In 1961 Stanley Milgram conducted a number of experiments which looked at the power of authority to force people to commit acts of violence. Whilst these experiments had focus on obedience, it raised the question that violence has to start somewhere. In the case of the Milgram experiments the ‘descent to evil’ started at 15 amps.
Fast forward to 2021 and we still seem to be focusing on the ‘serious’ acts of violence that make the news rather than looking at the behaviours which often precede these horrible acts. Why do we wait for these shockingly visible acts to happen before we act?
The ongoing case involving Sarah Everard and the discovery of human remains has again raised the issue of woman’s victimisation at the hands of men. Some men I may add, however men’s violence against women is still a taboo subject with many men, and women reluctant to acknowledge the role of men in the violence. Many fight-back with phrases like ‘not all men’. Whilst I agree it’s not all men, it’s just enough to fuck it up for rest of us, men’.
One of the first things I did when I was with the Violence Reduction Unit was to define violence in a way that would help me prevent it.
When I see the word, I look it as more an attitude, a behaviour rather than simply a physical act. When we look at this way, we can start to address issues that can, if unchallenged lead to other acts of violence like murder, sexual assault or rape.
If we are to really prevent the act’s we see in our news feed’s we really need to be thinking differently and that means looking at the term violence differently.
This week the world celebrated International Woman’s Day. A day dedicated to the role that women play, in shaping our society. It took no more than a working day for women to be reduced back to objects, sexual objects.
Piers Morgan, who has hit the headlines quite a few times this week, on live television talked about how he was reminded of the arrival of summer due to a certain presenter coming to work in a short skirt. What happened next was unfortunately nothing new. Women being reduced to eye-candy by men is an everyday occurrence.
The behaviour of Piers Morgan here was disgraceful, but it was further perpetuated by the fact that a person behind the camera zoomed in on the unfortunate female presenter. Was it seen as just harmless fun, banter? Did this convince some producer to request that the camera operator zoom in?
Whatever happened, it is in these behaviours where violence against women starts. People who commit rape or murder don’t advertise that fact. Neither do they simply wake up and decide to commit horrific acts of violence.
Violence has to start somewhere and it’s often with behaviours that are diminished by society or seen as simply having a laugh.
Men who report having committed sexual assault have been found to believe that others are more accepting of such behaviour. Past studies into sexual aggression found that 54% of men who had committed sexual assault said they thought close friends had done so too.
What this tells us is that the small number of men who actually hold attitudes and beliefs that are supportive of sexual assault, and who commit assault, vastly over-estimate support for such behaviour. This confidence leads to them feeling comfortable expressing these views.
Their willingness to share these views and attitudes leads other men to believe that these views are more common than they actually are. Believing that other men are generally accepting of these attitudes has been found to inhibit willingness to intervene to stop such behaviour.
Addressing men’s violence against women won’t happen when we focus on the behaviour of victims or telling girls and women not to walk on the streets alone. It will happen when we see men with the moral courage to challenge the behaviours of their friends and other men.
Most men who witness these behaviours are often unhappy with what they see. That’s a fact that’s been researched many times. But as I say above many men wrongly perceive the attitudes that their peers hold. Do we need to look at psychology to help men feel they will be supported when they speak up?
Bad behaviour is usually more visible than good. It’s what we talk about. It’s what we see on the news. It’s often what experts focus on and when we try to change bad behaviour, we warn how widespread it is. Whilst this strategy might feel effective, on its own, it’s not. It simply communicates that bad behaviour is the social norm. Telling people to go against their peer group never works.
A more effective strategy is the reverse. Whilst we should talk about the bad behaviours we see, we also need to give people good evidence that among their peers, good behaviour is the social norm.
In short, psychology is telling us to stop simply telling people about what they shouldn’t be doing and instead tell them how other people are doing the right thing.
In our efforts to change social norms do we simply need to get better at communicating the healthy norms that already exist. I think we do.
Creating the space for discussion is important if we are to reduce men’s violence against women. When we do this, we have the opportunity to not only reassure them that their views are the norm. We can equip them with skills to speak up, skills to challenge a friend and skills to listen to a female friend without becoming defensive.
I’m often reminded of the words of Tirana Burke who has been credited with starting the #Metoo. In her TEDx talk she talks about MeToo as more a movement that a moment. She’s right. The events over the past few days communicate we still have much work to do.
We need men as allies not as passive bystanders. If you are a man who gets this, speak up.
What you promote, you permit.