We’ve been knowing, ever since the first women shelter opened (1971, London) and ever since the first comprehensive study on family violence was performed (Straus, Gelles, Steinmetz, throughout the 1970s and early 1980s in the USA) that domestic violence is not 'a gendered crime'. In this blog, we have already exposed how and why the view that it is, despite being false, has nevertheless spread out all over the popular landscape (here). We have exposed how such view that is, that most perpetrators must be men and most victims must be women, is rooted in a poor, if not downright disingenuous, understanding of statistics (here). More, we have also exposed how this false model is in fact counter-productive, since it hurts even women themselves (here).
What we need to reckon with, though, is why such bogus narrative remains, nevertheless, so powerful within the culture at large, being accepted as a matter of fact even up to the upper echelons of our policy makers, while its scientifically and statistically proven alternative (that of women being in fact as abusive as men, the more so when it comes to the safeguarding of our children) remains staunchly denied. Could it be... that memes are to blame?
In this digital age of ours, a ‘meme’, to most people, is merely a funny piece of information being spread out onto the web. Memes, though, are far more than that. In fact, the term predates the internet. It was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work, ‘The Selfish Gene’, often considered as being the most important book ever written about evolutionary biology after Darwin’s ‘The Origins of Species’.
Now, ours is not a blog about biology. Nevertheless, since we must understand what memes are and how they operate, in order to make sense of how biases and prejudices can become deeply entrenched, we need to tackle some basic biological premises. What are these memes about, then?
If Darwin had described evolution as being a series of changes in the inherited characteristics of a population, over time, through the process of natural selection, Dawkins went further and hypothesised that such process is not about organisms per se, but what biologically makes them that is, their genes. In other words, we (living organisms) are nothing but ‘vehicles’ to ‘replicators’ (our genes), themselves subjected to the random desiderata of the environments in which they evolve. Some such replicators are adaptable and survive, and so will reproduce and get passed on from one generation to the next. Others are not, and so will just die out, or, at least, be rendered useless.
Richard Dawkins, though, is no biological determinist. When it comes to what makes us ‘us’, he fully acknowledged that we are the product of our nature as much, if not more, as we are that of our culture. Do genes, then, the biological replicators using ‘us’ as their vehicles (and shaping who we are when it comes to our natural, biological features) have any sort of equivalent when such evolutionary model is applied to nurture, that is, shaping who ‘we’ are when it comes to culture? He purported that yes:
‘I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture.’
But how to name such replicators?
Dawkins, here, wanted a name ‘that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation’. He thought aloud:
‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.’
‘Même’, in French, means ‘same’. Memes, then, are far, far more than funny images and videos circulating mostly on social media. They are absolutely every single cultural artefact that can be copied, imitated, and transmitted; from how our languages are constructed to the way we tie our shoes, from songs and cultural items (e.g. books, movies, plays…) to how we drink tea, and from what underlie belief systems (e.g. religions, political ideologies) to how we wash our hands after a sneeze or after using a toilet. Richard Dawkins gave the examples of ‘tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.’
What is remarkable is that, as with their biological equivalent the genes, such artefacts are in constant state of evolutionary competition too, with the result that some will survive, and others will die out (or, at least, be turned on or off), depending upon how suited and adaptable they are to the cultural pool (‘the soup of human culture’) that they evolve in.
What is remarkable too, is that as genes can combine themselves together to create a genotype, memes, also, can combine themselves together to create what Dawkins originally called a ‘coadapted meme complexes’, but what we now call, more simply, a ‘memeplex’. Susan Blackmore, writing in ‘The Meme Machine’, explains it as such:
‘a free-floating piece of DNA could not effectively get itself replicated. After billions of years of biological evolution, most of the DNA on the planet is very well packaged indeed, as genes inside organisms that are their survival machines. Of course, there are occasional ‘jumping genes’ and ‘outlaw genes’ and little bits of selfish DNA hitchhiking on the rest, and there are viruses that are minimal groups that exploit the replicating machinery of other larger groups - but groups, by and large, are necessary for genes to get around at all. We could simply draw the analogy and say that memes should behave the same way but it is better to go back to the basics of evolutionary theory… The essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own.’
She gave the example of a spam email to outline how this works:
‘Imagine two memes, one ‘send a scratchcard to x’ and another ‘win lots of money’. The former instruction is unlikely to be obeyed just on its own. The latter is tempting but includes no instruction on how to. Together, and with some other suitable co-memes, the two can apparently get people to obey – and copy the whole package on again.’
This, of course, is a radically new way to think about ideas and the shaping of our cultural environment! The philosopher Daniel Dennett, in fact, reckoned how such view can be ‘unsettling, even appalling’ since it reduces us to mere vehicles for replicators. Writing in ‘Consciousness Explained’ (in which he gives the examples of the wheel, wearing clothes, vendetta, calendar, or, again, chess… among many others!) he noted how we are nothing but ’a sort of dung heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora.’ And indeed, he added:
‘The first rule of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at… replicating!’
This, here, is a crucial point to remember. Memes, like genes, are only concerned, as replicators, about replicating themselves. They are not concerned about their hosts, that they merely use as a vehicle. In the famous words of Dawkins, they are entirely ‘selfish’, by which he meant that, if some genes can be beneficial (e.g. those contributing to the building of our immune system…) and others mostly neutral (most of our DNA is actually ‘junk’ that is, it doesn’t code for anything) still others will be downright harmful (e.g. from those triggering from genetic disorders to cancer cells) simply because the evolutionary process is not about us (the vehicle, a mean to an end) but them (the replicators, competing to get passed on, and on, and on, and on, even beyond the survival of their vehicle).
Likewise, then, when it comes to memes. Some will be beneficial (e.g. from democracy and humanism to washing your hands after sneezing or using a toilet), most will be neutral (e.g. how you tie your shoes or make your tea), but still others will be downright harmful (e.g. racism, bigotry, misogyny and misandry…) yet with no care whatsoever for the harm caused to their hosts. This, too, is because it’s not about us (the vehicles), but them (the replicators), getting passed on from one brain to another, to another, to another, to another… no less ‘selfishly’ by which we mean, like Dawkins outlined with genes, that if a meme is harmful, ‘it’ doesn’t care, because ‘its’ sole purpose is to replicate, and nothing else.
So far so good. But you might ask, what on earth does this all has to do with domestic abuse and domestic violence!?!?
Well, when it comes to domestic violence, what we must reckon with are therefore the memes underpinning our understanding of it, that is, the memes that have, historically as much as now, been pertaining to gender. Beyond that, we need to understand how such memes, by coming together to shape the intricate yet toxic ‘gendered memeplex’ that we know (the patriarchal model as it is, being easily and uncritically accepted despite being false) can prejudice us counter-productively into solving the issue, and, this, ‘selfishly’ that is, with ‘it’ having no care whatsoever for ‘it’ being false and counter-productive. In other words, what we need to reckon with are the memes pertaining to how gender roles and behaviours were culturally defined, and how such defining, despite being outdated, downright ridiculous, stifling, even, dangerously wrong, remain deeply entrenched into how we perceive how men and women are expected to be respectively, including when in an intimate relationship.
Men (or so go the stereotypes) are supposed to be tough, resilient, always in control, assertive and aggressive, violent -if necessary- always fearless, certainly stoic if not emotionless. Women, on the contrary (or so go the stereotypes) are supposed to be nurturing, caring, passive, weak -if not downright meek- very sensitive, emotional, and defenceless and hapless to the point of being fearful when put in difficult, stressful situations.
Now, again, it doesn’t matter whether such sexist clichés are true or not, or, if they ever were correct in the first place (although they surely were exploited to the full in times of needs, as we have outlined, for example, here). What matter are two things.
First, that each and every one of them has been a successful meme, in the sense that it has carried on replicating itself ever up to our time. Then, that each and every one of them has also aggregated itself with the others to create a complex ‘gendered memeplex’, a gendered memeplex which is still permeating how we think about men, about women, and about, for what concerns us here, how abusive intimate relationship between men and women operate.
Can women initiate physical assaults against a boyfriend or a husband? According to the science, yes, they can, and they do. According to the gendered memeplex: no, they can’t; women are physically weaker, and, overall, passive, so they will probably never dare getting physical against a man.
Can women engage in coercive and controlling behaviours? According to the science, yes, they can, and they do. According to the gendered memeplex: no, they can’t; women are hardwired to be 'mothering', they are naturally caring and nurturing, so they either don’t do bullying, or are too ‘disempowered’ for that anyway.
Will men being assaulted by women retaliate by using physical violence? According to the science, it’s a complex issue but not necessarily. Being physically stronger doesn’t mean being violent (physiology is not psychology). There are, also, plenty of cultural factors making it taboo, for a man, to physically hurt a woman even when he is assaulted. According to the memeplex, though: yes, they will, because being a man is about 'taking no sh#t', and so be aggressive and violent when faced with violence.
Will women being assaulted by men retaliate by using physical violence? According to the science, it’s a complex issue too but, yes, they can, and they do. There are, in fact, some abusive women who fully count on men not hurting them back precisely because of the taboo that men don’t hurt women. There are, also, plenty of ways to compensate for a disadvantaged physical strength. According to the memeplex, however: no, they won’t; women are by nature overtly emotional creatures, therefore paralyzed by fear when under stress, especially the stress of a violent domestic dispute.
Are men fearful when abused? According to the science, yes, they are. They fear physical violence. They fear not being believed. They fear being victims of false allegations and DARVO should they talk about their ordeal. They fear, most importantly, losing contact with their children, still a key factor for why so many fathers stays in abusive relationships. According to the memeplex, on the contrary: no, they aren’t; because men are brave, strong, tough and resilient, and so the idea that a man can be afraid of a woman (even one flying at him to slap and punch him, even one throwing various household items turned into weapons at his face, even one threatening false allegations and/or to shut him off from his children’s lives) is just ridiculous.
Are women fearful when abused? According to the science, battered women surely are (theirs being victim of 'terroristic violence'), but certainly not violent prone ones. In fact, most abusive relationships are bidirectional that is, where women can perpetrate abuse as much as they can take it, both aggressively and defensively. According to the memeplex, it’s a stupid question to ask. All women, indiscriminately, are afraid, because all women, indiscriminately, are afraid of men -there is a ‘femicide’ going on, women are being murdered at ‘endemic’ levels of ‘normalised’ violence against women and girls and simply for being female, and domestic violence is just the tip of the iceberg, that of the ‘male supremacy’ lethally oppressing ‘the sisterhood’ (#YesAllWomen).
In other words, the sexist clichés underpinning the gendered view of abuse, and exposed above, surely are grotesque, but because they fit within our cultural, sexist biases already pertaining to gender and what it mean to 'be a man' or a woman (sexism isn’t dead, after all) they remain very easy to peddle indeed.
That such clichés make a mockery of what manhood and masculinity had always been about even across centuries and cultures (procreate, provide, protect; and, protect especially women -features of masculinity that anyone with basic anthropological knowledge knows full well -check it here) is irrelevant. That such clichés also smack of an internalised misogyny inherited from the patriarchy, and when women were, indeed, perceived as weak, meek, passive, and fearful, the exact reasons why it was then argued that they ought to be kept at home and not trusted with any positions involving authority, independence, and leadership (the grotesque clichés, therefore, that you would expect the neo-feminist ruling women shelters and their supporters would keep away from…) is irrelevant too. What is relevant, again, is that these are memes. And memes are ‘selfish’. They don’t care about their hosts. They don’t care about consequences. They don’t care about their impacts on men and boys, on women and girls (including those that peddle them), and they certainly don’t care about how we go on about perceiving each other as a result.
Memes, again, are replicators. They just care about replicating themselves, and so replicating themselves they do.
But where does that leave us?
There is a self-defeating irony in the idea that domestic violence is gendered that is, that men are the majority of perpetrators and women the majority of victims.
First, it relies on a cognitive dissonance. Here are feminists ideologues who want us to accept that women have the mindsets it take to be capable of doing what men can do (e.g. being politicians, scientists, CEO of corporates or what-not) yet, that they don't have the mindsets it take to be capable of doing what men can do after all (e.g. being coercive and controlling, angry, jealous, aggressive, manipulative, dysfunctional when in a relationship). Here are women, in other words, demanding that we acknowledge that they can have the 'killer instinct' needed when it comes to leaderships within various spheres of society, but asking us to ignore that altogether when it comes to how some treat their boyfriends or husbands due to such 'killer instinct' being derailed when at home. How hypocrite is that?
Then, because this denial in reckoning with women being no different than men when it comes to the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly in matter of dating and relationships is not empowering, but, on the contrary, infantilising. As we have seen, the idea that women don't assault partners (too weak, too afraid) or don't engage in coercive and controlling behaviours (they're naturally meek and nurturing) is not bore by the science; it has its roots in a sexist memeplex, inherited from patriarchal times, and whereas women were portrayed as being so simply as a justification for their subordinate positions. How is the ongoing echoing of such memeplex supposed to empower women?
The irony, then, is astoundingly startling: these feminists claiming to be 'dismantling' the patriarchy (these feminists who came to control the domestic violence sector, then), precisely because they cling on to such gendered claptrap which had been used by the patriarchy to sustain itself, are, in fact, doing no 'dismantling' whatsoever. On the contrary, by still embracing and peddling such bogus gendered memeplex, they are the patriarchy. Not only do they frame women as being 'disempowered' while they are everything but, but they also dismiss the idea that men can be victims by relying on a view of men which is nothing but toxic masculinity being recycled for their own gains.
But: has any problem ever been solved by relying on claptraps, prejudices, and outdated biases? If we truly care about helping the victims of domestic violence, then we should truly care about challenging the sexism underpinning most of the campaigning sector that is, challenging the sexism underpinning the feminism that has come to dominate it.
Meme matter. The complex memeplexes within which we evolve, as cultural animals, matter. As such, the gendered view of domestic abuse surely is very seductive (because it taps right into our sexist prejudices) yet it's exactly why it is, also, an obnoxious view: it's nothing but a gendered claptrap. What are we going to do about it? What are *you* going to do about it?
Meanwhile, thank you for reading! This post is an edited excerpt from a book I am writing about domestic violence, and that will also tackle parental alienation. If you think that you can help me in my endeavour (as a researcher or through a personal testimony) feel free to contact me. And, if you don't want to miss on any future post, then please don't forget to subscribe.