You can tell a lot about a society by the way in which it treats its women and children. The difficulty today is that it’s really impossible today to assess accurately how a society does treat women and children. The media obsess over the crime blotter to an unseemly degree, giving us a distorted and dismaying view of a world seemlingly wracked in violence and death. But meanwhile contemporary society’s willingness to hide its dirty little secrets under the guise of ‘the right to privacy’ conceals a flood of domestic violence behind closed doors. We know almost intuitively that if we could really see how many women and children are routinely physically, sexually and psychologically abused, as many as one in five in every neighbourhood, rich and poor, we would be aghast and outraged.

Hollywood chimes in with programming that is relentlessly violent, brutal, savage. We are desensitized by this barrage to the point we start to believe that every society, every human culture in history, was and is soaked in blood, anger, depravity,deceit, and incessant cruelty. For the last couple of years I have watched almost none of this diaspora of despair, finding it has no value. I have never particularly received pleasure from visceral stimulation — horror films, roller coasters, WWF and the rest of the torrent of knee-jerk-revulsion- then- pat-redemption on which the ‘entertainment industry’ is now almost wholly based. There seems no limit to the degree to which so many will subject themselves to images of crass and manipulative second-hand brutality for the rush of phony relief its end brings. It seems to me addictive — each depicted atrocity must outdo the last to give the same rush down, and the same bounce back up when normalcy returns at the end of the entertainment. It’s been going on since Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham, two writers I have always loathed.

Do these media distortions — the overstatement of brutality in the news and in our ‘entertainments’, and the understatement of brutality in the 90% of the world we never get to see — Darfur, our own prisons and those in Iraq and Guantanamo, factory farms, the closed doors of each neighbourhood’s wife-beaters and child-abusers, the systematic psychological rape of the poor and the weak by the rich and powerful in every workplace and community — offset, and give us ‘on balance’ a fair picture of how we treat each other, the degree of humanity and inhumanity in our world?

Yesterday I turned off an award-winning and critically-acclaimed film called Cold Mountain in disgust — it absolutely wallows, with thinly-disguised glee, in the unmitigated horror of Civil War Appalachia, as if this somehow makes the horrors of today, everywhere else, more reasonable, manageable, an improvement, all right, something by contrast to feel good about. Instead I turned on the radio, in time to catch the ‘local’ (Toronto) news. I normally don’t pay much attention to the news because it’s all context-free and unactionable (more to say about this next week). But I was struck by the first three news items, which were all Toronto-area domestic violence stories: A man had been arrested in connection with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. He had been under a restraining order not to contact her, and his arrest was for violating that order on the day of her death, not ‘at this time’ for the murder itself. The second story was about a woman who had been arrested for the murder of her second baby, aged 7 weeks. Her first baby had died at 5 weeks under ‘suspicious circumstances’ but there was ‘insufficient evidence’ for arrest in that incident. The third story was a new suspected murder-suicide — a man had killed his wife and two children and then killed himself.

What are we to make of all this? Hollywood would have us believe that the world is, was, and always will be soaked, drowning in violence, but that today and here, where the movie theatres and Blockbuster outlets are, we are in relative oceans of tranquility, and we can be smug. The news media would have us believe that while most violence is domestic or gang-related, such violence is routinely sniffed out and prosecuted, and that, with continued police vigilance, we can be relatively safe and secure. More learned helplessness.

I live in a small community of 33 homes, with a total of 32 couples, six other adults, 46 children and 36 pets living in them. Of that 116 people, it is statistically likely that five women, one senior, eight children and seven pets are abused, physically, sexually and/or psychologically, or severely neglected. It is also likely that no one will ever be charged for these crimes, and that their victims will never even confide their suffering to others, let alone receive counseling, amateur or professional, and that they will spend most or all of their lives suffering silently and desperately from these abuses. And adjacent to our community are a block of farms and a slaughterhouse where other unseen, unreported, uncorrected atrocities are undoubtedly occurring. Of course I don’t know this for a fact. In the absence of information, even in our very open and close-knit community, it is easy to shrug off the statistics and say that ‘our share’ of abuse and suffering must be happening elsewhere. It’s someone else’s problem.

So, aside from an annual donation to women’s shelters, youth counseling services, and private animal shelters (the public pounds are mostly complicit in Canada’s shame), I do nothing. I completely discount the Hollywood whitewash (“violence is happening, but, thanks to our virtue, not right here and now”). I heavily discount the news, which reports only the no-longer-actionable arrests and prosecutions, and none of the evidence of the epidemic of unreported, unresolved violence and abuse that is, or at least might be, actionable.

I turn off the entertainment media and the ‘news’ media which provide only distortions and useless information, and pay attention instead to the hard-to-find and under-reported, ‘un-newsworthy’ analyses of the extent of systemic abuse, violence, and cruelty in our society, which we could do something about if the entertainment and news media hadn’t so sapped our will, diverted and distracted us by the unactionable.

Abuse of women and children is unacceptable, period. That abuse perpetuates itself and its perpetrators thrive in an environment where their crimes can be so easily concealed, denied, swept under the map. Every year 4,500,000 children die of diseases that are readily and inexpensively preventable or curable with today’s technologies. That’s the same as the number of people who died in the recent tsunamis, every twelve days. Tens of millions more suffer silently, surviving this year to become the victims of next year or the year after. But we do nothing for these 4,500,000 each year because they are not newsworthy. Just as the women and children in every community — even yours — who struggle every moment of their lives, not only as victims of abuse and cruelty, but as victims of poverty and disease and lack of education and other crimes perpetuated by the state, by all of us, are not newsworthy.

If you can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its women and children, what does this say about us?

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  1. Sean says:

    The fact that so many people– mostly, as you pointed out, women and children– die every day from those “non-newsworthy” causes like routine malnutrition and hunger (and that there is such a thing as routine malnutrition and hunger), and (comparatively) easily treatable diseases (malaria, measles, tuberculosis) has been on my mind a lot recently. In a lot of ways, it’s nice to see that when presented with something catastrophic, like a tsunami, people all around the world respond with generosity and kindness. But, too, as you pointed out, what happened in the Pacific happens many times over all around the world, all the time, and people hardly pay attention at all. I’m very interested in what you have to say next week about context, action, and the news.

  2. Yves says:

    Dave: Well said, I would also add the abuse of elderly and disabled people. Modern societies have to deal with their own Mr Hide, that is linked to each country’s history and cultural sensitivity. In Switzerland, for example, as one of the most successful Disney-like illusion, you can witness wealth, opulence and blindness at the front stage. But believe me that the back stage tells a lot about its own ethics and capacity of denial. Think of the Jewish gold that were hidden within our banks for more than 50 years. And what about the orphans that have been kidnapped from their own parents because of pretended administrative and pedagogical decisions? Orphans that have then been beat and raped for “their own good” by social workers or dirty soldiers of God. Why do we have to wait so long to tell the truth about society

  3. Michael says:

    Dave, this is an excellent post! And it is timely too, considering the news that the Yates decision in Texas was overturned. THat was a case in which her husband, family, and church new Andrea was suffering from a severe depression/mental disorder, knew she had been off of her medication, knew she was starting to lose control, and failed to get her back on medication or seek help. My description doesn’t reflect the complexity of the problem, but I feel that it is the paradigm, as you have stated in your post, of how society is failing to care for women and their children; I’d also say that it is reflection of how religious establishments fail to encourage treatment thinking that the “good message” is the sole remedy for disease and disorder.

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