October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As a communist who has been working as a domestic violence hotline counselor for two years, I believe it is incredibly challenging but also imperative that we bring domestic violence into the public sphere. We need to do this to create communities in which we all have power over our own lives and feel safe and supported in our homes.
During the process of training to be a hotline counselor, I learned the importance of active listening and creative thinking. I believe, in accordance with my politics, that my purpose as a counselor is to push for the self-determination of the caller. In my role within the non-governmental organization (NGO) I work with, I am there to listen and encourage the person experiencing violence to think through her1 solutions. My instinct may be to tell her to leave the relationship, but her experiences may tell her something else. Her kids, her finances, or her own emotional vulnerability may depend on the relationship surviving. It is not my life and not up to me to judge.
As an active listener, I sharpened the skill of choosing words and phrases carefully. Women tend to be better at that because they are often trained, through oppression and socialized gender roles, to be tactful and perceptive of social cues. Men have a harder time being considerate of others’ feelings because they are socialized to speak their mind, and society tends to encourage that behavior. But I believe that everyone, comrade or counselor, should be careful with their words. Words can damage and abuse, or words can affirm and liberate.
Another important aspect of active listening is that you keep asking open-ended questions for the caller to think through. Open-ended questions aren’t simply yes/no or leading questions. For instance, “What are you worried about?” is open, whereas “Are you concerned about his temper?” is closed. Open-ended questions are useful in two ways: you don’t disclose your own experiences and biases, and you create space for deeper conversation by encouraging responses that are broader than simply “yes” or “no.” You may be stressed about the situation and think of only one or two solutions that the survivor doesn’t find useful, but the point of being a hotline counselor is to lead the caller to actions that are appropriate for her. Your role is to listen, sympathize, ask questions, and provide resources and referrals that she might not know about. Thus, active listening helps you open your mind to what the survivor is saying and keep asking her questions that search for all the possibilities. As you do that, a more viable solution may surface. Likewise, as communists, we have to be creative and think through various strategies that lead to people’s empowerment. In our organizing, if one method of struggling doesn’t work, we have to analyze our experience and brainstorm new strategies, given concrete conditions. Domestic violence has been a product of sexist power struggle in our homes and an economic system that prioritizes profit over people. It is a violence that is often silenced and validated by our legal system and our communities as experiences that are somehow less serious than assault outside the home. Therefore, there is a lot to learn from work being done to support survivors of domestic violence as well as broader struggles that seek to address the root of the violence.
Given my experience, I have found that NGOs that support survivors to be extremely useful, especially when there is no comprehensive infrastructure that provides quality public services for survivors of violence, be it physical, psychological, or economic. The justice system, the medical system, the economy, the mainstream media, and society at large do not support survivors. On the contrary, they usually blame them for causing or deserving the violence. For instance, a common retort to the discussion of domestic violence is, “Why doesn’t she just leave the relationship?” The blame is placed on her, even though the abuser is the cause of violence—no one else is. If someone shoots you, your friend would be wrong to say, “Why didn’t you just dodge the bullet?”
Violence against women, especially in relationships, tends to get dismissed even by the institutions put in place to protect survivors as well as by misguided individuals around them. NGOs are often the only option that provides direct services to people who experience social, political, and economic violence. But even these organizations are limited; they advocate for survivors through institutions that already exist and are flawed in many of ways. At the NGO I volunteer for, there is a legal advocate who would help survivors obtain an order of protection. But, even the staff says this: an order of protection is just a piece of paper. The abuser can violate it at any time. The order is slightly better than nothing, but the survivor still has to find all sorts of ways to plan for her own safety. It is also very difficult to prosecute an abuser; you would need extensive evidence over a long period of time to prove that the abuser is really “harmful.” By then, the survivor may already be disabled or killed; it is a well-known fact that abuse tends to escalate over time. Name-calling is likely to become pushing. Pushing is likely to become punching and so on. If we then connect this pattern with an analysis of our corrupt and unjust prison system, it leads us to some very devastating realities for many who experience domestic violence. A wife beater may serve three years and come back to hurt his wife. The prison system is patriarchal, homophobic, racist, and exploitative. It protects the rich and wages war against the poor by incarcerating the poor for minor crimes and letting white collar criminals off the hook. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.2 Our prison system does not focus on rehabilitation but instead makes conditions worse for those who are already oppressed and the communities they come from. In a communist world, I’d like to imagine that the survivor of violence can have all sorts of resources available to protect herself without disrupting her life and her wishes. If she wants, she can still attend the same school or work at the same job without fear. We would also have accountability for the abuser, provision of other life essentials that the woman needs, and preventative measures for all people so that there is a reduced chance of such violence in the future. In other words, we need a radically different system than the one that exists. In order to create a system that seeks to solve the root causes of domestic violence, I believe revolution is necessary.
Now I want to leave you with some questions to reflect upon. Consider these questions to improve your revolutionary practice:
- How do we as communists train people in our ranks to be better counselors and creative thinkers? This would improve our organizing skills as well as build interpersonal relationships that are revolutionary and liberating.
- How do we re-socialize people to have more feminist practice?
- How do we hold individuals accountable for abusive behavior, especially when we think that the justice system is insufficient and oppressive? We don’t want to simply punish people for bad behavior; we want to show them how it was wrong, correct it, and forgive it, ideally.
- I believe that patriarchy in combination with the economic violence of capitalism leads to domestic violence and that often this violence is perpetrated by a man onto a woman. (Men commit over 90% of the reported cases of domestic violence.) I also believe that patriarchy is not always a distinct binary and that there are various forms of family and home units that might challenge this dichotomy but for the purposes of this article, I will use pronouns that reflect the most common forms of domestic violence.
- US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that as of 2008, there were more than 846,000 black men in prison, making up 40.2 percent of all prisoners in the system.