Selina Trigg: Domestic violence not just crime of poor

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Violence in public against Nigella Lawson proves a lie of stereotypes and asks why we're reluctant to intervene.

Being intelligent and successful does not make a woman immune to domestic violence.
Being intelligent and successful does not make a woman immune to domestic violence.

On Monday morning, my breakfast was disturbed by the distaste resulting from an image in that morning's New Zealand Herald of Nigella Lawson, eyes bulging in terror, while the hands of her husband, Charles Saatchi, were apparently wrapped around her throat. That story and the pictures that accompanied it force us to confront several uncomfortable truths about our own attitudes and culpability in respect to domestic violence.

My first reaction was to think the photo must have been photoshopped by a sensationalist British press. My mind defaulted to a place where the image conveyed of the successful and privileged Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi by those pictures surely just could not be. As I caught myself thinking this, my initial shock was replaced with personal discomfort.

Despite 17 years of working with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence from all walks of life, I had to acknowledge that at some base level, I too suffer under a conditioned misapprehension about "who" the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are and, more importantly, who they are not.

The uncomfortable truth that this story confronts us with is the destruction of the widely held idea that domestic violence is the dirty problem of the underclasses, the uneducated, the inarticulate.

The photos of Ms Lawson starkly jolt us to the reality that domestic violence occurs not only in the homes of the uneducated, the brown skinned or the indigent of South Auckland, but also in the manicured Remuera homes of successful, white, financially secure professionals and business leaders.

Ms Lawson confronts our assumptions about who the victims of domestic violence are. Some of the most professionally intelligent, successful and savvy women I have known have been known to be emotionally stupid in their relationships and personal choices. Not for one minute am I suggesting that in the situation of domestic violence, this means the blame for violence falls at their feet. But, as she illustrates, possession of the coveted trifecta of beauty, intelligence and wealth does not make you any more immune to domestic violence than you are to the common cold.

In those barometers of social opinion, our water cooler and talkback radio discussions, talk about the story has reasonably led to the question: "Why did no one intervene?" This did not occur behind closed doors. The media were able to capture photos of them arguing and gather eye witness accounts from concerned onlookers, so why wasn't anyone concerned enough to intervene?

The truth is confronting and uncomfortable - we all live with a cultural imperative that says we simply don't interfere in other's "domestics" or personal affairs and hence renders us all culpable for its perpetuation. It is a culture that campaigns such as "It's not OK" aim to change but it continues to exist.

Many of us have told ourselves that had we been witness to that argument, we would've rightly acted to stop what was occurring. But would we? As I found myself judging those who had observed the argument, I had another moment of discomfort and shame when I recalled a similar incident where I was guilty of failing to help. Last year in Melbourne, during rush hour, my partner and I stood waiting for a tram. We became aware of a couple standing further along in the queue who were engaged in an argument that quickly became aggressive and violent. We stood watching as the female moved away from the male and across to a large public square, full of people sitting enjoying the sun. He followed and the fight continued, growing in intensity as she kept trying to leave the situation.

Not one person did anything to help this woman. Why not? In the back of my mind was the recollection of two people I know who have intervened in such situations only to have the violence turned on themselves. But the main reason I didn't intervene was I kept waiting for someone, anyone, just not me, to step in. Apparently everyone else was waiting for the same thing.

The uncomfortable truth is that most of us, witnessing a similar situation to that of Ms Lawson and Mr Saatchi, will leave it to "someone else" to intervene and only then might we follow suit.

The following day's news brought us Mr Saatchi's response. In the court of public opinion, to have remained silent would've served him better. In one of the worst PR moves seen in some time, the argument shown in the photos was explained by him as merely a "playful tiff" and that he "... held Nigella's neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point". What point would that have been? Perhaps that he is a bully and will use physical violence to achieve his ends? Perhaps that being educated and successful does not guarantee one is emotionally articulate and intelligent, able to respond to conflict without violence?

His statement speaks of a man who believes his own hubris, a man who sees nothing in his actions to feel culpable or remorseful for, a man for whom domestic violence has no meaningful bearing on the moral compass by which he travels. We should not be surprised by the attitudes revealed by Mr Saatchi's statement.

The photos brought the ugly reality of domestic violence into our homes and to our breakfast tables. They confront us in the evocative way that only visual images can; in a way we cannot easily ignore.


Selina Trigg is an Auckland family lawyer and director of specialist family law firm, Family Law Results.

- NZ Herald

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