Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Four thoughts on Ray Rice and gender-based violence: 1. Coercive entitlement, masculinity, and violence

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Ray Rice is now one of the most notorious people in the world. I will not explain why, but if it is possible that you are unaware, I invite you to click here. (The link takes you to the story, NOT the video.) In the next few days, I will provide four reasons why we need to stop demonizing Ray Rice as an individual, and start examining his behaviour as a product of some powerful cultural forces. Today, I begin with reason number one.

1. In a recent story by the CBC, I was asked what I thought about the Ray Rice situation. They quoted and paraphrased me as follows:
"It’s a mistake to say this is a Ray Rice problem," says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sport. "This is a social problem. This is a problem with toxic masculinity and rape culture."
Kalman-Lamb says men are socialized to use violence as a tool to resolve all kinds of situations particularly in sports.  
"In sport men are taught that through violence on the playing field they are going to receive rewards, monetary accolades, and celebrity. Violence is consistently validated," says Kalman-Lamb.  
The development of these instincts towards violence on the field is what creates a problem off the field, where athletes eventually come to see aggression as normal because they are asked to rehearse these kinds of behaviours over and over again says Kalman-Lamb.
I repeat these points here because they cannot be emphasized strongly enough in a discussion about Ray Rice and gender-based violence. It is a fundamental mistake to think that domestic violence is simply a personal failing of an individual, or even to think that it is a collective failing of professional football players as a sub-group.

We live in a society that prizes hegemonic masculinity above few other things. That is, we exist in a culture that values characteristics such as toughness, courage, violence, aggression, stoicism, competitiveness, and material success. Men (but also many women) are taught to hone these characteristics in order to achieve social validation and economic rewards. In fact, they are taught that they are entitled to have whatever they are able to take by force or coercion. (Varda Burstyn has developed this idea and referred to it as "coercive entitlement".)

We also live in a society that objectifies women's bodies constantly and ubiquitously. Images abound that inform men that we have the right to extract visual enjoyment from women's bodies, indeed, that those bodies exist precisely for our gratification.

Taken together, coercive entitlement and objectification create a toxic ideological cocktail that convinces many men that they have the right to act violently towards women in both a physical and sexual sense if doing so enables them to get what they want.

It may sound like I am defending Ray Rice; I am not. We all have the agency to make decisions for ourselves and to determine right from wrong. However, to place the focus on Rice as an individual and to suggest that his behaviour is somehow exceptional or deviant is to grossly distort the nature of the society we are living in. Ray Rice is simply the embodiment of hegemonic (dominant, 'normal') masculinity taken to its logical conclusion. If that sounds ugly or hard to accept, good. It should, because it's time we stopped accepting it, even if that acceptance is merely tacit.

One more comment should be made about football here. It is not a coincidence that Rice and many other football players (and athletes in other sports) engage in gender-based violence. Sport is a social site that conditions its members to engage completely in coercive entitlement. Players are taught to use their bodies to forcefully take what they want from their opponents. When they succeed in doing so, they are awarded with victory, prestige, and economic rewards. In order to truly excel in these pursuits, athletes must fully internalize these notions; any hesitation or reluctance produces weakness and vulnerability that can be exploited. The problem with this -- one of the many, that is -- is that it becomes extremely difficult to turn such instincts off once the athlete leaves the field. He becomes accustomed to getting what he wants simply by taking it through force, whether what he wants is to score a touch down, win an argument, intimidate, demonstrate physical superiority or "strength", or satisfy a sexual desire.

So, what does all this mean? It means that if we are truly indignant about what Ray Rice did, we need to stop standing on soapboxes to decry his villainy and start turning that indignation back on ourselves and the culture in which we live. For, the frightening truth may be that Ray Rice acted exactly as our society told him he should. That is something we all share some responsibility in.

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