Pat O’Shane, AM
“With lips that failed not she uttered rebellious words … Then the lord raised the thunderbolt, his mighty weapon, and against Tiamat, who was raging, thus he sent the word:
“Though art become great, though hast exalted thyself on high ….
And against the gods my fathers thou hast contrived …
Stand! I and thou, let us join battle!”
When Tiamat heart these words,
She was like one possessed, she lost her reason.
Tiamat uttered wild, piercing cries,
She trembled and shook to her very foundation.
She recited an incantation, she pronounced her spell …
To the fight they came on, to the battle they drew nigh.
The lord spread out his net and caught her,
And the evil wind that was behind him he let loose in her face.
The terrible winds filled her belly …
He seized the trident and burst her belly,
He severed her inward parts, he pierced her heart.
He overcame her and cut off her life;
He cast down her body and stood upon it …
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood …
Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed witch men,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth …”
This is taken from the Enuma Elish, the earliest recorded creation myth from ancient Mesopotamia.
It is a great privilege to deliver this second Pamela Denoon Memorial Lecture tonight. Unlike many of you in this audience I did not know Pamela in life – that was surely my loss; but heaving been invited to deliver this address I have heard from some of those who did know her, and I have read about her, and I feel now that I know her in a way that perhaps I might never have know her in life. Certainly I feel that I can truly say about Pamela Denoon that she was indeed a sister. In the eulogy of Pamela, just eighteen months ago, Amirah Inglis spoke about Pamela’s strong belief in social justice, and her great skills in “stop[ping] people fighting each other”. As it so happened, when I was first approached to deliver this memorial lecture, my first thoughts were about what theme and topic I would address; and because I have been disturbed for many years, and even more so in the course of recent years in the course of my present job as a Magistrate, I decided to offer some of my reflections on the issue of violence in our society.
A good deal – I would go so far as to say the majority – of the matters that come before me for determination are assaults. Of those, the overwhelming majority involve parties who are intimates to one degree or another. Many of those assaults arise out of “domestic violence” situations (a euphemism, Jocelynne Scutt reminds us, for criminal assault at home); but many more arise out of situations where young men are socializing with each other. In a quite different category are those incidents where ordinary citizens conflict with Agents of the State, that is to say, Police. Whilst in the former categories, in my observations there is no particular socio-economic profile of the parties, in the latter category the profile of the offender-victim is most often of an ethnic or racial background other than Anglo-Australia, e.g., Aboriginal, Lebanese, Vietnamese or other Asian origin; male (though not always; if Aboriginal, for example, the offender-victim is often likely to be female); quite often unemployed, poorly educated, and what I describe as largely inarticulate. Without exception in my experience, in thee cases the Defendant, that is the person before the Court, answering to the charge (or more accurately charges) usually of assault, resist police, maybe hinder police, and offensive conduct/language, alleges that he or she was assaulted by police and subjected to racist abuse – hence my term “offender-victim”.
In yet another quite different category are those incidents involving gratuitous violence – (I do not use the term gratuitously in the context) – by strangers upon passers-by. This category is very – very – small.
When I reflect on these experiences it seems to me that we are a society at war with ourselves; continually “fighting each other”, and it seemed to me fitting that I should address this theme in a lecture dedicated to the memory of a woman who gave so much of her endeavours to stopping this war.
In doing so, I fully realise the very ambitious undertaking I have given. The issue of violence is very complex; and whilst it has always been with us, and is all-pervasive, at the same time it has been very much a taboo subject, given little or no public or private acknowledgement. I do not present myself as a person qualified to deal comprehensively, or even adequately, with the topic; rather my purpose tonight is to add my voice to the public acknowledgement of the issue. There is a great deal that I would like to say about this issue, but I know I will say too little, for reasons of time and my own limitations; and I beg your indulgence beforehand.
Coincidentally at the time that I was considering this evening’s lecture the report of the National Committee on Violence became available to the public. In broad terms, the findings of that committee with regard to the contexts (in terms of locations and persons) in which violence occurs, and the extent to which it occurs in each of those contexts, coincide with my observations. The Report sets out a number of proposals directed towards Governments and government agencies for action to minimize the incidence of violence in Australia. Since the committee was established by the various governments of the states and the commonwealth, such proposals are most appropriate; but it is my view (and I urge it upon you strenuously) that each of us, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our extracurricular activities and interactions with others, have a responsibility to place this issue on the private agenda, to talk about it, to propose constructive ways of dealing with it, so that all Australians become integrated in the process of making this society violence free.
(I must say I feel enormously proud that our country, my country, has undertaken to consider this issue in the way that it has. It is in the largest part due to the efforts of women such as Pamela Denoon that the National Committee on violence was established; and the work of the committee is a tribute to those whose commitment is to eliminating violence. I am not aware of any other country that has taken action to reduce, and hopefully to eliminate, violence in its society.)
I said a few moments ago that the issue of violence is a very complex one. It was my intention in quoting from the Enuma Elish and pointing out that it is the earliest recorded creation myth to illustrate something of that complexity. But I want to stress first of all that violence is a phenomenon of some considerable antiquity. I stress this because there is a perception abroad in our community that society generally, and ours in particular, has become more violent than it was. Even more particularly, it is more violent (in the common perception) than it was “in my day”. This common view is not borne out by studies on the issue. The Violence Report, for example, states, that Australian society today is not as violent as it was a century ago, but it is more violent than it was before the second World War. Whatever may be the reality – and reality so often depends on the position from which one views the world – one thing is certain, violence, to one degree or another, has been part of the human condition for a very long time; whether it is more or less with us now than in times gone by, it is still with us. There is no point in our arguing about that issue, but rather should we be clarifying our agenda in minimising or eliminating violence.
Now, let me come back to the “complex” issue. To do that I should give some little interpretation from the Enuma Elish. Tiamat was a female god who ruled over the world in company with other gods. Originally there was no hierarchy amongst them, until Tiamat (so the legend goes) gained supremacy – by reason of her function as “the original progenitor”. The male gods plotted to disempower her, without success, because she was always equal to them in actual physical strength, until it was decided amongst them that Marduk, her son, who was very close to Tiamat, should carry out the foul deeds described in the passage quoted; but it should be noted that he was not able to do these things to her before the combined might and will of the other male gods had considerably weakened her influence and physical power, and further he needed weapons (or armaments) to effect those deeds.
But I digress … the real point I want to make is that what Marduk did to Tiamat was an act of extreme violence and destruction; yet the story is told as one of creation. Clearly there is something seriously amiss in such a characterization of what occurred. It is in the first instance an horrendous contradiction in terms. Yes, I mean that it is a horrible, dreadful, contradiction in terms; not to say obfuscation of the issues.
And yet we still hear these sorts of events described in these sorts of terms. Almost by the day, whenever there are reports of murders committed by men upon their female intimates, it is said by those men (or by others on their behalf, such as their lawyers, judges, mothers, sisters) that he loved his victim so much – so much that he killed her. Just last week in Sydney – it might have been today – a young man was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The story goes that he went to give her some flowers for some celebration; saw her with another man; pulled out a knife; and stabbed her several times. When handing down the sentence, the Judge said something to the effect “… the tragedy is that this man dearly loved that woman”. The Judge’s remarks in that context were bizarrely inappropriate, since the tragedy was that a life, a female life – the life of a bearer of life – was destroyed, snuffed out.
Even at this relatively superficial level it becomes obvious that the issue is a complex one; and indeed, as soon as one identifies these aspects others come forward with references to the social, economic, psychological circumstances obtaining in each particular case; but it is not so complex that we cannot start to deal with it. If our agenda is to stop people fighting each other, then the first thing we must do is identify and correctly name what is presently happening in our midst: destruction of life is not creation, murder is not love.
We must say so clearly unambiguously – and often. We must say it to each other; we must say it to our colleagues; we must say it to the person we meet down the street; and we must say it to our legislators. We must say it to our doctors, nurses, police, and to all the law enforcement agencies. And when we hear our psychiatrists, and our church leaders, and our judges naming it as murder, not tragic love, then maybe we can stop saying it.
Language (we know almost as if by instinct) is important. It is a powerful tool of expression of our realities; and the language of doublespeak is the language of deception. Feminists all over the world have analysed at length and in depth, the masculine supremacist dimensions of language, but none of them actually say that it is the language of deception. Surely no-one not even the most committed misogynist, could argue with any force that murder equals love in any language. My point is that whilst elements of male supremacist ideology are implicit in such a characterisation, there is enormous deception being practised on all, men as well as women. Our function is to denounce that. As Paolo Freire exhorts us to do in his powerful book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (and women are always the oppressed) we must reclaim the language, we must restate our experiences in language which we understand, and which accurately reflects those experiences. That process, of itself, is a liberating one.
In my view, one of the major shortcomings of the Violence Report is that the issue of language – the terms and descriptions by which we identify the various manifestations of violence – is not even remotely considered. This is to be expected in the current ideological climate, of course, but with heightened consciousness of the issues, there is no good reason why we should allow that to continue.
The issue is no mere trifle, Taking Dr Scutt’s point that “domestic violence” is a euphemism for criminal assault in the home, we very soon arrive at the point of thinking (as so many in the community do) that there is no good ground for outside intervention in the “domestic” concerns of private individuals. The authorities then can pretend that they are not duty bound to take meaningful action in respect of very serious acts committed by one person upon another.
Yet as most of us in this audience know, and as the Violence Report so clearly shows, the public cost of criminal assault in the home is at the very least $27.6 million. That was the cost of refuge accommodation for victims of domestic violence in 1986-87. In Queensland (the Report records) the total cost of serious domestic assault amounted to $108 million. With those levels of public cost is it not time we stopped obfuscating the issues with inappropriate language, and got down to calling it what it is.
I want to briefly reflect on some aspects of power and violence. Robin Morgan, in her latest book The Demon Lover: on the Sexuality of Terrorism, passionately argues that the two phenomena are so closely integrated, so commonplace, as to be called politics. On at least one level that is so; however there are different views, and I refer at once to the Violence Report again. The Committee states: “Violence is more common in those societies characterised by widespread poverty and inequality. In societies generally, violence is more common within those social groups which might be described as an ‘underclass’”. It goes on to cite a survey which found “that people from blue collar households are much more likely to believe that physical force could be acceptable behaviour”. This again is in line with other findings “that the highest rates of wife abuse [sic] … were associated with combination of blue collar status, drinking and approval of violence …” Such findings suggest to my mind that in many circumstances violence is rather an expression of powerlessness. On the other hand, Dr Scutt states that “whatever form the abuse takes, inequality is inherent in the structure of the relevant relationship. Women who are politically, socially and economically oppressed are battered by men who are, comparative to them, politically, socially and economically dominant”. (I quote from the Violence Report) which suggests that males in those circumstances are acting in powerful ways. Whilst within the context of the male-female relationship the male is exercising power over the female, yet within the broader context of society he is expressing his powerlessness. On this aspect the Violence Report cites Alder, whose thesis is the “in the case of the male to male violence it is in the context of the testing and establishment of power in relation to other men”; and that even after addressing such questions as economic inequalities then we have to address the issue of gender stratification, and in particular “confront our construction of masculinity”. Dr Bob Connell, of Macquarie University, takes issue with that on the grounds that “masculinity is not all of a piece. There have always been different kinds, some more closely associated with violence than others …” . I would certainly hope that that is the case; otherwise it seems to me that we have very little prospect of changing the order of things. I do not subscribe to the thesis set out by Morgan that the order will be changed by simply substituting female values for male values, substituting the politics of Thanatos for the politics of Eros – as she puts it. My first point of departure from that view is at this level: tendencies to violence seem to me to be part of the human condition. Whether that is an innate or learned characteristic I do not know; but I know that women are surely capable of, and do exercise violence in numerous situations. In particular women commit horrendous acts of violence against their children, and occasionally against men. I am not making any particular judgement about that at this point, but rather merely making the observation that violence is an aspect of human nature.
Do we truly believe that if female values were to predominate there would be no exploitation, no oppression, no violence committed by one person (or class, or society – substitute your own terms) against another? Firstly, do we know what female values are in the absence of male values? Is there a purity about female values, which has been lost by the overlay of male values? Do we have any grounds in our millennia of collective experience for such beliefs? My own answer to each of these questions is No. As Marilyn French says in her book Beyond Power: Women, Men and Morals, when discussing the issue of patriarchy being the dominant morality: “all of us, women and men, poor and rich, black, white and people of color, have been imbued with its values, its perspective and its taboos. We carry these into whatever we do, whether we are attempting to gain power or to ameliorate the human lot. It is our efforts, and the efforts of generations of people like us, that have produced the present situation of the world. Although many of us find it comfortable to divide the world into good and evil people, and to attribute its ills to whomever we call evil … in fact all of us contribute to [the] world situation …”.
Call it then be said that the violent aspect of the female makeup is entirely due to the masculinisation of women wrought by a complexity of circumstances and environments in which male values so predominate that women are not able to withstand their impact? My own view is that it cannot be said. If that were the case, then it seems to me tha the only argument we would be left with is that violence is indeed an expression of powerlessness; that is to say, that the female is so powerless to withstand the impact of male values that she becomes entirely possessed – demonised – by him, the all-powerful male. Further, of course, it is an abdication of the responsibility which French says (and with which I agree) we all carry. But to pursue the threat: if under the influence of the Demon the female then behaves in violent ways (let us assume in relation to her child/ren) is she acting from a position of powerfulness? What I am getting at in raising these sorts of questions, is that the issue of violence as power is yet another complex one, not easily dealt with entirely in terms of constructs of masculinity.
I do not pretend to have the answers to these difficult questions, but I am coming to the view that violence is non-gender specific, that it is a human attribute; and that some humans are more likely to express violent behaviour than others are; and further that some will express that violence from positions of powerlessness, and some will express that violence from positions of powerfulness.
None of these last remarks is meant to convey that we should not work strenuously to assert the predominance of “feminine” values of survival (or life), and “feminine” ideals of personal integrity and morality. Of course we should. We are duty bound to do so, if our objective is the realisation of a home, a community, a society, a world, free from violence and the threat of violence. If we are to achieve the changes we envisage, then we shall certainly have to muster all our resources. French reminds us: “it is easier to destroy than to create: destruction requires less thought, energy, patience, endurance, and moral/spiritual strength than creation”. But then we have survived for a very long time in the face of terrible onslaughts, and that has required enormous thought, energy, endurance and strength. It is as though we have been in training to effect these changes. Each of us can only work to change the order of things within our own spheres of living and influence, to start a process – one which will be continued by those who are yet to come. I take one last liberty in borrowing from French again:
“The end is the process: integrating ourselves and carrying integration as far in to the world as we can. There is no final end; there is only the doing well, being what we want to be, doing what we want to do, living in delight. The choice lies between a life lived through and a life lived; between fragmentation and wholeness; between leaving behind us, as generations before us have done, a legacy of bitterness, sacrifice and fear, and leaving behind us, if nothing more than this, a memory of our own being and doing with pleasure, an image of a life our young will want to emulate rather than avoid. The choice lies between servitude and freedom, fragmentation and integration. The choice may be between death and life”.
There could be no more powerful memorial to Pamela Denoon.