The incident I’m writing about today attracted media attention about a month ago; I jotted down some thoughts at the time and during the weeks that have passed I haven’t forgotten about the story one bit. That’s because in it, I think we see part of the explanation for why there is such a prevalence of domestic violence in the western world.
The event I’m referring to is when a four-year-old girl, after having bing attacked by a four-year-old boy at her pre-school, was told by the doctor at the emergency department as he heard what happened while assessing her injuries that, “He [the little boy] must like you.” The girl’s mother was outraged by the doctor’s comment, went to the media, and the story went viral.
There are many, many problems with the comment. The old stereotype is that people only hassle and tease people that they’re interested in, and that stereotype probably informed the doctor’s comment. Only in the incident he was dealing with, the hassling had become a violent assault. While there certainly is an element in of truth in the stereotype in that we probably do do more flirty teasing of the people we like, the thing is, we shouldn’t continue accept poor behaviour just because romantic feelings are involved. I’m not advocating no-teasing, but I am advocating not justifying poor behaviour because someone “likes” someone. It excuses people of owning their own behaviour, which is not a good thing.
I’ve decided to discuss two of my main issues with the comment: the way it normalises violence in romantic relationships and the way it neatly conflates “love” (or “liking”) with violence. I suspect that the doctor in question didn’t mean to do either of these things; he was probably trying to make the girl feel better, albeit in a way that, upon reflection, looks pretty perverse. The underlying sentiment of his words is that this wasn’t some random, violent attack; this happened only because he likes you! Which, to my ears, is actually even worse – shouldn’t someone who likes (or loves) you do the complete opposite to violently attacking you? And rather than calling out the boy’s behaviour as just plain wrong, the doctor seemingly justified it, and provided a framework for legitimizing it.
Before I discuss the normalisation of violence in romantic relationships, I should also clarify what exactly I mean by the term “romantic relationships”. I don’t mean to suggest that the little girl and the little boy were “dating” or anything like that; I use the phrase more in terms of the doctor’s understanding of the girl’s and boy’s relationship. That is, in his characterisation, he implies that the boy’s aggressive behaviour is something you wouldn’t expect during a “friendship” but could expect from someone who wanted to be more than friends – someone who “likes” you.
Given that domestic violence is a highly prevalent problem in our society, teaching children that violence goes hand in hand with love is a seriously dangerous thing to do. But normalisng violence is exactly what doctor’s statement does. The logic in the doctor’s statement is thus: because he likes you, he hits you. Extrapolating this logic gives us the following situation: when people like each other, and because they like each other, they physically hurt each other. This kind of thinking permeates our understandings of violence in adult intimate relationships; we all know the cliché rolled out by (predominantly female) domestic violence victims, “He only hits me because he loves me.” A way of breaking this cycle would be to not normalise violence in romantic relationships: this kind of thinking makes violent outbursts an expectation of romantic relationships as it simultaneously excuses the perpetrator of blame and/or lessens the problem of the violence. It’s strange, but somehow, as a culture we can more easily rationalise violence if the perpetrator “loves” (or in the four-year-olds’ case “likes”) the victim.
Indeed, the slippery conflation of acts of love with acts of violence is my second problem with the doctor’s statement. There are countless clichés (most of which have been used by pop songs at some time or other) which reinforce this conflation: there’s a fine line between love and hate, between pleasure and pain. While love can certainly make us behaviour contrary to our normal behaviour, we should not, must not accept a casual slippage between love and violence. Nor should we accept violence as regular consequence of love or “liking” someone, even at age four.
I’m really impressed with the girl’s mother, Merritt Smith. Drawing attention to deeply problematic comments like the doctor’s helps to reveal dangerous structures in our patterns of thinking, and hopefully helps to bring about change. We certainly shouldn’t tolerate tired stereotypes which, when used, legitimize violence in romantic relationships. And to close, I’d like to finish on Ms Smith’s Facebook post which does just that: