Ferrel's speech in Vancouver
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The Big Half-Truth and Its Tragic Consequences

By Professor Ferrel Christensen

To introduce my theme, let me remind you of a shocking story: that of Guy Paul Morin. Among the allegations made against police, prosecutors, and lab researchers are these: (1) that they withheld data indicating his innocence; (2) that they failed to gather obvious evidence that would very likely have proven his innocence. In both cases, the evident motive was a pre-existing desire to make him appear guilty.

I don't know whether these particular claims are true or not. But I can say something about suppression of facts in general. One can promote a falsehood without ever literally telling a falsehood -- namely, by telling half-truths. And the motive for suppression of evidence is the same as that for telling outright falsehoods: deceiving others. So if the investigators in the Morin case were to defend themselves by saying "Hey, we never actually lied," I hope no one would be taken in by it.

Unfortunately, large amounts of similar distortion of the truth are not being publicly called to account, and there are often tragic consequences. That brings us to the reason for this session of today's forum: it is an attempt to raise public consciousness to one massive contemporary distortion of the truth, and to the thousands of Guy Paul Morins who are its victims.

Let me illustrate the problem concretely by reading some brief passages. This one is from the opening paragraph of a report on family violence by a mayor's task force on safer cities: "Family violence encompasses violence against women and children, perpetrated by men." Then throughout the report it's the same story: only men are mentioned as abusive in the family, even toward children. This one is from a newspaper article: "Men who abuse their spouses and children will be more likely to seek help under the plan to co-ordinate city agencies…." And again, the entire article reads as if there were not enough abuse in the family by women to mention them -- even in the case of violence toward children.

This is simply incredible. About half the battering and killing of children is done by women. About half the acts of spousal violence are committed by women. There is no dearth of statistics on this. The women who are doing it need help and deterrence, but the message they are getting is that they don't have a problem. The message others are getting is that women don't have a problem -- women are only victims, never victimizers. It's as if those who write such things were willing to sacrifice one half of all child victims on the altar of sexist ideology.

Now here's the really shocking fact: the two items I have just cited are typical. The same distortion is committed day in and day out in news articles, commission reports, literature by churches and volunteer organisations, police pamphlets, bulletins from government ministers, and so on. Even research reports by social scientists sometimes suppress or fail to gather half of the evidence on this subject. It would be shocking if such a serious distortion would occur even once. That it is committed hundreds upon hundreds of times a year, year after year, is absolutely incredible. Only a very powerful set of influences could produce such a massive distortion of the truth.

Just what those influences are is a large and complex topic, but a few general ones can be mentioned. First, there is the psychological power of tradition -- in this case, the tradition of sexist chivalry that says men are nasty and women are pure. Then there is the power of preconception, especially ideology, to distort perception of the facts. In this case, the big problem is contemporary feminist ideology. Another such influence is the strong human tendency toward black-and-white thinking, ignoring all the statistical shades of gray in between. And there is the human tendency to think in stereotypes: " Men are like this, women are like that." Then there is the herdlike behaviour so common among human beings: going along with whatever others are perceived as believing. But most of all, there is the sad fact that noble causes are often used as a cover for wrongdoing. Because if you oppose the wrongdoing, you will be accused of opposing the good cause itself. You'll be accused of "backlash". Intimidation by the fear of being thus accused, I submit, is a major reason for widespread acquiescence in the grotesque distortions we have been seeing.

Though all these influences can be very powerful, they can be challenged. That is why this forum has been organized: to promote a more balanced view of family violence, by revealing how seriously the facts being given to the public have been distorted. That will not be easy to do, however. The very influences that have caused the problem in the first place will continue to operate. When those who have distorted the truth are called on it, they generally resort to further distortions to cover their tracks. For example, in an earlier forum with Senator Cools in Edmonton, the local newspaper, which had promoted the black-and-white view of family violence I cited earlier, accused the forum's organizers of simply being picky about exact statistics. We were accused of fostering a divisive debate about "who is worse, men or women." That is simply insane. If there were merely more emphasis out there on male violence in the family, we would never dream of spending our valuable time and resources on an event like this one today. What we are trying to do is create recognition that there is any appreciable amount of family violence and abuse by women, and that there are any appreciable numbers of male victims.

As this story reveals, that tendency toward black-and-white thinking is central to the distortion of the facts about family violence. For it results in even some very legitimate concerns being carried to extremes. Here's one: "But a major reason why there is so much child battering by women, " it is pointed out, "is that women spend much more time with the children." That is perfectly true. But we mustn't read too much into this "time at risk" explanation. A major reason for male violence against children is precisely spending too little time with them to bond properly. Neither situation, however, spending too much time or too little time with the children is what really matters. The majority of parents spend a lifetime with their children without being seriously abusive toward them. Those that do become violent, whatever the reason, need help and deterrence. But they will not receive that help and deterrence if it is not politically correct to acknowledge their violence in the first place.

Here's another legitimate concern that is carried to an extreme, resulting in suppressing half of the truth about family violence: the fact that in general, males are much more physically capable of violence than females. Now, that average gender difference regarding muscular strength is not relevant in the case of violence done to small children -- women can commit it equally well. Even regarding the abuse of older children and the abuse of spouses, however, there is no justification for the massively one-sided publicity that the subject always receives. Let me note several reasons.

For one thing, aggression does not have to be direct. There are many ways of getting others to commit violence for you. In recent years, one particular form of indirect violence -- namely, the making of wrongful accusations -- has been a veritable epidemic. That is why, in this forum on abuse, a session has been scheduled specifically on the subject of wrongful accusation in family conflicts. Especially during divorce, this can be a very powerful weapon. In its most vicious form, it uses children as weapons of destruction. False accusation is every bit as serious as the forms of abuse that are endlessly discussed in the literature I have mentioned. And yet it has not been recognized in that publicity as a form of domestic violence and abuse. That must change.

Note well, now: to suggest that women commit this indirect form of violence more often is not to denigrate women, any more than to admit that outside the home, men are directly violent more often is to malign men. It is merely to admit that any human being who wants to harm another person is apt to use the means that are available. The same goes for acts to help other people. About ninety percent of the physically heroic acts in society are also performed by men, but women would perform them just as often if they were equally able.

The next point is related to the last. Not only does serious harm to another person not have to be direct, it doesn't have to be physical. And when it comes to the use of psychological ways to harm others, women are as capable as men. Not only are they equally capable, but large amounts of survey data indicate that they commit verbal abuse at least equally often. This brings us back again to the massive literature on abuse in the family. Even when discussing verbal abuse, the literature still talks as if only men commit it and only women suffer it. As I have noted earlier in regard to child battering, if this gross distortion were committed only once it would be shocking. That it is being committed over and again, day in and day out, is beyond belief. Also again, such a grotesque distortion could only be committed, and could only be gotten away with, as a result of very powerful societal influences.

For present purposes, two special kinds of psychological abuse are singularly important. First there is wrongful accusation again. This can involve physical assault -- the physical force exercised by police and carried out with the power of the state. But even when that does not happen, wrongful accusation can inflict massive emotional pain and harm. Second, attempts to obstruct or poison relationships between children and those who love them is another vicious form of emotional violence. It is also a distressingly widespread problem. And yet, it too is standardly ignored in the vast literature on abuse in the family.

That is why a special session of this public forum on family violence and abuse has been slated to discuss child-access denial and parental alienation. Attempts to keep a child away from a parent, or even to poison the child's mind against that parent, are also a serious problem in divorce cases. Only in a small minority of them, but in numbers affecting thousands upon thousands of parents and children. To repeat, this last form of abuse is also rarely mentioned in the family-violence literature. Yet even when it is mentioned, the pretence once again is that only men do it. Given the pervasive biases in society against men as parents, however, it is overwhelmingly women who have the power to commit child-access denial and parental alienation. A parallel here may be instructive. Just as men's traditionally greater economic power has left wives more vulnerable to abuse in the family, women's greater power in regard to control of the children has left men more vulnerable to this kind of abuse in divorce. Sooner or later, unbalanced power of any kind will be abused.

Now for one more legitimate concern that has been carried to a black-and-white extreme: that concern involving direct physical abuse of a spouse. In serious cases of physical violence in the family, women certainly are the ones most often harmed, to a large degree. No one speaking from this podium would minimize the grave societal problem of battered wives. Once again, however, it is precisely because the problem is so serious that it can be employed in manipulative ways, from which others are afraid to dissent. Moreover, even in regard to this case, the standard literature on domestic violence is very much in the wrong for pretending that only men commit serious violence and only women suffer it.

Perhaps an analogy will help clarify why this is so. It is not uncommon for the extreme right wing in U.S. politics to point out that blacks commit crimes against whites far more often than whites commit crimes against blacks. In the case of murder, the ratio is said to be nine to one; in the case of rape it is evidently higher than that. Would these statistical facts justify constantly talking as if the only interracial violence were by blacks against whites? Would it justify, for example, government literature with titles like "The War Against Whites"? I hope you recoil in horror at the thought. It was not so long ago in the U.S. that a white woman's accusation against a black man was a virtual death warrant. Yet the same basic principles apply even in less serious cases of black-and-white thinking. All stereotypes involve an all-or-nothing picture of reality. An individual male who has been brutally harmed by his wife needs help and deserves sympathy, every bit as much as a woman does. Yet the standard literature plainly says that male victims need not apply.

It is very revealing -- and very troubling -- that many of the same people who treat spouse abuse as an all-or-nothing situation insist on strict gender neutrality in describing cases where men are overwhelming the victims. On Remembrance Day lately one hears mostly of "the men and women who gave their lives in war for Canada." So notice well: I am not suggesting that equal emphasis be put on male and female victims of serious physical violence toward a spouse. If it is the wife who is harmed in three to eight times as many cases, then that is how much difference in emphasis there should be on the two types of victims.

Notice a second point equally well, however. The plight of the victim is only half of what is significant in a case of abuse; the other half is the reprehensible behaviour of the offender. In discussing this half of the issue, justice would demand that the emphasis be rather equally divided between the two sexes in the case of direct physical violence. I have already hinted at the reason. There is no moral virtue in lacking the ability to do as much harm as someone else. Moral virtue and vice reside in how willing one is to harm others, not in how able one is to do it. So when we're looking at who is responsible for violence, rather than at who suffers from it, it is crucial to recognize these statistical facts: men and women initiate spousal violence about equally often, and about half of spousal violence is mutual fighting. This, again, is not what happens in the standard literature: even when discussing the offender rather then the victim, it mentions only one sex, namely men. The message of that half-truth is plain: only men are evil enough to attack a partner -- women are always just innocent victims. That message is terribly, terribly false.

In the same vein, it is important to notice how little of the family-violence literature mentions children. In my local newspaper, generic articles on physical violence against children are outnumbered by about fifty to one by those on violence against women. Much the same is true of the other family violence literature. When child victims are mentioned, they are usually tagged on briefly after women. Why is this? Is it perhaps that children are less vulnerable than women? Certainly not. Are there perhaps fewer child victims of battering than women victims? Certainly not. Given all the other biases in the standard literature, I'm afraid I have a pretty good clue to the reason for this failure to discuss child battering: the longer you discuss child victims, the harder it is to evade the fact that women commit about half of the serious violence against them. Similarly, lumping "women and children" together as the victim class once again sends the false message that women are never violent -- even toward children -- but are only victims.

One final point may be made regarding direct physical spouse abuse. It involves a singularly important example of distortion by half-truth. Surveys find that in the large majority of cases of spousal violence, the victim is not appreciably harmed. This is true for both male and female victims. So when we consider all acts of aggression between spouses -- not just those where serious harm is done -- we can say the following: the typical male victim and the typical female victim are equally harmed -- that is to say, again, not appreciably harmed. And yet even when reporting on this general case, the standard literature pretends that women are victims and men are not. Even when men and women are equal as offenders and equal as victims, we get the same totally one-sided story.

In order to get away with all this distortion, once more, those who produce the literature must suppress half of the evidence. Some who write this material are simply deceived themselves. The distortion is so widespread that many don't know the truth. But many others do know the massive scientific evidence. As a philosopher of science, I am shocked by the behaviour of some social scientists and many journalists in this regard -- though that is another long story for another time. Here is the only explanation I can think of. They want to promote the idea of a "war against women by men". But, if they use the statistics covering all degrees of spousal violence, where the numbers are high, men and women are about equally victims and equally victimizers. On the other hand, if they use only the statistics for really serious cases, in which women are the victims much more often, the numbers are very low. They don't reveal a war against women in general. The solution? Use the high numbers, but evade half of the evidence. Hence my comparison to the Guy Paul Morin case. The same kind of gross dishonesty engaged in there, on an individual level, is committed in the publicity on family violence, but on the level of group stereotyping.

Gross dishonesty cannot but create gross injustice. If the truth in the Guy Paul Morin case had not come out, he would be rotting in jail for a crime he did not commit. And gross dishonesty about entire categories of people cannot but create massive injustice. If Canadians know anything about this subject, they know that the case of Donald Marshall was not unique. The attitude "you belong to the guilty group, therefore you individually are guilty" is one of the greatest sources of injustice in this society. The reason I am here today is that the half-truth campaign against men as a group is currently a source of massive injustice in Canada.

Here's how: since the stereotype says that only men do evil things, whenever a woman accuses a man, he is presumed guilty, unless he can prove himself innocent. Whenever it is her word against his word, he must be the one who's lying. Even those not personally taken in by the stereotype can still be intimidated by it, as already noted. Every judge adjudicating between a man and a woman knows that if the decision goes against the woman, there may be screams in the press and on the streets. If the decision goes against the man, all will be serene. The same pressure, in different forms, is on police and social workers and authorities at every level of government.

There are men in this room who have experienced this travesty of justice first-hand. I have personal knowledge of scores of such injustices, many of them involving the wrongful accusations mentioned earlier. In fact, the stereotype that only men do evil things in the family is a virtual invitation to wrongful accusations by women in the first place, as well as a powerful source of pressure to believe wrongful accusations when they occur.

Since there are those who don't care about pain as long as it's men's pain, however, let me point out that it is almost inevitably shared by women and children. Among my associates in Edmonton are three women whose grandchildren's lives have been smashed by the stereotypes. They were smashed because these women's sons were helpless to protect their children against abusive mothers. The reason they were helpless is that police and social workers and judges refused to believe a woman could be the guilty one, in spite of clear and powerful evidence, until after it was too late.

A woman whom I cannot name wrote the following words in a letter: "my son committed suicide in 1992 after being run over by a car driven by his spouse. He was charged -- not her -- and taken to jail rather than the hospital for examination and treatment. After years of abuse from his spouse he told me that he would kill himself rather than go to jail for what she did." We need to gather and document these personal stories, to let the public and the Government of Canada know the horror that is happening. The horror produced by the denial and suppression of the facts. Big half-truths, like big lies, destroy innocent people.


Updated on:30/06/00 09:39 PM

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