defence of his, frankly, monstrous actions, because they remind me exactly of what I have heard from the mouths of several men I have known in my life: men who beat women, who believe they have a right to beat women, and who have justified this to me. Recently, a couple of guys I know were discussing rapists and wife-beaters, and opined that they simply do not understand how such a man could think. But we owe it to ourselves to understand, if we want to work towards reducing violence. And their violence does follow a certain logic. Let’s return to Fritzl as he explains this logic:

Fritzl condemned the media’s coverage of his 24-year imprisonment and rape of his daughter Elizabeth as “totally biased.” Fritzl pointed out that had he not finally taken his daughter/granddaughter Kerstin out of the dungeon to hospital – for the first time in her 19-year life – she would have died: “Without me, Kerstin would not still be alive today… I made sure she got to hospital.” Of course, without him she never would have been born into sunless captivity, but he obviously feels this is irrelevant. Fritzl added that he could have easily killed the inhabitants of the cellar: “Then there would have been none of this fuss.” So Fritzl justifies his actions by pointing out that he could have done worse, but didn’t. That’s like killing one person then arguing that your actions were acceptable, since some other murderers kill two people. Fritzl also said that his desire for incest with Elizabeth began when she disobeyed his orders by wearing revealing clothing and going out drinking. This is the same logic shared by those who believe that a women who wears a short skirt is “asking for it.”

Bashing your family to keep them safe

Josef Fritzl doesn’t seem to feel that locking up his daughter was that bad a thing. Like many men who beat and rape “their” women in their own homes, he believes that whatever his own indiscretions, he nevertheless kept his daughter “safe” from other men. Here’s Fritzl describing how he responded to his daughter’s nights out having fun before he drugged her and locked her up: “I tried to get her out of that swamp, organised her an apprenticeship to become a waitress. I needed to create a place in which I could at some point keep her away from the outside world, by force if necessary.”

During the mass exodus fighting that followed India’s partition in 1948, thousands of young women died in honour killings: Hindu patriarchs killed their young women to keep them safe from rape and murder by Muslim men; Muslim patriarchs killed their young women to keep them safe from rape and murder by Hindu men. This situation was vividly documented through interviews with survivors by Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence, but it is in no way unique to India’s partition. Men’s defence of their misogyny so often weasels into the “at least it’s not worse” excuse.


It is a mistake to think that people inherently believe their violence is wrong, and will repent if assisted. Like Fritzl, many violent offenders will happily tell you why they do what they do. Here are two examples of men I’ve met who’ve given me their justifications:

A) I used to work in a kitchen, as a dish-bitch; the assistant chef was a fellow metal-head, so we used to talk a lot. One night, he was chatting to me about how his friend had been arrested the previous weekend for punching “some tart” in the face while they were standing on Trafalgar Street (the main street in Nelson). When I expressed alarm at this, he explained that it was because the “silly bitch” had been flirting and acting like she was going to put out, then changed her mind; so my workmate’s friend slapped her because, despite prior indications, she wouldn’t put out. What this demonstrates is that these two men believed that when a woman indicates a desire for sex, the man indicated then has a right to sex with her even if she changes her mind; the mating signal cannot be retracted – the “asking for it” argument that suggests a woman owes sex to a man whenever she acts sexually. This logic also believes that if the women breaches this contract by changing her mind, then violence is an acceptable solution.

B) Back in 2006 when I was living up in Mornington above Dunedin, I walked down High Street to the pub one evening, and saw this guy playing with a red and blue flashing light on his front lawn. I went over to him and told him his light was cool. He asked me for a smoke, and we got to talking. He told me that he was waiting around for the police to turn up to check on him, to make sure he wasn’t breaking his curfew. He then told me all about his case: he had recently been in jail for beating up his ex-partner. He explained to me that she had been taking his childsupport payments for their son, but refusing him his weekend visits; then he explained to me in detail his response – smashing her head into a bench, kicking her in the gut while she was on the ground, etc. While he wasn’t gleefull in his descriptions, he didn’t seem regretful either, and said she was lucky because, of course, he could have actually killed her, but didn’t. Again, this demonstrates a man who believes that once an agreement between him and his woman has been made, if she breaks it then violence is an acceptable response. Like man A), man B) believes that if someone causes him non-violent hurt of some kind, violence is an acceptable response. And like Fritzl he’s a kind of “hero” for restraining himself.

Spurious Generalizations

We can make a number of conclusions about the way men who violently dominate women think: 1) once a woman has indicated sex/made an agreement with a man, she has no right to change her mind 2) changing her mind is an attack on the man; such an attack – or indeed any other perceived slight – may justifiably be punished via violence 3) so long as the man does not kill the woman, he can justify his actions by saying she should be thankful that he didn’t do worse

A sense of entitlement, a “right to sex” coupled with the learnt knowledge – via work, friends or family – that violence is simply one tool among many in furthering one’s goals. These are hallmarks of the violent misogynist. Finally, when they are confronted with their crimes, they feel unfairly treated because they know others have done worse. It’s important that we understand this train of thought; remember that understanding something does not necessarily mean excusing it. Rather, if we want to stop men from thinking like this, then we actually have to make an effort to be sympathetic to the point of understanding them. Because if we are so offended by their behaviour that we simply refuse to understand it, then how can we ever seek to fix it?


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (4)

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  1. Kerry says:

    Well done, Tristan.

    Women’s Group banner painting this arvo, I may drop by on my way IF I have time…

  2. Martin Amis says:

    I salute you here man. Really decent piece.

  3. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Really great piece – you have approached a major issue in New Zealand society with a practical approach to addressing it. It’s one thing to use slogans such as “It’s not OK” to raise awareness, but the fact of the matter is that this behaviour is so widely entrenched in some areas of society that the only way to break the cycle is to understand the ‘justification’ behind it in the first place.

    I think another key factor in addressing domestic violence is a need for more male role model figures for young boys. Cycles of violence within families are hard to break from generation to generation – we need more male social workers to address the sensitive issue of helping to define a balaned idea of ‘masculinity’, and what it means to be a good man, in today’s world of tolerance and equal rights. Domestic violence should NEVER be the way.

    On a more general note, i’ve found that this “we protect ‘our’ women by repressing them” mentality has a common thread in all societies that are, or have at one point, maintained unequal rights between genders on a legal, cultural, or religious basis. Early European and colonial mentality stressed the need to ‘protect’ their women from the abuses of the world by locking them into domestic servitude and denying them the vote. Deeply religious Islamic societies argue that hiding a woman’s form away from the world and preventing them from associating with men is done in order to ‘protect’ them. What’s worse is that some people still try to justify this by stressing religious rights over universal human rights! What is needed is a policy of consciousness-raising in countries where women are repressed so that a feminist movement tailored to certain cultural and religious situations can arise from within that system. The “One Million Signatures” campaign and the group “Ni Putes ni Soumises” are examples of these, and I certainly hope they aren’t the last.

  4. Tania Mead says:

    As I said when I proofed this, nice work Tristan. A refusal to understand anything that we perceive as a threat to society only serves to perpetuate the stigma. Well timed, too!

    Interesting point Mr Cunningham . . The ‘repression = protection’ argument has terrifying repercussions. I guess time will tell as to whether the concept of universal human rights ‘wins out’ over the indoctrination of misogyny in certain religious,social and political groups. I’d like to think so.

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