September 10, 2014
Advocates around the country reacted with surprise and relief when the Ray Rice domestic violence incident received so much media attention. After all, this is the sort of thing – and worse – that domestic violence advocates see every day. Unfortunately, in many places, the commission of an act of domestic violence is viewed as a minor crime and met with sanctions that are more fitting of a traffic violation. This debate is therefore potentially good news.
But as the comments surrounding the incident suggest, much is still not well understood about domestic violence. More than a few responses suggest that the violence was somehow his girlfriend, Janay Palmer’s fault. Others pointed to the fact that they are still together, now married, as evidence that it was not a big deal. And yet others protested that it was unfair to Rice, because all couples fight. The debate revealed the ongoing prevalence of many old stereotypes. As advocates, we clearly have more work to do.
But old myths and stereotypes notwithstanding, the fact is that domestic violence is rarely contained. Whether it occurs in a closed elevator or in a home, the effects spread, and families, neighbors, friends and even entire communities suffer from it. Plenty of research demonstrates that domestic violence is likely the underlying cause of many of our worst social problems including: physical and mental illness of all kinds, crime, poverty, homelessness and a general failure of children, in particular, to thrive. It may not be immediately obvious that the effects of domestic violence are so pervasive; we need to do a better job of showing people how and why that is true.
Finally, despite all of the comments to the contrary, this is not a relationship problem. It is a clear, unambiguous misuse of power by a person who must have presumed that it was acceptable and that there would be few or no consequences. Imagine that Rice punched one of his bosses and dragged him out of the elevator instead of his fiancé. Unlikely? Of course. It’s preposterous. The culture has given tacit and sometimes overt permission for this kind of violence to occur. In this state, and every other, people who commit domestic violence often assume that it will not result in anything that is too much to bear and often enough, they are exactly right.
When such a misuse of power is allowed, the effects on all of us are serious. It is in our interests as a community, society, and culture to insist that courts and lawmakers take this crime much more seriously than they have in the past. It is to our benefit that we identify it and collectively try to stop it.
Native Americans have a story about a forest that speaks to what we must do next. In the story, many trees in a forest are getting sick, so several of them decide to go to the tree nursery for 30 days of treatment. They get plenty of water and sunshine and nutrients. After the 30 days, they happily return to the forest, but when they put their roots back into the soil, they are inexplicably sickened again. Because it is the soil in which the trees grow that is the problem. Rice is like a tree planted in a diseased soil. Though we may stop him, and we should, the soil, the culture that nourishes that abuse of power must be our focus of study and action. Actually we must do both and at the same time. We must help individuals to engage in different, more positive behaviors and also repair the soil that grew it in the first place.
-Pam Wiseman, NMCADV Executive Director