In recent days, photos of a bruised 24-year old student beaten by her ex-boyfriend, who was until recently a senior lecturer at Sussex University, have circulated on social media. The lecturer was convicted of assault but was allowed to continue teaching at Sussex until pressure from the Students’ Union and a public petition led to his dismissal.
Calling for his sacking has been the main response of commentators so far. What we must all remember, however, is that getting this lecturer sacked is not the most constructive part of our reaction. What will truly make a dent on domestic violence is not the ousting of perpetrators, but preventative care and emotional intelligence, as well as the eradication of what has come to be called toxic masculinity.
Coincidentally, I was taught by this lecturer myself for a year in my undergraduate degree over ten years ago (though I didn’t know him in a personal capacity). Since he was a particularly good teacher I was shocked to hear of this incident. It also struck a nerve for me as I have personal experience of domestic violence at the hands of a partner. Meanwhile, sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by teachers in British universities is an issue of growing concern – for example, Sara Ahmed resigned from her post at Goldsmiths in May in protest against the university’s failure to address the issue. As female bodies continue to be beaten and placed in vulnerable positions at university, angry responses are justified. And indeed, much commentary around the Sussex has been vitriolic, calling the lecturer a ‘vile man’ and emphasising the disgrace and injustice of letting him stay for so long. One can sense an element of retributive justice in people’s reaction: sack the fucker! Punish him for what he has done!
It is certainly true that punishment, and even revenge, can have therapeutic effects for victims of violence. For this reason I am happy to see him sacked. Furthermore, as Franz Fanon argued, violence as a response to violence can be the only way for oppressed populations to achieve justice – especially, or perhaps exclusively, if it is organised. Fanon’s argument referred specifically to resistance against European colonialism: faced with the violent invasion of the African continent and bloody genocide, is the waving of a few banners at a peaceful protest really sufficient resistance?
This argument can also be applied to domestic violence: how much longer will women continue to be abused by men? How much longer will the government turn a blind eye? How much longer will women carry on surviving abuse rather than going berserk and refusing to take it any longer?
Shaming perpetrators online, calling them vile and trolling them can be a part of such an aggressive response to aggression. This may be justified, but when it comes to building a sustainably peaceful society we need to turn to other wisdom. If we are to learn anything from constructivist social research and theory – whether social psychology, feminism, anti-racist prison abolitionism or anarchism – horrific behaviours tend to be produced in people as a response to horrific circumstances (or mental ill health or substance abuse), rather than as deliberate creations by inherently evil people.
While we should condemn abusive attacks to the fullest extent – and while victims have every right to express their anger and resistance – we must also be mindful not to demonise the perpetrators. To be clear, I am not saying that victims need to be able to forgive them, or that anyone else should for that matter. But when, as external observers, we speak about these cases in social media we’d be better off avoiding demonising language and transcending calls for punishment. After all, by getting somebody sacked we have not won any victories in terms of ensuring that this person will not attack again. Providing care and therapy is more likely to help with that. More importantly, the sacking of an individual perpetrator does not prevent any new potential attackers – rather, analysing and addressing the underlying causes of aggressive behaviour and abuse is what will help.
Getting someone dismissed might give us the impression that we’ve done something, when actually we have done very little. Instead of sacking and punishment, the pertinent questions facing us are: why are children – and especially boys – not systematically and expertly taught how to identify and express their feelings peacefully? Why do we, as adults, stigmatise those experiencing difficulties with mental health or wellbeing? What pressures – whether gendered, racialised, economic/professional or health-related – push people into situations in which they are no longer able to relate to others in a healthy and respectful way? And how do we organise to resist those pressures? These are the questions that should mainly preoccupy our commentary on this tragedy.