Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is pushing a personal and public agenda against domestic violence, which used to be called wife-beating. Of course the TV news had to do a story about husband-beating to keep everything correct, and I'm against that, too, along with journalist-beating, French-people-beating and pan-flutist-beating.
But let's concentrate on men who beat up women, since that does seem to be the big one. Citing 13,000 domestic violence incidents in Dallas last year including 26 murders, double the previous annual total, Rawlings is calling for 10,000 men to join him at City Hall March 23 for a mass pledge never to commit violence against women.
What good can something like that do? Couldn't we just take it as Rawlings trying to look like a good guy, maybe even exploiting the issue? Yeah. We could. But, not to draw a loony parallel or anything, we could also say Mother Theresa was just a narcissistic media-hound.
Forget Rawlings for the moment. What good does it do to make big public statements like this about persistent destructive behavior? And what about all the underlying causes? Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place shelter and one of the city's most respected authorities on the issue, pointed to unemployment recently as a factor linked to domestic violence. So if we want to solve domestic violence, don't we need to solve unemployment first? It was clear from her other remarks and from her record over the years that Flink did not intend to say that.
No, Rawlings actually is going at the root cause, it seems to me, which has everything to do with a moral factor that may even be at the root of all law and civilization itself. I speak of that sometimes unfashionable but stubbornly central quality: shame.
What other moral quality are we actually born with? It doesn't have to be taught. I don't mean to be flip about it, but what other moral quality do we share with dogs and most other animals except cats? Why do we think the same people who never ever picked up after their dogs 10 years ago, including possibly certain senior journalists, now would rather forget their pants than forget plastic bags when walking their dogs?
Shame. Rawlings' declarations about men who beat up women amount to a public shaming, and nothing could offer more promise than that. This is not to say we don't need tougher laws, a remedy Flink and other activists call for. It's not to say we don't need to address unemployment and other instances of social shredding and bowling alone. A full-time job and a network of positive support would help anybody with anything.
But shame comes first. Shame may be the most powerful shaper of behavior we know. Somewhere along the line it fell out of favor. Shame seems to have been muddled in with the psychological notion of a guilt complex, which is something quite different, calling to mind the Woody Allen softball line ("When we played softball, I'd steal second base, feel guilty and go back").
The Psychology Today treatment focuses on what one writer calls "unnecessary shame." Obviously I'm not a shrink, and I don't see what they see every day, and maybe I should butt out of the unnecessary shame issue. I understand that unnecessary shame is a legitimate issue and source of enormous pain.
But when we talk about men who beat up women, we're not talking about unnecessary shame, are we? I think we're talking about necessary shame. Very necessary.
That's what I hear Rawlings telling men -- a lesson that all fathers should teach all sons, but they don't. A man who hits a woman is not a man. It doesn't matter why you're angry. In that moment, nothing else matters. The only thing that matters is that you cannot and must not and will not hit a woman. Don't start with a story about it. If you hit a woman, you hit bottom. You are lowest of the low. You should be deeply and profoundly ashamed of yourself.
Years ago working on true crime books I discovered a little secret about bad guys. Most of them belong to bad guy clubs. Somewhere in some dark corner of their daily haunts, there is a place they can go in order to receive much needed reinforcement for their bad-guy behavior -- a peer group of fellow bad guys.
Is it a bar? An informal gathering over coffee and doughnuts? Softball team? Country club? The penitentiary? It's somewhere. Bad guys are like good guys, who are like OK guys. We all need buddies, and usually we find them.
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So you drop by your favorite hole-in-the-wall in the morning for a beer, talk about your hangover, how you screwed up last night, spent your check on whores and coke, came home and beat up the wife in front of the kids, left the house this morning with nothing on the shelves to eat. The guy next to you nods, laughs and lifts a toast. You're cool, man. Just like the rest of us.
It's terribly important for somebody to tell those guys they are not cool. They suck. They are monsters. It helps for somebody to do it whose voice is loud enough to penetrate the walls of their hideaways.
Yes, of course, we also need to address all sorts of other factors and carry out lots of meaningful follow-up. But shame comes first. And who knows? Maybe a guy who develops a healthy shame over the way he treats the women in his life might even get it together to correct a lot of other bad behaviors, like going to the bar when his kids can't eat.
Rawlings is firing the cannon right where it needs to hit first. Give us some good honest shame. Then we can talk about the rest of it. Only then.