Being a man, and not being sorry

David Cunliffe’s speech to a Women’s Refuge symposium, where he apologised for being a man, has certainly created a storm of discussion. Which is good, because Mr Cunliffe was absolutely right when he said that “family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children”.

As a criminal and family lawyer, I see far too many examples of domestic violence offending in any given week. For some of those offenders, suffering the public spotlight of being dragged through the Court system is enough to provoke a change. For others, being sentenced to a rehabilitative sentence involving stopping violence, anger management or drug and counselling is the key.

Unfortunately, there are always a proportion of offenders that the Court system simply cannot change. They’ve done their counselling (attending simply because they had to, with nothing sinking in), they’ve worked their way through the hierarchy of punitive sentences, and even when a Judge gives them a final warning – telling them that if they come back again on another Male Assaults Female charge, they’re going to jail – they’ll still be back. For these offenders, there’s often a huge sense of entitlement and the blaming of everyone but themselves for their situation. They’re not sorry for the victim; they’re sorry they’re in custody.

Stopping domestic violence is a complicated task. Too many factors feed in to violent behaviour, so there’s no silver bullet. Which is why it’s good that both of our main political parties are concerned about the issue. Which party has the best approach is a question I leave to another day.

That said, David Cunliffe’s apology for being a man was not smart politics. It may have played well to the Labour Left, who embrace identity politics and see “rape culture” as a fact not a concept. However, as Bryce Edwards said on the Nation this weekend, there’s a wide divide between the Labour Left and so-called Middle New Zealand, who will simply have nodded as John Key said:

“It’s a pretty silly comment from David Cunliffe. The problem isn’t being a man, the problem is if you’re an abusive man. I think it’s a bit insulting to imply that all men are abusive. A small group are, and they need to change their behaviour and be held to account.”

I’m with John Key on this one. I don’t have to be sorry that I’m a man in order to recognise that this country has a problem with domestic violence. Just as I don’t have to be sorry I’m white in order to recognise that Maori have legitimate historic (and not so historic) grievances that should be settled.

As Tim Watkins writes:

[T]o start by saying he’s sorry to be a man at that moment is sloppy politics and lazy thinking. It takes Labour back into the identity politics territory that isn’t what swing voters want them talking about.

But worse for me is that it’s just plain dumb. He’s stereotyping men in a way he never would women, Maori, gays, immigrants or any other section of society. And he’s fallen into the trap of effectively saying ‘all cats have paws, therefore every animal with paws is a cat’. Being a man is not the problem per se; it’s what you do with it that counts.

Sure, problem of violence is, in part, tied up with gender — with testosterone and cultural norms playing their role.

But don’t apologise for simply being randomly born one gender rather than the other. Don’t imply a man’s mere gender makes him violent. Don’t simplify a complex issue. And don’t make lazy generalisations.

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