About a month ago, the local women’s branch of the Labour Party decided to attend a bystander intervention course that is being run locally. Before I went to the meeting, I thought this would be extremely useful and perhaps I would learn the proper techniques for supporting people that were facing misogyny, racism, disablism, homophobia and transphobia – for me a proper technique would mean that I would intervene so that the person being victimised would feel empowered and know that they were not alone when some arsehole in a supermarket or on the street threatened them because of the aggressor’s racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia and transphobia.
After all, how many of us run into situations like this regularly? When I was young, I remember I was getting off the subway on Queens Blvd and saw a group of young men were beating up a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish man. I moved to pull them off of him and people went to get the police (this was long before the days of mobile phones). When I moved, others moved to join me to pull them off of him. I am certain that the young Orthodox Jewish man was horrified about being rescued by a woman; but I am also sure that he was not enjoying getting beaten up. His social embarrassment (caused by the culture he was a part of) would recover, but getting beaten up badly could be far worse.
However, the days of my jumping into a situation using my fists are long gone; I am an older woman with impairments that mean my strength is nothing like it used to be when I was young, my balance is problematic, I have arthritis and I probably will be more of a hindrance rather than assistance. But that doesn’t mean I cannot help; I just need to learn new techniques … certainly this course could teach or suggest those to me. I really fear that I will make things worse for the victim of oppressive aggression rather than actually help the situation. Honestly, my most powerful thing is really my old woman’s shame finger which I have found to be extremely useful especially when I want to make a point. However, that only goes so far and in a situation with an aggressive arsehole who may respond with more violence towards both the initial victim and myself, I may escalate the situation rather than empower a victim.
The abbreviated course (there is a longer version) that was prepared for our group started with a discussion of hate and hate crimes and the second part was supposed to discuss tactics for dealing with them when they happen. Using the Pyramid of Hate, the relationship between everyday bias, acts of prejudice and bigotry and acts of discrimination related to acts of violence, extreme violence and genocide.
This discussion around the Pyramid of Hate was very interesting; in most cases, rarely do situations we encounter on the street go beyond the bottom layers of the pyramid.
What I experienced back on Queen Blvd back in the 1980s was a violent racist attack (level 4 from the bottom). How many times have we seen a man beating a woman in the street or people being attacked by racists? How do we approach a situation when racists and fascists are actually marching or attacking areas where people of colour live? How about where neo-Nazis decide to march in an area populated by Holocaust survivors (remember that?)?
Thinking about the protests to “protect” Confederate statues (or our “glorious” history of colonialism, imperialism and racism and slavery) against the demands of BLM and other groups for their removal … marches by Neo-Confederates, Neo-Nazis (or good old fashioned fascists) requires a fight-back, counter-protest and standing in solidarity with oppressed people. That goes well beyond a bystander intervention; that requires a concerted united fight against oppressors. Of course, when you have politicians that oppose Antifa (that is, anti-fascism) does that mean that they are supporters of fascism, do they even understand what it is that they are supporting?
Moreover, this pyramid was also rather disturbing in other ways. We live in societies which are racist, misogynist, disablist, homophobic and transphobic; these oppressions often interact and intersect affecting those that are oppressed regularly. These oppressions form part of how our societies function and they are reinforced regularly; we face them in all aspects of our lives (e.g., microaggressions from strangers, denial of employment, denial of housing, and then routine prejudice from the state when we apply from benefits to police encounters).
Politicians regularly use these as part of divide and rule to keep us divided hoping that will be enough so that we do not stand together in solidarity. The use of divide and rule by “mainstream” politicians has normalised hate by the far right; this is especially the case with racism, homophobia and transphobia. There are states in the US where Republicans are trying to reintroduce Jim Crow legislation because they believe that they will never get elected without it. Most probably these politicians are white supremacists, but they are also cynical opportunists. Attempts under Trump to reintroduce discrimination against the LGBT+ community were deliberate; this was no accident. As is often the case, the Right and Far-Right go after non-Christian white people (in Europe and the US, they go after migrants and refugees), then they attack the LGBT+ community.
Then there are the rising attacks against disabled people. During the introduction of Universal Credit in Britain, those on benefit (especially disabled people) were called slackers, lazy and living off of the teat of society. Disabled people noted that neighbours that used to help them becoming cooler, they saw that people were less inclined to be supportive when they faced exclusions and they noticed a rise in abuse against them. Ways to facilitate inclusion in a disablist society became harder to obtain and you had to “prove” that you were disabled enough to get assistance.
All the while, there are the laws, institutions, and behaviours that maintain and generate further racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia and transphobia. These are not individual actions on the part of some arsehole, these are systemic laws and institutions that maintain divide and rule.
So, there I am in a bystander intervention course and my memories of encountering antisemitism, misogyny and disablism are starting to flash in my mind and then I start to think of racist, homophobic and transphobic things I have witnessed throughout my life (personally and watching the news) and I start to get nervous as to what was the real intent of the course. Were we going to be trained on how to help people that were the victims of oppression which was the reason I was there?
It turned out that the answer to my question was not really. Instead, we were told to involve the police and hate crime legislation. This was followed with reasons why we should call the police when we witness harassment and minor aggressions against people. I raised my hand and asked “since we live in a racist, misogynist, disablist, homophobic and racist society and that since these oppressions are institutionalised and systemic, is criminalisation the answer? Perhaps instead we need education as criminalisation ruins lives and invariably due to those oppressions, we know that it is people of colour (especially young people) that will be reported with more regularity?” The person running the course agreed and then said that black women are far more reluctant to call the police … I raised my eyebrows.
As part of this, we were divided into two groups discussing why we should call the police and why some people are “reluctant” to call the police. I was in the second group, my list of why I would not call the police was rather extensive. There are many reasons for this, but primarily there is the fact that the police are not a neutral group, they serve the state. Moreover, they themselves are racist, misogynists, disablist, homophobic and transphobic.
So where can bystander intervention help? Well, obviously, these interventions relate to the bottom 2 categories. When we get to the 3rd level of the pyramid we are talking about systemic and institutionalised behaviour and this is encountered in many interactions in the society from landlords, employers, teachers, state workers, police, and politicians. This goes way beyond bystander intervention as this is an endemic part of the societies in which we live; individual action cannot bring this to an end, since it is systemic and social behaviour (even worse due to the nature of our societies it is accepted social behaviour) and it hence must be fought socially. However, I am never loathe to be a “witness to oppression”, it can be useful as as a witness to police behaviour against individuals or oppressive actions of landlords, employers, etc to document what happened.
Let’s be real, there is no way in hell that I will notify the cops unless violence is taking place or has happened. In all honestly, we need to ask whether policing prevent crimes, it deals with the aftermath of the crime, but not the prevention itself.
Moreover, I do not see policing and criminalisation as a way to eliminate racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia and transphobia; the police are not a neutral force independent from the societies in which we live. Like everyone living in a racist, misogynist, disablist, homophobic and transphobic society, the police have these beliefs as well. Because of this more often than not, policing reflects the societies in which we live, as does the criminal justice system. That means that the police are part of the problem and they are empowered by the state. Bringing the police into a situation also runs the risk of the situation escalating into violence. So trusting the police is not something that comes easy unless there is no choice.
Hate Crime Legislation
There has been a lot of effort by women’s organisations in Britain to try to make misogyny a hate crime alongside of racism, disablism, homophobia and transphobia. In cases of racism, disablism, homophobia and transphobia, ensuring that minorities are protected does make sense; this is to ensure that at sentencing the fact that an assault or murder happened due to racism, disablism, homophobia or transphobia must be taken into consideration.
But women are not minorities in our societies, we are at least 50% of the population. Given the prevalence of misogyny and everyday sexism in our societies, how can we address this? We need to also acknowledge that this is a societal problem, not an individual one of some bad apples.
We also must address the issue of various types of actions; those that are violent (sexual assault, violence against women and girls and rape and murder), those acts that are abusive (threats, financial control, isolating us from support networks and gaslighting), those acts that can lead to violence like stalking (on-line and in the real world), those that invade our privacy (like up-skirting, on-line and real world slut shaming) from those that are repugnant parts of patriarchal behaviour that is considered permissible in the societies in which we live like sexual harassment, bullying behaviour, and unwanted aggressions like wolf whistling and the constant stupidity where people tell you that you look nicer when you smile.
Women face discrimination in housing, employment and hiring, their wages and income are lower than men and we are more dependent economically on benefit incomes and our partner’s income (if we have one which can lead to abuse), single mothers face far more social pressure in all situations and get far less government support both financially and are dependent upon social and family networks for childcare and caring support. Clearly the issue goes way beyond what can be addressed by using legal means. How do we address the roots of sexism and misogyny rather than deal with the aftermath of a tragedy?
While the roots of both are the same, the oppression we face goes beyond the issue of violence against women and girls. Calling for higher sentences for violent actions like rape, assault and murder has been proposed by the Labour Party but that affects the aftermath of the tragedy and does little to prevent it. Certainly, the issue must be addressed beyond the criminalisation of behaviour as suggested by both the Labour Party and Priti Patel (the Tory Home Secretary) demanding legislation addressing harassment and making misogyny a hate crime, while addressing sentence for violence against women. Boris Johnson rejected these measures and we had the dubious pleasure of watching Dominic Raab (the current Justice Secretary, he used to be the Foreign Secretary who could not be bothered to take a phone call while on holiday from the Afghani Foreign Minister as the Taliban were taking control over the country) demonstrate that he cannot define the word misogyny in an interview during the Tory Party conference.
“Speaking to the BBC, he (Dominic Raab) said "insults and misogyny is absolutely wrong whether it's a man against a woman or a woman against a man".
We certainly should be arguing for community action to prevent these tragedies. But we also need to be careful, social service workers are not immune to the oppressions that exist in our societies. So, what we need to consider is community support groups run within the communities in which we live where working together we can try to begin to address what causes the problems not only address the tragedies after they happen.
Unfortunately, in our societies, women certainly need to be protected from violence brought about by misogyny. But this is a complicated discussion with no easy answers. On the one hand, in Britain, misogynous violence against women and girls has increased substantially during the pandemic and 62% of women killed by men have been murdered by their partners and ex-partners form the majority of murders in our societies. Already 81 women have been murdered this year; there is as of yet no formal database for feminicide in Britain and these figures have been compiled through the freedom of information act.
According to Karen Ingala Smith:
“ A year and a half later, Clarrie O’Callaghan and I had our first conversation, one that would lead to the development of the Femicide Census. We’ve made Freedom of Information requests going back to 2009 about men’s fatal violence against women. From this we’ve identified that 62% of women killed by men are killed by a partner or ex-partner, and that at least a third of these women were in the process of leaving, or had left him; that teenage girls, as well as women in their 80s or 90s, can be killed by men who were supposed to love them; that 92% of women who are killed by men are killed by someone they know. One in 12 is a woman who is killed by her son.
Black women are disproportionately victimised, yet more likely to receive a sub-standard response from state agencies. And Sarah Everard was the 16th woman to be killed by a serving or former police officer since 2009.”