Guest Column

OPINION: Most abusers live in moral echo-chambers

2019-12-13 13:29
Protesters gather to hand over a memorandum of grievances during gender-based violence demonstration outside Parliament, following the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana on September 05, 2019 in Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas)

Protesters gather to hand over a memorandum of grievances during gender-based violence demonstration outside Parliament, following the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana on September 05, 2019 in Cape Town. (Photo by Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas)

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Such is the weakness and hypocrisy of our leaders that they’d choose the path of least resistance, duplicity or "victimhood" rather than confront the demons afflicting this nation head on, writes Tebogo Khaas.

One of the unmistakable truths often encountered in the media environment is that it is extremely difficult to opine forthrightly about a matter involving people in your social networks, particularly when the issue at hand doesn't belong in the Sunday school.

The point, of course, is not to be blinded, patronising or engage in schadenfreude, but to have the courage to confront societal demons and the unpopular truths especially when what's at stake are complex, existential matters of public interest.

Let me explain.

At the outset, let me nail my colours to the mast. I believe in redemption. But as someone who carries physical and emotional scars exacted by an evil, abusive stepfather during my formative years, it is hard to not detest abusers of women and children irrespective of their social, political or economic standing. 

In every patent of the office of human relationships, especially matrimony, the idea of moral duty, fidelity and respect for the other is attached. 

And we all have a moral duty to intercede whenever antisocial behaviour is identified. Of course, this is easier said than done since we are always warned to mind our own business, and let moral hazard or divine intervention be the arbiter.

Such has been my reticence to rise above the parapet that I deeply agonised about the merits of launching myself into this emotive public discourse on gender-based violence.

Patrizia Gucci, an abused member of the Gucci fashion dynasty who was well-known for her ostentatious lifestyle, gained global notoriety when she proclaimed: "I'd rather cry riding in the back seat of a Rolls Royce than be happy on a bicycle." And the world knows what sadly became of her.

Clearly some women countenance egregious abuse by their intimate partners out of societal pressure or fear of losing financial and other material benefits derived from such patently toxic relationships. 

Let me hasten to state, though, that even educated, financially independent women can experience abuse from their partners – and often in silence! Women are habitually subjected to physical violence and abuse even in circumstances where they may not be related to the perpetrator.

The theory of the evolution of humankind is characterised by male entitlement, a dark quest for superiority, abuse of the privilege of physical strength and insidious aggression. As society strives for a more egalitarian construct, male resentment to change and antisocial behaviour towards vulnerable members of society become increasingly commonplace. 

Perpetrators of violence against women and children often do not experience any legal consequences, and impunity remains a serious societal issue. It is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to file a complaint with the police only for the perpetrator to lay spurious counter charges against them. 

In such instances, a prosecutor's decision to undertake a case is always made with an eye on whether, given the complexities of assessing the competing allegations and evidence (including protagonists' attitudes), a conviction can be obtained. Also, complainants are often pressured to withdraw cases and encouraged to treat these as "private family matters".

In any event the criminal justice system is usually filled by people with deep-seated social and political opinions who often share the sentiments and prejudices of the moment.

Concern for children

I consciously refrain from passing judgement on women who elect to stay in toxic relationships, but I do agonise about the long-term psychological impact such decisions have on their offspring.

When children are direct – or secondary – victims of domestic violence their plight is often minimised. Their trauma and needs are subordinated to the selfish adult urges to preserve otherwise toxic unions.

Domestic violence cases, especially where children are affected, should be flagged as notifiable societal malaise. Law enforcement agencies should be obligated to refer such cases to social workers or clinical psychologists for assessment before an open complaint could be lawfully withdrawn.

I often hear the tired excuse that men who physically abuse women and children usually come from "broken" families or grew up in environments in which abuse was condoned. Although this vein of argument isn't totally dry, the corollary does also hold true. Everybody has a choice!

Put differently, discretion and amorality are in eternal enmity. 

Perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse must be encouraged to come clean soonest lest the future inconveniently catches up with their procrastination or aversion to do so.

Sometimes, a confluence of the global tide of activism against gender-based violence and deferred public reckoning for past indiscretions, can collide into a perfect storm of public relations disaster for public figures in a manner that even their worst enemies couldn't have imagined or conjured up.

There are cardinal lessons that can be drawn from others who once committed moral sins while living in a glass bowl.

When golfing legend Tiger Woods was caught putting on greens other than those manicured for his matrimonial indulgence, he didn't regard the incident as a private matter. Instead he sought the nearest public microphone and television cameras to apologise unreservedly to his wife, family, legion of fans worldwide, and those with a pecuniary interest in his golfing career.

Woods understood very well that his redemption depended on his willingness to publicly account, be contrite, atone and seek forgiveness for his indiscretions. A reluctant public figure, he took responsibility for his actions without any obfuscation or arrogance. Of course the public glare and humiliation that he and his family endured must have been unbearable. 

Society too unforgiving?

In the end analysis, Woods endeared himself to a multitude of stakeholders, especially sponsors whose brand images had been sullied by his conduct. The question is: has society, since the Woods saga and the advent of the global #MeToo movement, become too unforgiving that there's no point in seeking redemption? I don't think so.

The catharsis and inherent value arising from introspection, contrition and atonement itself should provide adequate incentive.

Powerful politicians who sexually prey on financially vulnerable young women, or gratuitously abuse strained state resources to settle extramarital affairs and personal errands, are no less despicable than men who physically harm women.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to dispel assertions that most of our political leaders either live in a dual moral universe, battle degenerative ethical leadership atrophy, or both. They represent a panoply of shame and should not be held to different moral and ethical standards.

When, during a crucial election campaign moment, former US President Barack Obama was confronted with potentially perilous consequences of his past association with an allegedly bigoted pastor, he didn't disinvite himself from the opportunity to publicly confront the vexing issue. What followed was his delivery of a seminal speech on racism in America. 

By all accounts, it seemed unwise for President Cyril Ramaphosa to disinvite himself – and the nation – recently from an opportunity, however controversial the platform, to have tough conversations, including on gender-based violence. 

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Also, whilst we should appreciate the public outrage demonstrated by Ramaphosa over the killing of a young Limpopo female student, promising to condemn convicted criminals to hard labour camps is as hate-bating, redolent with populism, reckless and unhelpful as it is unconstitutional. 

For, hatred begets more hatred.

But such is the weakness and hypocrisy of our leaders that they'd choose the path of least resistance, duplicity, expediency or "victimhood" rather than confront the demons afflicting this nation head on.

In a limited but universal sense, our leaders can best be described as reluctant, desultory crusaders for moral regeneration and nation building.

There's another, more urgent and sinister sense in which wrongdoers, when called to account for their conduct, plead victimhood and unjustly vilify others as their tormentors or enemies in an effort to deflect accountability.

Of course most abusers live in "moral echo-chambers", are often in perpetual denial of the wrongfulness and gravity of their conduct, and surround themselves with sycophants who validate their amorality.

Let me conclude with an unnerving, but necessary, truth uttered with an unmitigated sapience as though only the naïve or self-deluded would imagine anything otherwise.

You can never blame your adversaries for doing what your adversaries will predictably do. You can only blame yourself for what you've given to your adversaries. If you've given them absolutely nothing, guess what they'll be able to do: nothing!

- Khaas is executive chairman of Corporate SA, a strategic advisory consultancy; and chair of Public Interest SA, a public benefit organisation that seeks to safeguard and advance constitutionalism.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.  

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  domestic violence  |  sexual abuse
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