Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Chesterton on...wife beating!?

I just came across this thought from Chesterton in an essay entitled "Divorce versus Democracy", originally featured in the 1915 edition of Nash's Magazine and reprinted in the November, 2001 edition of "The Chesterton Review" (Vol. XXVII, No.4 ). To put it in context, Chesterton is arguing against a relaxation in divorce laws in England, arguing (correctly, I think) that the causes put forward for a relaxation in divorce laws by the British government at the time were actually symptoms of the injustice of British society and themselves responsible for the increase in divorces. In this context, he discusses wife beating ("cruelty"), which he says is frequently grounds for divorce. Yet, he argues, if the British society were not so unjustly structured and the poor not ground down so hard, the husband would have less occasion to beat his wife. He then goes on a little tangent about wife-hitting, in which he says it is sometimes a "self-defense." The argument seems to be that wife beating is just a symptom of something else, and that judges should not grant divorces just because husbands may "hit out" at their wives once in awhile. Here's the excerpt from "Divorce versus Democracy":

A poor woman does not judge her husband as a bully by whether he has ever hit out. One might as well say that a schoolboy judges whether another schoolboy is a bully by whether he has ever hit out. The poor wife, like the schoolboy, judges him as a bully by whether he is a bully. She knows that while wife-beating really may be a crime, wife-hitting is sometimes very like just self-defense. No one knows better than she does that her husband often has a great deal to put up with: sometimes she means him to; sometimes she is justified. She comes and tells all this to the magistrates again and again; in police court after police court women with black eyes try to explain the thing to judges with no eyes...In these people's lives the rooms are crowded, the tempers are torn to rags, the natural exits are forbidden. In such societies it is as abominable to punish or divorce people for a blow as it would be to punish or divorce a gentleman for slamming the door (pp. 450-451).

It's hard to draw more out of it than this since the blurb is only a tangent in a bigger essay. Chesterton seems to be saying that domestic violence is the result of a stifling social situation that blocks off all the "natural exits" of a man's aggression, and that it does not make sense to grant a divorce because of isolated cases of "wife-hitting" which are (apparently) to be expected from time to time just as much as a gentleman slamming a door.

I don't know what to make of this, especially of GK's comment that wife-hitting is sometimes a "just self-defense." Does anybody have any input or comments on this? It be interesting to send this to Dale Ahlquist (or maybe Armstrong?) and get his take on it.


Catholic Tide said...

That is a very disturbing passage! Chesterton's comment about door slamming seems so quaint and Victorian... Back then domestic abuse in the upper and middle classes was kept hidden away and it is possible that Chesterton honestly thought it was a problem confined to the poor. I think that we should probably skim over this passage and chalk it up to Chesterton simply being a man of his age. I imagine some of our attitudes will seem pretty odd in 95 years too.

Anonymous said...

Don't make to much of this comment.

It is not always wrong to hit your wife, which is what Chesterton was saying, anymore then it is always wrong to slam the door or beat up a kid on the playground. 'The poor wife, like the schoolboy, judges him as a bully by whether he is a bully. She knows that while wife-beating really may be a crime, wife-hitting is sometimes very like just self-defense.'

You may need to hit her to calm her or to get her mind straight in a crisis. Or if she were to come at you with a weapon in blind rage then it is perfectly just to defend yourself. Or if she were to harm or threaten to harm the children then stopping her by any means necessary is justified.

Chesterton is not arguing in favor of wife beating which he calls a crime: 'wife-beating really may be a crime'. But he is saying that in some cases wife hitting is justified in the same way that child hitting is justified.

He is arguing that you can not permit divorce mearly because of 'wife hitting' any more then you can permit child removal just because of 'child hitting'.

The question of social factors require a greater context not found in this piece so I can't comment on that.

That's my take on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Well, I know that one thing we SHOULDN'T do is call Chesterton a child of his time. And I very much believe he is right that it was and is something confined to the poor. Does it go up to the top levels? Sure, but then it is truly misogynist, and not as you interpret, an outlet because man is confined and cannot get out his anger in other ways.

Unknown said...

He is not condoning wife-hitting or beating or any such thing. He is standing up for the institution of marriage. It appears that he is arguing against a very specific trend of some sort where marriages are being dissolved because of this sort of one-off incident. He does not discuss the merits of divorce due to habitual wife-beating. Not having the type of incident in front of us to see his argument against it in its proper place, the best thing we can take from it, I believe, would be that you shouldn't throw away your life for a single crime. You shouldn't throw away your marriage because of one crime. Marriage, as he understood it, was the path of a married person to sanctity and Heaven. It's dissolution should not be taken lightly to the police. (again, he may have felt differently for habitual, regular wife-beating. He doesn't address that. I think that point is important)