The role words and language play in SGBV

“Symbolic violence is in many ways much more powerful than actual violence or assault in that it is embedded in the ways people act and their consciousness and it imposes the specter of legitimacy on the social order,” says research associate in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at the University of Pretoria, Mary Crewe.

Mary Crewe delivers a powerful talk on symbolic violence at the PROBUS meeting recently.

Crewe gave an interestingly esoteric talk titled Daily Indignities at the PROBUS club meeting at the R72 saloon on Tuesday, 8 November. Her talk was looking at how symbolic violence helps the occurrence or incidence of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in South Africa.

Crewe, a well versed speaker who has widely published and challenged prevailing orthodoxies about HIV and AIDS, sexualities and gender, took to the podium. Crewe established the Center for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender at the University of Pretoria and served as an advisor to the Vice Chancellor and Executive on social and gender justice from 2020 to 2022.

The eloquent speaker started off with denouncing how society knows violence.

“Violence is not only the physical endpoint – the obvious and reportable acts – but this endpoint also needs to be measured by other forms of violence that lay the ground work for acts of violence and abuse,” she said. Crewe then explored the concept of symbolic violence, which she said needed to be understood before associating GBV with physical violence and bodily harm.

“Symbolic violence is the shadow over our society, over our relationships, our language and our institutions. Symbolic violence operates at a number of levels and is so entrenched in our taken for granted, everyday realities that it is difficult to identify and understand. These realities have been forged over time through culture, religion, education, traditions and the institutions of the modern state,” she explained.

Crewe assesses that this form of violence, often referred to as “soft violence”, occurs more often. Symbolic violence includes actions that have discriminatory, humiliating, injurious or undignified consequences, she says. “It maintains its effects through the mis-recognition of power relations situated in social and political structures. While it requires something that dominates, it also requires the dominated to accept the position,” explained Crewe.

Before playing a video clip of women talking about their experiences of symbolic violence, Crewe made the audience aware of the indignities that women face and have to confront daily. “For women this means, having to be careful about what they wear, knowing which routes they walk or travel in are safe, having to navigate spaces such as restaurants and bars alone, having to pass groups of men and being verbally harassed and being cat called,” she explained.

When such occurrences are normalised, the daily symbolic acts of violence then become normative violence, Crewe explained. “It is the status quo – it’s the way we behave. It becomes road rage, drunken rages, illegal acts, bad driving, acts of verbal aggression, small acts of physical assault, emotional and mental violence and it’s like beavers building a dam – small sticks piled on other sticks all balanced and supported by one another interwoven and united and holding back the water, and suddenly one day it all becomes too much and the symbolic and normative violence can’t hold and the actual physical violence, assault, rapes, femicide and murder and attacks on children take place,” she said.

Crewe assesses that many women report that their experience of symbolic and normative violence is actually worse than the physical acts because it’s so deeply entrenched, hard to challenge and often the challenge that leads to the actual physical violence. Furthermore, she assesses that we also need to be much more aware of man to man violence and the violence against people of different gender and sexual identities.

“Until we come to understand how deeply we are all entrenched in symbolic and normative violence and how we all live in families, communities and institutions where fairness, justice, opportunity honesty and equality do not prevail, it is hypocritical to talk about other men as ‘barbaric’, a social problem as a ‘scourge’ as ‘animals’ and about women as ‘passive’, ‘victims’ or indeed as provocative. In this way we strip them of their agency and reduce them to subjects rather than citizens,” she said.

Crewe concluded that fundamentally, in all kinds of ways, and across race and class, economic and social issues, our society has lost integrity. “There is something deeply wrong with our society and men who are violent are a reflection of this and I think that the problem lies deep in the various levels of violence that we have rather than just in the behavior of men,” she said.

Although Crewe said she doesn’t have or know of any easy solutions for how to address, tackle and put an end to SGBV, she assessed that it is fueled by class, among various other factors. “I do know that violence is based in orthodoxy and beliefs about culture, behavior and attitudes. I do know that violence is tied to notions of rights – of the rights that men believe they have and can withhold from others,” she said.

However difficult it may be to address this challenge of SGBV, Crewe believes that a different society can be created. “I do know that when we interrogate the levels of violence and our places within them that we can provide an enabling space for all people to occupy their rightful place in our society with respect, dignity and pleasure. I do know that its hard work, but in the end it’s about us not about them,” she concluded her powerful talk.

The meeting started off with a welcoming address from club president, Cyril Gebhardt, who encouraged the attendees to familiarize themselves with the load shedding situation at Eskom.

“The Christmas season is upon us and Eskom is in trouble. As individuals there is very little we can do about it but we can make ourselves comfortable. Firstly we have to realize that the Eskom situation will be like this for the next three years and there will be continuous load shedding. Secondly we need to understand the approved transmission plan for Eskom- the ATP,” he said.

This was followed by an induction of two new members to the club, which now has 65 active members on their roll. President Gebhardt also announced their upcoming Christmas lunch scheduled for December 7 where its members will be interacting and dining on a delectable three-course meal prepared by well-known chef, Bram Coetzee.

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