This is kinda shocking. It’s a social experiment, a staged scenario with a woman with facial bruising behaving nervous and scared in a very public place. After some time a man walks over to her, begins verbally abusing her, this becomes louder, then he drags her away with her resisting.
The social experiment from TVNZ is not to see whether we will object to their backing track – apparently “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy is controversial but doesn’t impact on the public good of the story – it’s to see if members of the public will intervene.
I’m completely in favour of promoting community responsibility to end sexual and domestic violence, racialised violence and homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence. I’ve designed programmes in how to do that well around bullying and sexual violence in particular. One of the tools I’ve used have been short films like this, which show what happens when people intervene.
The trouble with this short film is that in the first scenario, no one intervenes at all. A crowded Auckland park allows a man to drag a heavily bruised woman, loudly protesting, away. In the second scenario, a number of men intervene, one of whom blasts New Zealand culture for allowing child and woman abuse to flourish because we turn a blind eye to obvious abuse.
What was this about for TVNZ? Their appalling choice of backing music makes it look like it was all a bit of a laugh. Their focus on all the reasons people don’t intervene – including putting up an image of brave bystander Austin Hemmings not once but twice makes it look like they don’t believe community responsibility is possible. Their slavish hyping of one young man’s potential for violence felt like watching the build up to a boxing match. Their joky, imagine-looking-like-a-dick defense of choosing not to intervene isn’t that far off the “it’s just a domestic” excuse of the 1950s.
The psychologist afterwards could have been interesting, but was clearly not up-to-speed with recent developments in sexual and domestic violence. “Ethical bystanding” or the promotion of skills and ideas about intervening in precursor situations to violence is probably the fastest growing, best evaluated type of sexual violence prevention going. We know when it works and why – when people recognise the risk in a potential situation, can think of some options, and decide to take action.
I don’t want to deny the horror of the murder of Austin Hemmings, or the fear that many of us feel when confronted by physical violence. Nor do I want to pretend stepping in is easy or straightforward.
But if this SevenSharp clip had any sense of public responsibility, wouldn’t they have explored some things people in this situation could have done? Off the top of my head:
Low level, before the “abuser” turned up – asked the woman if you could sit with her, get her a coffee, ask her if she was ok, if there was anyone you could call for her, if she needed any help, if she needed the Police or Women’s Refuge.
Mid level, when the abuser is starting to verbally abuse her, moving closer and making it clear you are watching, asking them both if everything is ok, asking other people around you to be part of this because you are worried for her safety, asking her if she needed the Police or Women’s Refuge.
High level, when he is starting to shout and drag her off, telling them both you are calling the Police. Doing that.
There are more “heroic” options of course. But for most people, those are not manageable, or even advisable. And it’s quite possible, with this scenario, that the woman concerned would decide not to seek help when her abuser was there, and would be too scared to engage with anyone else. This time.
It’s also possible that cocooning her in public – forming a protective shield around her by making it clear what’s happening is not ok – will become part of her journey around recognising that violence is unacceptable and that there might just be pathways out.
Domestic violence is potentially the trickiest kind to intervene in, because the web of power, control and violence is woven over time. You’re not stopping a random, if planned, act of abuse. You’re witnessing a part of someone else’s relationship, and whatever it looks like to you, the person being victimised will have to weigh up their choices based on their realistic assessments of what will happen to them if they talk.
That still shouldn’t make it something we give up on. I’ve intervened in domestic violence in my neighbourhood, my public life and my friendship circles. Except with friends, I’m almost never sure I’ve got it right. But I’m damn sure I don’t want to live with zoning out to “Smack My Bitch Up” while I make jokes about not wanting to be a bit of a dick.