This year’s Bent Spoon Award has ruffled a few feathers. In a controversial decision, what the Skeptics described as an “alarmist” Justice Department report on domestic violence in New Zealand has received the award.
“The report, entitled Hitting Home, paints a disturbing picture of New Zealand men as abusers of wives and partners, until you examine the fine print,” said Skeptics head Vicki Hyde.
“Since the report defines ‘abuse’ to include criticising your partner’s family, it is not surprising that half the men surveyed were guilty of some form of psychological abuse…By so exaggerating the extent of abuse, the report trivializes the real domestic violence that goes on in New Zealand,” Ms Hyde said.
For example, Hitting Home refers repeatedly to one particularly disturbing statistic, which was singled out in the Justice Department press release: “when they were shown some typical circumstances in which abuse occurs, 10% [of New Zealand men] said they approved and 56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman. And in at least one circumstance, six out of ten men say the woman has only herself to blame for being hit.” This indeed would be alarming, were it true that bashing women was behaviour 60% of New Zealand males were willing to turn a blind eye to.
In fact, these figures were arrived at by showing men a list of possible provocations, including finding a partner “in bed with another man,” “physically abusing their child,” and hitting the man first in an argument. From the fact that the disapproval rating of respondents, once shown such circumstances, declined from “moderate to extreme” to “little or moderate” (even though 95%-98% disapproved), we’re served up the false conclusion that “56% did not really disapprove of hitting a woman.” They did disapprove, overwhelmingly, but not at the same level of disapproval as “she hasn’t cleaned the house,” and other trivial items on the list.
The report also inflates conclusions about the prevalence of abuse by its peculiar definition of “abuse” which runs the gamut from “Used a knife or gun on her” to “Kicked something” to “Put down her family and friends” to “Tried to keep her from doing something she wanted to do.” From this starting point, the report finds widespread “abuse” in New Zealand, as it would be a rare couple where a man had not at some time slammed a door or insulted a relation during an argument with his partner. Despite a title suggesting it is about domestic violence, Hitting Home is actually about abuse, understood as virtually any demonstration of anger. Even letting off steam to avoid “abuse” can be classified as “abuse.”
One of the report’s authors told the Listener that “Overall, the research found that New Zealand rates of abuse are about twice as high as rates based on what women say.” This is no surprise as the report’s inflated definition of abuse includes behaviours that even the “victims” didn’t think of as abuse.
In the press release, Vicki Hyde said, “It’s taken society a long time to recognize that domestic violence is a serious problem. It is vital, if we are to address this issue effectively, that research provides accurate, meaningful information on which policies can be based. By limiting its scope to men only and by defining abuse so broadly, Hitting Home misses the mark. It’s a great shame, since we desperately need well-founded social policies. This will disadvantage the women most vulnerable to serious violence. Surely, you can’t classify the experience of being strangled or threatened with a knife alongside hearing a rude comment about your brother.”
At our recent conference, Skeptic Hugh Young challenged the award.. His remarks and others follow. Further contributions will appear in the next Skeptic.
The Skeptics awards for excellence went to journalists with TVNZ, Metro, and the Listener.
“TVNZ’s Assignment series shows that we can still have thoroughly researched, critical documentaries on television,” according to Ms Hyde. The Skeptics praised Assignment‘s “The Doctor Who Cried Abuse,” an investigation of a Dunedin physician whose unwarranted diagnoses had wrecked havoc on New Zealand families. “Ellis Through the Looking Glass,” an examination of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, was singled out for accolades.
Vincent Heeringa of Metro magazine received an award for his article “Weird Science,” on the Auckland Institute of Technology Press and Listener journalist Noel O’Hare, author of a cover story on False Memory Syndrome received a Skeptics award for the second year running.