Janine Jackson interviewed Soraya Chemaly about the link between domestic violence and mass murder for the June 17, 2016, episode of CounterSpin, an interview that was reaired for the November 10, 2017, show. This is a lightly edited transcript of the rebroadcast.
Janine Jackson: After the Sutherland Springs, Texas, mass shooting, media picked up the familiar threads on gun violence and mental health, but some also took up the less commonly explored—though established—connections between mass shootings and domestic violence.
And not just whether those with records of domestic violence, as the Texas shooter had, should be able to buy guns, but the bigger problem of how domestic violence is portrayed—you might say “dismissed,” including by media—as a private problem, rather than a societal one.
We talked about this last June, after the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Writer and activist Soraya Chemaly directs the Women’s Media Center Speech Project and is organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition. She had just written about domestic violence and the Orlando shooting for Rolling Stone.
JJ: I’ll start where your article starts: I was not, in fact, surprised to learn that the killer in Orlando had a record of domestic violence. Why wasn’t I?
SC: I think time and time again we’ve seen examples, and I mean, we could go through a list: Sandy Hook, the Sydney shootings—I’d forgotten about that, but that had started in domestic violence—the Colorado abortion clinic attack. And so, when you see it happen, and it’s such a distinct pattern in the course of the violence, you sort of wait for the other shoe to drop.
And I think what happens is that most people who maybe aren’t attuned to this particular dimension will see items in the news that are fairly poorly framed, are given headlines that don’t really address perpetration, but instead identify victims. It’s hard to then understand the wider context for this idea that it’s violence in homes, and tolerance, societal tolerance, for violence in homes, that is the necessary precursor to all of this public violence.
JJ: Connecting dots between coercive and abusive behavior, some of which is considered “normal,” and lethal violence doesn’t mean saying every domestic abuser is a mass murderer in the making, but it’s a value in seeing these echoes, right, in terms of telling us all of the points that we need to engage?
SC: That’s right. I mean, I think a lot of people hear 57 percent, I think it’s 57 percent of mass killings, start in acts of intimate partner violence or family violence, whether it’s sons killing parents and siblings, or fathers killing entire families or ex-spouses attacking intimates. They leap from that to hearing, instead, all domestic abusers are going to be mass killers, which is obviously just kind of a breakdown in logic.
But I think that as a society, we’re trying to figure out why this is happening, how can we prevent it from happening. And very clearly, one thing we have to do, otherwise I really do believe efforts will fail—even though, clearly, better gun control would reduce the number of gun deaths we have—but clearly one of the things we have to do is really take a step back, introspectively, and look at how tolerant we are of violence in homes. Very hands off about it, still.
JJ: Right. And of course you don’t want to be framing it as, let’s pay attention to men who commit domestic violence because they might go on to do something else.
SC: No. That’s right.
JJ: The point is what they’re doing now. Well, some people—not enough, maybe, but some—noted that a week before the killings, conservative Christian leader James Dobson had suggested that men take up arms to defend their wives from trans people in bathrooms. He said:
If you are a married man with any gumption, surely you will defend your wife’s privacy and security…. If this had happened a hundred years ago, someone might have been shot. Where is today’s manhood?
Well, there’s a line between that and killing queer people in a club, and it doesn’t pass through Islam.
JJ: At the same time, Dobson said, Barack Obama is “a tyrant, he is determined to change the way males and females relate to one another.” And I think that gets at something that you wrote about as well.
SC: What we’re looking at here is this clash of some very, very fundamental beliefs about gender roles and gender identity. And there simply are people who, for whatever reasons—psychological, emotional, financial—they really believe in binary gender roles, rigid gender roles; and changes in the culture that destabilize that belief are highly threatening.
So that’s why public bathrooms are such a flashpoint. I mean, the point is that women and children are much, much, much, much, much more vulnerable in their own homes and in places of worship to sexual assault, than anybody is in a public bathroom. I mean, that’s just clear, factually, on the basis of what we know. So the public bathroom flashpoint is more symbolic of the fear that people have about those cultural changes.
And in this shooting, you know, we really don’t know enough about the man as an individual, in terms of sexual shame or sexual practices, but what we do know is that he was extremely abusive to his first wife. He treated her like a piece of property. He held her hostage, he violently assaulted her, and he thought that was his right. And in point of fact he wasn’t really challenged in that, ultimately, because, while she was removed from the home by her family, the family, for a wide variety of reasons, as families often do, don’t want to criminalize the person.
And so there ends up being, for lack of a better way of putting it, a kind of hermeneutic void in public understanding, because we are so silent, so shamed by what is happening in homes, that we cannot construct the language or the public policy to make sense of it, and to then prevent it.
JJ: And with that is an inability to collect data, I heard you say on Democracy Now!, to collect the kind of data that would make it a coherent issue so we could see the scope of —
JJ: Right. Well, I remember in 2014, a man came to New York City and killed two police officers, and the media were like, basically, Oh, right, and before that he shot his girlfriend. You know, it was very clearly segregated, it was not of a piece in the story.
SC: No. It’s like incidental. Oh, by the way.
JJ: You know, it was like what happened before he was violent.
JJ: Stopping doing that would be good. Stopping saying that people had “no history of violence,” when they have records of domestic violence. What else would you ask for from media in terms of this issue?
SC: Well, I’d like media to diversify its own management. Because as long as we have distinctly not-diverse management and ownership of media, we will continue to have these kind of epistemologically skewed understandings of the world. We’re not asking the right questions, so we cannot end up with the right headlines or the right counter-narrative.
And that connection is, I think, also fairly elusive. I mean, it’s hard for media to critique itself, right? I mean, the reason that we don’t have a good understanding of domestic violence and sexual violence, and the role that those play in persistent misogyny and racism, is, frankly, because we don’t have a very diverse media. And so people tell stories that tend to reflect their own experiences, or that they understand, and as a result of that, you just don’t see these stories in dynamic profusion.
JJ: Right. And you sometimes wonder why some stories do rise to the surface. The Stanford rapist, for example: You feel grateful for the opportunity to shine a light on certain things, but part of you says, You know this happens every day, right?
JJ: But for media, it’s almost as though the everyday-ness of a problem means it gets less attention.
SC: You know, it’s interesting. I actually just this morning published a piece about why the Stanford story became viral. What was that? Because it is something that happens absolutely every day, and there are some other really horrific stories that are extremely similar, like the Vanderbilt gang rape case last year, that didn’t raise any public alarms.
And what I think is interesting about the Stanford case is that it brought together the Title IX movement and the Black Lives Matter movement in a very graphic way. I mean, Brock Turner’s face really became a graphic symbol of those two issues coming together in their mutual critique of fraternal white male supremacy. And it just happened to be at this moment of time that those two forms of entitlement, which are often exercised in rape, came together.
JJ: That was writer/activist Soraya Chemaly, speaking with CounterSpin in June of 2016. In a new Village Voice piece in the wake of the Texas shooting, Chemaly cites a landmark four-decade study of 70 countries that found that the most important force in reducing violence against women—more significant than economic wealth or even government representation—was a social commitment to strong, independent feminist movements.