Just as the world’s Jews, in a perverse way, may have Adolf Hitler to thank for Israel’s creation, America’s women may someday thank O.J. Simpson for bringing the subject of wife battering to the full attention of the media and the U.S. public. As a result, there is finally a chance that laws will be changed to prevent spousal abuse and, more important, that present laws will be better enforced.
There is, however, a highly controversial aspect to this subject, which also needs exposure to the light of day. Bringing it up for discussion will unfortunately open this writer to attack as an apologist for wife beaters. That is not the case. Physical abuse of women (and, in a smaller number of cases, of men) must stop. But the causes must be explored as well.
What causes a man to beat his wife or girl friend? There is probably no single cause. Some men are undoubtedly just sadistic brutes. There are those who think they own their wives, considering them chattel to be kept in line. Some are habitual drunks of the aggressive variety. Many others lead lives of noisy desperation. Since they can’t take out their frustrations on their bosses or associates, the woman in one’s life is an easily available target. And, of course, both abusers and abused often come from homes where wife battering was the accepted norm. All of the above undoubtedly
have psychological or sociological underpinnings, but that is the subject for a complete book.
In this article, I would like to concentrate on another significant category — physical abuse in response to verbal abuse.. As a fringe benefit to the O.J. Simpson drama, television viewers have recently been able to see and hear the stories of both battered wives and batterers. Among the latter, a constant theme is discernable. “She nagged, nagged, nagged—never
stopped nagging.” More frequently, “She never knew where to draw the line, always came at me on those subjects she knew would drive me up a wall.” All of which reminds me of a line from a George Eliot novel written over a century ago. In a discussion concerning wife beating, one character comments, “Aye, it ends with the fist, but it begins with the tongue.” Plus ça
change, plus ça reste la meme chose.
A woman I have known for many years once told me that she could always get her husband to hit her if she so desired. All she needed to do was make strong derogatory remarks about his mother.That was one man’s frustration threshold. Another might be overly touchy about his minimal education or his meager earning capacity. Lack of sexual prowess (real or
invented) provides a well publicized area where a few properly aimed darts quickly draw blood. There are without doubt other subjects where a perceptive woman chooses to use it.
And there is no question about it. Many bright, or at least shrewd, women are fully aware of their husband’s weaknesses; know where to stick in the stiletto; how to rub salt in the wound; and when to go for the jugular. Such women are frequently much brighter than their husbands, particularly if they have chosen handsome mates for brawn over brains. How many of us know friends or relatives in this category?
Does this give a man the right to retaliate by blackening an eye or
bloodying a nose? Certainly not. But it does raise interesting questions. If
someone comes after me with his fists, am I entitled to defend myself with a knife. If my attacker brandishes a blade, may I use a, gun’? There is a longstanding legal concept that one is entitled to self defense, but that the nature of the retaliation be reasonable and not excessive — a concept easy to deal with philosophically but more difficult during moments of fear and panic. Still, basic fairness demands that one antagonist should not be able to choose his or her weapons while the other party is hogtied.
Which brings me back to women (or men) who use sharp words as weapons, often against an opponent with less training or expertise with that arsenal. Incidentally, one dictionary definition of a weapon is, “Any means employed to get the better of another ” So, what is one to do if attacked by a weapon with which one is unskilled? Stand by helplessly? Grossly unfair. Walk off the battlefield? Often impractical. Or use whatever weapon is handy, forbidden or not. Nations of course know the answer. In spite of pious international treaties, when the chips are down and a country senses the enemy will soon prevail, out come the poison gasses, the biological weapons and yes, even the atomic bombs. In domestic matters, do the same rules apply?
I know. I know. There is an obvious difference. Abusive speech may
leave emotional scars. While these should not be underrated, physical abuse can result in permanent bodily damage and even death. Thousands of women die each year from beatings administered by their husbands or boy friends. So, as previously pointed out, laws against spousal abuse must be reinforced. And policemen must be given sensitivity training so that they treat domestic violence with dispatch and enforce the laws as vigorously as they do with other forms of violence.
But how do we deal with verbal abuse? Should there be laws against
persistent domestic nagging, criticism, backbiting and vituperation? You could put them on the books, but it would be the Devil’s own job to define them. The idea is patently ridiculous. As to enforcement, picture two policemen at the door, one with notebook in hand, asking “Who said what to whom? In what tone of voice? How loudly? How persistently?” It makes
for good television soap. Car 54, Where Are You? But in real life,……….
No, judges and policemen are not the answer. Nor is telling women to keep their mouths closed. They obviously won’t, and shouldn’t. But what is the answer?
Not knowing the answer, unfortunately, does not make the problem go away. You may decry physical abuse of women —justifiably so — but as long as verbal abuse is not given similar condemnation, physical retaliation often follows. Stronger laws and more sensitive enforcement can certainly help minimize wife beating, but will never eliminate knee-jerk self-defense to verbal abuse with the only weapons handy.
I have only one suggestion. Earlier in this article, I favored sensitivity training for policemen as a partial solution to the spousal abuse problem. For all bright and battered women — and particularly for those who know they are smarter than their husbands or boyfriends–I suggest similar sensitivity training. Not to teach you to hold your tongue, God forbid, but to
teach you when. Intelligent people know that timing is everything. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there is a time to speak up and a time to shut up; a time to express a strong opinion and a time to watch one’s tongue. Wisdom consists of knowing the difference. And that wisdom may prevent
bruises and broken bones. It may save your life. It may even save your marriage.
Note: For those who bristle at even the thought of holding one’s tongue, I offer an interesting analogy. I strongly believe that I have every right in the world to enter New York’s Central Park alone at 2:00 A.M. But I would be a damned fool to do so. D
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