The banality of evil: violence against women

Violence against women can be fostered in the workplace. Flickr/BenThompson, CC BY-NC

“How do you describe it? What alphabet do you employ? What words? What language? What silence, what scream?” The late Jacob Rosenberg, author and poet, poses these questions in explaining the evil of the Holocaust.

Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil”, to suggest that the Holocaust was not only the work of crazed fanatics, but also the collective work of ordinary individuals who became acculturated by a state sanctioned process that stripped Jews and others of their humanity.

For Tom Meagher the realisation that the man who murdered his wife, Jill Meagher, is not an archetypal monster, but an ordinary bloke you just passed in the office, pub or gym, was a chilling revelation. For Meagher, it confronted the more terrifying concept of the everydayness of ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that is pervasive in our social structures.

It is the ubiquity of ordinary sexism that creates the circumstances for violence against women and sees it as the leading cause of death and disability in Australian women aged 15 to 44. In Australia, a woman is murdered every week at the hands of her partner or ex. Worldwide, 35% of women experience either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

The implicit sanctioning of female dehumanisation is at the core of what the World Health Organisation study refers to as a worldwide epidemic. Underpinning sexism is the ideology of male supremacy so deeply ingrained in societies and cultures that it cannot but have a profound impact on how men and women view and treat women.

The normalisation of pervasive sexism is the slippery slope that sees violence against women excused and sanctioned. It occurs by an insidious erosion of their dignity as whole human beings subliminally rendering them as part objects of secondary and inferior status.

The overwhelming preponderance of violence against women is male-induced. Many perpetrators believe that their status as males entitles them to exploit the minds and bodies of women in any way they wish.

The role of language in spawning cultures of violence cannot be underestimated. Words and expressions, which connote the subjugation, marginalised, infantilised and objectification of women, are embedded in every day social discourse in both oppressive and free market regimes.

It is therefore particularly concerning that the Australian Government, in the name of libertarian ideals, is seeking to repeal sections of the legislation that provides protection against the very tactics that were common place in Nazi Germany. The public portrayal of Jews was as societal pollutants, vermin, and indeed dangerous.

By giving a voice to views that have thus far been deemed shameful and hidden, the Government is giving a platform to the likes of Fredrick Toben, Holocaust denier, who is backing the reforms as “a challenge to Jewish supremacism”.

Senator George Brandis is on public record as stating that anyone should have the freedom to be a bigot and in doing so has endowed common racists with the respectability of seeking freedom against oppression. The repeal of 18C legislation will no doubt embolden bigotry in all its guises, including misogyny.

Legislation has an important role in in protecting the individual. However, it needs the support of communities, government agencies and business to shift cultural norms. The power of corporations to impact on cultures, given their size and transnational status, is significant.

Organisational responsibility

Violence against women must be addressed as a business issue, and business must be prepared to direct resources to expunge it. At present this is limited by the fact that most Australian businesses have no specific data on how the issue of violence against women may affect their operations.

First, organisations need to collect data to ascertain the level of discrimination and unequal treatment in their own organisation and use evidence to address unfair treatment of women. There must be a zero tolerance to profiteering from the dehumanisation of women. Advertising that demeans women, products that sexualise children, pay differentials privileging males and tolerated harassment all combine to create toxic cultures spawning violence against women.

Second, organisations must use their significant influence footprint to support initiatives both domestically and internationally that raise the status of women. They should name and shame organisations that profit directly from the comparative advantage of women’s disadvantage, or profit indirectly by supplying to or investing in projects, joint ventures, or regimes with poor human rights records.

Whether through ignorance, wilful blindness, or criminality, a number of leading corporations have a shameful history of exploitation that has seen greed drive sweat shop conditions and child labour.

Violence against women is a societal scourge and cannot be tolerated. We must all share responsibility for its eradication.