The Ethics of Violence: Why Trauma Doesn’t Excuse Brutality

In a 1984 conversation, the notable black author and social critic, James Baldwin, and black feminist writer and poet, Audre Lorde, discussed the issue of violence in the black community, particularly the violence directed toward black women. After James presented a deterministic argument, asserting that black men were simply products of their circumstances and shouldn’t, reasonably, be blamed for their actions, Audre retorted:

…what we do have is a real disagreement about your responsibility not just to me but to my son and to our boys. Your responsibility to him is to get across to him in a way that I never will be able to because he did not come out of my body and has another relationship to me. Your relationship to him as his father is to tell him I’m not a fit target for his fury.

Her brilliant response highlighted two important facts:

1. Although trauma breeds further trauma, and hurt people tend to hurt others, one has a moral obligation, as challenging as it is, to rise above his circumstances and treat others with compassion.

2. Fathers, especially, have an obligation to impart this teaching to their sons, as most violence occurs by men toward other men and by men toward women.

It’s so cliche that it should go without saying, but, seemingly, it needs to be said anyway: Only the traumatized victim can break the cycle of brutality, that while his suffering and mental illness are not his fault, healing is his responsibility, because no one else can do it for him. As a therapist, often, my toughest job is helping others empathize with those whom they have hurt, in trying to help them acknowledge a basic tenet of humanity, which implores all of us to refrain from intentionally committing harm. Usually, they present the expected response in some varied form, one which has the underlying theme of an unwillingness to care because others didn’t care for them, especially when needed most.

So, to be clear, I recognize the task to be a Herculean effort, and I remind myself of it each time I consider my stepfather’s viciousness, recalling his sense of unlovability, which he consistently actualized, and fulfilled, through what felt like incessant campaigns of terror. I understand now because I need to, because I’d be shattered if I didn’t. But, the world that we’re building needs to be better, and it demands us to end the cycles. I tell my patients that there are other ways, and means, of unloading sorrow, that suffering is not, and cannot be, resolved through further pain. But, to rise above is to become a saint, as Viktor Frankl would have said, and those who find a way deserve an immensity of our love, for they are our light-bearers.

In the end, Baldwin assented, humbled by Audre’s entreaty. He noted that “Women know much more about men than men will ever know about women — which may… be the only reason that the race has managed to survive so long.” Amazingly, it’s mostly been women accommodating men, accepting and placating them in order to preclude acts of violence. So, when is it our turn? When do our actions become our responsibility? When do we accept that isn’t up to others, women in particular, to understand us, but for us to become decent individuals?

I’ve forgiven my stepfather because I’ve allowed myself to empathize with him, but I have never respected him, and never will; simply put, he doesn’t deserve it. But, James Baldwin does, and so do the countless survivors who’ve stopped the violence, wishing for their sons to be better men. Help is available for those who really want it. And trauma, while possessing the potential to corrode a man’s entire spirt, does not excuse him from his responsibilities, and will never excuse away his brutality.

And most importantly, it isn’t the obligation of the oppressed to define and understand her oppression through the lens of the dominant one, thus empathizing and subsequently sympathizing with his sorrow. Therefore, a “shift in focus may be salutary” writes philosopher Kate Manne in her book, Down Girl , noting that:

Rather than conceptualizing misogyny from the point of view of the accused… we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women—as a matter of deep psychological explanation, or indeed whatsoever.


  1. Beautiful post.
    One point: wisely-incentivized myths aside, there is no reason to assume that men afflict more violence than women do: for example, gendered homicide statistics are only concrete forms of evidence. (As stated, no-one understands women better than other women).
    The point was clearly elucidated that it is the violence afflicted by men that needs to be handled by men, that the shift in focus must and will take place.

    Liked by 2 people

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