Let’s worry less about perpetrators’ feelings

Posted By: June 13, 2016

Clare Simpson. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, June 13, 2016


The Fresh Start report made headlines last week when it suggested a new decommissioning scheme should be set up to help paramilitary groups who wanted to disband.

The report, commissioned after the Fresh Start Agreement, made dozens of proposals including allowing the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal “unduly lenient” paramilitary sentences and creating a unit to specialise in paramilitaries and “communities in transition.”

But deep in the report was one very strange paragraph, quickly spotted by my eagle-eyed colleague Allison Morris. The report said there is a “gender dynamic” to the disbandment of paramilitary groups.

“The ex-prisoner groups and former paramilitaries we met were almost all men,” it said.

“The ‘masculinity’ issue, attached to the status of being a paramilitary, and the fear of being emasculated through a process of disbandment needs to be understood.”

So in essence, the report is suggesting that to some members of paramilitary groups, giving away their weapons is an affront to their masculinity. To be a man, it isn’t enough to have a Y chromosome. You also have to be able to carry a gun.

It seems ridiculous, laughable even, that paramilitaries would seriously suggest giving up their illegal weapons is emasculating. Yet hidden in the paragraph is the real crux of the matter – status. Being a senior loyalist or dissident republican carries some weight, particularly in communities too cowed by decades of violence to be able to fight against groups who use the paramilitary label as a badge of convenience to cover up what are essentially criminal acts.

As the report pointed out, cigarette smuggling, fuel-laundering, drug dealing and extorting money from businesses hardly advance any political cause, although they do help to line the pockets of those who hide behind a paramilitary name. And if anyone complains, paramilitaries could always argue that cracking down on fuel-laundering would lead to a loss of status, and therefore be “emasculating.”

Questions about masculinity and femininity, what it means to be a man or a woman, have been discussed for centuries. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that women were “defective,” effectively incomplete men.

“Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation,” he wrote.

He believed that women were “more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man… more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action” and need “a smaller quantity of nutriment.”

Aristotle’s words have a strange echo in a high-profile case in the US, completely separate to our issues with paramilitaries, but with some of the same concerns about emasculation.

Brock Turner was jailed for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on Stanford University’s campus. Although prosecutors had asked for a six-year sentence, he was jailed for only six months, plus probation.

Focus then turned to the probation pre-sentencing report, in which Turner’s father Dan asked the judge not to jail his son and said he had already paid “a steep price” for what he charmingly described as “20 minutes of action.” Putting aside the suggestion that “only” sexually assaulting someone for 20 minutes is acceptable, Turner’s father also insinuated that the charges against his son had weakened the 20-year-old former competitive swimmer.

“He [Brock Turner] will never be his happy-go-lucky self with that easy-going personality and welcoming smile,” he wrote.

“His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his lack of appetite.”

In other words, in his anxious, voiceless state, he had become more feminine. And it was the charges against him, not his own actions, which had made him that way.

In the end, the judge, who happened to be a Stanford graduate himself, gave Turner a lesser sentence because it would “have a severe impact on him.”

“I think he will not be a danger to others,” the judge said, ignoring the fact that he had already proved himself a serious danger to one young woman.

Sometimes it is easier for those in authority to excuse bad behaviour with spurious claims that if the perpetrators are punished, they will be adversely affected.

Perhaps if we were less concerned with some hypothetical loss of masculinity, we would not be in a situation where paramilitaries are allowed to operate and sex crimes are dismissed as “20 minutes of action.”