The Rihanna-Chris Brown case, in which the 19-year-old pop-soul star Brown choked, threatened to kill, and repeatedly punched his 21-year-old girlfriend and fellow music star, Rihanna, has revealed the ambivalence and impotence of standard advice to and about abuse victims. Inner city teens simply do not accept standard messages about girlfriend abuse.
Weeks after Brown "sort of" apologized for the incident - while claiming media accounts were inaccurate (the beating was actually more serious than originally described) - Rihanna returned to her lover. She is now refusing to cooperate with prosecutors of the assault case against Brown. "She has had a change of heart," according to police, "and doesn't want to proceed." The duo is now recording together.
Before Rihanna took these steps, there was universal agreement that Chris Brown needed to pay for his assault on a woman, with Rihanna's active help. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Judy Kuriansky, "She has a responsibility to make a decision that serves the public as well as her own needs," by "helping to get the issue of domestic violence out of the closet."
People don't serve the public when it comes to matters of their own heart. So advocates against women's violence (and which expert doesn't fall in that category?) were left flapping in the wind as they contemplated Rihanna's betrayal of the cause. Oprah, who, typically, is a friend of both young stars, devoted her show last Thursday to "all the Rihannas in the world," urging on them the message: "I've said before love doesn't hurt, and if a man hits you once, he will hit you again."
So advocates are left railing against Brown after his lover has returned to him, while cautiously chiding the victim for her failure to take the needed steps, both for women at large, and to preserve her own well-being.
But how do you criticize a victim? How do you advise someone to go against the dictates of her own heart? How do you tell someone that her actions are irrational, self-defeating, and -- in a word -- addictive? It's like taking a dinner guest aside and telling her that her husband is emotionally abusing her. How much good does that do?
We are left with the realization that, despite years -- decades -- of warnings to women not to put up with this behavior, it is as common as ever. Is Oprah's claim "that we're talking about it is a step in the right direction," and her vow "to keep talking about it and keep coming back to how difficult it is for women to leave," really effective?
Talking head after talking head clucked over a Boston survey showing that many teens not only tolerated violence in relationships -- beyond tolerance, they approved it! The small (200 youths, ages 12 to 19) survey was conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission. Its results, as press released:
51 percent said Chris Brown was responsible for the incident, 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible and 52 percent said both were to blame; 52 percent said the media was treating Brown unfairly; 44 percent said fighting was a normal part of a relationship; and a "significant" number said "Rihanna was destroying Chris Brown's career." Women blamed Rihanna as much as men did.
Part of the story is that Rihanna hit Brown first in a jealous outburst. All professionals say that this is irrelevant, but not the teens who were questioned. A typical professional reaction: "Somehow young people have gotten the message that this is just part of a relationship," according to anti-violence advocate Deborah Collins-Gousby.
The agency -- and study -- didn't describe the kids who were interviewed. But the Boston Herald got different reactions when it spoke with other young people: " 'How can they hold her responsible? That's crazy,' said Michelle Oliverio, 19, of Boston. 'It's his fault. No matter what the fight was about, he still put his hands on a girl. He should be blamed for this.' "
I can't claim that I can reverse this situation, while so many notables have failed, but I can say these true things about it:
(1) Lecturing individuals or groups about violence is an exercise conducted for the benefit of the lecturer, and has little impact on the target.
(2) When it comes to love, people -- especially young people -- throw other people's advice out the window.
(3) People avoid and reject violence when their own values reject that behavior.
(4) Anti-abuse values are a very fundamental part of people's emotional make-up, including both their attitudes towards themselves and the values of the world in which they are raised.
(5) In particular, some groups explicitly reject anti-violence values -- the answer is to "convert" them to the mainstream cultural viewpoint, but this is (a) hard, (b) fraught with its own dangers.
In fact, Oprah and her guest host, Tyra Banks, recognized these things. They described how both the young stars had witnessed extreme marital conflict and abuse in their own homes. "When you grew up in an environment where there is abuse, it's more acceptable to you," Winfrey said. "If you go back with a man who hits you it's because you don't think you're worthy of being with a man who won't."
That's a good summary. But how do TV talk show lectures change these very basic things -- or how do they reach at all the groups of young people where these values are embedded?
So it can only be with frustration that we witness Oprah -- who was sexually abused throughout her own childhood -- hectoring her young friend to emulate her own life by rejecting violence. After all, Oprah is Oprah.