March 31, 2011 by Dan Johnson
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda. Dan Johnson is on the Board of Directors of the Girls Campaign.
Last weekend I was taking my teenage son and two friends to a sleepover when a song by Chris Brown, R&B singer, came on the radio. This is the Chris Brown who, in early 2009, was charged with felony assault and making criminal threats against then girlfriend, and fellow R&B singer, Rihanna. After accepting a plea deal, community labor and five years probation, Brown is back on top of the charts and still in the news.*
As I was driving, the subject of the assault came up. Ok, I brought it up. One of my son’s friends mentioned that Chris Brown probably wouldn’t have struck Rihanna if it she hadn’t acted the way she did. Full stop. TMZ reported at the time that post-assault photos showed contusions on both sides of Rihanna’s face along with swelling and bruising, a split lip, bloody nose and bite marks on one of her arms and several fingers. The reasoning goes like this: Hitting a girl is bad, but it was provoked. According to reports, Rihanna tossed Chris Brown’s keys into the road prior to the assault. The “but” is, of course, exasperating and predicated on intellectual blindness; a conjunction with no function here other than to suggest causation, to create an excuse for a “smack down.” Read: blame.
Not wanting to embarrass my son’s friend or my son, but refusing to miss this teachable moment, I brought up the story of the 11-year-old girl from Cleveland, Texas who was raped on at least six occasions from Sept. 15 to Dec. 3, 2010. Nineteen boys and men, ages 14 to 27, were charged in connection with the rapes. Then I mentioned that a Florida legislator, Rep. Kathleen C. Passidomo (R-Naples), weighed in with a predictable “blame the victim” allegation. She suggested that the 11 year-old was raped because “she was dressed like a 21-year-old prostitute.”** I asked if she was to blame for her rape. The car grew silent as the message sunk in. The idea here is that a hateful and insensitive attitude was questioned and collapsed on itself. To my son’s great credit, the next day he expressed his disappointment in the prevalence of the archaic gender attitudes that prevail in our small, affluent community.
Status, inequality and violence exist in every culture. Traditionally, two main approaches govern people’s default settings when it comes to violence perpetrated on women. The first is obviously to blame the victim; to suggest that rape happens because women are provocative or seductive, that they “brought it on themselves.” The other is to suggest that all men are to blame, that all men are violent or sexist or perpetrators. These are extremes that the Western mind gravitates toward. And the truth can require context because perpetrators and victims are often in relationship. But these relationships are often uneven, fed by low-self esteem on one side and superiority on another. Violence isn’t created ex nihilo, it is spring fed from deep-seated hatreds. Each of us must take a no-tolerance stance toward violence and use every opportunity to create a conversation and take concrete actions to counterbalance the flood of sexist and misogynistic messages that bleed through many musical genres and much media today.
When I read about an 11-year-old girl being raped, most of us feel outrage. Whether it’s in the US or far away in a developing nation, the poison of inequality still flows freely. Progress is being made. The tide is beginning to turn. But for lasting change to occur, it has to be nurtured in the lives of children and teens. In most cases, empathy can be developed. And empathy, that wonderful capacity to share someone’s feelings, take in the essence of their life, goes a long way toward lighting the fires of fairness and equality. Every day and with every turn of the page of a newspaper or magazine we are given opportunities to teach and stand for a more just society. It makes great sense socially and economically. The poison of inequality begins flowing at home and runs into the classroom before it is enforced in the boardroom. But the seeds of education and empathy can be sown early. And that will make the difference one life at a time.
* As of 3/29/2011, Brown’s songs or songs in which he is featured are listed at #6, #10, #41, #67, #143, and #174 on iTunes Top Tunes. On March 24th, 2011 He issued an apology for throwing a temper tantrum backstage at ABC’s “Good Morning America” claiming GMA “exploited” him for following up on his assault on Rihanna.
**As of 3/29/2011, SB228, the so-called “Droopy Drawers” bill passed the Florida State Senate unanimously. if passed by the House, it would allow school officials to suspend kids who repeatedly violate the dress code.