I cannot wear your White Ribbon

I have something to say about White Ribbon, but it occurs to me that I may well be misunderstood, in either my words or my intentions, in saying it. So I have decided that there is a certain sentence that I will repeat, in bold, in every single paragraph of this post. It is this: I am not advocating violence against women.

I am not advocating violence against women. In fact, I’m not even committing sexism here – White Ribbon is a male-originated and male-run movement – and I firmly believe in the equal capacities of women and men to make well-intentioned errors.

I am not advocating violence against women: I think that movements such as Reclaim The Night and White Ribbon do an often thankless task, and for the most part, do it very well. And I think that the work they do is, regrettably, all too necessary. In broad terms, I support the goals that they work for. It’s some of the particulars that I take issue with, most especially: that they do not go far enough.

I am not advocating violence against women. I do worry, though, that in choosing to focus exclusively on violence against women, these groups reinforce certain patriarchal stereotypes about the weakness and frailty of women, and the strength and dominance of men. It cannot be argued that these stereotypes exist and even prevail in most of the world today – they most assuredly do. I simply think that opposing them is more useful than reinforcing them.

I am not advocating violence against women. It simply seems to me that the message would be both stronger and simpler – not to mention more appealling to women and men alike – if it opposed violence to all. As it stands, it creates an artificial division between violence against women and violence against men, and posits, at least by implication, that the former is worse than the latter. It seems to imply, in fact, that violence against men is acceptable. I disagree.

I am not advocating violence against women. I would point out, however, that the majority of violence in the world is male on male. Male on female violence, while vastly more common than it should be (i.e. it exists at all), is considerably less common. And while they are rarer things, it’s also the case that female on male and female on female violence exist in this world. To say nothing of violence involving transgendered folks or hermaphrodites, as inflictors or victims. There is a surfeit of violence in this world, and it is committed by all sorts of people on all sorts of people. And none of it is acceptable.

I am not advocating violence against women. The White Ribbon website proclaims it “the most common and pervasive form of male violence” but they are mistaken. They have relied on official statistics, neglecting to consider that male on male violence is vastly under-reported in official statistics, precisely due to the cultural norms that White Ribbon claims to oppose. And although the White Ribbon website concerns itself solely with men’s violence against women, this is not a problem to be solved in isolation: it is part of a wider attitude about violence in general. And I do not believe that the solution can be one that emphasises our differences, when it is our differences that generate the problem in the first place. We must recognize our common humanity, our empathy, our compassion.

I am not advocating violence against women. I am, in fact, not advocating violence against anyone, but rather, advocating that we all work for a violence-free world. If we must distinguish between types of violence, then a better place to draw the line is between offensive and defensive violence. Violence in the defence of oneself or others should be the only acceptable kind – and it should be acceptable only as a response to the unacceptable kind. And to be completely clear: by defensive violence, I do not mean either pre-emptive defence or retaliation disguised as defence. I mean violence that exists only when and for as long as there is a need for it as a defence against other violence. Violence that is always and only a regrettable necessity, nothing more. (There’s also consensual violence, as in S&M play, but that’s a matter strictly for the participants, and no one else’s business.)

I am not advocating violence against women, and I understand the argument that male on male violence is cultural norm. So too is violence against women, and so too, once, were slavery, racism, the death penalty and other barbaric practices of the past. The whole point of the White Ribbon is to battle with and change a cultural norm. So to say that a closely related norm is unchangeable is, at best, disingenuous. It’s like opposing slavery for one race, but not another. Ultimately, the White Ribbon campaign does not propose a solution, merely the exchange of one problem for another.

I am not advocating violence against women…
but I cannot, in good conscience, wear your White Ribbon

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