There’s a lot to discuss about this week’s announcement of a $100m package to address issues related to domestic violence and violence against women. Was the $100m package the best $100m package? To what extent has the right balance been struck between prevention, crisis management, and punishment? To what extent does the existence of the States block beneficial interventions? And so on and so forth.
This is not one of my policy areas. Within a few days of the announcement, there had been several thought bubbles appear in my Twitter feed from people with very strong opinions about how the package could have been better. For what it’s worth, I wish that more of those voices were louder in the public debate so that we could, as a society, know what our policy options are for tackling something as significant as gendered violence.
But one issue was raised that I found particularly interesting, an issue that fits conveniently within my area of expertise and interest: what it means to be a ‘Real Man’.
Real men don’t hit women.
Our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, dropped this glorious little slogan on national television last week, and followed it up with:
We have to make it as though it was un-Australian to disrespect women.
This rightly created some interest among serious people engaged with gender theory, and wrongly resulted in widespread derision and slack jawed guffaws on social media.
Over on social media, people wondered if ‘false men’ were the ones who were hitting women, and how a person’s nationality should influence whether or not they respect women. Perhaps it’s holograms who hit women, suggested one person. Another wondered if Turnbull was suggesting that disrespecting women was something that barbarian foreigners did. People even tried to suggest that there was a racist element to it, linking the statement to the decision to deny Chris Brown a visa to come to Australia due to his conviction for bashing his former girlfriend, Rihanna. ‘We only care about domestic violence when it’s black rappers,’ suggested one columnist, conveniently forgetting that we also exiled Julien Blanc (who is so white that his last name is literally French for ‘white’) and a host of other white people with violence convictions. We also kept David Icke out of the country until the ALP gave him a visa.
The serious people, on the other hand, had some pretty good points. If the root cause of gendered violence is the inherent toxicity of ‘masculinity’ and society’s feminisation process which disempowers women, then reinforcing the language of masculinity is never going to be helpful. We don’t want perpetrators of gendered violence to focus upon their masculinity; we want them to stop hitting women. Under this reading, the goal is to break down the concepts of masculinity and femininity which, in turn, will stop a wide range of social evils, including domestic violence.
A similar criticism goes towards the use of ‘nationalist’ language in Turnbull’s statement, but it’s not as clear. The argument is that we are trying to universalise the human experience and nationalist borders are a imperial remnant of our colonial past, so trying to link citizenship to moral worth gives voice to unhelpful intuitions about other countries. The language is particularly troublesome when so many people associate Islam in particular with gendered violence, so the language encourages people to form the intuition that Islamic and Australian identities are incompatible.
But we can frame Turnbull’s statements a different way: what if he isn’t talking about exclusive domains of masculinity and Australian identity, but is using these phrases to communicate complex ideas of virtue to a target audience? What if we’re really in a conversation about virtue ethics by stealth?
The paragraph-long version of virtue ethics goes something like this. The two dominant forms of moral reasoning are rule-based (deontological) and outcome-based (consequentialist). To use the language of the current topic: a rule-based moral reasoning might say that there is an absolute rule that gendered violence is wrong; an outcome-based moral reasoning might say that using gendered violence is bad because it results in negative outcomes for society. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, looks to the moral character of the agent rather than to the act. The virtue ethicist might say that they ought not use gendered violence because they do not want to be the sort of person who resorts to gendered violence.
‘The sort of person who…’ is the relevant passage for this conversation. We talk about this in terms of ‘the moral exemplar’: a fictional construct (even if adapted from an historical figure) who embodies those attributes that we want to see in ourselves or that we want to replicate in our dealings with others.
Turnbull’s slogans targets something that is important to his target audience: concepts of masculinity and Australian identity. He forces them to ask themselves: how does your moral exemplar behave with regard to gendered violence? It throws the conversation away from rules or consequences, abruptly shutting off the pathetic whinge that ‘sometimes a woman deserves to be hit‘ (which can arise from deontological and consequentialist reasonings, especially the latter). So where many of us saw ‘real men’ and ‘un-Australian’, targets were seeing ‘what sort of person do I want to be?’
Even despite the caveats about gender constructs and nationalist constructs — which are important and serious — I still think this form of virtue ethics reasoning is good. At the very least, it concentrates on the moral reasoning of the individuals who resort to gendered violence and asks them to evaluate themselves. How do we protect women who are victims of gendered violence? By changing the men who commit or might commit gendered violence.