On TVNZ’s unethical public experiment with domestic violence

One of my religious studies lecturers once said not to bother with universities if you wanted to conduct psychological or social experiments in a hurry. Even a brief glance at the Otago psychology ethics page shows that academia’s ethical regulation has, in general, become much more rigorous since the days of the Milgram experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment). To receive permission to conduct an experiment, one must fill out a highly detailed application, including consent forms from all the participants, analysis of the participants’ social demographics, and details of risk of discomfort. So if you don’t want that level of scrutiny, my lecturer said, just make a reality TV show.

It turns out we don’t have to reach as far as reality TV; even publicly-funded current affairs shows are fair game for unethical experiments. TVNZ’s programme Seven Sharp recently ran an item called “Bystander Test – abuse in public: What would you do if you were confronted by a woman who’s clearly in trouble? Craig Stanaway put that to the test.” The piece can be viewed here: http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/bystander-test-abuse-in-public-video-5369156. I will add what they neglected to: a trigger warning for domestic violence and abuse.

For the benefit of those who don’t want to watch the video, the experiment was conducted twice at a park in South Auckland, where a woman actor, heavily made up to appear bruised, sat down on a bench and waited around looking nervous. After a few minutes a man actor sat down next to her and began to argue with her. She burst into tears, and he roughly dragged her away by her arm. Seven Sharp then interviewed bystanders about what they had seen. Three women were interviewed after the first trial; each expressed some dismay and uncertainty about what they should have done. The male actor suggested to the camera that the lack of reaction from the public was because “there weren’t many guys around”. The second trial of the experiment asked “So what happens when there are guys around?” In this instance a German man asked the woman if she was alright, and almost got violent when the abuser showed up. “By this stage we decide to pull a halt to the experiment; our actors appear in danger,” intoned the narrator as, astoundingly, “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy played in the background.

So, to recap, TVNZ conducted a social experiment on public violence which almost led to public violence. It’s difficult to see what the purpose of the piece is; at face value all it does is demonstrate that yes, the bystander effect exists. This is not news: the social psychological phenomenon of the bystander effect was first investigated in 1968, in response to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese (whose neighbours heard and did nothing). Even if our TV researchers were studying a new phenomenon, the psychological distress caused to this experiment’s participants is not permitted by most ethics committees. The piece thus appears to come from pundits wandering into specialised fields of study with little prior knowledge or research.

Overall, focusing on the bystander is a curious, seemingly random angle for a story to take on a statistic about domestic violence rates, since the majority of domestic violence does not, of course, happen in the public eye. As such, this piece is in fact quite casually related to the domestic violence statistics recited during the introduction. TVNZ are comparing apples with oranges, or apples with bus conductors or the moon, but presenting it as insightful commentary on a national problem. Why on earth focus the thrust of a story on what uninvolved parties should or shouldn’t do? It speaks to our cultural determination to never, never confront the causes of domestic violence. To shut our eyes to the isolation, domination and control that comes with the institutions of masculinity, the nuclear family and exclusive monogamy, or discuss how these problems are exacerbated by economic downturn and our national alcoholism.

Far from decrying the violence inherent in patriarchally-constructed masculinity, Seven Sharp revels in it. We are to celebrate the German bystander who had lost some of his teeth fighting to protect two women from public violence, and was prepared to do it again because “he has no acceptance for this shit.” The latter half of the piece implies that domestic violence can be stopped by brave (male) people who step in to fight the abuser. This is a twist on the White Ribbon Campaign, which pushes for cisgendered men to take responsibility for the violence of their gender. But while it is possible for men to stop domestic violence from happening, this is not done by trading malevolent patriarchs for benevolent ones. If it must be said again, women are not shrinking violets in need of such protection. We just want to not be threatened with violence.

This somewhat sloppy journalism is partly a result of the medium the TVNZ crew work in. Television doesn’t generally have much room to provide context and analysis, especially not in half-hour slots. Even without constant advertisements under capitalism, even within a utopian egalitarian society without violence, the medium of television must work primarily with what images and sounds are available. It does not easily lend itself to abstraction and systematic evaluation. Try imagine what it would take to turn this blogpost into a television programme for someone who is a layperson to domestic violence. How would you angle the camera, how would you include the digressions of my hyperlinks? I would be unusable for a narrator if I were a terrible public speaker. How would you reframe my story to do what television does really well–to engender an emotional response? As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, the medium is the message. If the causes of and perpetration of domestic violence are largely invisible in society, then they cannot be filmed, and thus cannot appear on television. The fragmented nature of news reporting, exacerbated by the general fragmentation of neoliberalism, 24-hour news channels and rapid-fire internet journalism, means there is no time for context, no time for continuity, no time to dismantle deeply entrenched cultural paradigms.

We can make time for brief stories, so here is mine. I was once attacked in public. A stranger on a bus slapped me in the face (the first time I remember), a working class Maori woman who appeared to be on drugs. And no, not many people helped me out. If my life were turned into a biopic it might make for a dramatic spectacle, a focal point of sorts. But what of it? At the time I was upset and cross with the bystanders, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting story, not for long. I was more concerned for her–what had gone wrong in her life that she hit out at strangers? What has gone wrong in our society that so many men are violent, and so many women die from it? Why aren’t our male TV presenters willing to examine their gender’s problems? These questions could indeed make for compelling television, if it were angled right.

Love and domination and anger and activism and whoa hey I have a blog

Hallo internet. I noticed that my Facebook posts were getting really long, so I thought I’d blog some of them. I’ve been reading Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks, and this part I liked:

If feminists had continued to talk about love, then we would have needed to speak about the extreme lovelessness that is at the heart of domination…We would have had to break through the wall of denial that seduces us all to accept subordination and domination as natural facts of everyday life. We would be telling everyone, especially the men in our lives, again and again that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not. We would not have allowed our fathers, brothers, male comrades, or lovers to believe they love us when they hurt us again and again.

Women and men who are still seduced by domination cannot know love. Yet everywhere we turn, our culture tells us we can still know love even in the midst of relationships charged with coercive pain and domination. The time has come to tell the truth. Again. There is no love without justice.

It’s kind of bizarre when looked at, this social paradigm wherein people can justify straight-up abusive behaviour by saying it’s because they care about the other person. But caring about and caring for are not necessarily the same thing. Of course, caring for someone can involve behaviour that is not, on the surface, particularly pleasant, and doesn’t produce immediately nice results. For example, you might have a fight with your partner to try convince them their alcoholism is doing the family harm. You do it because you have faith that it will produce positive results later on. I once saw an evangelical preacher on stage saying that love is an action, not a feeling. (I got scared for a bit that I was converting to Pentecostalism, because he had actually made sense. Later I learned you can take useful bits from an ideology without subscribing to the whole, but I was 15 then and a grumpy atheist. Shrug.) But too often, trying to direct a person’s behaviour happens not because the behaviour does any real harm, but out of one’s internal insecurity manifesting in control and domination. It’s happened to me before, and I think I’ve done it before. (Sorry.)

So we look the other way at abusive behaviour when it happens in the context of a relationship, since relationships are meant to be the ultimate manifestation of love. We’re willing to believe that even rather horrible emotions like gut-souring jealousy and fear, or blinding fury, or even boredom can represent love. I recently talked to a polyamorous man who slurred earnestly that “polyamory…it’s all just about love.” I said I agreed in principle, but that loving wasn’t as straightforward as you might think, given that it is not easy for oppressed people to love freely. But not to worry, he assured me, there were no really oppressive systems in New Zealand these days. (I laughed in his face and said “you’re flat-out wrong, pal.”) And sure enough, later than night he greeted me by slapping my ass. Had I bothered to get angry at this, I would probably have been accused of disrupting the love buzz or what have you. The idea that love can be represented by many different emotions is abandoned when convenient for privileged people.

The idea of love as a feeling rather than an action has formed a notable trend in liberal activism. Much of this is carried out by middle class white people who have a certain level of indignance about the state of the world, but are rarely forced to feel anger and fear very personally when attacked by oppression. The idea of using The Power Of Love in order to end oppression has been co-opted by capitalist-friendly entertaining activism that can comfortably be advertised. This is not love; this is The Power Of Niceness. At a same-sex marriage rally (not a protest) last year, we were told to smile at our detractors and applaud the police for showing up–the mood had to be celebratory, and the upset, resentful and/or fatigued queers would just have to smile through their teeth. Apparently getting openly angry or miserable about structural oppression is too alienating for the majority, who must now be handled with kid gloves lest they oppress us more. (Or, more cynically, lest their offices of power be destroyed so that certain liberal activists cannot one day ascend into them.) Somehow these privileged people have become our first priority to convince of our positions, even though they are usually the hardest to reach since they have the most to lose.

When did love become so polite? I agree that the overall aim of leftist activism should be to spread love, but we cannot do this without acknowledging the material and structural constraints that currently stand in the way of loving. Most of these constraints will not be pushed out of the way within our lifetimes, so we don’t have time to get every single individual wholly on board before acting. Loving humanity doesn’t mean you have to like all of them–who has time to get to know and get on with everyone? The idea of leftist activism is more about balancing scales to bring about justice, and hence enable love. And if you are to build a new world order based on love and fairness, you have to destroy bits of the old world that are taking up space. Destruction isn’t always a bad thing. More often than not, this process only happens when people get furious enough to put themselves in some personal discomfort for wider goals. I take a line from the brilliant 1976 film Network, where an anchorman having a nervous breakdown on air shouts to his viewers that “You’ve got to get mad! You’ve got to say, I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” Was there ever a statement more positive, more self-loving? And yet it’s intimately tied up with anger. Love may sometimes be tied up with other feelings that are generally characterised as unpleasant. Love is grief and pain and fear too.

Anyway I gotta go out and belatedly get drunk with people, but yeah. Love is complicated and messy #breakingnews. Pulp wrote a wonderful song about it (fuck I don’t know how to hyperlink properly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhdTbqdYCRU). TL;DR: everyone should listen to Pulp and read bell hooks. ❤