Domestic violence a product of our adversarial culture


In the first three months of this year alone, 28 Australian women have been murdered by a partner or former partner. The domestic violence epidemic is vastly complex, with widely varying lengths of awareness and responsibility that are the preserve of a large range of professionals.

Following a plane crash, black boxes provide some answers to questions about what happened. After suicides, the answers we most need are buried with the person. With domestic violence, we have a lot of the evidence in our midst, though we may not be comfortable looking for it in some of the most fruitful places.

It is only when we have correct evidence that we can diagnose, and then plan prevention and remedies.

We know that people who experienced violent parenting are more likely to parent or relate violently, unless they have dealt with their experiences in therapy. As Tony Cooke, social worker and the son of a Western Australian serial murderer, said, 'If you have been touched by violence you have to deal with it'.

Do we know how violent Australians operate inside their own psyches? Do they manage themselves with harshness or violence or are they moral imbeciles who have no criteria or categories of morality or ethics?

My guess is that each person is a mixture of all of these elements.  Many more adolescents than we imagine are self-harming in our community. Why? Do we really know the reasons our young men will die for a foreign cult, or commit suicide at home?

Our culture likes violence, especially when it happens to someone else. The stories and images that our media select must sell papers or attract viewers. Otherwise why put the stuff out there?

Sporting games are often very violent in themselves, as is the language of their commentators. And the spectacle, which is more attractive than the game itself, is a players' or spectators' brawl.

Youths, mostly male, become the expendable gladiators fighting on behalf of their fans and financial promoters. Is it any wonder that these public combatants are involved in on-field and off-field fighting?

But as soon as the violence of sport is mentioned or criticised the intimidating voices defending the sacred taboos threaten consequences like 'If you stop that you will be developing youths into softies, milksops, pansies'.

Parliamentary behaviour very publicly often involves viciously attacking the person rather than the issue at hand. It provides a far from edifying example, for the rest of the community. We collude with the degrading of women with our acceptance of a system in which women's wages are 18 per cent lower than those of men doing the same work.

Capitalism needs tough guys – winners not co-operators – we are told.

Conservatives, particularly, cry out for strong leadership. But their version of 'strong' often means tough, fearless, dominating behaviour.

Not necessarily strong morals, strength to share power and authority, strength to be fair and objective or unpopular. Many popular courses and written stuff offered as training for managers use the language of warfare.

In 2004, Gardiner Morse explained in the Harvard Business Review:

Many of psychopaths' defining characteristics-their polish, charm, cool decisiveness, and fondness for the fast lane-are easily, and often, mistaken for leadership qualities. That's why they may be singled out for promotion. But along with their charisma come the traits that make psychopaths so destructive: They're cunning, manipulative, untrustworthy, unethical, parasitic, and utterly remorseless.

Do we ever ask about the costs to society of men being acculturated in this way?

What are the consequences of learning to behave as if control is everything? What happens to the person's desires and of those around them for tenderness, gentleness, compassion, or mercy?

The Australian man's upbringing and schooling are likely to have involved corporal punishment, bullying, verbal abuse, belittling and sledging. The Prime Minister told the captains of the Indian and Australian cricket teams he got his place in cricket elevens not for batting, bowling or fielding but for sledging.

This is a confusing tapestry backdrop for individual Australian men, and has been so for some time. In response to the feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, many men felt threatened. They were often impugned as 'the problem'. Some feminists said it was OK to blame men for everything because women had had such a bad deal for so long. One response was the development of courses, workshops and groups for men.

Unfortunately many of these were inexpertly led, even though they were spaces to share common material. Most courses I was involved with had men craving better relationships with their fathers and deeper relationships with other men.  

Australia's cultural conservatism impeded both desires. There were lots of cathartic tears in these groups along with adept and inept responses from male peers.

Robert Bly's article 'Iron John' – about finding the primitive slimy man in all of us – is supposed to have been the most photocopied article of a decade. In hindsight it was not such a good item, but it was all that there was at the time, though it treated men in isolation from family and children. The Men's Movement was similarly isolated. The Men's Movement in Australia was largely a boys' movement.

Now Domestic Violence is firmly on the political table, with the naming of Rose Batty as Australian of the Year for 2015. Hopefully we will see the emergence of an efficacious plan of action, and not merely a rehash of failed processes. The field is broad, the stakeholders many and varied.

It will require professionals and non-professionals exercising exceptional civil courage, as well as preparedness to reconsider some of our sacred militarist, sporting and mateship myths, especially as we commemorate the centenary of the Anzac landing over the next fortnight. We need to find out what is happening if we are to achieve anything more than cosmetic changes.

Michael BreenMichael Breen, who is based in the NSW Southern Highlands, studied educational and humanistic psychology and was involved professionally in university counselling, organisational and company consultation, and facilitating men's groups.

Fist image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Michael Breen, domestic violence, Men's Movement, psychology, leadership



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Existing comments

Surely direction, method and process are way more important than strength when it comes to assessing leadership.

rose drake | 13 April 2015  

Those who have experienced domestic violence know that it is a lifelong sentence. For the perpetrators, even if there is no acknowledgement, they have to live with the destruction they have caused to others, and themselves. I think there is often a deep sense of inferiority and desperation involved for perpetrators and having power over someone vulnerable produces a veneer of control over their own (the perpetrators) lives. Saving the lives of (in the vast majority of cases) vulnerable women and children must be first priority, so much more money needs to be allocated to refuges and support services. Tackling the psychological factors of males who destroy relationships and families is also very important.

Pam | 13 April 2015  

Wow! What a white hot article! Michael Breen has raised so many questions that one despairs about finding an answer to one of them. They are so intertwined that the problem of domestic violence resembles that of the Gordian knot. There is the temptation to follow the example of Alexander the Great and cut the knot with one blow of his sword. We tend to look to the bold leader who get us out of trouble with one decisive stroke. Life just isn't like that. I wish Rose Batty well in her role as Australian of the Year. but she is no Alexander the Great nor would I expect he to be. She would do well to consult with people such as Mr Breen.Michael is obviously well-versed in the social psychology behind domestic violence in Australia.

Uncle Pat | 13 April 2015  

Interesting article Michael Breen and clearly written from a significant professional experience. While domestic violence has been with mankind from time immemorial, it was, I believe, largely diminished with the advent of Western civilisation based on the Christian belief in a God whose very presence was part of all human beings created in that God's image. With the godlessness of our society and Western civilisation generally, we are living through the decline of this God based civilisation and as with all loss of civilisation, that loss is replaced by barbarity. You quote the most telling of all statistics - that so far this year, 28 women have been murdered by a partner, current or former. Is it significant that the vast majority of these are de facto relationships, an abandonment of the Christian meaning of marriage as a partnership or covenant with the Creator God in the creation of human life? Have we failed to see the image of our creator in our fellow human beings I suggest that this latter is the fundamental problem and all else indicates side effects of that. We have replaced the sanctity of human life with that new, meaningless mantra, "the dignity of human life", a "human right". Our society is desperately searching for a lost God, evidenced every time we see a human tragedy which stimulates the outpouring of a quasi-religious fervour for a few days - placing flowers etc at the sites of human tragedy, paying honour to the victims, if necessary by taking time off from work. The majority, however, are no longer prepared to take the briefest of times off to pay homage to a Creator God. We all need help, not just the victims. That help is always there but it is too inconvenient to access it particularly if it takes time away from our self- indulgence. The Christian Churches have indeed much to answer for in their abandonment of the guts necessary to speak out against the barbarism of our age, and proclaim the presence of God in our fellow human beings. Strewth! I am now officially labelled a nutter, sure as God made little apples !!!!!

john frawley | 13 April 2015  

Well argued, Michael, and astutely commented by Rose and Pam. Pushing small boys into violent contact sport from an early age and then teaching them "it's all about winning" helps to ensure that there will be adult males around who resort to physical abuse when they appear to be losing arguments.

Oldgregan | 13 April 2015  

No, certainly not a nutter, John Frawley. I agree - the Way of Jesus is the way out of the tangled mess our lives have become. However, I do wonder whether the Church as teacher has suffered from being a Men's Club in its temporal incarnation. Priests used to be well known for advising women to make peace and try to avoid annoying their husbands, when women came with complaints of violence. Not so much 'leadership' was shown to the perpetrators. Apparently promoting peace was women's role -men didn't need to be called on their behaviour. I'm hoping that the Church will be better able to challenge the violence which has become endemic in our society as the last traces of adversarial politics in the Church itself begin to disappear. However, it's going to be a long time before the average couple turns to the Church for help, even though it does indeed have the answer.

Joan Seymour | 13 April 2015  

The elephant in the room appears to be a would-be monolithic religious institution which says through its practices that women are not equal to the male - although both, so we are told, are made in the image of G-D. The problem of male entitlement is insidious. Domestic violence consists of so much more than the physical. The undermining of the psyche of the partner through constant putdown is totally debilitating, let me tell you.
The truth is about respect for each other as person - women are real people too. In short emulating Jesus' praxis.
So how come would- be Christian groups have the same problem?

hilary | 13 April 2015  

Bullying and macho behaviour is evident in many male politicians, plus in sporting & business leaders in Australia. This can be seen in some of the behaviour of the current PM, as pointed out in this article eg sledging in cricket. To quote "The Australian man's upbringing and schooling are likely to have involved corporal punishment, bullying, verbal abuse, belittling and sledging." A re-awakening of true male strength is needed, and the courage of citizens to challenge this unacceptable behaviour.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 13 April 2015  

An excellent article, Michael, which raises many pertinent questions. Most commentators responded from their experience. John Frawley was the only one bold enough to nail his solution to the mast. Domestic violence has always been with us. Whilst I agree with John that adherence to religion may provide the moral framework for some people/families, I suspect these are ones that are already functional. There are enough families, religious and non-religious, where domestic violence occurs far too frequently. I think, as others have said, the situation is pretty endemic to our culture and deeply ingrained within it. That culture needs to change radically from within. That change cannot come from talkfests. Obviously resources in the form of counselling, safe accommodation etc. have to be provided on a scale those who control our public purses may well balk at. That to me is a sign of how far off the mark on genuine moral values and social support our society is. I would suggest many aspects of current Australian society are damaged and defective and non-rectification of them will result in this country being a far, far worse place to live in and bring up functional, loving, supportive families.

Edward Fido | 13 April 2015  

I’d be curious to know whether Michael Breen encountered many cases of battered husband syndrome during his involvement in men’s group. In the US, 830,000 men a year fall victim to domestic violence compared to more than 1.5 million women. (See “Help for Battered Men” in WebMD). Assuming these statistics are similar in Australia, this means that there would be about one battered man for two mattered women here. Perhaps some ES articles on “Battered person syndrome” might also be appropriate to balance the one-sided feminist discussion of this terrible problem. Women are not always the victims, nor men the transgressors in domestic violence. In 2009, a Melbourne was jailed for 14 years for murdering his wife after being subjected to almost 20 years of physical and emotional abuse and humiliation from her. One day he snapped and strangled her. (See “The Battered Husband Who Snapped”, SMH November 20, 2009). John Frawley: Can’t really see how our society’s growing godlessness would explain rising violence against women. Look at the god-saturated societies of the Middle East and South Asia. All deeply religious Muslims and Hindus. Yet honour killings, under-age marriage and appalling abuse of women is endless. And as for traditional Christian societies – well domestic violence against women was simply hidden. Women were encouraged to endure male brutality. Thanks to feminism though this scourge is now being more fully reported and may explain the rise in domestic violence figures, especially against women.

Dennis | 15 April 2015  

John Frawley, "sanctity of human life","the dignity of human life", and a "human right" are one and the same thing. The simplest explanation would be "Love one another as I have loved you."

AURELIUS | 15 April 2015  

Michael an excellent article showing a deep understanding of the problem. Your next commentary - the solutions? I look forward to seeing your contribution

Neville fredericks | 21 April 2015  

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