I am not convinced that the public anger against Oscar Pistorius’ prison sentence is entirely genuine. Now we care about women’s safety? Justice cannot begin in our courts if its foundation has not been laid in our hearts and homes. We cannot rely on courts and the State to achieve and perfect something we refuse to begin. Until now, we’ve collectively refused to admit that there is a sickness in our society.
As a collective, we have consistently said “Yes” to the factors that lead to Reeva Steenkamp’s shooting. We continue to say “Yes” to all the factors that lead to violence in general. We tolerate and normalize it. The violence we tolerate is first psychological; the overt domestic, gender-based and sexual bloodshed that makes newspaper headlines first creeps up as the unspoken demand that people live in traditional gender-role boxes. If we were serious about justice, we’d trace Pistorius- and Dewani-type cases back to this root because socialization is 9/10ths of justice served or aborted in the first place.
Yesterday I read a blog post by Queer Consciousness that pointed out – in brutally honest terms –that “Jesus is destructive for black people”. The post went to the core of an insight similar to Anthea Butler’s observation that “as a black woman in a nation [USA] that has taken too many pains to remind me that I am not a white man, and am not capable of taking care of my reproductive rights, or my voting rights, I know that this American god ain’t my god. As a matter of fact, I think he’s a white racist god with a problem”. The insight concerns traditional conceptions of what makes for a “good” man or woman. Those are bound with holdovers of preferences that held sway before and during apartheid; beliefs about what, in South African terms, made for a “good native”, or a “good Christian master”. The systemized inequality was held together by religious conditioning, which in turn made a strong (but illogical) appeal to “nature” and the “natural created order”, things not easily grasped, seen through or interrogated.
Yet these holdovers are at odds with the egalitarian notions of justice we say we want to achieve. As a result, the factors that lead to the violence and injustice we experience live right under our nose, passing themselves off as “the way things are”. The feminists and queer theorists are right: the systems that precipitate violence are invisible because they’re everywhere and vice-versa. They are camouflaged by everything because they’ve infiltrated everything, right down to language. In a heteropatriarchal society, you can have the murder of women covered up or you can openly confess that women have no personhood or human rights. We are one of the first and few societies in history that’s tried to do both while denying that we do both. We try to balance customs like “lobola” without making social provision for the woman who wants to pay lobola towards her man’s family, or another woman’s family, or the man who’ll pay lobola towards his man’s family. If a man asked to pay lobola for a Zulu prince’s hand in marriage, half of KwaZulu Natal would immediately be outraged. When are we going to admit that ours is an impossible balance? What disturbs me is how many people who have not suffered its direst consequences still believe it is maintainable.
Yesterday I saw this Facebook post on DA Councilor Martin Meyer’s profile:
“Strange the experiences in life. Yesterday I had such a positive gym experience when I had a fantastic convo with a young black commercial farmer regarding his challenges as as farmer, his views on land retribution. each. Then today after a gym session and a swim I go sit in the sauna. A couple immediately gets up and walks out. And as the man cowardly closes the door behind them, he says “I’m not sitting in there with a fag”. Now I always knew if the media reports on my sexuality these things could happen. And I always think I’m strong enough to just brush it of as his insecurities and not my problem. But I think of those who he will hurt with his words and his actions. Maybe even his own son one day. And I am hurt. I do get angry.”
If South Africans were angry about 5-year sentences for the death of its women, they’d scrutinize the small incidences like these that lead up to the big incidences like those. The girlfriend of the homophobe would understand the connection between her boyfriend’s chauvinistic contempt towards women and his homophobia. It boils down to an insistence on a subject-object relationship. Relationships aren’t legitimate, homophobia says, unless there is a distinction between the actor and the acted-upon, a distinction that is biologically determined from couple to couple. Relationships aren’t legitimate, says the heteropatriarchal thinking behind the lobola system (as it exists) unless there is one who instigates and pays a price, and another who is seen, chosen and paid for. Actor and acted upon existing in a relation that is immediately understood and approved by others seeking to be in similar relationships and to prove their value to the system by validating and participating only in those kinds of relationships. As it exists, the lobola system also determines these roles via gender from couple to couple.
And right there – in spite of the imminent tantrums of traditionalists – is the lynchpin for violence against women and children and all others who are seen as “other”. It is the insistence on unequal power relations that lead to crime and violence in all their permutations, which are then called many polite terms except heteropatriarchy.
I second Samantha Allen’s belief that “encouraging intimacy between men might save lives”. She wrote this piece in response to Elliot Rodger mass-shooting innocent people as his middle-fingered f**k you to every woman that had denied and deprived him the intimacy he felt he was entitled to and needed. Rodger’s actions fuelled the social media campaign #YesAllWomen. Wikipedia says, “#YesAllWomen is a Twitter hashtag and social media campaign in which users share examples or stories of misogyny and violence against women. First used in online conversations about misogyny following the 2014 Isla Vista killings, the hashtag was popular in May 2014, and was created partly in response to the Twitter hashtag NotAllMen. YesAllWomen reflected a grassroots campaign in which women shared their personal stories about harassment and discrimination. The campaign attempted to raise awareness of sexism that women experience, often from people they know”.
Allen writes, “Straight white men in the United States are facing an intimacy crisis. There’s a lot we don’t know about Elliot Rodger but we do know that he craved intimacy. His voluminous and horrific manifesto chronicles his yearning for physical contact from his adolescence until his death. Elliot Rodger was a young man who wanted touch and closeness in his life.” And when women become the only gatekeeper for the intimacy men crave –when that intimacy is understood to be “sissyfying” unless it’s an opportunity for the man to demonstrate his manly invulnerability and sexual prowess – then you’ve got a perfect disaster waiting to happen. “And, as Lisa Wade notes in an article for Salon, ‘men desire the same level and type of intimacy in their friendships as women, but they aren’t getting it’” because men aren’t socialized for intimacy but for sexual achievement. Indeed, “Rodger, like so many straight white men, could only tolerate one particularly narrow form of intimacy: sexual contact with conventionally attractive white women of a certain social status. The possibility of participating in forms of physical intimacy that are not tied to heterosexual intercourse does not occur to so many men in Rodger’s position.
“The problem that straight white men like Rodger face is one of their own creation. By perpetuating straight male homophobia, straight men starve themselves of a much-needed source of intimacy and affection: each other. As Mark Greene of The Good Men Project notes, ‘straight men have been banished to a desert of physical isolation’ because male-male touch now reads as ‘gay’ and ‘gay’ is anathema”.
She observes that “Women have long since proved that we don’t need to rely exclusively on our sexual partners for all of our emotional and physical intimacy. We put the model in place for men to follow. But straight white male homophobia prevents straight men from meeting their emotional and physical needs in the same way as women. Straight white men are literally starving themselves of the emotional resources that they need to survive.
“The cruel twist in the logic of Elliot Rodger and other Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) is that they blame their loneliness on women instead of themselves. Rodger famously claimed, ‘All of my suffering on this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women’. Women in close friendships with one another perfectly demonstrate one potential solution to Rodger’s loneliness and yet they are also his first targets.
“Like so many men in his position, Rodger blamed women for failing to comply with his single, narrowly-defined mode of companionship instead of expanding his emotional horizons to accept companionship from other men. His predicament is equivalent to claiming that you can’t eat at a buffet because your favorite dish is not readily available.”
Mike Greene says “While babies and toddlers are held, cuddled, and encouraged to practice gentle touch during their first years of their lives, that contact often drops off for boys when they cease to be toddlers. Boys are encouraged to ‘shake it off’ and ‘be tough’ when they are hurt. Along with the introduction of this ‘get tough’ narrative, boys find that their options for gentle platonic touch simply fade away. Mothers and fathers often back off from holding or cuddling their young boys. Boys who seek physical holding as comfort when hurt are stigmatized as cry babies. By the time they are approaching puberty, many boys have learned to touch only in aggressive ways through rough housing or team sports. And if they do seek gentle touch in their lives, it is expected to take place in the exclusive and highly sexualized context of dating. This puts massive amounts of pressure on young girls; young girls who are unlikely to be able to shoulder such a burden. Because of the lack of alternative outlets for touch, the touch depravation faced by young boys who are unable to find a girlfriend is overwhelming” and possibly resolves itself as violence. “The emotional impact of coming of age in our touch-averse, homophobic culture is terribly damaging. It’s no wonder our young people face a epidemic of sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy, rape, drug and alcohol abuse.”
Allen eventually states that “It’s time for straight white men to quit blaming women for their loneliness and to start finding solace in each other’s company. Women can’t bear the brunt of men’s misogynistic violence while simultaneously providing them with one hundred percent of their physical and emotional needs. We can’t continue to suffer from sexual violence and murder because men can’t figure out how to manage their sadness.”
Her conclusion? “Men have to learn to take care of each other. We can’t do it anymore.”
In Pistorius’ case, Judge Thokozile Masipa demonstrated perfectly what I have long suspected about our criminal justice system. Working at its most optimum, the system is not able accomplish what needs a paradigm shift on the ground. We can’t demand that the system lock away men once they’ve become a product of our neurotic, unexamined sexual and gender paradigms. That’s hypocritical and disingenuous, like the sudden anger over Steenkamp’s death and Pistorius’ 5-year jail sentence. I echo Allen’s conclusion: the courts cannot take care of society. The members of society must learn to do it for one another.