Violence against women, protestors, and the poor (we’re all in this together)

The ‘peace’ of our society in Great Britain is sustained by immediately obvious but psychologically suppressed violence. Although this violence manifests itself in various ways, the link between its different forms is in the structure of the violence itself, which is a support for the fantasy of the very ‘peace’ we fetishize. One form that the ongoing investigation into the murder of Jo Yeates brings into focus is violence against women. In the wake of the release without charge of a suspect in that case, Chief Superintendent John Stratford of Avon and Somerset Police issued a statement.

I can understand why the public in the local and wider Bristol area have concerns for their safety at the current time. Whoever killed Joanna remains at large. However, I want to reassure the public that at this time there is no specific intelligence or information to suggest an increased threat to their safety. Naturally, we ask the public to take the usual safety precautions. Women should avoid walking home alone after dark, householders should try to keep their premises secure and just take care when answering the door to strangers.

This may superficially seem reassuring. ‘There is no specific intelligence or information to suggest an increased threat to [women’s] safety.’ But what does that mean? Business as usual: women must take ‘the usual safety precautions’: effectively, locking themselves indoors at all times and never admitting anyone to their home – particularly, since most violence against women is perpetrated by loved ones, anyone they know. The normal level of violence against women, the background threat level to women in the absence of ‘an increased threat’ (like a nationally famous, unknown fugitive murderer, for instance) is therefore huge. If a woman dares to encounter a man, she is putting herself in harm’s way. This is the level of violence we tolerate as normal; only deviations from this become newsworthy. In the absence of newsworthy instances where this background level of violence is exceeded, women’s participation in Britain’s normally ‘safe’ society is of this severely compromised sort. The myth that this is ‘safe’ enables our society to persist in its abusive disregard for women, manifested in all forms of gender essentialism and prejudice.

John Stratford’s official statement is therefore a structural support of the violent status quo. In this it is entirely consistent with police behaviour in general. I have written before on this blog about the violence of police against anti-student-fees protestors (here and here). The violence of the police response to protestors – through whom they drive horses, on whose bodies they inflict terrible blows with batons, who they humiliate, freeze, and imprison for hours at a time – is not peculiar to the current situation of opposition to the Tory cuts. This is the standard mode of police response to every situation in which ‘trouble’ might break out (football matches, etc.). The cavalry charges and assaults, as we might as well call them, are the violent complement of our politics.

What does it mean to say our politics is violent? We believe ourselves to live in a society in which we have certain rights or freedoms, such as the right to assemble or the right to elect our government. Does that not mean we live in a mostly peaceful and free society? Not really: neither of these rights is strictly available to us because the offer is in each case disingenuous. We are free to assemble on a protest only so that the government can make ideological use of the statement: ‘you have this freedom’. But what is the extent of this freedom? If you protest you will be kettled until you feel so broken and disillusioned that – the government hopes – you will never protest again. But your failure to protest again will be your ‘choice’: according to the political discourse, you are ‘free’ to protest because this is not a violent and repressive country, but in reality you are unfree because if you act on this ‘freedom’ you will be brutalized until you stop.

The ideological discourse therefore achieves a cunning double victory: you are reassured that this is a fundamentally decent society because here (unlike in modern China or the Soviet Union, for instance) you have certain democratic ‘freedoms’. But those freedoms are empty and merely a fig-leaf covering an extraordinary state violence. Like women who are ‘free’ in the normal course of events so long as they imprison themselves in solitary confinement, we are ‘free’ politically so long as we simply continue to elect parliaments. No other political settlement – for instance one that would respond to protests against the Iraq war, or one that would represent the will of a population that did not accept the case for cuts – is open to us. We can have parliament, with its violent police support and its claim to sustaining our ‘freedoms’, but nothing else. Why do we live with these levels of violence?

Because, in today’s cant, ‘there is no choice’, and ‘we’re all in this together’. There is no choice (given the ‘essential’ and ‘unchanging’ nature of men, in a discourse that believes in gender essentialism) but for women to stay home, and even if they do, they might be killed there by anyone they know. There is no choice but for the police to use violence against protestors (and in any case, they’re nice enough not to use water cannon or rubber bullets, they will add). There is no choice but for our country to undergo massive cuts to public expenditure for the sake of the rich. There is no choice for us except to accept certain basic levels of violence, because if we removed them our country would be unrecognizable.

We have a habit of dividing the world into relatively safe and relatively dangerous areas. Forget that. ‘Violent hotspots’ of the kind that are built up by the news exist in our cultural imagination simply as a way of feeding into the lie that our own state is peaceable. In reality is as violent as anywhere else, with the exception that our violence is generally concealed under the ideological logic of there being ‘no choice’ but to accept a ‘normal’ level of unfreedom and violence. This concealment makes our own country’s structural violence much more powerful. At least in an honestly repressive regime the population might be awake to its suffering and be willing to fight. But here our various masters as women, students, or the population at large, have total control of us through the ideological presentation of the myth of ‘freedom’. We are unfree and we live in a desperately violent society that we can only tolerate because we choose to repress the knowledge. We desperately need to wake up.

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