In Darwin’s scheme, there can be no noble or ignoble, no virtuous or vicious, and ultimately no high and low.
Recently I stayed a few weeks in a small town in Somerset, England called Yeovil, pronounced Yoville. The satellite navigation system in my car, however, was programmed wrong and pronounced it You-evil. To judge from the weekly local newspaper, it might have had a point.
Every week that newspaper devotes a page to short reports from the local courts, the small change of crime as it were (murder, arson and such like made the front page). One of the stories on that page took me back to the hospital in which I worked until my retirement, where I heard such a story, and often more than one such story, every day. The story was headlined ‘Threat to put cat’s head through door.’ I knew at once, without having to read further, that it was a love story – of a kind.
A man aged 36 ‘attacked his former partner, told her he would commit suicide in front of her and threatened to cut off the head of the family pet and post it through her parents’ letterbox.’ After the dissolution of their seven-year relationship – they were unmarried, of course – he began to send her messages on her telephone, first apologetic in nature, then threatening: for example, he said he would come to her place of work and make a scene if she did not speak to him. He threatened that, for the rest of his life (that is, if he did not commit suicide in front of her first), to break up any other relationship with a man she might subsequently have; he also threatened to ‘do over,’ that is beat up, her father.
The woman eventually went to where he was living to ‘discuss their separation,’ when he threw something at her and assaulted her, though only mildly. He invited her again about a week later and she went; this time he grabbed her by her hair, pulled her backwards and pushed her through the door into the street, where he got her on the ground, hit her on each side of her head and kicked her twice, her screams alerting a neighbor who intervened and called the police.
It surely says something about the state of law and order in Britain that a man should be prepared to behave like this in public. Everything in the story points to the supposition that he was jealous, possessive and violent, almost certainly throughout the seven-year relationship, except possibly for the very beginning when he would have been on his best behavior to draw her into his web. Probably he had behaved like this to other women. The apologetic messages that he sent initially after the break-up were typical of such men; they apologize the better to repeat their behavior which, if the truth be told, they enjoy. It is a case of reculer pour mieux sauter.
His lawyer in court said things in mitigation so patently ridiculous that they should have counted as an aggravation of the offenses rather than a mitigation of them. He was said to be deeply ashamed of his behavior, that he ‘struggled to cope’ with the break-up of his relationship, that he accepted that he behaved entirely ‘inappropriately,’ that what he wanted to do was ‘rebuild his relationship with his children,’ that he had told the police that he intended the woman whom he assaulted no harm, and that ‘he wanted to learn something from this incident.’
To take one point only in the above litany of obviously self-serving rubbish: to say that you intend no harm to a woman whom you pull by the hair, get on the ground, hit on the head and then kick, is either a patent lie or, if actually believed, implies such a failure of understanding of the consequences of human action that it makes the person who believes it a very dangerous one who ought to be kept separate from the rest of humanity for the rest of his life.
In fact, the lesson that this man was so eager to learn and that the magistrates taught him was that he might behave as he did with virtual impunity. They sentenced him to something called an Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme, to teach him not that his domestic abuse ought to be integrated, but that kicking women hurts them: something that the magistrates, by treating him as if he were ill and/or suffering from cognitive defect, must have believed that he had never known or suspected. (He never used violence, of course, in a rational way, rational that is according to the ends he wanted to achieve by it, which is to say to frighten, intimidate and confuse women.) Perhaps he had also to be taught that decapitating cats harms them.
The frivolity of all this hardly needs emphasizing; but of course frivolity without gaiety is the hallmark of our times. The woman in the story also behaved frivolously. It is probable (I say this from experience of such cases) that by the time she had her children by the man she already knew, or should have known, that he was a completely unsuitable person as the father of her children. It is possible that she hoped to reform him by having children by him, but this is itself a frivolous thought, one that could occur only to someone who did not really believe in the possibility of harmful consequences from which there could be no protection or escape. Even if, as a consequence of the break-up of her relationship with the father of her children, she had to give up her job to look after them, well, there was always someone – the state – who would provide. Therefore it was not necessary to think very carefully about having the children in the first place. By now, in any case, everyone ‘knows,’ and it is a truth universally acknowledged, that fathers are an optional extra for children.
Her foolishness in going to the man’s place of residence after the break-up not once but twice, when it was virtually certain that he had been violent to her many times before, is something to which I have found by experience that it is hazardous to allude, at least to an audience of middle-class intellectuals. Such an audience immediately supposes that I am blaming the woman for the man’s behavior, which is entirely, and I might say maliciously, to miss the point. It is absolutely no mitigation of the man’s behavior that the woman in the case was foolish; but to disguise this foolishness on the grounds that it might be considered ‘blaming the victim’ has two harmful aspects.
First it confuses the spheres of the legal and the moral. Foolishness is not a crime and is not punishable by law, but it is still foolishness. To suppose that the foolishness of the victim might be a mitigation of the crimes against her makes the overlap of the legal and the moral so great that it is an invitation to totalitarianism. The wisdom or foolishness of the victim had nothing to do with the man’s legal guilt.
Second, to obscure from the woman her own foolishness, on the grounds (for example) that she is suffering from some kind of syndrome and is therefore not responsible for her own actions, is to dehumanize her and to deny her the agency to behave any differently in the future. My experience of such women is that they are perfectly capable of acknowledging their own foolishness, and indeed do so with relief, after having been persuaded for so long that they are passive victims and nothing but passive victims. There are, of course, such victims in the world: but this woman was not one of them. Moreover it is a very short step from considering the woman in the case to be nothing but a victim to considering the man in the case also to be nothing but a victim – in need, in short, of an Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme.