Battered Women And Responsibility Pt. 2

This is a pretty solid rebuttal to Linda Hirshman's piece by Hilzoy. One thing Hilzoy brings to bear here is some actual life experience (which she writes) and I'm generally more swayed by lived narrative than theory. Having said that let me respecfully quibble with something:

It seems fairly clear to me that it is not helpful to battered women to tell them that they should 'take responsibility for their own well-being.' Battered women are not, in general, under the impression that they are not responsible for their actions. On the contrary: while there are exceptions, a lot of battered women I have known tend to believe such things as: that it is their fault that they were beaten. Moreover, most already think that they were stupid to stay. They don't need other people to tell them this, or even to suggest obliquely that they ought to recognize their own "bad choices", any more than an anorexic needs lectures on the dangers of obesity.

We shall immediately reject the idea of blaming any woman for the mere fact of being battered, or saying that any one is responsible for someone else battering them. That isn't being debated here. That said, I think it's worth teasing out the difference between blaming someone, or even blaming yourself, and, as Hilzoy, says taking responsibility for your own well-being.

I don't like the word blame. I don't like the idea of "blaming" women for being battered, nor do I like the idea of "blaming" women for not leaving. Also, as I just said, I don't like the idea of telling battered women that they are "responsible" for some dude deciding to hit them--mostly because they manifestly aren't. A person's decision to strike someone is his decision alone.

Recommended Reading

I think where I part ways with Hilzoy is in conflating, say,  thinking that it's "their fault that they were beaten," or thinking, "they were stupid to stay" and taking "responsibility for their own well-being." I don't think the former and the latter are the same. You can "blame yourself" or "fault yourself" for any number of reasons, many of them having little to do with taking responsibility. A kid may well blame himself for doing poor on a math test by saying he's stupid, but that doesn't mean he's taken responsibility, that he's acknowledged that he's capable of doing better the next time. Likewise, an abuse victim who blames herself for being beaten by saying she's "a bad person" is, for sure, finding fault with herself, but isn't, necessarily, claiming responsibility for leaving.

Unlike responsibility, fault and blame don't require choice, and they don't neccessarily offer any prospect of power. This, to my humble mind, is extremely key. Blaming a battered woman for being battered is foolish, not because it makes the woman "responsible," but because it doesn't point to a way out. At it's best it invokes a false responsibility (making the victim "responsible" for the aggressive action of the batterer) at precisely the wrong point (your responsible for the assault, not the leaving). At it's worse it is actually an evasion of responsibility because it looks to something innate and unchangeable as the source.

To go back to Hilzoy's point, it's true that the battered woman, indeed, does not need a lecture on "bad choices." That said, how can one ever leave if they don't understand that they have some power to do so? How does one accept that they do, indeed, have some power to leace, and then turn around and say that the power comes with no responsibility?

Perhaps we are hitting on a point of ideology, and deeply ingrained beliefs. In my case, that a person is, in fact, ultimately responsible for their well-being, that in fact the world can't really exist any other way. That doesn't make leaches and cowards, any more than they actually are. But I don't know how those of us who are personally oppressed, or historically have been oppressed, can claim power in any other way, but to define how we want to live, and, if need be, how we want to die.