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Pursuing humanity in the ‘man as monster’ myth

Perhaps you saw the Herald Sun article about the wife beater awarded for bravery? It came to my attention through Melinda Tankard Reist’s blog.

For those unfamiliar with the case, here’s a quick rundown. Paul McCuskey is currently serving a 5.5 year sentence for intentionally causing serious injury: his violence against his wife in 2007 severed her optic nerve and caused her to miscarry their baby at 13 weeks. In 2009, McCuskey saved an elderly woman in the Black Saturday bushfires and it was for that act he was awarded for bravery by the Royal Humane Society.

Tankard Reist gives an impassioned plea for McCuskey to be stripped of the award. Her objection is not that McCuskey’s rescue of the woman was a bad thing, but rather that he is an unworthy recipient of the title of hero. She sees the bravery award as broader than acknowledging one valorous act; she sees it as endorsing this man whom she considers contemptible: “You can’t be considered brave if you serially bash defenceless women, end the lives of their babies and contribute to a global epidemic that continues to kill and maim millions and cause life-long trauma to those who survive. Real heroes don’t do that.”

First questions

In my mind, there are significant ethical issues here. Tankard Reist raises the first herself: does a bravery award endorse the man or just one particular action? If the latter, this attack is unjustified; if the former, it has more merit.

The second issue is implicit in her condemnation of him: do we consider the punishment this man has received from the courts legitimate and sufficient? Tankard Reist’s article suggests that because the woman he injured has experienced permanent loss and injury, McCuskey’s punishment must likewise be lifelong. Thus, even after he has served his time, the public must rally to prevent any sense of redemption on his part.

Even leaving these issues aside, I have questions about this campaign from my perspective as both a Christian and a feminist.

Considering human nature

“But does this one act warrant the status of hero, given that the lives of two unborn children were previously lost and a bereaved woman is left with a life-long disability?” Tankard Reist goes on to argue that one good act does not outweigh this man’s other terrible acts. To allow room to acknowledge his one good act is to minimise how despicable he is. Do you see the polarisation developing? Because of the heinous things he has done, McCuskey can only ever be considered an evil man. There are only two types of people: bad people and good people. There is no room for complexity here, no room for humans to be capable of both extraordinary good and tremendous evil.

To put it in Christian terms, there is no room here for humans (or this human in particular) to be simultaneously the image of God and also a terrible distortion of that image. Yet, from a Christian perspective, it ought not to surprise us that people who have the capacity to hurt, injure, maim and kill also have the capacity to love or show compassion.

And indeed, this complexity is true of each one of us. We must come to terms with the hard reality that we are not ‘better’ than this man. By suggesting that we are, we both unfairly demonise him and self-righteously deify ourselves. Any pursuit of justice must be undertaken with the acknowledgement that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Feminism and ‘men as monsters’

In recent decades, feminists have come to this same conclusion. People are people; individuals of both sexes have the capacity for both good and evil. Of course feminists lobby on behalf of women in need of justice.  There is no doubt that McCuskey’s actions against his wife and child were despicable. There are no excuses for such heinous treatment of another person, and it is a good and right thing for him to be punished under our law. But feminists also recognise that the ‘men as monsters’ motif so common in discussions of domestic violence is actually counter-productive to the personhood of women. Why? Three reasons.

First, as we have already seen, it unrealistically elevates women. In the dichotomous categories presented, there are only monsters and angels. At first, presenting women as good seems like a helpful idea, but then women end up being held to a higher standard than others. They become weighed down by the burden of being society’s moral guardians.

Second, it pushes women into the perennial victim role. No room is allowed here for women to be strong or empowered. Indeed, if they were to become so, it might suggest that what happened to them wasn’t significant, because they were able to overcome it. Thus, in order to serve as an ongoing testament to the atrocity of what they suffered, they are never able to move on from it — leaving them forever at the mercy of their experiences at the hands of the monster.

Third, it positions women as the new oppressors. Recycling the ‘men as monsters’ myth becomes a way of hitting back at the original victimiser, seeing him suffer, allowing him no future either. In doing so, a new counter-oppression is implemented, a new de-humanising and silencing. In an attempt to defend the victimised woman, we become oppressors. That’s not to say we shouldn’t defend her, or that ‘men’s rights’ outrank ‘women’s rights’, but it’s to acknowledge that the personhood of women is not advanced by becoming the same monstrosity we have found so despicable.

Both feminism and Christianity share Tankard Reist’s concern for justice and advocacy of the oppressed. But we must resist the temptation to do this through polarisation, myth and demonisation. We must chart a better way. There can only be justice for women if there is justice for all. It’s only in pursuing such justice so that we ourselves can make the claim to humanity.

Categories: Man Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. Hey Tamie

    I was thinking about this campaign too. I am in furious agreement with your broad argument regarding demonisation and redemption, but question its application here because I think that bravery awards (and other awards) are awarded to the person as the person, rather than merely for an act.

    Bravery awards serve to incentivise and recognise good actions; but they (in my view) undoubtedly have a ‘halo’ effect. A useful analogy is sportspeople. Consider the reverence accorded to successful sportspeople as ‘role models’ outside of their respective fields. People are outraged when sportspeople are shown to lack integrity (especially men who engage in sexual or domestic violence) because they are seen generally (for better or worse) as community role models.

    “Tankard Reist goes on to argue that one good act does not outweigh this man’s other terrible acts. To allow room to acknowledge his one good act is to minimise how despicable he is. Do you see the polarisation developing? Because of the heinous things he has done, McCuskey can only ever be considered an evil man. There are only two types of people: bad people and good people.”

    I agree with the problems that this raises (and that you explore), but I think the concept of the ‘bravery award’ itself is apt to fall within an oversimplified ethical framework, in the light of the ‘halo effect’ I have identified. Where someone is awarded a bravery award, they are projected socially as someone who is ‘good’. No-one, of course, is perfect; truly outstanding people are usually the first to admit that they are undeserving of being singled out for recognition. But, when someone is publicly recognised for a good act, the public should arguably be entitled to assume that that person is someone who at least has a reasonable record of and reputation for ethical conduct.

    Thus, public recognition itself only makes sense within a polarised framework. Public recognition assumes polarisation because it inherently oversimplifies the ethics of a person’s actions. If it were not so, there would be no need for public recognition of any form. Ideally, we could simply point to a person’s whole life and character and say “that’s a good person”, but because that requires communication of an immense amount of information, we take the social shortcut of public recognition for a set of readily defined actions, and make assumptions and draw inferences about a person’s character from those easily comprehended actions.

    This is a long way about to basically say: yes, Tankard Reist oversimplifies and takes ethical shortcuts (as she often does to my consternation), but so did the conferral of the bravery award.

    — T

  2. I think, in this situation, a man serving a prison term for a VIOLENT crime against his pregnant wife, should not be eligible for any sort of award!

    It sends the message that it doesn’t matter how you treat the people you love within the confines of your home, as long as you put forward a good image to the public.

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