“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,  saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”[1]

There has been a significant shift in the public conversation around policing in the last few weeks. Calls for dramatic reforms, defunding, and abolishment are being repeated and discussed in the news and online, placing conversations that previously occurred only along the margins in the centre spotlight. It has been clear to many for a very long time that policing is both a source and a symptom of dramatic inequalities along racial and class lines. Thankfully it seems more and more people are grasping the depth of the problem. Maybe, hopefully, activists will have more company as they advocate for the system-level changes needed to stop the disproportionate death and brutality Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) experience at the hand of police.[2]

Weighing in on the best or most effective course of action is not my intent here. What I have seen and heard has left me convinced that drastic changes are necessary. Neither my experience nor academic expertise put me in a place to make an informed pitch for the merits of abolition over defunding, or vice versa. I am committed to learning more, and I would encourage everyone to listen to the people who have been in this struggle for way longer than me as you consider the different approaches to addressing these important problems. What I can offer here is some analysis of the rhetoric against reform or revision of policing. I offer it as a way to diffuse some of the whatboutism that, when spoken loudly and repeatedly by people with power and social capital, can prevent people from entertaining new ideas or unpacking their own assumptions. A newer word for an innovation of the classical logical fallacy of tu quoque (you too), whataboutism is “the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.” It is a rhetorical move centred on “defaming the accuser with the insinuation that their priorities are backwards,” giving the whatabout-er licence to ignore the accuser’s initial complaints.[3] There has been a lot of whataboutism happening around policing and I want to tease out some of it here. 

I noticed online and in some news coverage that a pattern has emerged among those who are not in favour of large-scale rehabilitation of our police and justice system: they ask what will happen to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence if there are no police to call. “What about rape?” they ask, “What about domestic violence?” On the surface these questions (often, but not only, posed by white men) demonstrate a concern for others and reveal some thinking through different possibilities. As we re-envision a powerful institution in our society it is natural that questions about how new structures will respond to perennial problems would arise. However, it is striking and curious that it is these two crimes, which are highly gendered in the public imagination, that make recurring appearances. Why deflect calls to change with reference to crimes that have overwhelmingly (but, I urge us to remember, not exclusively) female victims?


One answer to this question can be found in patterns of how we have, as a society, justified violent action. Informed by some of the principles of Just War Theory, Western society has often understood violence as a vice best avoided, but that is sometimes justifiable or even necessary. Augustine of Hippo was one of the early Christian proponents of this theory, so it has a longstanding history. While the core aim of Just War Theory is to restrict humanity’s use of violence, overtime its principles are have been functionally convoluted to mean that all we need to justify war and other types of violence is a sufficiently sympathetic reason. Perhaps the clearest example of this in recent decades was the rhetoric around the US, Canada, and Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan.[4] “Afghan women are oppressed by the Taliban,” we said. “We need to fight for the women.” Despite there being a myriad of objectives, saving the Afghan women was the “official” reason for this campaign in the War on Terror. This line of reasoning was unsurprising to some. Starting in the 1980s, feminist analyses of Just War Theory had began to illuminate the gender essentialism embedded within its principles.[5] “Culturally, traditional ideas about gender roles identify men with war and soldiering, and women with peace and mothering,” according to Lucinda Peach.[6] The rhetoric of just war reinforces the notion that masculine Just Warriors are allowed to commit acts of violence in service of feminine (or feminized) Beautiful Souls. Public policy analyst Jiri Kreck notes:

These gender stereotypes indicate that women’s need for protection is the causality as well as the source of moral legitimacy to the practice of making war. While this logic initially appears to protect women, it actually risks women’s lives and perpetuates gender subordination at the same time.[7] 

There is a parallel between the rhetoric that sought to justify invasion in Afghanistan and the gendered rhetoric of these policing whatabout-ers. The perceived needs of certain sympathetic women are used to grant moral legitimacy to the violence police commit. “We can’t defund the police,” they say. “We need someone to fight for the women.” 

In both cases these rationales are based more on an idea of women and a small portion of knowledge about how oppressive structures impact their lives. It is true that women consistently face both the threat and the reality of sexual violence. It is also true that a significant proportion of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence have horrible interactions with the police. With tens of thousands of rape kits sitting untested in police custody throughout the US and Canada, with a ridiculously tiny proportion of sexual assaults resulting in a conviction, and with people like Brock Turner getting overly sympathetic sentences when they are convicted, it is hard to make the case that the police and greater justice system are Just Warriors here to serve and protect Beautiful Souls who have survived an assault. Many assaults go unreported for a variety of reasons; an expected callous reaction on behalf of the police is one common factor in victims’ decisions to keep quiet. When it comes to domestic violence the police broadly have, if possible, an even worse track record. Stalking survivor Julie Lalonde has been very open about the struggles she had with the police while her abuser was still alive. The police, “who determined that [her stalker] was just heartbroken,” didn’t intervene. Lalonde’s experience is far from singular. This Twitter thread details some harrowing stories (they are brutal, so please read with discretion), with many survivors agreeing that in their situations the cops were “worse than useless.” And, leaving the realm of anecdotal evidence, certain studies have shown that domestic violence is two to four times more prevalent within the homes of police officers than it is in the general population.[8] Officer-involved domestic violence (OIDV) is a significant issue. Legal scholar Rafaqat Cheema notes “many victims of OIDV do not report their abuse precisely because their abuser is a police officer, whom they fear is in a unique position to protect him/herself from any legal consequences.”[9] Police officers are not only bad at responding to domestic violence, they’re disproportionately the cause of it.

In light of the statistical and anecdotal realities of how police respond to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault we can see that these crimes do not provide a good rationale for keeping our policing system as it is. It isn’t as though the police consistently do a very good job at addressing these crimes. Quite the opposite. These whatabout-ers have, perhaps, picked the worst categories of crime to justify keeping the status quo. The only way that bringing these types of crimes into the conversation helps the whatabout-ers is the sympathy invoking these victims conjures. “We can’t defund the police,” they say. “We need someone to fight for the women.” To equate advocating defunding the police with being pro-rape may be a rhetorically effective whataboutism but it is only a temporary deflection. It is not an argument based in the verifiable reality of how our police system functions and it collapses under the weight of even a cursory Google search.

“What about rape?” “What about domestic violence?” This particular line of questioning demonstrates more than a benign curiosity. These questions reveal the way that our society’s structures and hierarchies are all intertwined. To attempt to discredit the arguments of BIPOC by way of shifting the conversation’s focus to vulnerable (white, cisgender) women demonstrates how different elements of the social hierarchy matrix sometimes stand in for one another. The categories of gender, race, and class have been maintained through ideologies that have enmeshed them. Perceived threats to white women’s safety has justified violence against BIPOC for centuries. Highlighting white women’s vulnerability was a historic pattern amongst advocates of segregation. Notions of gender, as historian Mary Louise Roberts notes, are historically inseparable from the class and “race-based hierarchies of power” that gender ideologies actively work to maintain and reinforce.[10] American society also has a track record of shifting discourse to gendered topics when cultural mores no longer allow explicitly racist rationales for certain actions. Historian of American religion Paul Harvey noted how gender concerns began substituting for racial ones in the twentieth century. Harvey argues that:

The standard biblical arguments against racial equality, now looked upon as an embarrassment from a bygone age, have found their way rather easily into the contemporary religious right’s stance on the family. A theology that sanctifies gendered hierarchy has become for the post-civil rights generation what whiteness was for earlier generations of believers. For religious conservatives generally, patriarchy has supplanted race as the defining first principle of God-ordained order.[11]

Given that forthright defenses of racist police brutality are generally (though certainly not totally) seen as embarrassments from yesteryear, it is not surprising that some would choose to move the debate to gendered rather than racialized lines. Though many may hold explicit or implicit racist rationales for wanting to maintain the status quo in policing, fewer are willing to admit or publicly declare said rationales. It is still acceptable, however, to frame objections in gendered language. “Sorry, BIPOC. We can’t change the violence you experience at the hands of police. But it isn’t because we’re racist. It’s because we are worried about women.” Deflecting cries for change, to borrow from Jeremiah, treats the wounds of our people carelessly.

When people resist re-envisioning policing in the name of women’s safety, they (purposefully or inadvertently) suggest that significant damages to BIPOC bodies and souls are acceptable collateral damage. Even if every police department had a perfect track record when it came to supporting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence it would be unconscionable to suggest that BIPOC enduring police brutality was a reasonable price to pay. In light of the reality that oftentimes the police worsen women’s experiences of assault and violence, the suggestion is even more pernicious. It argues that the burden BIPOC bear under our current policing system is a worthwhile cost for white people to be able maintain the illusion of a safe society. Real lives should not be sacrificed on the altar of that illusion. 

[1] Jeremiah 6:14, NRSV. Header image by Taymaz Valley / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

[2] If somehow you have not yet considered what people hope for as they variously advocate for reforms, defunding, and abolition with respect to policing I recommend you check out the following pieces as primers:

Defunding the Police Will Save Black and Indigenous Lives in Canada

What Does it Mean to Defund or Abolish the Police?

It’s Not Enough to Reform the Police – Defunding is the Only Answer

[3] These definitions are found in the Oxford and Miriam Webster dictionaries, respectively. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/whataboutismand https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/whataboutism-origin-meaning

[4] https://www.usfca.edu/sites/default/files/arts_and_sciences/international_studies/saving_muslim_women-_feminism_u.s_policy_and_the_war_on_terror_-_university_of_san_francisco_usf.pdf

[5] http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/648/whats-wrong-with-just-war-theory-examining-the-gendered-bias-of-a-longstanding-tradition

[6] Lucinda J. Peach, “An Alternative to Pacifism? Feminism and Just-War Theory,” Hypatia vol. 9, no. 2 (Spring 1994). 

[7] http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/648/whats-wrong-with-just-war-theory-examining-the-gendered-bias-of-a-longstanding-tradition

[8] http://womenandpolicing.com/violenceFS.asp#notes

[9] https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=hofstra_law_student_works

[10] Mary Louise Roberts, “True Womanhood Revisited,” Journal of Women’s History 14, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 151.

[11] Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 246.

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