Clegg, Lawson and Saatchi’s Assault: What Would You Have Done?
(trigger warning: discussion of domestic violence) Recently, Charles Saatchi was photographed assaulting his wife, Nigella Lawson, at Scott’s Restaurant. He is shown grabbing her by the throat – he has now accepted a police caution, so there’s no need to caveat this with “allegedly” or the like.
The media furore has quickly turned not to the events in the restaurant, nor the issue of domestic violence, but predictably and boringly to the reaction of high-profile figures to the story. And one of those figures is the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Nick was asked on his call-in show what he would have done if he had witnessed the assault, and gave a reply which has been criticised as stumbling and insufficiently condemnatory. He’s been pressured to issue a statement clarifying his views.
What’s interesting about the statement is that it doesn’t actually answer the question he was asked in the interview, which is what he would have done if he’d witnessed the assault. His stumbling answer was trying to honestly answer the question. And the honest answer is that most people witnessing that assault would have done nothing – particularly if it was over before people had time to react. As the lovely Jennie points out, the bystander effect means that attacks in large crowds are surprisingly rarely challenged, and it’s hard to condemn the witnesses of an event you didn’t see for acting naturally.
But the questioner wasn’t asking what Nick Clegg, human being would do, but what Nick Clegg, Hypothetical Defender of Virtue would do. The questioner, and apparently the media who are now poring over this morning’s radio show, wanted Nick to say that he would definitely have intervened, to have reached Saatchi and Lawson’s table before the attack was over, and probably biffed Saatchi on the nose to defend Lawson.
Much as this romantic, white knight approach to restorative justice appeals to us, it may well be the wrong thing to do. This sounds perverse, and sounds like a defence for inaction and even condoning domestic assault. It isn’t – you can be totally opposed to assault and non-consensual violence, and still consider that intervening could be the wrong approach. A domestic assault is a display of power, and the assaulter does this when they feel weak. Intervention disrupts the assaulter’s display of power and makes them look even weaker in their own eyes. They may even blame their victim for the intervention. This means that they will be compelled to commit a more violent assault later on away from bystanders to reassert their hold over their victim – possibly one that becomes a murder.
Another consideration, equally horrible one to consider, is that many victims of domestic assault who are trapped in a violent relationship are not in a position to think rationally about their situation. I am not a domestic violence counsellor or psychologist, but a quote from this Telegraph report is interesting:
“And yet she kissed him. She appeared to be a woman who loves him but was clearly unable to stop him being abusive, frightening and disrespectful to her.”
There have been instances of people intervening in domestic assaults being attacked by the victim, not the perpetrator – possibly because they are worried about possibility of retaliation, possibly because they have come to blame themselves or feel that they deserve the violence perpetrated against them. A single intervention is unlikely to change this, and may even make things worse.
What Nick’s clarification does do correctly is to condemn domestic violence in its totality. We live in a culture where domestic violence is, in general, not condemned. We let our friends make jokes about it down the pub – perhaps our laughter is nervous or false, but who wants to spoil a night out by getting serious? Even the quote above suggests that it’s Nigella’s job to stop her husband from being abusive, frightening and disrespectful – that it was somehow her fault, her failure that caused him to assault her.
Casual references to domestic violence abound, including popular magazines publishing advice from celebrities that men should cut their ex-girlfriend so nobody else wants her. One immediate reaction to Saatchi’s assault of Lawson came from the ever-charming Nazi, Nick Griffin, who joked about the manner in which he’d like to assault Lawson himself, and then tried to excuse his remarks on the grounds that she’s an overtly sensual and sexy woman. One of the things that we need our leading figures to do (and the rest of us, particularly us men) is to condemn domestic assaults and make it clear that it is unacceptable.
To rescue somebody from domestic violence doesn’t take a single moment of intervention from a well-meaning bystander. It takes helping the victim to understand that they do not deserve, or have to tolerate, the violence. It takes challenging the perpetrator in a way that stops them from continuing to assault their victim. It is a long process which has to be handled delicately.
Nick was right to be hesitant in saying what he would immediately do if he witnessed a domestic assault, because there is no right answer. Now let’s get away from talking about politicians, and get back to talking about the culture of domestic assault, which includes celebrities and also many people who aren’t famous, and what we can all do to stop it.