What grinds my gears the most about the Dominic Cummings affair (Cumgate, oh how we laughed) is his insistence that a routine childcare problem was a circumstance so exceptional it required him to decide, as the Man of the Household, to flout the rules everyone else has endured. But this piece is not about childcare. It is not about the extreme lengths to which elite men will go to avoid looking after their own goddamn kids. It is about male violence.
The exceptional circumstance which Cummings claimed as his excuse to flee London while contagious with a deadly virus was a hard-won exception, fought for by activists and experts in the face of initial government indifference and then belated, patronising acquiescence. But let me put into words the bit about the “exceptional circumstance” we assume doesn’t need saying because it’s as obvious as air; this exception is to deal with men’s violence against the women and children of their household.
When lockdown started and required everyone who wasn’t a key-worker to stay at home, women’s shelters around the UK pointed out at first calmly – assuming it was just an oversight by the Prime Minister’s all-male inner team – and then increasingly loudly, the obvious truth our society thinks too normal to plan for or even mention; that violent men routinely injure, rape and kill the women and children locked into their households. Lockdown meant lock-in for the women and children shut in with angry, confined and – as consumption patterns quickly showed – drunk men.
Do you remember the half news cycle back at the start of lockdown, the violent deaths of a whole family for which the policy were not seeking a suspect? Probably not. Two women a week, dead. It’s just normal. The operation and ultimate outcome of male authority and rage in the confines of the family home is so normal it’s not news, it’s not exceptional, it’s not even worrying or problematic. It’s just a one-off tragedy, every single time. Twice a week. Every week. So you see, after a while, don’t you, that it is effectively government policy.
Which is why activists had to strain every muscle and shout as loud as they could to get the exception introduced into lockdown that women and children may still flee violent men. Even if the government had long since shut most of the shelters they could flee to.
So for the architect of lockdown, the “brains” behind the policy that didn’t for a moment consider it significant or worrying that more women and children would be murdered, to use this hard-won, life-saving exception as the justification for fleeing London because he couldn’t find a babysitter, is disgusting. I write for my living and I don’t have a better way to describe how grotesque that is.
Add this reason for white-hot anger to the hundreds of thousands of bereaved who didn’t say goodbye or publicly mourn their dead – couldn’t, in fact, because that’s what privilege is; it’s an invisible zone of wiggle-room around you as you move through a world where most people have little or none – to new cancer patients still waiting for diagnostic tests let alone treatment, benefits recipients starved for weeks for missing appointments, the list is endless – and consider the millions of people wounded physically, emotionally and morally by the government’s defence of Cummings, and you get close to understanding the country’s seething rage.
And it’s not hate. I’m personally indifferent to that man, and so are most people who judge him by his deeds alone. Hate is for individuals. Anger is for choices, for contempt, for what people do, not who they are. How dare the spineless Cabinet lackeys belittle moral outrage by trying to pass off our justified and appropriate anger as personal spite.
And by moral injury I mean the people who let their loved ones die in the care of strangers who are now told that Cummings acted as a good father, a good man, and so, by implication, should they have done, but they did not. They should have ignored the rules and acted only for themselves and their father, mother, wife, husband, sibling, or, in the case of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, their child. Little exposes the sociopathic indifference and amorality of this Cabinet more than that they just don’t get that their clever debating point hasn’t just made people’s suffering pointless, it will live on in people’s hearts for the rest of their lives; the knowledge that they could have and therefore should have flouted the rules and just been there. When the wrong thing is the right thing, and the right thing is wrong, you inflict a profound moral injury and cause a lifetime of suffering made more bitter by regret. That, too, is what Cummings has done.
The Cabinet asks people to “move on” at the precise moment it has mired hundreds of thousands of people in what psychologists term complicated grief, grief that cannot eventually dissolve into the love and joy of memory because it is twisted up in bitter and incurable regret.
So you see how Cummings’ ‘family man’ defence does moral and emotional violence to us all. It invokes the authority of the male head of household and makes special pleading for him with the very exception created to protect women and children from his abuse of power. It insists on private morality – the old nineteenth century private sphere of the family in which a man can do what he wishes, even as he has to follow rules and public morality outside of it – in direct contempt for the effects of his actions on anyone outside his nuclear family unit.
A thirteen year-old boy was left to die without the touch of a parent or anyone who knew and loved him so that we could all be safer, and now we are come to this. A man in a white shirt, sitting at a table in a rose garden, telling us the rules were not the rules, wrong is right and up is down. And the people who believe him do so because they believe in the authority of a man, the right of a man to deal with his family just as he pleases, the absolute subjectivity of right and wrong when it comes to doing whatever the hell he wants.
Here is something else that many women know about certain men. We know what gaslighting is. It’s another form of moral injury because its precise purpose is to make you unable to distinguish between right and wrong. It confuses you and attacks you, even when – especially when – you haven’t done anything wrong. Researchers into male violence against women and children have yet to figure out how it is that male abusers all seem to hit on the same tactics to keep their victims weak. There’s a name for it, though; DARVO. Deny. Attack. Reverse Victim and Offender.
Deny any wrongdoing – Cummings’ and the government’s insistence, still, that the proven and admitted offences were “fake news”.
Attack the victim and make them feel like they’re the one in the wrong for holding the abuser accountable – the Cabinet and Conservative outriders who insist those rightfully angry at obvious lies are “a mob” motivated “by hate”.
Reverse victim and offender by insisting the abuser is the real victim in the situation – the attempts to paint the Cummings family as suffering uniquely (bereavement, disability) under lockdown; the hints by Cummings that he feared for his family’s safety at their normal residence. Women MPs who fruitlessly begged Johnson to tone down his violent rhetoric last year because of the death and rape threats they received will particularly notice that one.
So we see the male head of household, occupying in his professional life a position of untrammelled and unelected power, using the classic tactics of abusers under patriarchy to confuse and subdue us, to make us think we were in the wrong despite the wrong done to us. I may have to live under this, but I refuse to pretend it is not happening.
Women see this, and nonbinary people. We see it because we live in a world that weaponises our own vulnerability to deny it even exists. And now many, many men see it too.
Patriarchy and fascism go hand in hand. They depend on the idea that authority comes from a man who both threatens violence within his household and protects his household from external interference. In patriarchy as in fascism there is only private morality and it is only for men. Everything else is coercion. Everyone else’s moral person is subject to injury and abuse. Public morality is mere cant – nothing more than hypocrisy and witch-hunting – and there are no shared interests beyond the household and the state. As the man to his wife and children, so the state to its subjects. This week in Britain we saw another small step towards the ennoblement of the fascistic concern for the immediate family and contempt to the suffering of everyone else.
So yes, joke about eyesight tests and point out the barefaced lies and changes to blogposts. Humour is part of how we survive. But do not mistake what we saw yesterday for anything other than the creeping insistence that one man can do whatever he likes with his family, can do whatever he likes to this country. That wife and that son are not the human shield. We all are.