One need only glance at the lexicon accompanying the Victorian government’s Respectful Relationships educational program to realise that the stated goal of tackling family violence may not be the only outcome hoped for by its enlightened architects. ‘Cisgender,’ ‘Gender nonconforming,’ ‘Heteronormativity,’ ‘Hegemonic Masculinity,’ and ‘Gender fluid’ all curiously find their way into the teaching and learning materials, giving credence to the objections of those who view the program as an example of an attempt at Left-leaning social engineering.
Of concern is the consistent thread of progressive social theory laced throughout the Respectful Relationships curriculum. The uncritical delivery of postmodern ideas of gender—expressed most vociferously by feminist philosopher Judith Butler (ed: a sample of whose work can be waded through here) —and the causal link between gender stereotypes and violence, presents to students a vision of the world whereby the fundamental cause of violence against women is the insistence upon society to construct notions of gender which import patterns of behaviour erroneously considered normative. This metanarrative of the Left, wherein violence against women stems from the manifestation of masculine tendencies and gender stereotypes taken to their logical end, serves to pinpoint the locus of ‘gendered violence’ in the problematic nuisance—affirmed by reality—that boys and girls tend to display behavioural differences at a young age that corresponds to their biological sex. For the educators of tomorrow, zealous egalitarianism must intrude into nature itself.
In their minds, the fundamental correction of this unequal ordering of society necessitates students be taught that any perceived differences between the behaviour of boys and girls are the result of patriarchal social constructions. Consequently, the resources within the programe infer that the traditional sense of masculinity and any claim of gender being fixed and rooted in nature resulting in behavioural norms, needs to be overturned to stem the scourge of violence against women.
To achieve this overarching goal, Respectful Relationships is cleverly packaged in both a semantical and categorical sleight of hand. Firstly, the decision to market the resource as one that is fundamentally concerned with fostering a greater sense of ‘respect’ between the sexes allows the more covert goal of dismantling traditional notions of gender to be wedged within an ideal no well-intentioned person would ever challenge. Furthermore, by placing the issues of family violence within the framework of a public health issue analogous to a lifestyle disease, the preventative recommendations advised by the authors of the program (such as the removal of gender stereotypes) invoke a quasi-scientific character and thus fortify their claims. By bridging the epistemological gulf between sociology and biology, the diagnosis offered and treatment prescribed by Respectful Relationships is able to appear much more concrete.
However, serious doubts remain as to both the intention and efficacy of a program that aims to instil within children the idea that there exists a straight line connecting rigid gender roles and societal gender expectations to violence against women. In 2014, a research summary produced by the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault titled ‘Gender Equality and Violence against Women: What’s the Connection,’ notes the difficulty in pinning down ‘the impact gender inequality actually has as a determinant of violence against women.’ This confessed ambiguity notwithstanding, the authors theorise that logic would point to the vital element of ‘gender norms and beliefs’ as a fundamental enabler of ‘gender based violence.’
Why ‘logic’ leads us to this conclusion is not touched upon by the researchers in any comprehensive manner. Rather, the question is begged and dissent from the premise held up as evidence of the oppressive hold that traditional concepts of gender have on the culture. Irrespective of the circularity of this line of reasoning, the program maintains that educators supplant any belief of a critical difference between the sexes and instead acknowledge that, historically, society has constructed gender roles to control groups of people.
Coupled with this grand divorce between gender and biology is the perpetuation of the often-repeated gender pay gap myth. To promote the statistical illiteracy needed to accept this parable of the Left is a betrayal of the fundamental goal to which education is to ordered towards—critical thinking.
Alas, to correct this historical affliction, Respectful Relationships aims to replace the archaic and destructive vision of gender with a version that highlights gender as fundamentally socially constructed and therefore malleable. Hence, when a young boy gravitates towards a more robust, assertive and systematic type of interaction with others, he must recognise that his behaviour is not the result of any innate psychophysiological factors reflective of his biology, but rather is built upon artificial apparatus set up to dominate women in society. Left unchecked, these modes of behaviour—broadly termed ‘hegemonic masculinity’—facilitate the environment that allow men to subjugate women and are viewed as the seedlings of domestic violence. The essential flaw here is the lazy reduction of a complex social phenomenon into a Manichean context where by which the magic elixir is the simple yet ironic reorientation of what it means to be a man or a woman.
It is not terribly difficult to see how this line of reasoning could lead young men to believe that some of the characteristics they possess innately are fundamentally dangerous and anathema to civilised society. By placing the adherence and acceptance of specific gender stereotypes into the sphere of influence vis-à-vis the determinants of family violence, we risk further stunting the development of a positive view of manhood in the minds of young men. Rather than providing a positive framework for masculine tendencies benefiting the healthy functioning of society as a whole, such as those proposed by feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, Respectful Relationships opts to condition students away from any positive understanding of innate masculine characteristics and further push masculinity towards the fringes of acceptable behaviour. Whilst a disordered sense of aggression and entitlement may undoubtedly be instrumental to an individual’s propensity towards violence, to carelessly conflate this generally with masculine tendencies is at best grossly lacking in nuance and at worst dangerously disingenuous. Absent in the program is any acknowledgment of the inherent value to be found in those traits traditionally understood to be dominant in males including: protectiveness, courage, chivalry, self-confidence, stoicism and adventure.
Furthermore, the neglect shown by the authors of Respectful Relationships in regards to any alternate causative arguably more determinative in relation to violence towards women such as the impact of pornography, substance abuse and socio-economic status is telling but not overly surprising. By slanting the focus upon a narrow picture where an all-powerful patriarchy pulling the strings of society is at the epicentre of family violence enables the bitter pill of “male privilege” to be swallowed by those unfortunate students who happen to possess the XY chromosome pairing. Again, the damage of ingraining the notion that society has the deck stacked in order for men to succeed at the expense of woman is a problematic worldview to promote in the minds of young men and women. To reduce the complex set of factors that influence the violent conduct of individuals down to the notion that they decide their victims based on sex is to propel the idea that violence against women is essentially a hate crime. Rather than promote a mutual admiration for the opposite sex and truly foster greater respect, the divide between the sexes widens under the misandrist belief that men are at war with women. This inertia away from personal responsibility and towards perceived systematic injustices is a hallmark of progressive ideology and facilitates the perpetual movement towards the ‘perfect’ society. By insisting that the system rather than the individual is fallen, the ongoing push towards utopia can continue to assert itself by manipulating the fundamental structures of society. That this push has now encroached into primary and secondary education is indeed worrying and symptomatic of the extent to which the politics of identity has immersed itself into the culture of today.
If anything, the most troubling aspect that the Respectful Relationships program highlights is the scope to which the state now believes it must standardize particular modes of thought. Traditional models of education have mutated to the extent that the dissemination of unbalanced contestable sociological theories are presented with the equivalent certainty of those truths expressed in the hard sciences such as mathematics and physics. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to defend the learning materials of Respectful Relationships against claims of ideological indoctrination by some of its opponents. Whilst we all have a duty to treat one another with respect and to protect the health and safety of our loved ones, there exists no such duty to impose upon the minds of the young a vision of the world invented in the lecture rooms of sociology departments. Especially not at a cost of 21.8 million dollars.
Lawrence Qummou is a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame