June 21, 2024


Advocacy. Mediation. Success.

Male violence, 'glass ceilings' and 'diversity' – let's talk about what really lurks within institutions of power

The shocking scenes of violence against protesting women at Clapham Common has generated welcome questions about the issue of male violence.    

There are, of course, multidimensional factors contributing to social violence, and the particular prevalence of male violence. 

Education is one vital way of speaking about it, in schools, within families, and in other public places.

We’re asked to think about the many ways in which male-related violence has become ‘normalised’. 

But where in this proposed dialogue is the encouragement to talk more particularly about the key institutions of state power and the cultures of violence they project?

State-harbouring violence

The state, as ‘Leviathan’, holds the supposed monopoly right to exercise violence. That constitutes, most notably, the military and the police. 

And it’s within these institutions that male violence and abuse is not only deeply entrenched, but systematically concealed.  

The savage brutality against demonstrators in Bristol peacefully protesting the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is the latest disturbing illustration of the police’s capacity for open violence and public deception.

As with the police, the military is riddled with every type of abusive and violent conduct. 

The many cases of military barrack bullying and suicides offer an immediate example of that festering culture.

But consider also the wider culture of militarism. Consider the record of invasion, killing and suffering inflicted on the world by British militarism alone. Then consider how such militarist violence, again most notably male, has been socialised and accepted as ‘normal’ practice through the generations. 

This suggests rather more challenging questions about how such institutions oversee violence, and those, including senior women, who help authorise it.   

The alleged killer of Sarah Everard was a serving officer of the Metropolitan Police. 

Why hasn’t this prompted a more focused public conversation about the deeper culture of misogyny and violence within that organisation? 

And why hasn’t it included closer scrutiny of the woman at the head of that force? 

Cressida Dick sits at the very apex of the Met, an institution harbouring, as we’ve seen, a propensity to violence in many disturbing forms. 

Despite a deeply-questionable report exonerating the Met, that culture of violence was on open display at Clapham Common. 

And it was directed by a woman at women there to oppose violence against women.  

Dick also oversaw Operation Kratos, the unlawful policing that led to the killing of John Charles de Menezes.

She is also on record as saying this about the type of ‘anti-terror’ models we need to emulate:  

“we can and we must continue to learn to avoid complacency, to fight terrorism with all our skills and power, and do so with the same virtues which have over the years been shown in Israel.”

Those “virtues” which Dick supports presumably include Israeli forces gunning down defenceless Palestinian women and arresting terrified and traumatised children.

Is this the kind of leadership likely to foster greater understanding of how societies talk about and deal with violence?  

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Home Secretary Priti Patel – another serial apologist for Israel’s state violence – sits at the top of a government responsible for the institutional violence of that Met police force and much more besides. 

Supported by Cressida Dick, she is in the process of helping to push through a Police and Crime Bill that will render it even more difficult, if not impossible, for women, or almost anyone else, to demonstrate against the kind of brutality her government has imposed on society.

Her leading part in the Tories’ latest legislative purge on asylum seekers and refugees is another key illustration of Patel’s disturbing inhumanity. 

Again, is this any kind of ‘role model’ for women to follow?

Evolutionary shifts

Much debate has been engaged over the years now about the ‘nature or/and nurture sides of how violent and abusive impulses arise. All of which puts into context the sheer scale of the question and problem of how to deal with it.

How can something as seemingly’ innate’ within people and ‘endemic’ across society ever be ‘diagnosed’, never mind ‘stamped out’? 

Science can tell us much about the human capacity for violence. A vast literature now exists, across biology and genetics to socio-psychological studies of masculinity and gender, probing the complexities of male violence. It can offer varying indicators of what might give rise to a propensity for male violence, such as how testosterone can drive aggression.  

Neurobiology can show how violence is linked to brain dysfunction and the development of the prefrontal cortex. But this also depends on social experiences in building up the emotional structure within the brain, allowing for checks and self-control of aggression. Crucially, the witnessing of violence from childhood increases the likelihood of repeated violence.

Genetic factors, too, notably the absence of certain genetic components in men, can make them more predisposed to violence. 

But science still remains speculative as to how DNA in itself may determine any particular type of ‘male behaviour’.

Men with the so-called ‘warrior gene’ are more likely to commit acts of violence. But that gene is most often only triggered into violent responses through socialisation processes. Again, happy, nurturing childhood experiences and development are likely to offset any such genetic abnormalities. 

Combined understanding of neuroscience, genetics and psychology can be applied as early intervention strategies, better socialising young, damaged people and averting violent type behaviours.

This all suggests the need for more ‘nurture’-type questions about the kind of societal conditions giving rise to changes in human behaviour. 

In a landmark book, Professor of Genetics Steve Jones showed that not only is the outlook for the evolutionary relevance of the male ‘Y’ chromosome looking increasingly fragile, so is there a gathering decline in the economic and social ‘status’ of men. 

In charting how ‘descending’ changes in the male gene may be associated with evolutionary shifts in wider societal arrangements, he concludes: “We are in the midst of an ascent of women matched with an equivalent descent of men.” (S. Jones, Y: The Descent of Men, Great Britain: Little, Brown, 2002, p 260.)

If still a minefield for debate, this suggests, following Jones, something of an evolving social context for thinking about violence, how it impacts across the sexes, and how we might more deeply address it.

Also, what we’re seeing in the reaction to such violence is, in itself, an all too human, even evolutionary, effort to be released from it. And so, as a species thankfully still concerned with ‘progressing’ itself, we endeavour to talk about it. 

Protest is one such form of talking. But protest as a means to any bigger conversation requires much deeper dialogue about the kind of institutions – from corporate boardrooms to political offices, military organisations to police forces – that help incubate abuse and violence. 

That, in turn, requires closer inspection of the particular economic circumstances within which those institutions of violence are situated. If harsh neoliberal competition and self-survival is the order (or disorder) of the day, isn’t that another key pointer to how institutions will come to shape human behaviours?

And isn’t it also reasonable to expect that those same institutions will not only foster cultures of power and violence, but cultures of impunity in protecting the abusive and violent?

Continuing this line of thought, we can say that ultra-neoliberalism and corporate forces are shaping those very evolutionary changes in people, changes in which ideas of zero-sum individualism rather than human collectivism have become the ‘norm’. 

If this is the crucible within which psychologies of power and violence evolve, humans, male and female, will come to negotiate their behaviours within that survival-of-the-fittest system. 

And as once exclusive male control over that realm of power diminishes, with all it’s crises manifestations for ‘male status’, female ‘access’ increases, with all the new notions of ‘entitlement’ and ‘power reversal’ that shift entails. 

Women, of course, have long been subject to the greatest levels of oppression, brutality and violence. That’s not only an historical constant, but one felt harshest by the poorest and most deprived sections of women. 

Yet we may still be seeing a much longer evolutionary change in how women are more effectively resisting and ‘redressing’ that subjugation. 

But is any such ‘levelling-up’ an advancement for one part of the species rather than a race to the bottom for the species at large?

If women are changing, adapting and ‘asserting’ themselves to ‘fit’ more ‘equally’ into that system of power, to what extent can that be deemed any kind of ‘progression’ for women or wider humanity? 

And, in turn, is increased and ‘elevated’ participation within that system of power providing a kind of greater ‘evolutionary immunity’ now for that once excluded part of the species?

Just as the ‘right to deploy violence’ seems to increase when a man puts on a uniform, are we to assume that similar inclinations to power and violence will not be so evident in the conduct of women inside the same uniforms?

It’s notable, for example, how readily female conscripts to the Israeli army may just as easily kill or inflict violence on a Palestinian. The fixed remote-control guns running the length of the Gaza ‘fence’ – or “automated kill zone” (the violence of such language in itself) – imprisoning 2 million people, are ‘manned’ mainly by women soldiers in rooms using console screens to kill unarmed civilians. 

Diversity and attainment

There’s an important point here linking not just the issue of how women in prominent positions of power, authority and influence act and speak, but about the very notion of ‘glass ceilings’ and ‘diversity’ as routes to power and acceptance of institutional violence.

Dame Cressida Dick’s seeming ‘answer’ to correcting the crisis reputation of the Met is to enlist more black, ethnic and women police officers. All seemingly laudable. But does this deal with the actual problem of violence within or even beyond that force?   

NATO is the latest big power institution to announce its commitment to such ‘diversity and inclusion’. 

People from
all walks of life are now apparently welcome to ‘climb the ladder’ to the highest ranks of this most ‘venerable’ killing machine. There’s ‘equality of opportunity’ now not only to deliver bombs, but to deliver nice new ‘diversity-approved’ bombs on the world. All ‘inclusive’ “woke imperialism”.  

Why are we encouraged to celebrate women or black people, or any ‘person of diversity’, in managing to ‘break through’ into male/white-powered worlds only to see them defend, repeat and project that very same power and violence?

The Royal Family, headed-up by that most ‘celebrated’ woman of all, is another key institution whose whole identity is synonymous with the business of militarist-imperialist violence. 

It’s an effective agent for the arms industry: from Prince Charles dressing up in Arab sword-wielding garb to win Saudi approval for the British military hardware currently being used to bomb children in Yemen; to the now alleged ‘sex-trafficker’ Prince Andrew acting as a ‘roving ambassador’ for arms companies across the Middle East. 

And let’s not forget that Prince Harry was not so long ago revelling in the use of such hardware, shooting brown people down from his gun-toting helicopter in Afghanistan.

Even as a now ‘untitled’ couple, one wonders whether Harry and Meghan, with their ongoing patronage of ‘military causes’ and ‘diversity rights’, would ever think to sit and converse with Oprah on those problems of violence and racism within the Royal Family. 

Indeed, would Oprah herself, in hosting them, ever have thought to use her own wealthy media platform to reflect on such racist military violence against so many ‘people of colour’ in ‘distant’ lands?

These kind of questions seem just as ‘far-off’ and ‘other’ to the conversations we’re having just now over male violence. 

We view with rightful horror and sadness the tragedies happening on our own streets. But the kind of systematic violence being visited on lands elsewhere is, well, ‘a different kind of thing’. 

Meanwhile, as the insanity of gun law feeds free-range killing on US streets, relentless alpha-militarism around the globe is reflected right back in the rampant gun-toting violence across American cities and towns. 

And, as the trial of the alleged killer of George Floyd proceeds, where do we even start in thinking about the pathology of violence deep within US police forces? 

Much is made of ‘learned behaviour’ in fostering childhood and longer human development. But what of the behaviour learned from the daily exposure to exhibitions of state and institutional violence?  

Breaking ‘glass ceilings’ 

One of the proposed ‘correctives’ or ‘mitigations’ to such violent social disorder and breakdown has been the promotion of ‘strong’ and ‘more caring’ political women. 

In running for president, Hillary Clinton was, thus, championed in particular by liberal women as ‘strong’ and ‘caring’, a ‘model women leader’ for others to follow.   

Yet, between running a murderous coup in Honduras and serving the macho-financiers of Wall Street, Clinton was launching mass murder on Libya and gloating over the brutal murder of Gaddafi. 

Again, is this the kind of ‘strength’ that in any way benefits women or humanity at large?

In a searing interview, #MeToo founder Rose McGowan has called the police violence at Clapham Common “unconscionable”, denouncing Cressida Dick for overseeing it, and condemning “victim shaming”. 

But she also goes on to make this much deeper allegation about many women in power:

“What I’ve noticed about women in power, and specifically…woman of a certain age that get to a certain power position, they play by the rule books for the men, and they double down on it, and they really don’t want to be seen as being soft on anything, or having anyone accuse them of being less hard…or less playing by the rules, the invisible rule book…women in power double down, and I often find them more dangerous.” 

Concerning issues of diversity, she further a
sserts that it’s “not just about representation”, and if you’re choosing people in jobs “just for the optics”, whether in the media or any other key institutions, that’s just the “status quo”, not any real change.

But doesn’t the ‘elevation’ of more apparently ‘progressive-minded’ women give impetus to greater diversity, the breaking of male hierarchies and better checks on power? 

In Scotland we have our very own ‘model’ case of the ‘strong’ woman and ‘ceiling breaker’ in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. 

She has just presided (a useful verb in this case) over a Hate Bill that can threaten women with prosecution over protesting against violations of their right to exclusively call themselves women. 

The legislation will also potentially criminalise their, and anyone else’s, right to talk about such things even in their own homes. 

Whatever one’s thoughts on women’s or anyone else’s rights, that’s a disturbingly authoritarian assault on free speech.  

This is the same ‘strong Nicola’ who has long lauded ‘strong Hillary’. 

Sturgeon has acknowledged arch-criminal Henry Kissinger and approved the equally ‘strong’ Madeleine Albright, who thought the deaths of half a million sanction-starved Iraqi children was “a price worth paying”.

So it’s unsurprising that, in the same ‘spirit of internationalism’ as her mentors, Sturgeon has declared that Scotland – if we ever actually see independence under her watch – will be a dutiful part of the same NATO/US-ordered military ‘community’.

Again, it’s quite remarkable how readily potential ‘elevation’ to ‘the club’, and so often the ‘men’s club’, results in ‘double down’ deferral to its ‘rules based order’. 

Of course, Sturgeon is no stranger to fraternising with people who have unleashed staggering levels of death, violence and destruction on the world.

In similar vein, behind all the caring presentation, Sturgeon’s weakness in readily following ‘superman’ Boris Johnson’s disastrous Westminster line on Covid-19 shows that she is no Jacinda Ardern.

The current political crisis within Sturgeon’s government also shows how she and a ‘club’ of powerful women played with identity politics and weaponised #MeToo in protection of their own political and career interests.

And alongside Sturgeon, head civil servant Leslie Evans and powerful other women, powerful men within related party, government and state institutions have played an equally mendacious part in this sordid affair, illustrating the deep capacity of persons of all sexes to engage in corrupt conduct. 

With dark irony, Sturgeon sought to deflect her own cabal-like conduct by railing against Alex Salmond’s supposed part in an “old boy’s club.” 

That hubris has been amplified by Sturgeon loyalists, male and female, deploying the ‘don’t attack women’ line, a craven gaslighting countered most ably by astute female voices for justice and transparency. 

Uncomfortably for Sturgeon’s avowed feminism, many SNP women are now finding better political voice and protection within the newly-formed Alba independence party, led by Salmond, including the SNP’s elected women’s convener.  

Any powerful woman, like any powerful man, should be held to account. So should the cynical use of any process supposedly constructed to protect women. 

Likewise, there should be no objection to fair and just representation of people from all walks of life. But nor should there be silence over how that case for diversity is being used as a political agenda, serving only to replicate institutional forms of power and abuse.

Protecting and advancing women in the name of humanity 

Again, there is no shortage of radically-minded and inspiring women able to see behind such posturing politics and power-play. 

Figures like Rania Khalek, Caitlin Johnstone, Sarah Abdallah and Clare Daly speak most eloquently about misogynistic violence and patriarchal discrimination, while showing how it connects to systemic issues of capitalism, class and militarism as institutionalised forms of control. 

Unsurprisingly, these kind of strong women and worthy female role models, serving the higher cause of humanity, receive no such ‘celebrated’ media platform.

Ultimately, all major social manifestations of violence come down to questions of power. The violent treatment of women. The violent treatment of black people. The violent treatment of Palestinians. The violent treatment of any section of society. From individual acts of violence on women to police acts of violence on women, from ‘domestic’ violence to state violence – all signify deep, problematic, even pathological, relationships of power. 

We should, indeed, speak out in protective concern about the particular issue of male violence against women. We can also converse, therein, about appropriate punitive or/and remedial responses. 

But the much more challenging task lies in our ability to address those questions against the social, economic and political institutions of power which serve to harbour and promote such violence. 

That kind of discussion takes us beyond any well-meaning but ultimately limiting discourse on violence, to look much more existentially at how as a species we learn to protect human beings, particularly our most exploited and abused sections of society.

That discussion has to be centred around an understanding of the actual violence of capitalism, and the pathology of violence lying deep within all institutions of authority.

It also requires much more assertive thought about the collective, compassionate and nurturing society, which sees ideas of parity and achievement not in terms of economic attainment, social ‘elevation’ or ‘levelling’ of the system, but as a fundamental exposure, rejection and replacement of the system. 

We are at a critical impasse. As with violence against the planet, the costs of violence and suffering inflicted by power on so much of humanity, whether through militarism or neoliberalism, cannot any longer just be accepted as ‘collateral damage’ or ‘economic externalities’.     

The task of how we understand violence, how we deal with it, must be viewed within that much more systematic, probing and evolutionary frame.