On the Perpetrator With(in) Us

I attended a domestic violence counselor training session today – one segment of a 40-hour program over the course of eight weeks. I had chosen to attend this particular domestic violence (DV) agency’s training, precisely because of their intersectional lens and framework around violence.

During the workshop, there was a time when all the participants shared how we all came to DV work. Many shared personal stories; there were also numerous participants who listed examples of extremely graphic DV homicide incidents that they had seen in the media or stories of their friends who survived abusive relationships. These were the incidents that had pushed them to get involved in anti-DV work.

Perhaps the greatest source of discomfort for me were the manners in which people shared stories, actively recreating the false standards of what constitutes “abuse” and violence. They repeatedly used these gruesome, physically abusive stories as examples of where their “consciousness” came from, which served to sensationalize violence and put these survivors’ lives up for spectatorship. Many of the participants shared how grateful they were to these survivors, who had “completely changed their lives.” But I would like to ask: At whose cost? At whose benefit? Survivors are not mere objects of inspiration for your own foray into activism.

Those who told other people’s stories around DV also talked at great length – inserting many gruesome details about the violence, perhaps too lightly and without much thought – and spoke noticeably longer than those who shared their personal stories. With enough distance from the violence, they could recall the incident as another interesting story to tell. Meanwhile, I saw different survivors slowly shutting down and trying to disconnect from the massive influx of violence that was being dumped into the space. Folks covered their eyes, got up to get tea, suddenly looked away, or simply closed their eyes.

I understand that the experiences of those participants sharing media stories or friends’ stories are legitimate. Living in such a violent world, it usually takes a great tragedy or an incident to those close to us for people to wake up. But why is it that it is always the same people who get killed, and the same people who get to watch and be shocked into consciousness? Some people don’t have the luxury of not seeing violence, because the violence is inflicted upon themselves. Now thinking back, I can pinpoint my own discomfort largely coming from people’s lack of acknowledgement around their own privileged distance from inflicted violence.

What scares me is that we seem think violence happens to “others” by “those” people, we conveniently forget our own capacity for violence. It may be because my primary mode of viewing the world is through a violence and power lens, but I see violence everywhere – in the $100k paycheck of Google employees, in the silence and complacency of the lilywhite suburbia while Black folks are being murdered on the streets, or in the treatment of Korean community members’ lives as mere “numbers” to present to non-profit funders. It’s more than just physical abuse, more than domestic violence. I believe it is deeply engrained in the way we view, treat, hurt, and love each other, and for many of us, violence is our default mode. Without unlearning, we cannot claim to be working on the anti-violence movement. We cannot truly support survivors and their liberation without undoing our own habits and systems of violence. Survivors are here but the perpetrators are also here with(in) us.

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