There are lots of things we disagree on. Some things are inconsequential – a matter of taste – tea or coffee, cats or dogs. Some things are cultural, embedded in our way of life, important to us morally, such as choices about religion, matters of lifestyle. We all know that we have the freedom to make personal choices and we understand about respectful disagreement and the right to an opinion. But what about when the situation isn’t so clear cut, we disagree with something we think isn’t as it should be. It isn’t right, but we don’t know how to respond.
My mother hated injustice. She worked as a dinner lady in a school for a while, and in a soap factory. Both jobs had a hierarchical management system and the expectation was that supervisors were workers with a lot of experience who were paid a little more than the other workers to make sure that the job went smoothly. In both cases, my mum noticed supervisors humiliating inexperienced members of the team and my mum spoke out and made the point that the supervisors’ behaviour was unacceptable and demanded that they changed the way they treated individuals in public. Although she was just an ordinary worker, my mum felt it was the right thing to defend someone who was upset and couldn’t speak up for themselves.
It has taken a long time for rules about how we treat each other in relationships to become clearly defined. It wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against women affirmed that violence against women also violates their human rights. We know attitudes about domestic violence have been slowly changing – it was only in 1994 that rape in marriage was made a crime, and that was after fifteen years of hard campaigning.
We’re not there yet, and sometimes things happen to remind us that not all partners in a relationship enjoy equal rights or are fairly treated.
Last weekend, I was in a DIY store and needed some assistance – with door knobs, as it happened. I approached an assistant who was helping a man and a woman and I intended to wait until they’d finished. The man was explaining to the young male assistant what he wanted and the woman quietly chipped in, to help. At this point, the man turned to the woman with an angry face and said, too loudly, ‘Shut up.’ She recoiled and he leaned towards her and said ‘Go away and do some knitting or something.’ Who would even speak to their dog like that?
We all know that’s abusive. It worked. She did shut up and she moved back and waited in silence. I wondered what to say. The man had help from the assistant and moved off and she trotted away behind him. Later in the store, I saw them both again, walking along in silence side by side in silence.
My point is, what could I do? What should I have done? I wasn’t intimidated, but to intervene with ‘That’s not very nice’ mightn’t have helped at all. I could have said to the woman ‘Are you all right?’ but how would that have helped? How could she have replied?
The interchange was not part of a humorous role play, not a bit of intimate banter or fun between the couple. It was aggressive and meant to hurt. I wondered why the woman didn’t walk away, why she couldn’t.
Had the roles been reversed, and the woman had said to the man ‘Shut up. Go away and play with your golf clubs,’ would it have been met with a similar tacit public reaction? (Is the insertion of golf clubs as demeaning as knitting? What is the equivalent?) Hopefully, we have the same attitude to domestic abuse whether a man or a woman is the recipient. Abuse isn’t acceptable, no matter who is on the end of it. I wonder how many people -men, women or chidren – are used to this type of constant bombardment on their emotions and end up feeling being unworthy of anything better. How can we speak out to help them?
It’s not just partners who indulge in repeated emotional abuse. It happens in the workplace, in schools, in families. The point is, how should we react when we see it? Are we nosy parkers if we speak up or cowards if we don’t? Are we just making more trouble for the victim when they get home or do we owe it to them to help them realise they aren’t isolated?
I remember a story about a friend of mine carrying his four-year-old child out of the supermarket over his shoulder because she was having a tantrum. The girl was screaming ‘Put me down, you horrible man. I want my Mummy.’ But no-one challenged him, not for the three minutes it took him to leave the store. He said he’d have welcomed intervention, just in case he hadn’t been the parent. He’d have been pleased to see someone speak out for the safety of his child.
I don’t have an answer to this one, but perhaps we’re living in a time where our social lives are such that it’s easy to retreat into thinking it’s ‘not my business’ and then make a judgement afterwards. If we don’t know someone personally, perhaps we don’t think we should try to help. Perhaps we live in our own little worlds and are afraid or detached or just not interested enough to support others.
I’m not wholly happy that I don’t know how best to help a stranger who is being badly treated in a public place. Perhaps the man was able to be rude to the woman in the DIY store because he knew no-one would care enough to ask him why he was so abusive. Perhaps some teachers are regularly disrespectful to some children, perhaps some bosses take liberties with workers’ self-esteem because they don’t expect anyone to speak out.
Perhaps we’ve become too self-absorbed and we’ve lost the concern for others which would make a challenge against injustice the norm, the right thing to do. There is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen in prison in Iran on trumped-up ‘espionage’ charges. There are things we can do to help. We can write to our MPs and urge them to take immediate action. There are countless cases of women abused by men in postions of power. Where are the people who know what’s happening and can speak out to support them? There are more than 250,000 homeless people in our country, and 1.2 million older people who are chronically lonely. Is there something we can do beyond a moment’s empathy and a cursory glance at our debit card?
The incident has given me a lot to consider. I will give it much more thought.