Monday, July 20, 2009

Common Knowledge

Recently I was in the waiting room of a busy veterinary office with four or five other people waiting for appointments. A woman came out of an appointment room with her dog. I had seen her earlier on her cell phone in the parking lot, having what appeared to be an intense conversation. The veterinarian following her out said, “You really should get these tests done immediately.” The woman said, “My husband has all these questions and I couldn’t answer them all and he started yelling at me. Would you talk with him?” The vet said she would be happy to talk with him. The woman said, “When you talk to him, he may start yelling. He had a violent childhood and he yells a lot.” At this point, I think all of us in the waiting room were eavesdropping. The veterinarian said, “I am happy to talk with him, but as soon as he starts yelling I will hang up. I don’t put up with being yelled at by anyone and neither should you.” The woman said, “Well he is not violent—he just yells.” The vet replied, “Yelling is a form of abuse and no one should put up with it.” Then the receptionist said, “There is a wonderful program here which helps women in abusive situations. I’ll give you the number.” The woman said, “Thank you”, took the number, and left.

My jaw practically dropped at this interaction and my mind went back 30 years when I worked in the very first domestic violence program in San Francisco, when conversations like this were unknown, and certainly would never have happened in the open space of a waiting room. No one even seemed embarrassed. Neither the dog owner nor the vet nor the receptionist whispered, and the woman herself seemed unconcerned or oblivious to the fact that five other people were watching this interaction.

It is now common knowledge—knowledge in the commons—that abuse is not just physical, and any kind of abuse is unacceptable. We have a strong and powerful domestic violence movement to thank for this.

Having this knowledge in the commons has led to an enormous decline in incidence of domestic violence. A recent study reported in the Washington Post notes that the number of domestic homicides fell 32 percent from 1993 to 2004, and the frequency of nonfatal violence between domestic partners dropped by more than 50 percent, from 5.8 attacks per 1,000 U.S. residents age 12 or older, to 2.6 attacks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This mirrors a decline which started in1976. Of course, any abuse is too much abuse, but those who think change can’t happen should think again.

For me, this interaction was full of mixed feelings: I was very concerned for this woman, pleased at how firm and matter of fact the vet and the receptionist were about not putting up with yelling and who to call for help, sad that domestic violence is so common that we can talk about in front of strangers in a waiting room without feeling odd or out of place, and proud of being part of the movement that led (however indirectly) to this conversation. And I had a question: what do we need to introduce now so that in the future it will be common knowledge?

1 comment:

Aspen Baker said...

This is breathtaking. Always such a good reminder - change is real and does happen and it is in moments like these when we remember how it used to be, that we can really celebrate the impact of activists.