Building equal, peaceful, non-violent futures
by Kirthi Jayakumar
However immediate the need to overhaul a system may be, the only way to do so is to invest in sustained efforts that hack at the structures that prop up the system. It sounds like hard work, and emotional labour, no less. It most certainly is.
Events that unfold anywhere in the world evoke reactions that are spontaneous, immediate, and often, unplanned. Reactions are also short-term, easy to forget until the next such incident draws them out. The constant event-reaction loop tends to put us in a toxic cycle that does not always attract change: you can’t expect to do the same things over and over again while expecting new results, in all fairness.
To envision a world free of gender-based violence – across the continuum, from micro-aggressions to rape, assault, and murder – is to also envision a path to it, one where we each have a responsibility to engage as agents of change. Feminists and social scientists before me have done plenty, feminists and social scientists alongside me are doing plenty, and feminists and social scientists after me will go on to do plenty, for a change that a yet-unnamed, faceless future will hopefully benefit from. As a speck of dust in an expansive universe, I am sharing some lessons that I have benefited from in the pursuit of social change. I hope you find them useful.
Dismantle the structure
When violence manifests in the ways that we are used to hearing / reading about, we encounter overt violence, which is not more than a symptom, and an outward manifestation of something that goes deeper. The Father of Peace Studies, Johan Galtung, recommends the idea of root cause analysis: which implies going deeper into the apparent side by investigating, and understanding the structural violence that enables its outward manifestation. Gender-based violence is as old as the hills, and its existence has been encouraged by structures that allow it to continue. Structures that operate today – be it business or law or language – were created by a small group of cis-het men in power and continue to serve their interests best, to the exclusion of anyone else. To fit into these structures, then, one makes allowances and accommodations, shrinks themselves, and plays by the rules of these structures – which does next to nothing to dismantle them entirely. To do away with a weed, you start from the root: to do away with overt violence, you start from the structural violence below it.
Speak to the behavior
Engagement to make change happen requires one to speak not to the person, but to the behavior. As a people, we have normalized the idea of either cancelling out or responding to people with ableist, sexist, and sometimes even racist and/or xenophobic responses. This does not mean that you should never express your anger: please be angry, by all means, if that is your reaction. But in that anger, avoid engaging with rhetoric that targets one’s person and/or identity instead of their behavior. Stepping back to speak to the behavior also helps one to see that the problem is one that can be addressed, rather than dismissing people and not entirely facilitating change. This takes tremendous emotional labour, and even comes with the great cost of in the form of the loss of peace of mind: and is not necessarily everyone’s preferred mode of responding. But the key to getting here is to build into a habit of responding rather than reacting, one situation at a time.
The Theory of Planned Behavior
Instead of waiting for the flashpoint for something to happen, what if we could build foundations that are so firm that we are equipped to respond with the best resources possible? The theory of planned behavior is a powerful tool that backs up the concept of bystander intervention and builds routes for social change. This theory suggests that an individual will be more likely to be an active bystander if they espouse and enhance their attitudes and beliefs in opposition to sexual, gender-based, and sexualized violence; if believe and endorse the fact that the social norm is to intervene when sexual or gender-based or sexualized violence occurs; and believes that they have the knowledge, resources, skills, and capacity to intervene, backed with the intention to do so. Educating yourself every day, investing in resources and dialogues that can enhance the culture of active bystander intervention, and creating a sense of community to respond to incidents of violence can go a long way.
There is a fine line between being a savior and stepping up to do your duty as a human, living and engaging with a society bigger than oneself. There is a commonly held idea that until another person gets into a situation to intervene, one wouldn’t go into it themselves. This is called the bystander effect, and leads to a situation where the victim is either adversely affected entirely or help is delayed, costing the victim tremendously in the process. Timely interventions can go a long way in ensuring that adverse consequences are averted altogether, or at least mitigated at best.