Abuse against a backdrop of privilege

24 03 2013

A short while ago I wrote about entitlement. I did so in the context of the gang rape and murder of an Indian medical student, Jyoti Singh Pandey.

As I listened to a newscast from CNN relating to the conviction of two men for their part in the rape and humiliation of a 16 year old girl the subject of entitlement came again to mind.

What was prominent in the reporting of the case by the media, CNN being particularly culpable, was the detailed description of the rapists. Much was made of their position as stars of the local football team and of the place that gave them in the local society. These young men were local heroes. The point made by CNN et al was that their promising futures, which now includes a short period in youth custody, lay in tatters.

What was not considered was the possibility that it was the very fact of their celebrity that made them feel that it was their right to act in such a barbaric fashion. Maybe because of their elevated status, they felt able to act outside the law and in a way that demonstrated that they had power over their victim, repeatedly raping the urinating over the young girl, before posting their exploits on social media sites. Making their crime so public demonstrates that they did not feel that they had done anything to be ashamed of. Any sense of guilt would have stopped them from boasting about their acts.

That they seemed not to understand that what they had done constituted assault is staggering. They appeared to think that what they had done was just a bit of fun. Yes, it was at the expense of someone else, but a bit of a lark nonetheless. They were demonstrating, and then reveling in, the power that they were able to exert over their victim – a sense of power that they had been encouraged to believe that they were entitled to.

It wasn’t many years ago that there was a widespread acceptance that husbands were entitled to use physical violence against their wives, ‘to keep her in line’ or so ‘she would know her place’.

The recent case of Chris Rennard highlights this change in attitude. While being groped at work was an acceptable, occupational hazard for secretaries a couple of decades ago, women are now starting not only to object to this abuse but to talk openly about it in order to expose the perpetrators. The institutionalised sexism which was once tolerated is now open to question, which is, unquestionably, a good thing. But the mutterings of the chattering classes, which may well be silenced by the incarceration of one or two minor celebrities in the aftermath of the Jimmy Saville case, does not yet address the bigger issue.

Gender and power imbalance is played out against a backdrop of privilege and entitlement. While the use of a quick slap to keep the wife in line is no longer acceptable the incidents of domestic violence continue. Celebrities in the 70’s were able to abuse back then and schoolboy footballers in the US are able to abuse now in this setting. Sexual exploitation will not be truly eradicated until we are prepared to look at the reasons why some in our society feel entitled to behave in a way that degrades others.

I express the hope that we may address the issue of entitlement at a time when the ability to express dissent appears to be eroding. Look at the outrage directed towards Hilary Mantel when she aired views that questioned the role of the wife of a prince within our royal family. If ever there was a bastion of entitlement then the royal family is it.  If a respected academic like Hilary Mantel is unable to pose questions of this sort without suffering personal attack then I fear for our ability, and desire, to address the culture of entitlement which allows the abuse and exploitation of the powerless.

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