Headspace Morality

Gender-based violence and apophenia

Earlier today, my friend @kelltrill said

and this led to a little bit of to-and-fro between her and some others who seemed to think it somehow obvious that if Oscar Pistorius had intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp, it would have to be classified as gender-based violence. Now, that might be typical usage of the phrase gender-based violence. But if it is, I’d like to suggest to you that it’s wrong, and lazy, to speak of cases like this (i.e. a man killing a woman) as axiomatically gender-based.

Steenkamp & PistoriusNone of what I say here is intended to minimise or trivialise the fact that women are overwhelmingly more likely to be the victims of domestic assault by their partners than men are. There are hundreds of things I could link you to, but the evidence is so overwhelming that there’s no need – you can easily find something yourself. (And in case any MRA’s happen to wander past here, no, I’m not saying that men aren’t sometimes victims of various forms of discrimination themselves.)

Furthermore, I’m quite happy to regard this case as at least in part an instance of gender-based violence (on the assumption, for the sake of argument, that Pistorius intended to shoot Steenkamp). I’m happy to do so because Pistorius fits a classic alpha-male stereotype – proud, strong, with a history of short-temperedness and violence. The stereotype might not fit or be fair, but I’m disclosing it to wall it off, in that this case in particular is not my focus – I want to instead address the use of that generalisation (gender-based violence), with the case as a springboard for doing so.

The mere fact that a victim is female (or whatever) does not mean that the violence can be described as whatever-based. If Pistorius knew that he was shooting Steenkamp, then – obviously – the most fitting label for this action is Steenkamp-based violence, where Steenkamp is also a woman.

Even if it’s true (as it is) that more men abuse and kill their female partners than vice-versa, Pistorius can’t be known to have been more likely to shoot Steenkamp than he would be to shoot anyone else who he was ill-disposed to, or where he could benefit from doing so.

If a person had a history of violence against a certain sex, race, nationality or whatever, the generalisation has more merit – but before establishing whether those facts hold, we shouldn’t jump from a) the existence of a general culture of violence against X to b) the conclusion that a particular instance of violence against X fits that pattern.

I’ve argued something similar in a post about “Satanic” killings, where while it’s easy to generalise, doing so can obscure important details about motivation and how we should respond (for example, that psychiatrists might be more useful commentators than ghostbusters like Kobus Jonker).

The same danger of over-generalising in a confounding sort of way could occur with a murder or assault that is perpetrated across races – in South Africa, entrenched distrust between races could (more in some parts of the country than others) explain the motivations behind a murder, but they can’t be assumed to do so.

Take Eugene Terre’Blanche as an example: yes, he was a white supremacist, but the farmworkers who murdered him might have done so because he was also an abusive employer, or a rapist (as the murderers alleged). So while you could call that an instance of race-based violence, doing so would (or, could) distract from more pertinent details.

In short, what I’m arguing is that we should be careful of affixing convenient labels to events or people, even if they are often true. Harriet Hall has a review of an interesting-looking new book on critical thinking on Science-based Medicine, where I was introduced to a useful idea I hadn’t encountered before. It’s called apophenia, and

It means the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena, the tendency to find personal information in noise, seeing patterns where there are none, the kind of subjective validation that cold reading exploits.

To recap: I don’t dispute that gender-based violence is a real thing, and a real problem. But to call every instance of violence across genders (usually male on female) an example of gender-based violence is hyperbolic, in that it might be a judgement that claims more than what the evidence tells us.

This, in turn, could be problematic, not only because it’s a simple instance of laziness in not making fine discriminations regarding what data can tell us, but also because the more things you fit into a category, the more diluted that category might become.

It’s precisely because gender-based violence is such a real thing, and is such a problem, that we might want to be more cautious about affixing that label to cases that it might not fit.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “Gender-based violence and apophenia”

Mmmm, where I disagree with your comparison with racism is that racism denotes a mindset/attitude along with a set of behaviors, where “gender violence” simply describes a category of events. It doesn’t explicitly imply a motivation, the man could have beaten his gf because she bought the wrong brand of cereal, because he was in a bad mood, because he forgot to take his pills, because she questioned his manhood, whatever.

To say something was racially motivated, yes, you need to have further evidence about motivations. To say something is gender violence or domestic abuse, you don’t really need to know motivations, only the circumstances and relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. It doesn’t have to be motivated by gender, in other words, it just has to fit into a perceived pattern of behaviors between genders.

It’s hard to nail down an exact definition of gender violence, but most attempts tend to make violence committed by males against their romantic partner pretty much part of the definition.

“GBV is defined as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”, thereby underlining that violence against women is not something occurring to women randomly, but rather an issue affecting them because of their gender. Further, GBV is defined as including“acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.””

“The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW)adoptedby the UN General Assembly in 1993 has been influenced by CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19. It defines VAW as: “Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likley to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” (Article 1) The declaration encompasses all forms of gender-based violence against women (physical, sexual and psychological), no matter in which context or setting they occur:”

“Both, CEDAW GR 19 and DEVAW explicitly encompass violence perpetrated by either, state officials or private persons such as family members, acquaintance or employers.”

I’m not saying that Pistorius is guilty, but if he did knowingly chase her into locking herself in a room then shoot her through the door, seems to to fit.

If you filter based on motivation, then the guy who beats his wife isn’t committing gender-violence because HE says he smacked her because she was cheeky, not because she was a woman.

Motivation isn’t the determinant for fitting the category, it’s whether it fits a broadly observed social trend of gender interaction (using violence in relationships with women). A dude murdering his gf, whether in a rage or cold blood, would fit (ASSUMING that’s what happened, which we of course shouldn’t).

If “gender-based violence”simply means humans of type X committing violence against humans of type Y, then I’d call it a pointless phrase that should be consigned to the dustbin.

And I also think it’s implausible to read it that way – if we grant (as both you and I would) that there are more instances of male on female violence than vice-versa, you’d naturally start thinking about why that is the case – is it misogyny, is it a culture of macho-ness, etc., and this line of thinking leads us straight into considering motivations.

So, if you’re right that that’s how the phrase is defined, I’d suggest that the definition was poorly-considered. But more importantly, how things happen to be defined in law/policy isn’t necessarily relevant to a common-person understanding of them, where in this instance, my perception is of “gender-based violence” meaning “violence against women, qua their womanhood”.

I’m not saying that gender violence is all violence committed against women.

I don’t think I’ve made my argument very clear. Let me see if I can phrase it better.

Racism is a “why”, gender violence is a “what”. One is what caused someone to do something, the other is the thing they did.

Racism that doesn’t motivate you to perform any harmful actions is not illegal. Violence in all forms (except under special circumstances) is.

“Gender violence” is simply a sub category of violence based on certain characteristics of the violent event which do not necessarily imply motivation.

In the same way that child – abuse is. The defining characteristic of child abuse is not the motivation of the abuser for their abuse ( I smacked him because he wouldn’t stop crying), it’s the recognition of disparate power dynamics and vulnerability. All instances of violence against children aren’t child abuse (a gunman firing randomly into a crowd who happens to hit a kid isn’t performing child abuse). Only those characterised by that dynamic of vulnerability.

Similarly for gender violence. The reason that men murdering their girlfriends is automatically considered gender violence (even though women of course have also murdered their husbands) is the recognition of disparate power dynamics and vulnerability between men and women in their intimate relationships.

Your criticisms of the assumption that this incident (assuming guilt) is gender violence sound similar to arguing that, if we had a case of a child beaten to death by a parent, we couldn’t assume that was child abuse unless we know that the parent beat the child BECAUSE of their age.

That would be absurd. The type of violence is describing the “what” not the “why”. The violence was enabled by their age and vulnerability, so in that sense it is a kind of “why”. But it’s not describing the *motivation of the perpetrator*.

I recognise that maybe we simply have an intractable difference of opinion on the definition, here. I just want to make it clear, lest that mistake gets made, that my definition isn’t “all acts of violence performed by men against women.” But it certainly does include all acts of violence committed by men against their intimate partners. Because of the nature of those relationships, and the way that women are generally more vulnerable in them. (on average. We will make an exception for the guy married to the 10 foot woman).

I also think that my sense of what it means is actually closer to the common-person understanding of the concept. Which is why Kelly saw all those comments which inspired her tweet and your post. (Of course, what the majority believes is not evidence of anything. I just don’t want to give the impression that I’m seeking to defend my argument in an understanding that is rooted in legal jargon rather than in what the common man really believes. )

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