Last Thursday I published a piece about domestic abuse. The opinion column was the second stage of a concerted effort, on my part, to bring the important issue of domestic violence to my audience – a large section of which are young men.
The first stage of my drive to explore this issue occurred the previous week when I released a short film titled Gaslight which attempts to portray an abuse scenario from the deluded mind of a perpetrator. In less than two weeks the video was viewed nearly 18,000 times, even shared by White Ribbon, Australia.
The release was the culmination of over a year of painstaking development during which the topic was treated with the highest level of sensitivity – as it should be – whilst also attempting to elucidate the issue from another angle; aware it would be provocative.
Over the course of the year the material was previewed on a number of occasions. I received feedback from community leaders, police officers men’s groups and school pupils. I heard testimonies from scientists, medical professionals and judges. I had conversations with social workers, victim advocates, lawyers and even former perpetrators.
But more importantly I sought the blessing of victims of domestic abuse for whom I previewed the lyrics, music and film many times, at various different stages, on a number of occasions. It was only once I felt confident that all possible care had been taken to ensure that the film did not encroach on the interests or needs of those who have suffered that I finally released it.
The process took almost a year.
The reception was overwhelmingly positive and of that 18,000 views so far you can be sure that a large percentage of those engaging with the film are young men. Young men who can begin to self-identify as being on a spectrum of abusive behaviour. When I undertook the task to produce the film I did so fully aware of the risks but felt the potential benefits outweighed them.
So when my follow up piece on STV was met in some quarters with anger, confusion and dismay then I was not surprised. This topic is as close to the bone as it gets in public life precisely because it is so deeply personal for so many.
As an artist I believe strongly in tackling the pertinent issues and it would seem nothing is more pressing than this.
I welcome the criticism no matter how harsh. It’s right that I should be held to account for my views. When you understand the seriousness of this issue then you already know the areas of sensitivity at play. I made a conscious decision to analyse this issue from a hypothetical perpetrators perspective partly because I knew it would be provocative and, therefore, generate a frank exchange of views.
This issue is getting worse not better and I believe part of the solution lies in how we think about, and discuss, this matter culturally. For this to happen a provocation is required in order to move the debate beyond the current parameters. Parameters which, despite the best intentions of various stakeholders, have come to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.
While some critics seem adamant that I have no idea what I’m talking about, or that my view is poorly informed, I have considerable experience as a professional operating in challenged communities with violent young men – in every possible setting you can think of. Therefore, my decision to enter this discussion at such a potentially jarring gradient is rooted, absolutely, in my belief that there has to be a more emotionally sophisticated approach than we currently have.
I make this claim with total awareness of the potential for very strong reactions and condemnation.
While I have the utmost respect for the many people who believe my views are dangerously misguided I also have to stay the course and stand behind what I have said – even the clumsy parts.
I’m not trying to change the minds of people with strong convictions I am trying to persuade onlookers that there might be, in some cases, more to this issue than meets the eye. How can we overcome a problem of this magnitude without being able to speak honestly about the constituent parts of the problem?
Even where I am wrong that should be okay too. People need to be able to stumble a bit when trying to make sense of such complicated issues.
And like many of the people who have condemned my contribution I, too, have strong convictions rooted firmly in my personal experience. I’ve witnessed domestic abuse up close.
I’ve seen children tied to furniture and kicked across the floor. I’ve huddled with my siblings in a dark room scared to make a sound as a man screamed death-threats through the letter box, kicking and punching the door, on a cold stormy night as my ‘care-giver’ lay drunk and unconscious. I’ve desperately reasoned with an abusive, neglectful Mother who tried to make me dig up a dead animal from the bottom of our back garden. And I stared into her black eyes as she held a knife to my throat and told me she was going to kill me for refusing to go to bed when she asked.
As you can imagine it is very difficult to be accused of apologising for the very abuse I, myself, have survived.
My desire to understand what goes on in the mind of an abusive person is rooted in my own experience as a victim. I’m not satisfied that there is no more to it than her being on a power trip. Patriarchy offers little reprieve from the niggling suspicion that other aspects were at play besides the cultural context for the abuse. Abuse I cannot recover from unless I am able to reconcile who I thought she was with who she really was – because no matter how frightening she could be: I still loved her.
I have to believe in her humanity or my life has no meaning. I have to understand that she was not simply evil or I will never be able to move on. I suspect many victims of abuse struggle in the same way and in their vulnerability we have to be careful about the kind of message we give them about the true nature of their abusers.
Part of solving this problem will involve an uncomfortable level of compassion, patience and love in the face of impossible odds and unconscionable acts of violence. That is after all, what social justice is about.
When it comes to other social problems, such as addiction, we now know that isolating the issue and treating symptoms does not always work. We also know that prison is not always an effective deterrent and that when people do go to jail it often reinforces the attitudes that led to the destructive behaviour – and increases their chances of re-offending. So we try, wherever possible, to treat the problem holistically.
How did the person develop unhealthy coping strategies? What is their back ground? What needs to be in place to help sustain a positive change in behaviour?
Of course, we hold people to account for the crime they commit against others – absolutely! But do so with an acute awareness that, ultimately, jail-time doesn’t get people sober and unless they undergo a fundamental shift in thinking then they will return to their old ways as soon as they are released.
We also recognise that many approaches have to run parallel because there are so many variants of the problem that a one-size-fits-all method only fails the people who suffer.
Same with an issue like homelessness. Homeless caseworkers will attempt to plug a homeless person into a variety of services in recognition that their problem is more complicated than just giving them a house. Yes, it means vast deployment of resources upfront, which can be politically difficult to say the least, but long term it brings the overall cost to society down.
But ultimately, in these sectors, it is understood that prevention of the issues is better than cure. The problem is, often, our leaders lack the political courage to speak honestly about the problems due to the political sensitivities of the day.
That said, I also understand that, just like me, every other person with a strong opinion is coming from their own unique perspective on this issue; rooted firmly in their own internal logic and unshakable visceral experience.
So whilst I feel frustrated that my true intentions to illuminate some of the darker truths of this issue have been misinterpreted I also completely accept that criticisms are valid (and welcomed) and that this comes with the territory.
It’s important that I resist the urge to fire back at anybody or to draw wild conclusions about the motives of those who are very clearly adamant that I am part of the problem here. It seems there is a broad range of criticism and I want to say to those people: I hear you.
It’s absolutely essential for me to practice good faith in relation to critics and detractors, no matter how ferocious or wide-of-the-mark I think they may be. Eliminating a social problem like this is not just about the laws we create but also about how we navigate the new landscape of public discourse while plotting our journey towards better understanding.
My goal is to contribute to a culture that promotes open discussion as opposed to rousing more suspicion and prejudice in people by taking reactions to my work personally. Which is why I always try to engage with criticism and why I always embrace being wrong – even when it’s painfully counter-intuitive.
I’m just trying to create mirrors in which people may catch a fleeting glimpse of themselves. I want to create the circumstances in which a person may be able to self-identity as an abuser in the privacy of their own mind and begin to grapple with that reality. As well as that I’m also trying to catalyse a discussion about what else we can do to try and stem this growing problem.
Of course there are gaps in my understanding, as well as flaws and prejudices at play, which I may not yet be aware of. But should that preclude me from taking part? If it does then surely that applies to everybody else too? Because nobody has all the answers and nobody is free of prejudice – no matter what they claim.
I’ve received countless messages from women over the last couple of weeks, many of them victims of abuse, thanking me for the work that I am doing. Women sharing very intimate details of their lives and experiences who feel inspired by a message that acknowledges the humanity in something as upsetting and ugly as a perpetrator of abuse. Yes it is controversial but that is the purpose of art. So when people who label me an abuse apologist do so on the basis that they are speaking on behalf of victims then I do, gently, have to remind them that they do not speak for all victims.
Nobody can make such a claim.
I’ve seen domestic abuse. My subsequent life as a homeless, drug dependent alcoholic bore all of the hallmarks of trauma from that experience. I believe in certain circumstances I, myself, could have become an abuser. And if that had transpired then the prior causes would have been fairly obvious. While this does not explain the journey of every perpetrator it does increase our understanding of the complex, repetitious, nature of violence.
And this will need to be confronted without fear or favour at some point or we consign ourselves to simply building more prisons where we rely on state violence to as a deterrent from a culture of violence.
If there is a gap in my knowledge – and I’m positive there is – then I simply beg you to educate and not condemn me. No one person, agency of public body will turn the tide of this terrible problem.
And neither of these can claim to exclusively comprehend the needs of the victims either.
It’s time we held our hands up and admitted we don’t know what to do about domestic abuse. Only with that humility, in the face of this horrendous problem, can we lower our defences sufficiently to let the light of understanding shine in.