Defend Truth


Until women are valued, the violence will continue


Grace Garland is an associate at The Ethics Institute, an independent public institute producing original thought leadership with the vision of building an ethically responsible society.

Patriarchy is not an overt and carefully orchestrated project by men to dominate women. If it were, perhaps it would be easier to fix.

As a string of monstrous acts of gender-based violence dominates the conversation in South Africa, we feel a desperate need to see it end. To demand solutions. To say “enough is enough” – because it is.

Many blame the horrors of gender-based violence, or GBV, on the prevailing patriarchal paradigm, but what does that mean? Patriarchy is not an overt and carefully orchestrated project by men to dominate women. If it were, perhaps it would be easier to fix. Rather, it is a set of value judgements about who deserves to be powerful. These judgements, when held collectively among large groups of people, form an invisible system that structurally oppresses women. That’s patriarchy.

Value judgements are highly subjective, involving an individual’s personal perception of what is special or important. They are highly complex, and often unconscious. The study of the valuable, known as axiology, is a major branch of philosophy – under which philosophical ethics falls. It isn’t hard to see the connection: ethics is concerned with doing good and not doing bad, and our conceptions of “good” and “bad” are based on what we think is important.

To take a boring example: if I find a plate and break it, nothing bad has happened from my perspective, but if that plate is an heirloom in your family, you feel as if something of value has been lost. Financial valuation may figure in the assessment of something’s overall worth, but it is only a part of the picture and not the sort of value in focus here. The plate… mattered. To you.

What we value affects how we behave. When we evaluate that something is not worth all that much, it is easy to mistreat it. History is full of examples of the destructive side of the relationship between value judgements and behaviour. Slavery, when slaves’ value was purely in work. Apartheid, when black people were given second-class rights because they were deemed second-class citizens. For a non-human example that is currently in the headlines, look at the way the Brazilian government is burning the Amazon rainforest for croplands, and deduce where the trees fit into their value system. Clue: not very high.

A similar deduction can be made about the position of women in our own country’s value system.

Granted, there are many other societal forces going on in South Africa’s GBV problem, such as poverty, the normalisation of crime, inequality and substance abuse. This article is not meant to provide an exhaustive analysis. But it must be pointed out that one of the underlying factors of GBV is surely axiological, ie related to valuing. The fact that we don’t value women as much as we value men, or at least we value them in fundamentally very different ways.

To a large degree, a woman’s value is located in something like her looks, or her household role, or her professional contribution. In other words, she doesn’t just have value, she has to earn it, by being beautiful, by being a good wife, or by being a good worker. To use a philosophical term, a woman’s value is “instrumental” – it only shows up when the woman is doing something valuable. A man’s value is much more unconditional. He can lose it, of course, but it is already there in him, just because he is a man. A man’s worthiness is “intrinsic” to him, giving it a much more potent flavour than the “instrumental” worthiness of women. This is a very unbalanced situation.

The imbalance presented here goes something like this: “Man: good first, useful second. Woman: useful first, good second.” Toxic as it is, at least it is a straightforward and easy-to-follow recipe for identifying who matters most. But the reality in the 21st century is a lot more complicated and much less of a clear-cut binary. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights aims to protect the intrinsic specialness of all people, and this spirit of equality of the sexes underlies much of the legislative reform of the last century. At least in certain liberal societies, men’s claim to value is not quite so unconditional as it once was, and women are less defined by predetermined roles.

These are good things, right? Yes they are, but, unfortunately, “complicatedness” is an obstacle in its own right, and value judgements don’t change overnight. They stick around in the small acts of subservience women voluntarily show to men. And they stick around in the ghastly acts of violence committed by men against women. We are all, collectively, perpetuating this imbalance, though it is men who carry the biggest burden to change.

The redeeming feature of our psychological need to constantly make value judgements is that it can go the other way, too. It can be constructive, not merely destructive. The logical inverse of abusing what we don’t value is taking great care of things we do value. Our friends, our family, our children, our pets. Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to cherish what we think is important, and the historical examples of people going to great lengths to protect what they value are as easy to think of as the stories of abuse.

Herein lies the hope – if recognising the worth of something leads us to treat it well, then the task for modern society is to increase the number of things we recognise the worth of. Starting with women. DM


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