Homophobia, Islamophobia and toxic masculinity

June 15, 2016

Orlando news collage

I’ve been so shocked by the tragic events in Orlando (the mass shooting at an LGBT club in Florida on Sat night) that I’ve been reading obsessively to try and get a handle on how to think about these events. I’ve watched the vigils on TV and I’ve read the updates and the opinion pieces and the analyses. How can such a terrible thing happen? What motivates someone to such hate and violence? What can society do to prevent such atrocities?

There are many themes which are emerging: the radicalisation of marginalised American Muslims; the dangerous mix of homophobia, mental instability and ‘toxic masculinity‘. The possibility that Mateen himself was struggling with a gay identity. The shocking lack of gun control in America. As more evidence emerges I’ll see what the psychologists have to say. For now I think the most powerful research comes from Sarah Lyons-Badilla, a social psychologist who has researched radicalisation in America.

If I was a journalist I’d want to interview the local Muslim authorities about what they teach their followers about tolerance and diversity. Is there tolerance or acceptance of different ways of life from those permitted in Islamic scriptures? I guess, as with Christianity, it really depends who you ask. I’m sure the media could do more to publicise the views of liberal Muslims (athough the cynic in me asks why they would do that if sensationalism is more profitable).





Oscar and Reeva

February 18, 2013

I was pretty shocked and numb about gender violence before this story broke. Then the Oscar and Reeva story was all over the media (in case you’re living on Mars, the double amputee athlete shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day) and I was poring over the newspapers. This post is one attempt to make sense of it.

Of course many men commit violent acts, and a lot of these violent acts are directed towards women. Athletes are no different from other sportsmen and paralympic athletes equally so. But there was something of the Cinderella aspect about Oscar. I think we wanted to believe that miracles can happen. That people can overcome huge obstacles and not pay the price that so often comes with success. Part of our shock, apart from the fact that another beautiful young South African woman is dead at the hands of her South African male partner, was the sheer enormity of the gap between the images of hero and villain. Oscar was, in the stereotypes of the media, a ‘super cripple’. A phenomenal athlete and an inspirational example for others. Now he is just another fallen sports hero, a ‘terrible warning’ of what can happen if you mix guns, aggression, fame and fortune.

Of course I am speaking from the available reports and it could still be proved that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Perhaps it really is true that Oscar thought that Reeva was a burglar and so shot her four times through the bathroom door. But given Oscar’s history, the reports of shouting and domestic disputes, it is just not believable.

Last week I was blogging about Anene Booysen and wondering how South African society would react. I am relieved that our society has reacted. There have been marches, silent protests, countless radio interviews, media articles. There seems to be a wave of righteous indignation that has reached far and wide. Even in our quiet corner of the Cape, our principal addressed the whole school on Friday on gender violence and led a minute’s silence. We were all encouraged to wear black for the day. And other consciousness (and money) raising events have been planned.

I’ve realized that Anene Booysen’s story has come to symbolize the fate of so many South African women who are victims of gender violence. And then along comes the Oscar and Reeva story and we are shocked and saddened even further. If it was still possible to imagine as middle class South Africans that we are somehow different from the ‘masses’ out there, then this story should have made us think again.

The media loves celebrities and Oscar was a much-loved celebrity. Yes, we knew he was a bit of a jerk but to fall to this level? Many South Africans identified with Oscar. He symbolized the plucky spirit of our young democracy. Just as our rugby team could win the World Cup (twice) and we could produce a world leader such as Mandela, so too could we produce a ‘triumph-over-adversity’ story such as Oscar’s. But as Justice Malala commented at the Guardian, Oscar’s fall is also our fall. If he can give into uncontrollable anger, what about the rest of us? His ‘craziness’ can make us confront our own demons.

And what about Reeva Steenkamp? By all accounts she was an intelligent, beautiful young woman with a promising career ahead of her. She had been dating Oscar for under three months. How can she suddenly lose her life just like that? What does this mean for South African women generally? Are South African men really that dangerous?

I was watching the SA versus Pakistan cricket test on television this weekend and the cameras frequently showed members of the crowd. Every time they focused on a pretty young woman I was reminded of Reeva. I wondered what those women made of what happened. Was it my imagination that everyone seemed more subdued than usual?

In our adolescent psychology group last week we were talking about knowing yourself and my co-facilitator was teaching them about Johari’s Window. The diagram below also provides a handy tool for discussing relationships.


I can’t help wondering about Oscar and Reeva’s relationship. Does the report of recent loud arguments between the two indicate that they were in the process of discovering the ‘hidden’ aspects of each other’s personalities? And what about the concept of the “shadow”, the unconscious parts of ourselves that both we and our partners are perhaps initially unaware of? As the relationship deepens, those hidden parts inevitably come out. And if one of the partners has a history of aggression, then this could help to explain aggressive outbursts, intimate partner violence and even extreme violence such as shootings.

These were some of the lines of thinking that were triggered by the Oscar-Reeva story over the past few days. Of course we bring our own projections and experiences to these stories. My own research into anger, aggression and violence is salient here. And, from a psychology point of view, it is interesting (and disturbing) how often the trail leads back to experiences of shame. It is relatively easy in Oscar’s case to speculate on the hidden shame of his disability. As I say, this is all my speculation. But the story is too important for me to leave alone.

On Gender Violence

February 12, 2013

Anene Booysen memoria(At the memorial service for Anene Booysen. Source: Daily Maverick)

Anene Booysen was a 17-year old girl from Bredasdorp in the South Western Cape. On Saturday the 2nd of February she went to a bar and drank there until the early hours of the morning. She was then lured out of the bar by some men, who raped her and mutilated her body. Several hours later she was found at a construction site by a security guard and taken to hospital where she later died from all her injuries. Before she died, she named at least one of her attackers (her former boyfriend, Jonathan Davids).

Since then there has been a huge media outcry and somewhere in all the outrage and public statements and marches, the person of Anene Booysen has been, if not ignored, then overlooked. For stories on this, read Kate Stegeman in the M&G and Ranjeni Munusamy at the Daily Maverick. I’ve read several stories on this and heard radio interviews and commentary and all I know about Anene Booysen, other than her shocking murder, is that she was fostered by another couple after her mother died. On the night Anene was killed, her foster mother warned her not to stay out too late.

There is talk that this will finally highlight the appalling violence against women in South Africa in the way that the terrible gang rape in India of the woman known as “India’s daughter” highlighted gender inequalities and violence there.

Generally people have reacted to this story with a combination of shock, numbness, disbelief, sadness, anger and outrage. There have been calls for improved justice, calls for a sustained focus on gender activism, as well as calls for increased funding of NGOs such as Rape Crisis. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights called for a comprehensive approach to tackle the “pandemic of sexual violence in South Africa”. Other commentators have said that after the initial outrage, we as South African society will forget … until the next time.

Apart from making a quick donation to Rape Crisis, I spoke to one of my colleagues about what he thought should be done. He was all for stopping school for a morning and protesting outside Parliament. Since my colleague is a lot older than me (and a respected figure) I couldn’t forcefully disagree with him. But I was frustrated by this response. It’s all very well to protest at what government is doing, but what are we doing? Government would say that they have substantial social development budgets. The President condemned the incident and called for a end to violence against women (perhaps ironic given that he was himself charged with rape a few years back, a charge that was later dismissed).

As for what we as schools or community organisations can do, schools have the power to raise money for worthy causes. Schools as organizations raise money and awareness with all kinds of drives and initiatives. Of course we are all busy. But isn’t it time that civil society engaged around this issue? How do we as a country address these vitally important issues?

We often hear the statement that South Africa is the “rape capital of the world”. Just today I saw that about 65,000 cases of sexual violence are reported in South Africa every year. A small percentage of those result in convictions.

Munusamy quotes Saths Cooper, one of South Africa’s most prominent psychologists, who highlighted the complex nature of sexual violence in South Africa.

He said there were several root causes of sexual violence against women including power relations, socialisation and economic and social conditions.

“In most societies where there is economic stability and social security, incidence of rape is fairly low. But when social and economic conditions are unstable, and there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety, there are concomitant levels of rape and other aberrations,” Cooper said.

“We don’t know to what extent the frustration of young and old males, at their wits end in a society that has discarded them, where they have no jobs and women tend to get things quicker exacerbates the situation. That is not a cause, but could be an underlying issue behind incidence of sexual violence.”


I hope this story runs and runs. We need to move past numbness and hand-wringing and finger-pointing and outrage and highlight the areas of this problem that need fixing. Then we can support the various organizations that are already working to address the various facets of the problem. Justice needs to be the first priority. Empowering women and young people is crucial. Rehabilitating men is also important. It’s time for the politicians and civil society leaders (and all of us) to come up with plans to address this massive problem.

Chasing the Whirlwind

April 14, 2009

I’m a great one for hare-brained schemes, or more accurately simple (but profound) theories of human behaviour. I like to see myself a little bit like Einstein sailing in circles on Lake Placid (or whatever lake it was) while he worked out his latest scientific theory. I can remember being about 11 or 12 and developing elaborate thoughts in my head as I walked home from the bus across the Rondebosch Common. What those theories were now I mostly couldn’t say but one was the fairly common narcissistic fancy that the world was actually a dream and that I was the main character. Another held that the solar system and all the planets were actually atoms and molecules inside a larger structure.

Today’s fancies are perhaps more rooted in reality. My latest theory I call ‘Chasing the Whirlwind’ and it has to do with finding your passion in life, your whirlwind if you like. The beauty of this theory is that it relates to ‘good’ passion as well as ‘bad’ passion. There’s the Whirlwind of Happiness and the Whirlwind of Anger and they’re both pretty important to understand.

I was trying to explain a bit of this to P yesterday as we drove back from Betty’s Bay along that glorious coast road. If people’s lives are like stories, then I like to ask questions of the narrative. Why did it turn out this way and not that way? How can we amplify the good parts of the narrative and taper the bad parts? And if a story is really problematic, then where did it start to go wrong? Where did the wheels start spinning out of alignment and things got all out of whack?

I imagine that this theorising can be a confusing to read because it’s easy to get carried away by the ideas. But a major influence in this theory has been a powerpoint presentation I read recently by Carolyn Yoder of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). Now I have no idea who or what the Mennonites are but the Peace Centre at EMU is clearly a source of excellent ideas on Trauma and Healing because this diagram alone is pretty good.


Yoder follows that up with another one which is about breaking the cycle of aggression. Basically this involves grief work or mourning and she reminds us that this should be daily work. What I also liked was that the part where she says that you don’t need to see (or be) a psychologist or mental health professional to go through this process. And there’s a whole range of activities from daily writing to yoga to dancing and being creative to channel your energy in a more productive direction.

Let’s just look at the negative spiral for a bit. I read an interesting article by Philip Rucker (taken from the Washington Post) on the recent spate of mass homicides in the US. Here’s an excerpt:

In Binghamton, New York, a Vietnamese immigrant upset about losing his job burst into an immigration centre and killed 13 people before killing himself. … In Pittsburgh, police said a man discharged from the Marines gunned down three police.

… Consider the case of Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, an electrical engineer whose life swiftly turned sour last fall. His wife divorced him and he lost his job and his beloved dog, Saki. On Christmas Eve, Pardo dressed as Santa Claus for a holiday party hosted by his ex-wife’s parents at their home at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a Los Angeles suburb.

Pardo rang the bell, swung open the door and opened fire on the party guests with a semi-automatic handgun before dousing the home with petrol and setting it ablaze, authorities said. He killed nine people, including his ex-wife, before taking his own life.

“He was looking for revenge, which is almost always the motive in these mass killings,” Levin [Jack Levin, a well-known criminologist at Northeastern University] said. “It wasn’t enough to get her, but he wanted to get everything associated with her, everything she loved, everything he identified with her.”

Looking at the picture of Bruce “Santa Killer” Pardo that accompanied the article, what disturbed me the most was how normal he looked. Apart from that set jaw and the slightly glazed eyes, he could be one of a million other guys. Clean-shaven, shortish hairstyle and nothing to set him apart from your average beer-loving, football-watching all-American male. He could be the older brother of that Mall Cop guy, the King of Queens.

I’ve seen quite a few men with anger issues in my short career and it wouldn’t have taken an awful lot to tip them over the edge. Which is why I think it’s important to try and understand what drives people like Pardo to extreme rage. Three strikes turned this guy into a homicidal maniac. He lost his wife, his job and his beloved dog and then went on a rampage of unbelievable destruction.

There’s also the issue of gun control but to stay strictly in the realm of Psychology, one very helpful handle for understanding this type of behaviour is that of “narcissistic rage”. Take a fragile sense of self, destroy it entirely and is it any wonder that what you’re left with is primitive anger hijacking intelligence for mass revenge?

Yoder refers to the “inner tornado” of energy which gets stirred up by trauma. With very little knowledge of this case, I would be interested to find out if the three (severe) losses Pardo suffered stirred up some old (and unhealed) inner tornado in him.

On Violence (and the silly season)

November 28, 2008

Reading DoctorDi’s blog post today on the terror attacks in Mumbai, I was thinking about our general incomprehension in the face of such extreme violence. (Incidentally, congrats to Di on being long-listed by Veruna in Aus for her novel. I know she’s busy with the rewrites so doesn’t get to leave many comments around the blogosphere, but you should read her stuff.)

Perhaps it’s too early for analysis of the attacks and I’m reluctant to even go there. What’s my interest in this? Why should I sound off on other peoples’ tragedies? But I also think that there’s something to be learned here. Regular readers may know that I’ve been preoccupied for a while with empathy and violence. How violence results from a total lack of empathy. In simple form: Anger – Empathy = Violence.

With high levels of violence in South Africa, it’s not hard to find examples. One of the dominant stories in Cape Town in the past few months has been that of a senior policeman, Marius van der Westhuizen, who gunned down his three children as a way of punishing his wife. Yesterday I read how the forensic psychiatrist described his actions as possibly the most severe example of narcissistic rage that her team had seen in the past few months.

Violence feeds the ego, as Adam Phillips reminds us. And our commercial culture is only too ready to feed our egos with gratuitous violence in the form of violent movies, news images, computer games and hate speech. Di was asking what the perpetrators of the Mumbai violence might want from this horror. And as I read her incomprehension which matched my own yesterday, I started thinking about the need for publicity and self-importance of the perpetrators which links in with the needs of the commercial media to generate media consumption. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to reflect on the rise of the 24-hour news channels in the wake of the Gulf Wars. And then to remember how 9/11 had us glued to CNN and Sky and BBC (or whatever your channel was) for days on end in absolute horror.

So what do the perpetrators want? Reports suggest a surge of hatred and hostility between India and Pakistan for a start. The cooling of ill-feeling between the two countries is clearly not good for the terrorism business. I’m sure other analysts will reflect on a general hatred for Western values which links up with narcissistic injuries of wounded and excluded identities. But I’ll leave it there for today. I know this is rather depressing talk for a Friday. This is supposed to be the silly season after all. One of our wonderfully talented cartoon strips in SA is “Madam and Eve”. The best exchanges occur between Granny Anderson and the cute black girl (whose name escapes me). Granny Anderson, a diminutive gin-and-tonic-swilling expat from England, is usually goaded into locking the cute black girl (CBG) out of the house for disturbing her afternoon nap with funny and pertinent questions. “Now?” asks the CBG. “How about now?” “Now?” She’s wearing a false nose and glasses and is asking Granny Anderson if teh silly season has started yet. Well, it’s clearly not today. But my online Xmas shopping started yesterday. Books and CDs. *purr*

No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007)

September 6, 2008

No Country for Old Men (No Country) is the most violent of the Coen brothers 10 movies to date and also the most successful, winning four Oscars including Best Film and Best Director. I enjoyed it and I was also disturbed by it, and perhaps I was disturbed by not really being disturbed (if you follow the logic). What alarmed me as much as the violence was the emotional bleakness of the movie. You expect people to die in a Hollywood crime drama / noir / thriller/ black comedy but you don’t expect the characters to be so blasé about it.

NPR does a good plot summary:

A hunter, stalking a wounded deer in the Texas desert, comes across a scene of carnage: A drug deal gone wrong, corpses everywhere, $2 million in a suitcase. The hunter, played in No Country for Old Men by Josh Brolin, takes the suitcase — and knowing that he’s about to go from hunter to hunted, he takes a few precautions, too, spiriting himself out of town in one direction, and his wife in another.
Unluckily for them both, a psycho with a Buster Brown haircut and a weird weapon of choice is already on the hunter’s trail. The weapon — a compressed-air gun of the sort used for killing cattle in slaughterhouses — leaves no clues, which initially leaves the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) more than a little perplexed. But he’ll eventually connect the killer and the hunter, and he’ll prove pretty good at playing catch-up in a film that directors Joel and Ethan Coen have orchestrated as one long, seriously alarming chase sequence.

Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country is Texas Noir or what film buffs call neo-noir. Wikipedia tells me that Film Noir “is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize moral ambiguity”. The morally ambiguous hero is Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) while the film’s “ultimate bad-ass” is Anton Chigurh (Javier Badem) whom Walter Kirn fittingly describes as “a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill health”. Tommy Lee Jones plays the good guy, Sheriff Bell, who’s a weatherworn, taciturn third-generation lawman with old-fashioned family values. I suspect that in real life he would probably vote for McCain and Palin in the US election — or at least approve of Palin’s “God and Guns” philosophy.

Accepting their Academy Award for Best Director, older brother Joel commented on the brother’s 20-year history of film-making: “What we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then. We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox.”

I like that, a recognition that film-making is about playing. And being interested as I am in the psychology of violence, I think it’s an interesting debate about whether depicting violence in movies (even if tastefully done in a relatively restrained way here) is a good thing or a bad thing. In my opinion, what would make the depiction of such violence worthwhile would be if it contributed to our understanding of ourselves as emotionally complex, both loving and hating. One of the things that bugs me about this movie is that the violence doesn’t ring true. In my experience and from what I’ve read on the topic, violence is not as clean-cut and un-emotional as depicted here. Of course there are many different types of violence but the general sense that I get is that “violence gratifies the ego” (Adam Phillips). Anyone who’s seen the pictures of a panga-wielding mob at the time of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa will immediately recognise the glee etched on the faces of the men seemingly intent on hurting or killing the African immigrants in their townships. In No Country there’s the complete opposite. Anton Chigurh takes delight in his twisted primitive logic (“Call it, Friendo”) but no apparent joy in his killing spree. There’s violence and a lot of chasing and fleeing but no emotional depth.

Walter Kirn calls Cormac McCarthy’s novel “sinister high hokum” but praises the skill with which it’s executed. He also has a neat analysis of the gender divisions:

At times, the whole novel borders on caricature, so unremittingly hard-boiled that it threatens to turn to steam. The streamlined, barely punctuated sentences delineate the grisly action — from running gun battles on small-town Main Streets to the agonized bandaging of bullet wounds in obscure motel rooms — in the point-by-point manner of a technical manual, enumerating every muzzle blast and diagraming every ambush as though violence were a dry industrial process. The characters’ states of mind rate little commentary and are completely dissolved in their behavior, which consists of fleeing and fighting and little else. The women involved are on hand to cower, grieve and plead for explanations of the mayhem that the men who’ve unleashed it decline to give them, partly out of old-school chivalry but mostly because they don’t have any answers. All the men have is momentum and loaded weapons, which seem to fire of their own volition, since that’s what loaded weapons like to do.

Perhaps one of the arguments in favour of this kind of film violence is the detailed examination of the consequences. Once the chase is underway there won’t be a resolution until the bloody end (or even then). But a counter-argument revolves around the two-dimensional nature of Chigurh. “You don’t have to do this” is what many of the victims say to Chigurh who is unmoved and kills them anyway. He is the “ultimate bad-ass”, the “devil incarnate”, a ghost, a cipher, a homicidal lunatic, a psychotic serial killer. What makes him so powerful is that he is a two-dimensional screen for our projections of seemingly-unstoppable, calmly-determined evil. He has a primitive morality: life or death is decided by Fate and the toss of a coin.

But if Chigurh were a client on the couch, there’d be nothing to work with. He’s pure evil but he has no history, no family, nothing which serves to explain his behaviour other than his otherness and his bad haircut. One of his defining attributes is that he has no sense of humour and shows little or no emotion of any kind. He’s a feeling-less robotic killer with an iron determination. “You can’t stop what’s coming,” says Woody Harrelson’s character, who also compares him to the Bubonic plague.

As a viewer I want to say, Wait, Stop, even so-called psychopaths have feelings of some kind. Conveniently, Chigurh is an outsider, he’s different in some way. Put him in a turban and there’d be a massive outcry but the outsider-ness here is not that much different (with the obvious disparity being that Spaniards don’t take the character of Anton Chigurh personally).

In terms of the psychology of violence, there are no easy lessons to be had from No Country. But from a cinematic point of view, it was, well, fun. The Coen brothers are masters of their sandbox and give them a dark comedy and they will insinuate their way into your consciousness with a haunting thriller.