On social media this week there has been some outrage at Chris Brown holding a concert in South Africa. In particular the outrage is that this event is taking place during the 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women[i], and that Chris Brown is a confessed perpetrator of domestic violence against pop artist, Rihanna. After public pressure and a legal process was placed on Brown he publicly apologised for the abuse, and underwent community service (including picking up litter, cleaning a children’s centre, painting, washing police cars etc[ii]). He did not go to jail.
South Africa’s domestic and intimate partner violence levels are incredibly high. The South African Police Services presented to Parliament in November 2011 that 35 495 cases of domestic violence had been reported between September 2010 and December 31 2010[iii]. This is an average of about 8 873 cases a month. So during the 16 Days of Activism, one can estimate that more than 4 000 cases of domestic violence will occur. On the day he will perform, about 266 cases of domestic violence will be reported.
Remember again that many women do not report, and many women who do report are unable to access the protection orders they are entitled to because of failure to understand the process, failure to be informed of their court date, loss of faith in the justice system or economic dependence on the abuser[iv].
So it is understandable that spending money on a perpetrator of domestic violence and allowing him to perform during a campaign that aims to highlight violence against women is like pouring salt on a wound. But, those in favour of Brown remind us, he apologised. One person on twitter asked “why should he have to face a public jury?” He admitted it. Rihanna might be getting back together with him. If she can forgive him, shouldn’t we?
Let’s unpack these points, beginning with the easiest – Rihanna forgives Chris, so should we. It is a logical form of argument, and reflects society’s inclination to stay out of the personal business of others. Let us leave them to themselves it says. He punched her repeatedly in the face. He said sorry. She forgave him. Now move on everyone.
For me this sits uncomfortably. It speaks to olden days where people argued that what went on in a home was not the affair of others. A man could “discipline” his wife or girlfriend, and this wasn’t for people to judge. Domestic violence has historical roots and perhaps this is why we feel so comfortable letting it slide. We, at some level, think it is a private affair. Somewhere deep in our recesses we are asking – what did she do to deserve it? Wanting to forgive Brown’s actions just because he said sorry is what we want to do, so we can move on, and not have to think about what we’d do if it happened to our sisters, mothers, friends. His apology allows us to forget.
The second thing that sits uncomfortably is that we’re all ignoring how often physical abuse is accompanied by psychological abuse that makes the victim believe they deserve it, or that nobody else will ever love them, and is followed by regular and frequent apologies. Domestic violence perpetrators are manipulative. As a result of this many women repeatedly go back to an abusive relationship, despite the despair of their friends and loved ones. The victims of domestic violence also ask themselves that uncomfortable question – what did I do to deserve it? When you love someone, you want to try and forgive them. You want to believe that they hit you because it was an accident, not because they are trying to control you or break you down so you won’t leave them.
Unfortunately, most domestic violence is not a once-off incident. That’s why South African legislation makes it possible for women to get protection orders to keep the perpetrator away. Our law recognises that when women report, it’s probably not the first time they’ve been beaten.
Brown’s online behaviour replicates this. He has repeatedly taken down his twitter because he has continued to say sexist, violent and abusive things. Only this past week, Brown posted a picture of himself saying “I look old as fuck! I’m only 23 … ” When Jenny Johnson, a comedian who regularly antagonises Brown online replied “I know! Being a worthless piece of shit can really age a person” Brown replied “take them teeth out when sucking my dick hoe!” There are already blogs on twitter that point to the fact that she shouldn’t have antagonised him so often – that go back to my earlier explanation that we want to believe “she deserved it” somehow.[v] He is a pathological, quick to throw out verbal abuse, and clearly his abuse of Rihanna stems from a much deeper hatred of women.
It seems clear to me that although Brown did admit and apologise for his actions, this was because he was facing legal action and extreme public pressure. He as the perpetrator, and Rihanna as the victim, were both in a limelight that most victims and perpetrators are not in. Unfortunately their actions took on the level of allegory, and the message we’re left with is – you strike a woman, just say sorry, keep calm and carry on. I don’t buy his apology and the recent twitter spat is only one example of why.
But what about other perpetrators? Should we ever forgive them? I would love to hear what you have to say.
[i] The 16 Days takes place between the 25th of November and 10 December.
[iii] The Parliamentary Monitoring Group. “Domestic Violence Act implementation: Department of Police briefing” http://www.pmg.org.za/report/20111123-department-police-implementation-domestic-violence-act-1998