Begging the Question

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to language. It’s partly because I value clear expression, partly because it’s just my nature. One of my pet peeves is the habit shown by some to co-opt certain words and phrases in order to make themselves sound smart or virtuous.

One of the most common sins is the misuse of the phrase ‘begging the question’. Begging the question is what’s known as a logical fallacy – it’s something that sounds reasonable, but uses false logic to achieve its argument. Where begging the question is concerned, the logical flaw is in the assumption behind the question. The stock example of this tactic is of a courtroom lawyer who asks the defendant, “When did you stop beating your wife?

Now, you can see the problem here. There’s an unspoken assumption behind the question, one that we in Vanuatu know to be false: Quite obviously the defendant has never actually stopped beating his wife. The illogic is made even clearer by the laughable assumption that an abusive husband might somehow end up in court.

There’s a whole continuum of justification for the physical abuse of women in Vanuatu. People will trot out kastom, discipline and virtue; they’ll complain that she brought it on herself; they’ll say she started it, she was fooling around, lying, what have you.

But I’ll tell you the real reason men continue to beat women in Vanuatu. It’s for the same reason dogs licks themselves: Because they can.

At the recently completed Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns, leaders stood solemnly together and released a communiqué touting their commitment “to eradicating [sexual and gender based violence] and to ensure that all individuals have equal protection and access to justice.

There’s an entire section in the communiqué devoted to what they coyly call SGBV. It dwells on the importance of international coordination, on continuing to maintain regional efforts to raise awareness… and of course remaining sensitive at all times to local culture and ‘differing contexts’ within the various nations.

Here’s a context I wish would differ: I wish that the young woman who greeted me at one of Vila’s marquee stores didn’t have a bruise on her jaw that had ‘left hook’ written all over it. She was at least seven months pregnant. I wish that another young acquaintance who had just given birth only days before didn’t continue to suffer through daily beatings. I wish the waitress who serves my coffee didn’t keep showing up with a black eye every month or so.

I wish the scars, the bruises, the broken teeth and bones weren’t so much part of our ‘differing context’ that we just tut-tut solemnly when we see them and carry on with our day.

Vanuatu was lauded during the Forum gathering for its social stability, a factor that many claimed was central to its continued economic growth. But the reasons for this stability are not entirely obvious. When pressed to explain why Vanuatu hasn’t descended into the same morass of factional dispute as, for example, Fiji or the Solomons, even seasoned Vanuatu experts tend to shrug and trail off into silence.

My guess is that the spirit of compromise and accommodation that pervades Vanuatu society is predicated on the promise that violence, if it comes to it, will be swift, deadly and direct. The lack of large, enduring alliances puts the emphasis on individuals to come to terms with one another, and to avoid confrontation whenever possible.

Because of this, it’s been posited that the tendency amongst our political leaders toward venality, petty corruption and, er, rather too-enthusiastic enjoyment of life’s pleasures must be accepted. They are part and parcel of that same much-lauded stability. We allow them to indulge themselves and rely on competition between personalities to keep the ship of state from running into the worst reefs.

So when a minister of state is quoted in the newspaper saying that he beat up a female storekeeper in defense of consumer rights, we note it and move on.

Why does a minister use intimidation and violent aggression against helpless women? Because he can.

It’s not going to change. The cost of getting along with our neighbours and family members is to let them take advantage of those weaker than they are. Because as long as we confront these abuses individually, we will fear the same fist that worked such damage on the woman.

Why do men use violence against their wives? Because they can.

Everyone knows it’s wrong. But they can do it, so they do.

It’s a lose-lose situation: If you intervene when a man is beating a woman, you risk getting the same beating yourself. And even if you fight him and win, there’s every chance that he’ll just take his frustration and anger out on the woman the moment you leave.

Violence against women will continue in Vanuatu until we all say it’s NOT okay. Nothing is going to change until chiefs, MPs and other leaders can honestly answer the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?