Friday, October 7, 2011

Decriminalize Domestic Violence? Really?

Okay, time for a little rant.

Apparently, the city council of Topeka, Kansas, is considering repealing the part of the city code that prohibits domestic battery. The problem arose because the county District Attorney's office, confronting a 10% budget cut, announced it would stop prosecuting misdemeanors--leaving that to the local municipalities. And this meant that domestic battery--which in most forms is a misdemeanor--was left to the cities to prosecute. Since the cities are not in any better financial position than the county, this literal passing of the buck just made matters worse. Topeka, like everywhere else, is looking to cut costs, and suddenly it has extra financial burdens dumped into its lap.

I empathise. Passing off costs to others is a common way to deal with budget shortfalls, but when the buck is passed in a climate in which everyone is looking to cut costs, the effect is that someone is left with an inordinately heavy burden. That in itself is a problem--it seems far better that the burden be shared equitably, which will only happen without this sort of buck-passing.

But that isn't the problem I want to focus on here. The problem is one of priorities. The problem is about what a society is willing to consider in situations of scarcity. One might reasonably ask whether some vocal minorities have so anathematized the "increase tax revenue" option that certain options that are far less tolerable end up being considered first. Yes, there are concerns about increasing taxes on those who have more than they need--worries that those taxed would, if allowed to keep the money, do more with that money to promote the common good than would the state. And there is no doubt that there are cases of government waste--but is it really true that the rich routinely use their money more productively, in terms of stimulating the economy and promoting the public good, than does the government?

When the matter at hand is domestic violence, I can't think of much that the rich would do with their excess that would compare, in terms of significance for the public good, to the importance of intervening in cycles of domestic violence. On this issue, it seems to me there can be no doubt at all. If the choice is between raising taxes on the rich and decriminalizing domestic battery, it's clear what should be on the table and what shouldn't.

This is not to say that these are the only choices. The point is that new taxes should be on the table long before we consider the idea of letting abusers beat their spouses with impunity. There are some things you just don't put on the table as things to potentially cut from the budget, so long as there are other options. And so long as their are people so rich that they've long ago hit the point at which increased wealth doesn't translate into increased human happiness, there are other options. So how did this proposal ever make it onto the table?

Some might object here that what is at issue in Topeka is misdemeanor domestic battery, not felony assault. Severe beatings and murders would, of course, still be prosecuted.

But a big part of the problem with domestic violence is that there is a cycle of abuse that has the propensity both to accelarate and to escalate. Abusers use violence as part of a broader pattern of control--a pattern that also includes contrition and apology, a "honeymoon" period, and a phase of escalating tension in which fear of another violent outburst has the victim scurrying to appease the abuser until, inevitably, she doesn't scurry quite fast enough.

Early in an abusive relationship, the outburst of abuse may be merely verbal, and it is an isolated event set against an extended period of bonding in which the victim feels special, perceiving herself as the treasured focus of the abuser's life--a perception which, perversely, has a measure of accuracy. Abusers do tend to make their intimate partner the centers of their lives. At the heart of abuse is a genuine human longing for intimacy that has been twisted by fears and insecurities into an obsessive need to maintain control over the intimate partner so as not to risk loss.

And the abuser relies on an arsenal of tools to keep the victim under control: sincere apology, gifts, adoration and worship, selective manifestation of insecurities and frailties at moments when such revelations are likely to inspire empathy, efforts to create dependence through financial disempowerment and social isolation, psychological hazing aimed at shattering self-esteem and (as occurs in fraternity hazing and some military training) rebuilding the victim's sense of worth around the abuser ("I'm nothing without him!"). And then, of course, there is physical intimidation, the looming threat of violence aimed at inspiring the visible displays of subserviance. This may provide the most tangible assurances of control.

And then, finally, the explosion of violence. Early on in the escalating cycle, it's a slap or a shove. But as the cycle progresses, the honeymoons get shorter. Perhaps the heady feeling of control that comes during the escalation towards violence is addictive, and so the urge to get to that stage sooner becomes irresistible. The "honeymoon" strategies become perfunctory, simply what needs to be done to keep the victim from running away in the wake of the violent episode--keeping her around so that the "drug" of her terrified subservience can be enjoyed again. And again.

The outbursts of violence become more frequent, and at the same time more extreme. Like the drug addict, the abuser needs more frequent and bigger doses to get his high.

The point of all of this is to stress the significance of misdemeanor domestic battery laws. What they do is make legal interventions possible at a stage in the escalating cycle when tragedy may still be averted. This is not something that we should even consider dispensing with when there are other, less terrible options. And there are other, less terrible options. While there are people who scream and rage as if a tax hike on the rich were the end of the world as we know, this sort of hyperbole cannot, must not, be allowed to distort our collective priorities so badly that decriminalizing domestic battery is preferred to mildly inconveniencing the richest Americans.

If one has a strong opposition to graduated tax increases, that argument should be heard and the reasons discussed in public debate. If there are instances of government waste that could be eliminated as an alternative to raising revenue, by all means these should be discussed. But when taxation is so villified that allowing domestic violence to occur with impunity makes it onto the table when revenue-increase options are possible, something has gone terribly wrong.

Am I missing something?


  1. A couple of my students suggested that the reason why this proposal made it onto the table may have been precisely because the proposal is so outrageous. It was, in effect, a way of communicating the city council's level of desperation or, more probably, to play a "game of chicken" with the county--trying to pressure them to take back some of the burden they had thrust unfairly onto local governments.

    This may be right, but if so it only shifts the direction of my moral concern. Is the safety and survival of abuse victims really something we want to put at stake in a game of chicken?

  2. Hello! My name is Hilary Welch, and my brother Tim took several of your classes before graduating last spring. He got me a copy of your book and introduced me to your blog, which I've been silently following for some time (silently because I don't have many original thoughts to contribute to discussion, although I very much enjoy the discussion).

    I'm breaking my silence because Rogers State University in Claremore is producing a student-written play called "Queerly Educated," which explores growing up gay in Oklahoma. Westboro Baptist Church is planning to protest the play and school, and I would like to stage a peaceful counter-protest.

    I would like to emulate the example of Pennies in Protest (, which solicited donations to support the organizations that WBC targeted. I like that approach, because it diverts attention from WBC's hateful antics and redirects that attention to supporting the organizations that WBC intends to harm. In this case, I would like to collect donations for RSU's Gay-Straight Alliance (if they have one), RSU's theatre department (to support their production, which will probably be greeted with some outrage), and any relevant local organizations and/or charities.

    I'd also like to follow Pennies in Protest's example by sending a gracious thank-you letter to WBC, and I would like to try to take their example one step further by offering gifts (bottles of water since it's still hot in Oklahoma, cookies since everyone likes cookies, and bookmarks with Bible verses since they can't object to them) to the members of WBC who come to protest. Their message of hate has made them hated, and I can't imagine the pain that accompanies being the most vilified, demonized family in America. I would like to demonstrate that their hate cannot stop our love, in the special hope that the children and teenagers of their group who have been reviled their whole lives will see that they are not rejected by all of society, so they have the courage to leave WBC when they are older.

    Your blog has emphasized nonviolence, and your thoughts on justice as a means of rehabilitating criminals so that they can rejoin society (rather than punishing them so that they are ostracized) seem relevant in reaching out to members of a cult who may see no means of escape. So I wondered if you might have some thoughts on this situation. Is it better to ignore WBC since they feed on attention and seem to crave feeling persecuted, or to use their presence to achieve good and to offer support to members who may want out? If you would prefer to email me, you can do so at

    Thank you so much, and thank you for this blog! It always restores my faith in rational, compassionate religion.

  3. Hilary,

    What you are thinking about in connection with WBC's planned protest at Rogers State sounds like it is potentially quite powerful. Much of its impact will hinge, I suspect, on key details--and you may want to solicit the cooperation or advice of groups that have done this sort of counter-protest before, especially if they have specific experience with WBC and its tactics. I could, for example, try to put you in touch with leaders in Soulforce.

    Following the Pennies in Protest model strikes me as a great way to engage in what Richard Gregg, in The Power of NonviolenceM, referred to as "moral jujitsu."

    I have somewhat mixed feelings about the "thank you note." While the counter-protesters might be sincerely grateful THAT WBC came to town (given that it catalyzed the community behind a loving response of support for those WBC targeted), it is hardly the case that they are grateful TO WBC. The thank you not expresses the former sort of gratitude in the guise of the latter. While this makes it a CLEVER way to let WBC know that their protest had the opposite effect of the one they intended, the transparent insincerity of the "thank you" (insincere insofar as thank you notes are generally intended to express gratitute TO someone) might, I think, be beneficially replaced with something more candid: "We wanted you to know that in response to your protest, $xxxx dollars were raised to support the organizations you were targeting. We hope that this trend will continue, that messages of hate will increasingly inspire displays of generosity to the targets of hate, and that eventually all those you target will rejoice at the news that you are planning to protest them with your hateful messages, knowing the good that will come of it." Or something like that.

    As far as expressing love TO the WBC protesters, the idea you have in mind is beautiful but there are a number of dangers, some very tangible, others more abstract.

    --> cont.

  4. (Continued from above)

    One abstract danger is that they won't get it--that they will experience the gestures of love as expressions of appreciation for what they're doing. But I think that danger is pretty easy to avoid. But there is another abstract danger of a different sort that I think is more serious.

    Love needs to be experienced AS love if it is going to have a chance at being transformative (or of planting seeds of transformation among those who are open to it). And this means that loving gestures that smack of pretense rather than sincerity won't be very effective. Once, when I was part of a Soulforce protest directed at a church that was preaching harmful anti-gay messages, the deacons came out to the easement where we were standing and served us all coffee. But I, for one, felt as if they were putting on a show for us, rather than as if I were the object of sincere Christian love. The gesture almost seemed condescending..."see how much BETTER we are than you! This is what REAL Christian love looks like--serving coffee!" And while it was likely my imagination that they were smirking as they poured us coffee, that sense lingers.

    The question is how to express love sincerely in the face of "God Hates Fags" signs, when you're dealing with a protest group trained to push buttons and provoke. This isn't an easy thing to accomplish, and this is where the more concrete dangers come in. To show love sincerely requires a certain level of vulnerability, of candid openness. And WBC will be following their established script of seeking to turn every personal exchange into opportunities to spit their vitriol, to preach their hate--and, hopefully, to inspire an angry response that can be used as the basis for a lawsuit. (That's how they make their money to finance their operations).

    In other words, I'd think VERY carefully about this dimension of your counter-protest, ideally in conversation with those who are familiar with WBC's tactics. It might be best simply to walk up with a bucket full of water bottles, say, "We thought you might be thirsty," and walk quickly away--and have appropriate Bible verses pasted to each bottle ("Love your neighbor as yourself"; "Judge not, lest you be judged"; "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone"; etc.)

  5. Abuse does not have to consist of hitting. The verbal tactics used by a person are far worse than the physical elements. One can recover from a slap or hit, but words are the most difficult to recover from. Insults about one's appearance, for example, seep into the soul and shred a person. Slams about a person's achievements or talents sink deep. None of this is a prosecutable offense but is a tactic used by one determined to control.

  6. This is Hilary again. Thank you so much for your insights! I got in touch with RSU's Gay-Straight Alliance, and they had decided to hold a silent protest on the side of campus that is opposite from WBC's designated protest site. There will be no physical interaction with WBC, and no one will speak - which will prevent potentially defamatory words from being spoken.

    Although I understood the practical reasons for their decision (avoiding potential lawsuits), reading your reply helped me understand a more resonant reason - it's awfully hard to offer to genuine love in the face of practiced hate, and the best intentions could easily become shallow and condescending gestures in the rush of emotions that accompany such situations.

    My friends and I will be joining RSU's GSA in their silent counter-protest, but we'll refrain from the gestures that could too easily become sarcastic and patronizing. Again, thank you so much for your insights! They've given me more to think about, and I always appreciate that. :)