The 16 days of activism against women-and-children abuse is an important call to stop the violence, but it is rather like trying to improve Matric results without starting in grade one.
Violence against women and children doesn’t start there. Only the lunatic fringe goes out to beat-up a woman or a child. It starts with our attitudes. It begins with ingrained beliefs about our rights. When those are denied, we become angry.
One Direction sings ‘Everybody wanna steal my girl’
It starts off innocently enough, telling us to look somewhere else because she belongs to me – even her mum and dad would agree.
But then they sing:
I don’t exist
If I don’t have her
The sun doesn’t shine
The world doesn’t turn
In other words, my life has no meaning without her. I am defined by our relationship. If it ends, I end.
Now ‘she belongs to me’ begins to sound desperate and control takes over:
… I’m never gonna let another take her love from me now
I know that this is tame compared with what’s out there, but it is precisely the apparent innocence that makes it so dangerous. It’s the way people talk to each other, which too often ends with a girlfriend, fiancé or wife getting killed because she dared to walk away.
We need to find new ways to engage, different ways to understand the world and the rights of others. The world we live in is very different from the world our parents and grandparents lived in, and very different from the world we (especially men) still think we inhabit. This is a world where healthy relationships (even with children) are much more fundamental to our existence and our survival than rightness and control.
In a letter to his then wife Winnie in 1975, Nelson Mandela wrote:
In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education…. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, simplicity, sincerity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul ….
Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself
There are three steps we can practice to change the attitudes that too easily lead to violence.
Seek First to Understand
This is, of course, Stephen Covey’s fifth Habit in his Seven Habits for Highly Effective People: ‘Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood’.
We long to be understood. We demand it, and become irritated when those closest to us do not understand us. And our irritation leads us to anger and worse.
We become much more effective human beings, and much more effective leaders, when we seek first to understand. Our universe begins to expand as we take in the realities of other people’s lives and experience. We approach problems with more wisdom, when we recognise that there are more ways to view and understand them.
Listen to understand
If we want to understand, we must listen more carefully and allow others freedom to express themselves. In her grade one class, my wife uses birthday circles to teach this important lesson. The children sit in a circle, and each has a turn to tell the class what they like about the birthday child. However, they should not say what others have said before them. It is an early lesson in listening and thinking about the value of other people. What can you learn from someone different from you today?
To build relationships, we must take responsibility for the way we speak. Many of our songs and jokes and the way we speak about women and minorities suggest superiority, self-righteousness and humiliation of anyone who is different from us. There is very little that builds relationships. We say we are only joking, but we are tearing down.
How can you make a difference through the language you use today or the jokes you refuse to pass on?