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Rethinking Accountability and Justice: Beyond Policing the Language around Gender-Based Violence

A recent article called “The Language of Gender Violence” explores a session at Middlebury College led by Jackson Katz, an educator, author, filmmaker, and cultural theorist, on how to reform the language we use to explain gender-based violence. Katz’s call to eliminate the passive voice when describing gender-based violence (such as “Mary was beaten by John”), is based on the idea that this language is a reflection of the social norms that end up reinforcing violence against women. Katz’s call helps me think about where responsibility lies in a given act of gender-based violence. Can we think of a violent act as shaped by the individual’s relationship to multiple people and social institutions rather than solely by the individual’s relationship with her partner?

While I appreciate Katz’s point that using the active voice places the responsibility on the person who executed the act of physical and/or emotional harm, as activists, advocates, direct service providers, and academics, it is important to recognize the limits of policing and reforming our language around gender-based violence. Just because we move from the active voice to the passive voice does not necessarily mean that we have a more nuanced understanding of gendered-intimate partner violence or family violence itself. For many, violence does not begin or end in the dyadic (and what is oftentimes assumed to be a heteronormative) relationship between partners.

This leads me to ask, whether we say “John beat Mary” or “Mary was beaten by John,” have we actually understood the many active agents that produce the toxic forms of masculinity and male entitlement that led John to beat Mary, that led John and Mary to be in a relationship, and the many consequences that followed thereafter which are anything but formulaic and hard to capture through the dyadic perpetrator-victim framework? Rather than putting the emphasis on better ways to name gender-based violence, I suggest that we orient our attention to explaining it—not explaining it away, but explaining its conditions of possibility. With this premise in mind, some of the other active agents I would suggest we include in our explanations of gender-based violence are multi-scalar and multi-layered, from intergenerational cycles of abuse to global capitalism, to the privatization of social welfare, to modern day forms of colonialism and racism, to histories of war and displacement. What would it mean, then, to think of these other active agents as not separate from the men that commit violence but as intimately part and parcel of one another? While a deeper history of the terms “violence against women” and “gender-based violence” is in order here, it is important not to rule out the explanatory openings and opportunities that the passive voice affords. The passive voice, if used alongside evidence-based detail, does not always efface violence as Katz would suggest. Rather, it might be used to highlight that multiple actors have contributed to the violent act suffered by an individual and that violence itself is not limited to one moment of abuse. The passive voice is a way of extending the act of violence to capture the many systemic violences that produce conditions in which toxic masculinities and heteronormative and patriarchal systems of oppression thrive. If the act of violence is extended to capture systemic violence, it also means that responsibility for violence does not live in one person, space or time—accountability gets distributed across multiple actors. The question I find more pressing, then, has less to do with finding better language and more to do with finding better explanations for why violence occurs when it does, how it does, where it does, and by and amongst whom it does.

The call to change our language around gender based violence might also be symptomatic of a deeply entrenched pillar of liberal social forms, namely the victim-perpetrator framework. And yet, if we are serious about understanding violence, a closer interrogation and openness to rethinking dominant notions of accountability are in order.

  • What does it mean to locate justice for a victim of gender-based violence?

  • Should accountability begin with the social assignation of a label (“perpetrator”) and end with a juridical ruling?

  • Who is accountable and what is justice if we recognize that in a given act of violence, there reside and reverberate multiple kinds of violence--the proximate violence inflicted, the long-term violence that created the conditions of possibility for the immediate act, and the deeper histories of violence that become sedimented over time (structural violence)?

  • Can violence be understood as both a set of long-term conditions and short-term events, whose agents and drivers are entangled with each other?

It is an incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling idea to swallow that accountability for violence might be distributed (albeit disproportionately), that it lies not only in different places but also in different times. It seems unthinkable to distribute accountability and responsibility across multiple people and institutions and multiple moments in history, because it feels paralyzing; if multiple processes and people are accountable for this act of violence, what does justice for a victim look like? I too struggle with this idea, and I’m not sure what the real life ramifications would be. However, I would like to begin to think more openly and creatively about what justice can look like and hope that this reflection can spur a conversation along those lines. In developing frameworks for justice, it is clear that the material processes and conditions that give rise to ‘perpetrators’ need to also be scrutinized and interrogated in the effort to simultaneously transform societal attitudes and norms.

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