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Don't let violence get lost in the words

Jackson Katz, keynote speaker at YWCA
Jackson Katz, keynote speaker at YWCA's seminar on domestic violence.
— image credit: Photo by Kelly Everett

He paced restlessly back and forth in front of his audience. When he spoke, his gestures were broad and dramatic.

“We need a paradigm shift in how we talk and think about domestic violence,” said Jackson Katz, keynoter at last weekend’s one-day seminar hosted by Kitsap County’s YWCA.

Some 200 men and women showed up for the summit to hear the Boston-based Katz — an acknowledged expert and author on domestic violence.

“How many men in the audience know or care about a woman?” he asked suddenly. “We live in this world together, even though men care about some things women don’t, and women care about some things men don’t, we live in this world together.... All girls and women are intimately connected to all boys and men. It’s artificial, this belief by some, that men and women are so different that they’re separate.”

He paced some more, then said: “It’s not ‘Some woman’ who gets victimized, it’s ‘My wife’ or ‘My daughter... there are no ‘gender wars.’ It’s time to leave that notion behind.”

He said semantics have become our worst enemy when it comes to understanding the dynamics of male/female relationships.

“Why do we refer to domestic violence as being in the realm of ‘women’s issues’? In college, too, there are a lot of programs with ‘gender’ in the title. These are classes for women. As if ‘gender’ were another word for ‘woman.’ As if men don’t have gender. The wording or semantics deemphasize men. Call it ‘women’s issues’ and men can tune it out.... 99 percent of all rapes are committed by men, but it’s called a ‘woman’s issue.’”

Semantics scramble perceptions in other ways, he said. “Most men aren’t rapists, but most rapists are men.”

He said there’s been a very weak response by men — most men, not just rapists — to the issue of men raping women or abusing women.

“Calling it a woman’s issue is one way of (subtly) making it women’s fault that they’re raped and abused,” he said. “The lack of male pronouns and the use of the passive voice. We ask ‘How many women were raped last year?’ Instead of ‘How many men raped women?’”

He pointed out other semantics in which the issue is turned upside down: “‘How many teenage girls were impregnated last year?’ instead of ‘How many boys and men impregnated teen girls?’ The visual symbol that pops into your mind from the first phrase is of a pregnant girl.” The impregnator isn’t considered.

“Look at how the passive voice changes your perception,” he continued. “‘John beat Mary’ or ‘Mary was beaten by John.’”

He said the first sentence emphasizes the perpetrator, while the second sentence emphasizes the victim. The mind is led to ask if Mary asked for it.

“The progression continues to ‘Mary was beaten’ and finally “Mary is a battered woman. We blame the victim.”

He said we ask why do these women stay with such men, not why do these men beat women, he said. The problem’s not going to be fixed unless the perpetrator is clearly understood.

“The climactic scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a nervous, tragic man pretending to be the great and powerful Oz,” he said during the seminar, “represents more than just a moment in American cinematic history. It is also a powerful metaphor for looking at masculinity in a new way: not as a fixed, inevitable, natural state of being, but rather as a projection, a performance, a mask that men often wear to shield our vulnerability and hide our humanity.”

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