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Call Me, Tweet Me: Let’s talk about domestic violence, baby

Published: February 17, 2012
Section: Opinions

Remember when Chris Brown hit his then-girlfriend, Rihanna? I do.

It was the eve of the 2009 Grammys, and Brown and Rihanna were both scheduled to perform the next day. According to a search warrant, obtained and released by TMZ, they were driving when Rihanna read a text message from a woman with whom Brown had had a sexual relationship. Brown tried to force Rihanna out of the car, shoving her head against a window, and hit her several times. She ended up in the hospital.

I was shocked. Unfortunately, I wasn’t shocked that it happened—domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, even without accounting for unreported abuse.

Instead, I was shocked by the way it was handled by the media, by the music industry and by the rest of the country. Recently, I was even more shocked by Brown’s performance at the Grammys and the response that followed.

Musically, I think that Chris Brown is incredibly talented. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve been known to get my groove on when one of his songs comes on at a party. But Chris Brown does not deserve to be following his passion and performing for millions of viewers and listeners. He does not deserve to be touted as an incredible star, with the coveted privilege of performing at the Grammys. He deserves to be in jail.

Following a plea bargain in August of 2009, Brown avoided prison but was sentenced to 180 hours of community service and five years of probation.

This column, “Call Me, Tweet Me,” originated with its name because Ariel, then Editor Emeritus; Morgan, Impressions Editor; and I agreed that it was a great name for a column about human communication in its many forms—and a great “Kim Possible” throwback. I’ve written on topics like context in journalism, racism and sexism in language, and the control technology holds over us.

I’ve strayed from that original premise slightly, two weeks ago choosing a topic and then struggling to connect it back to communication. This week, I’m decided to return to my column’s roots to tackle a controversial and all-too-relevant topic: the way we talk about domestic violence and assault.

One aspect of the crime that hasn’t been covered very well is Brown’s family history with violence. Back in 2009, Brown announced on “Larry King Live” that his mother was physically and chronically abused by her husband, Brown’s step-father. His mother said that Brown had never before been violent, though, and his attack on his girlfriend was not part of an inter-generational cycle of violence.

If only that were comforting.

Physically, one incident is far less painful than continual abuse. That goes without saying. Emotionally, however, domestic violence is domestic violence. Most of us enter into relationships so that we can feel safe, secure and loved. When someone hurts their partner, whether the pain inflicted is physical, verbal or emotional, and regardless of their gender, they strip the relationship of that trust.

To act or say otherwise is to do a great disservice to everyone—anyone who has been in an unhealthy relationship, anyone who has felt unsafe around someone who claimed to love them, anyone who would be appalled if they saw someone hit someone else on the street—even if it was “provoked.”

Chris Brown is a felon, and we should refuse to forget that, while simultaneously admiring him as an artist. This is about something much bigger than him and Rihanna. By extolling his musical talent, we are sending a strong and damaging message—it’s OK that he hit Rihanna. Maybe she deserved it, maybe she didn’t, but he apologized, so let’s leave him alone now.

I’d like to believe that I’ve been brought up to be the kind of person who, if hit by a partner, would hit them back, walk out the door and call the police. I’m lucky enough to have never been in that position, and I hope never to find out for sure. I also hope, however, that my mother, or my sister, or whomever I turned to would have the sense to tell me that it wasn’t my fault, and that one slap or shove is enough.

Hollywood, apparently, disagrees. When the incident became public, Hollywood was silent, save for a few brave souls who knew right from wrong—and got flak for it. Jay-Z, one of Rihanna’s mentors and the man who discovered her, issued a statement saying, “You have to have compassion for others. Just imagine it being your sister or mom and then think about how we should talk about that. I just think we should all support her.”

Despite seeming like unnecessary advice (support the woman who was abused? Duh …), the message came across as extreme and out of the blue.

Exactly three years later, Brown was once again scheduled to perform at the Grammys, and this year he didn’t get … uh … sidetracked.

Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich said, “We’re glad to have him back. I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.”

Yes. People deserve a second chance, even Chris Brown. But the Grammys are the victim? What? I’m sorry that three years ago they were forced very quickly to replan the evening due to circumstances out of their control. But the lack of compassion extends not only to Rihanna but to victims of domestic abuse everywhere.

Two weeks ago, Susan G. Komen For The Cure announced they would stop giving grants to Planned Parenthood for breast exams that had the potential to save lives. After a massive outcry, they reversed their decision three days later. This column two weeks ago was about my grandmother, a victim of breast cancer, and why she would urge me to stop supporting Komen. I wrote that “she would find it inconceivable that Komen didn’t want to help women who were unable to provide for themselves.”

How is this any different? I respect Rihanna’s right to keep quiet about the incident and I don’t blame her. But someone needs to speak up for the countless men and women who have been victims of domestic violence, and by applauding Chris Brown we are telling those men and women that selling records offsets the pain he’s caused. We are telling them that they are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

It makes me angry and I hope it makes you angry. I’m making my anger public and I hope you’ll do the same.

Sasha Pasulka, an entertainment blogger, wrote this: “So I want to say this to anyone who is listening: This is not OK with me. A man hitting a woman in anger is unacceptable and is not easily forgotten or forgiven. A man who hits a woman in anger deserves to be reported to the authorities and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of who might be inconvenienced in the process. A man who hits a woman in anger may eventually be permitted to go on with his own life, but he is not permitted back in my life, even if it’s been three whole years.”

I can’t say it any better than that.