Interview: School of hard knocks

Catherine Campbell (Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics) talks with psychologist, feminist, activist and film-maker Janice Haaken about the challenges facing the domestic violence movement

CC: Originally rooted in highly politicised feminist debates, the issue of domestic violence has become mainstreamed in many respects. Some would say that the movement has lost its critical edge, focusing more on the welfare of battered women than on an activist critique of gender and power. Others would go further and say that the depoliticisation of the movement unwittingly contributes to a perpetuation of the very problems the movement was designed to tackle (for example, social inequalities). Your book Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling (Routledge, 2010) is located within the context of these more general debates.

JH: In the book, the domestic violence field serves as a site for studying the social psychology of storytelling, and the role of subversive storytelling in movements for social change. These are contexts where accounts of suffering arouse defensiveness in listeners – stories people may not want to hear, either because the account is disturbing or listeners may feel morally implicated in them. One of the most effective interventions of second-wave feminism – a key strategy in legal advances – was to recast the story of wife-beating. Rather than an isolated series of domestic tragedies, with each woman coping with her own terrible fate, the prototypical narrative of the ‘battered woman’ was reframed as a public health problem of epidemic proportions.

My book began with this interest in understanding how these stories circulate as cautionary tales, and how accounts of battered wives came to carry a heavy social symbolic loading. I trace the history of how the battered woman syndrome emerged as Every Woman’s story. For example, as large numbers of women were entering the paid workforce in the 1970s, the claim that more women are killed in their homes than on the streets – a rallying cry of second-wave feminism – secured the rightfulness of this exodus. The image of the battered woman also made palpable the fist behind the glove in patriarchal societies, and the seductive illusions associated with the idea that women could find security in the arms of a good man.
Through my research and analysis of the dynamics of this movement, I show, however, the costs of what I describe as over-investment in a unifying story of the battered woman, and how the separation of domestic violence from a broader analysis of social violence was costly to the movement and to abused women themselves. I also explain how psychoanalytic social theory offers useful concepts in working through dilemmas in the feminist anti-violence movement.

In what ways have you drawn on your own research, and on your own history of feminist activism?
My first career was as a psychiatric nurse, and in the 1970s I became very involved in the anti-psychiatry movement as well as the anti-war and women’s liberation movements. It was an exciting time when the possibilities for fundamental social transformation seemed very real. Although I wanted to pursue clinical training at the doctoral level, my real passion was – and remains – centred on the psychology of social change. When I discovered the Lewinian social action research tradition, critical social theory, and radical traditions of psychoanalysis, my identity as a psychologist developed around the ideal of the activist scholar and the ‘clinician in the community’.

The heady ideals of that period of radical social thought – the late 1960s and 70s – also raised new questions about group dynamics and how even noble ideals can become repressive. My political identity during this time was powerfully shaped by radical feminist politics. I was drawn to the daring and toughness of this vision of sisterhood – our refusal to be the good girls of patriarchy. But I also became increasingly uncomfortable with a certain rigidity and excessive reliance on the enemy camp to sustain a positive feeling of sisterhood. This reliance on the outgroup is not unique to feminism, of course. Hard Knocks is part of an ongoing programme of inquiry centred on working through this and other complicated questions about the relationship between gender, human destructiveness and capacities for reparation in the world.

Why did you choose the phrase ‘Hard Knocks’ in the book’s title?
Fighting for social change requires considerable toughness. As a young woman from a very protected background, I found radical feminists exciting because they were the real street fighters of the movement. In mobilising around the concept of a battered women’s movement, radical feminists drew on the principle that those who suffer most directly the blows of an oppressive system – those who experience the hardest knocks – are more in a position to change that system. I also enlist the metaphor of hard knocks to foreground some of the costs of fighting for social justice. The title evokes the voice of my father, who only had a high school education and regularly dispensed wisdom garnered through his own life of hard knocks.

In Hard Knocks I lay out some of the rough historical terrain of this movement. I show how the rhetorical strategy of exposing the formerly hidden problem, abused ‘behind closed doors’, introduced a new space for storytelling. More than other images of female victims, the stories of battered wives began to circulate as cautionary tales about the lethal potential of romantic love.

There was a lot of debate in this area in the 80s and 90s, but less seems to have been written on it more recently. Why has the issue gone ‘out of vogue’, and why do you think it’s worth raising all these issues again?

Even with the profusion of scholarship and policy-making on domestic violence over the past few decades, debates have remained stiflingly narrow. Unlike other feminist anti-violence campaigns, such as those centred on sex work, prostitution, rape, war and sexual harassment, one reads the same scripted responses to questions about domestic assault: ‘It’s just about male power and control’. In countering the tendency to search the psyches of abusive men for motives, feminists argued that the real issue is power rather than psychological dynamics.

There were compelling reasons for the jettisoning of psychology early on in the movement. Models of trauma as transmitted intergenerationally through patterns of family abuse seemed to depoliticise the problem. But this forced choice between viewing violence as either a personal or a political problem was costly for the movement and – as I show through my research – closed down more subtle lines of analysis. My research also set out to understand whether there was something about the battering issue that contributed to the tendency to organise around highly formulaic responses, as the movement has tended to do.

One finding centred on what I term a sense of battle fatigue in the movement. Much like shell-shocked soldiers, advocates engaged in anti-violence work experience a tendency toward hyper-vigilance. By explaining how anti-violence work generates some of the same defensive responses as does combat, I hoped to open the terrain of this movement for analysis of some of the difficulties that emerge in fighting against violence.

Are you suggesting that the anti-violence work has generated lessons for our understandings of social change more broadly?
Yes. The dilemmas of this movement, with its rich history, carry vital insights for other projects of progressive social change. I have attempted through Hard Knocks to create a case study of this fascinating area of women’s collective history and to uncover complex dynamics that have been ‘repressed’ by the movement’s very successes. This movement was highly effective in disrupting cultural fantasies about the patriarchal nuclear family – the idea that men are the protectors of women – and in exposing the various disguises this protective armour takes. Movements confront more complex issues as they move from the margins to the centre of political discourse and this is where a psychological analysis of group life can help to understand what is at stake in sustaining progressive political campaigns. By tracking the narrative strategies of this campaign over time, I also foreground developmental processes associated with collective storytelling in the context of social movements. I show, for example, how the transition from stories of bondage to stories of deliverance was an advance, much as it was for the 19th-century abolitionists. But I also explain how fascination with the drama of the deliverance story brings its own repressive blindspots, and marginalises those stories where the path of escape from threats to one’s survival or well-being is not so clear.

There has been a lot of resistance to psychological explanations of domestic violence, both against psychoanalytic approaches which link it to childhood trauma, but also more generally against approaches which seek to target the individual woman, or even the dyadic couple, as unit of analysis. Some antagonists fear that psychoanalytic approaches ‘let men off the hook’, others fear that psychological explanations (focusing on decontextualised individuals or couples) draw attention away from the roots of violence in sociological and political problems. Do you think you avoid such pitfalls?

One of the recurring motifs in my scholarship centres on this dilemma of how to work with a feminist analysis of gender and violence while avoiding simple dichotomies of good woman/bad man, or female victim/male perpetrator. My work also has been concerned with questions about where psychology, as a body of research, theory and practices, takes a movement forward or backward.

Most of what I do as a scholar situates psychological phenomena in historical contexts, including those contexts that have produced blindspots in psychological approaches to social problems. Since psychological theory so often strips human behavior of its wider social contexts, the wariness toward psychology in many political terrains is quite understandable.

Any project of social change – any effort to change hearts and minds – does require, however, an understanding of human psychology. In my interviews I engaged domestic violence advocates in a series of conversations over group dynamics and group defences in mobilising against male violence. Analysing stories that circulate in the movement was a primary site for talking about group defences, particularly the tendency to close off conflict by rallying around formulaic positions – and in creating this forced choice between psychological and political causes of violence.

How did you come to understand the causes of this defensiveness?

Some of it is understandable in that clinical psychology, associated so heavily with therapeutic approaches to social problems, has so overtaken public discourse on social problems – and on thinking about what we mean by psychology as a field or set of ideas and practices. In returning to the work of Lenore Walker, the first theorist in the battered women’s movement who also was a psychologist, I try to draw out the social psychology implicit in her analysis of cycles of violence and the battered woman syndrome. Her work had become so discredited by the reduction of her theory to an individualised psychology that many of her early powerful insights had been lost.

Some might say that psychoanalysis was a surprising choice of framework for book that seeks to emphasise social context. What does psychoanalysis contribute to bridging the psychic and the social, and what are some of the problems that arise with this theoretical lens?
Psychoanalysis is associated with some of the worst excesses of an individualised psychology. Yet this tradition carries important insights for thinking about dynamics of social change, and feminists have been a vital force in revitalising psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis also offers a theory of storytelling – how representations of self-in-relation-to-others are organised through narratives that carry fantasies and defences among the various schemas for managing conflict. Psychoanalytic approaches to group experience focus on shared fantasies and defences, and ingroup/outgroup dynamics. Concepts such as scapegoating and projection as they relate to the political construction of imagined enemies – group dynamics in the propaganda of war – draw heavily on psychoanalysis.

There is a rich psychoanalytic tradition in Britain associated with psychosocial research. But most of the work in the area of politics focuses on right-wing or reactionary movements, rather than the progressive movements with which many of us identify. In feminist politics I have been interested in how unconscious dynamics – the less readily articulated aspects of our affective investments and social alliances – inevitably carry problematic currents. I show how one of the occupational hazards of fighting male violence has been a hypervigilance and excessive fearfulness, as well as dependence on horrifying accounts of male abuse to preserve a sense of female moral authority. This line of interpretation is tricky, however, because it may be deployed in such a way to minimise the actuality of destructive threats to women’s lives.

These dynamics also operate at the group level. I explain, for example, how destructive dependencies have developed in relationships between domestic violence shelters and the police in many locales. A related dynamic centres on over-idealisation of shelters and victims of violence.  

What do you mean?
Throughout the research interviews advocates talked about the conflict between the ideal and the reality of shelters, particularly as these places of refuge have emerged as sites for triaging women in crisis and as the problem of separating victims of battering from other forces undermining women’s lives has become more acute.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, idealisation is a vital human capacity, much like healthy narcissism or being able to fall in love. Idealisation means being able to emotionally invest in protecting representations of one’s self or others as essentially good. Social movements require some capacity to idealise and to repair the narcissistic injuries suffered at the group level – and to re-project the ‘bad’ back onto the oppressor. But idealisation also may develop as a defence against conflict. Shelters were idealised in some very positive ways in this movement, but there also was a cost in that over-idealisation fended off recognition of conflict within the shelter or in the lives of abused women themselves. Over-idealisation represents a demand to be totally good – to fulfill a fantasy.

To what extent do you feel the recent lack of excitement, outrage, even attention to domestic violence is part of the failure of feminism to resonate with the concerns of 21st-century women? Particularly amongst younger women, there seems to be a tendency to dismiss feminism as very ‘20th century’ and rather anachronistic. Why do you think feminist approaches seem to have so little appeal in the modern day?

It may be a matter of what we mean by feminism, as well as how the term feminist gets deployed in popular culture. There are many campaigns around the world that could be described as feminist – projects centred on empowering girls and women – even though they may not use this term. Second-wave feminism, the mass mobilisation of women that began in the early 1970s and continued through that decade, had profound and sustained effects in changing notions of the social contract around gender roles and in dismantling many sexist and patriarchal practices that had been codified and supported by state power. Surveys in Western countries also routinely suggest broad-based support among young women for many of the aims of feminism, particularly around equal rights.

But many young women resist the label of ‘feminist’ even if they are committed to equal rights. Why this aversion?
It is one thing to endorse a human rights position on gender equality and quite another to take up a feminist identity. From a psychoanalytic perspective, we might want to explore group fantasies and unconscious fears with the term feminist!  It is interesting to consider what this term evokes that makes it so disturbing. The identity does require some capacity to weather being called a man-hater or being perceived as lesbian. In Britain, for example, a series of anti-feminist YouTube videos have circulated quite widely to advance a ‘men’s rights’ campaign – The group deploys the battered woman story – and the ‘myth/fact’ rhetorical strategy of the battered women’s movement – to dramatise what they claim to be the terrible treatment men suffer at the hands of feminism.

One sees this same strategy in other conservative campaigns, whether it is blaming poor people or immigrants for social problems. One can recognise the defence of displacement operating here, as well as projection of hostility. But behind the projection of hostility onto feminists, there may be anxiety over what the collective aspirations of women evoke in the dominant culture. Many traditions of feminism are based on a rather utopian ideal – the hope that men and women can meet as free individuals and form social bonds based on choice rather than on force or economic dependency. This ideal expects a lot from men in their willingness to relate to women as equals, but it also requires a lot from women in managing ambivalence and conflict in relation to men and moving beyond the position of being pleasing – being ‘nice girls’.

Some of my own (middle-class, relatively privileged) female students say that the feminism of the 70s and the 80s has achieved its goals, that women are now equal to men. Given the compelling evidence that men still hold significant economic and political power relative to women, even in the most ‘advanced democracies’, and that women in many cultures and contexts around the world are still deeply oppressed, I am always slightly baffled by their optimism.

It has been more difficult to talk about the oppression of women in Western countries than it has to talk about violence. Once you label behaviour as violent, you are making a moral judgement. In this sense the category of domestic violence has been an ideological sponge, absorbing other forms of maltreatment that women suffer that fall below the threshold of public concern. Women still carry a larger share of responsibility for household labour, although there are advances in this area, and suffer the pervasive phallic ‘gaze’ of consumer culture. I do think each generation must take up struggles in their own way in confronting gender, violence and the daunting project of creating a more humane and peaceful world. Young people – both men and women – do have a greater sense of the interconnectedness of people and the earth, and that specific campaigns do ultimately depend on working on a global level for a better world, one less dominated by the market logic that currently reigns.  

One of the strengths of your book is the way you map out the complexity of the problem. Perhaps this is also a weakness in that you may have defined the problem as too complex to be tackled with realistic hopes of success. What would you say to those who might argue that over-complex analyses are not actionable in the real world, and for this reason don’t lead to anything more than discussions at academic conferences and seminars?
We have to think about what we are trying to achieve in the world. If you are planning a trip to the beach, you may only need to know the weather forecast for the weekend. But if you are trying to address global warming, you need to know quite a bit about complex systems. Indeed, attending to local weather patterns to gauge the problem – as people sometimes do – would be terribly misleading.

Violence is similarly a very complex topic if one takes it seriously as a social issue, including in mapping the borders of what is considered violence. In my own work around gender violence, I try to draw out a number of problems that have resulted from not attending enough to storytelling practices in the women’s anti-violence movement. One problem centres on the belief that simply exposing a previously concealed social problem – cruelty carried out behind closed doors – will pave the way for social justice. And I try to show how psychology can help us understand how the trope of exposing a domestic secret gives rise to a range of storytelling practices and that we need to understand the role of these various stories in projects of social change.

What of ethics?
The issue of complexity also carries ethical implications. Our ethical guidelines require us to address differential impacts of social problems as they are taken up by psychologists. My view is that it is no longer ethical to insist that all women are equally vulnerable to domestic assault, nor to take the position that men are violent simply because they consciously choose to assert power and control over their partners. In the United States, we now have a staggering number of minority men – and increasingly women – incarcerated on the basis of this very reasoning. So activists who are serious about creating a more humane world must think through the implications of their rhetorical strategies.

What contributions have women of colour made here?
Although women of colour, particularly, have generated a wealth of insights concerning the complexity of women’s experiences with violence, most of this work has not been integrated into the field as a whole. One still routinely reads that the notion that poverty is a cause of domestic violence is a myth, even though there is significant empirical support for this ‘myth’. While it is true that violence transcends social and cultural boundaries, the forms and frequency of it are vital to understand. All people are at some risk of developing illnesses, but some communities are far more at risk than others. Beth Ritchie and Kimberlee Crenshaw have for some time talked about the ‘gag order’ in the domestic violence field in addressing differential rates of violence in poor communities.

What of middle-class educated women who get involved in violent relationships with men? One thing your book shows very clearly is how gendered abuse is often linked to other forms of structural violence – issues such as housing, immigration, unemployment – that are experienced more by women of colour, and women in poverty. You are keen to rebut the ‘myth’ that we are all equally vulnerable to violence in intimate relationships. Yet all of us can think of middle-class, educated female friends or relatives who have been battered.

If we relied on perfect correlations, we would have very little to claim as findings in the social sciences! The problem has been the downplaying of the very different experiences women have with violence, some based on class differences, and in focusing on a single male perpetrator at the expense of a wider analysis of the interplay of private and public forms of violence. Too much has been loaded onto the domestic violence campaign as well to deliver women from sources of oppression.  

You are an unusual author, given your simultaneous positioning as feminist scholar, activist and film-maker. What is the added value of your multiple positionings?
As an activist academic, I have been interested for some time in the dynamics of social change and sources of ambivalence and conflict associated with change. In addition to realising new capacities, striving to overturn the social order can produce feelings of loss, even guilt over abandoned attachments. People do become attached even to oppressors – a dynamic that has been hard to integrate into the feminist campaign against domestic violence. Notions of empowerment often omit these strains of ambivalence, and the enormous difficulties that accompany serious projects of social transformation. But there is something quite vital – and respectful – in acknowledging this complexity, and the challenges we face in bringing about a more humane world. That has to be part of what we contribute as applied psychologists. My interest in working with different mediums is guided by some of this desire to capture a fuller picture of human experience, and to go beyond the narrow symbolic universe we typically inhabit as academics. But it’s also interesting working the streets.

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