What Fresh Hell Is This?

January 8, 2011

A Sad Dispute Between Two Friends

Towards the beginning of a chapter in her book "Who Stole Feminism?", Christina Hoff Sommers wrote:
Battery and rape are crimes that shatter lives; those who suffer must be cared for, and those who cause their suffering must be rendered incapable of doing further harm. But in all we do to help, the most loyal ally is truth. Truth brought to public light recruits the best of us to work for change. On the other hand, even the best-intentioned "noble lie" ultimately discredits the finest of causes.
The chapter then proceeds to debunk the claim that "more women are victims of domestic abuse on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year." While it's true that Professor Sommers is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, she's still right about truth and the "noble lie".

Writing as someone who routinely works to undermine wingnut advocacy by unearthing the misinformation being used to support its positions, it was sad to see a local dispute erupt between a pair of bloggers both of whom I admire and respect.

For those who don't know, Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania CEO Heather Arnet recently had a letter in the P-G in which she applauded Pitt's decision to fire Michael Haywood, Pitt's newly hired football coach, after his arrest in Indiana on domestic abuse charges. In the letter (it's the beginning of the second paragraph, by the way) she wrote:
Domestic abuse is the number two killer of women in this country.
Setting aside the worthwhile discussion of the wisdom of Haywood's firing - on the one hand Haywood's only been accused, not convicted, of any crime but on the other had Pitt not fired him, the PR nightmares would have continued at least until he was either convicted or fired - it's Arnet's claim above that triggered the local blogger dispute.

First, my friend Chad Hermann responded with a fact-check and found that Arnet's claim was simply wrong.

Turns out that according to the FBI, there are about 1,200 deaths of women per year due to domestic violence and (extrapolating from the CDC's numbers) there's 264,000 or so deaths of women per year from Cancer (their #2 cause). With about 314,000 Heart Disease was the CDC's #1 cause of deaths of women per year. Chad recapped:
Cancer – 264,000
Domestic Violence – 1,200

The numbers are so close, you can see how Ms. Arnet might have gotten them confused. I mean, what’s a little factor of 220 among friends and advocates and peddlers of inveterate poppycock?
In response to one friend's fact-check, another friend, Ms Mon at Ms Mon's Salon, responded. While admitting that Arnet's facts are "soft" and that many of Chad's points are "valid" she, quickly and unfortunately, departs from the argument at hand:
But his determined discrediting of the statistics are so palpable, they seem more like his own desperate attempts to prove that women are full of hokum, instead of, say, offering illumination as to why women are a tad sensitive about the subject. I guess when you have to make up for so many thousands of years of privileged, white, male subjugation, you can't be bothered with those kinds of details.
Looking at his blog post, I am not sure I see the same things Ms. Mon sees (that he's attempting to prove that women are full of hokum) - but that's OK. There's no reason in the world why my reading of his blog post should take precedence over anyone else's.

However, she effectively changed the subject from the one Chad was making, which was that Arnet's assertion that domestic violence was the number two cause of death among women in this country was simply wrong.

And he was right. One can argue with the tone of his blog post but one can't argue with the facts he's presented there. She was simply wrong about the cause of death among women and I'd have to agree with Chad that the error was so wrong that it undermines the credibility of the letter as a whole and, unfortunately, the letter writer.

Domestic violence is very very bad. It is a serious problem that always requires serious attention. Its victims need to be cared for and treated respectfully and its perpetrators need to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. A truly civilized society should demand no less.


No matter how well intentioned, in the end a noble lie only discredits the cause it's being used to support.


Joy said...

I'd be willing to double the numbers from the FBI to account for women who die from violence that can't be traced to the domestic partner, and double or quadruple it again to account for women whose lives and health are destabilized by violence to the point where they enter an almost unstoppable death spiral (fast or slow) as their lives are undermined by cognitive problems, sleep problems, homelessness, un-hireability, bad choices made in desperation, etc.

Even then, no, the numbers don't add up to put domestic violence in second place. But they might be "enough closer" to make the claim far less outre than it is being painted. Anyone who's worked with battered women is quite likely doing that calculus in their head.

Also, domestic violence often kills women much younger than either heart disease or cancer. I wonder if the statistic would be different if it ranked "years of women's lives lost," relative to statistical expectations. I find it quite conceivable that the average woman dying of domestic violence might lose twice the years-of-life of the average woman dying of cancer.

Also, it's possible that the PG (or Ms. Arnett) edited the letter, creating a falsehood out of the commonly quoted truth about domestic violence being the number one or number 2 killer of women in a particular age range (I seem to remember it's 20's and 30's, but I don't have the time to fact check this). A bad edit or a brain fart is not the same thing as intentionally promoting incorrect information.

I do agree that we all need to fact check better, and that too many otherwise responsible people (of any gender) are quick to trust wikipedia or other secondary and tertiary sources, when they ought to go for a more authoritative source.

EdHeath said...

I did some looking around the inter-webs, and it pretty quickly occurred to me that Ms Arnet's statistic should have been that domestic violence is the number two cause in the murder of women. I could not find the overall number of of women murdered each year, I will have to leave that to some other blogger.

I think Joy makes some pretty good points. I don't think there are just 1200 cases of domestic violence in Allegheny county, much less in the whole country. We know the shelters are full, and that women who do go to them (usually with children) are
often leaving their whole lives behind them, and starting from less than scratch, in constant fear they will be found by their abuser. And this is not counting the women stilled trapped in domestic violence.

I guess Chad is annoyed that he might be mistaken for an abuser. Personally I have found that not abusing women is adequate for me, but I guess Chad feels he has to discredit anyone who makes a mistake (even if it is well intentioned). But we shouldn't consider his attitude toward Ms Arnet s abusive.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Nice writeup, Maria.

I think Ms. Mon's brief had to include that A) Chad Hermann can be pretty um, wry (that is his style with all comers) and B) that Chad tends to some degree to attacking arguments with which many have a LOT of righteous sympathy.

What I think Chad misses in his own analysis (and what you mention about "accused, not convicted") is that my understanding is, Pitt said they'd get more facts ... and they talked to the coach ... and then they fired him. I had assumed (I'm fairly comfortable with the assumption, as this is not keeping me up at night) that the Coach confessed to Pitt that he put his hands on that woman in some way on that night, which despite legal considerations would mean Pitt could FIRE him on the conduct act. He has a million reasons to bob and weave and get the heck out of the room. If he admitted to being complicit with any of her bruises in any way, that's enough to say, "Okay, your life is too chaotic, Pitt needs standards more than anything right now."

Maria said...


Don't know if you're joking or if it's really that hard for you to see who posts here, but that was written by David, not me.

I do have something to say on this, but I've been swamped and right now I'm writing a post on the tragedy in AZ.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Holy cow I missed that. Yes, it's really that hard for me.

Good thing I linked to you with a headline and not a byline, like I was contemplating!

Looking forward to your thoughts.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Nice post, Dayvoe.

Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...
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Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...
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Ms. Monongahela, Ms. Chief Editor said...

Maria has a post brewing about this, eh, Maria? Meantime, if you haven't noticed -- yesterday was DAY 3 of him lambasting Heather Arnet. Don't you think that qualifies as overkill? Time and time again, I've watched him tear apart people like my colleague, CMU professor and writer Kathy Newman -- as well as private individuals who have written letters to the editor. All females (maybe there are a few exceptions). And all to the point that it's just absurd. The fact that he beats you over the head with names -- it makes you feel as though he has something personal with these women, whether he does or not. He's like a myna bird that keeps repeating, "I told you so!"

His arguments lose their effectiveness when he does this. You see, even though David takes issue with some of the things I've written, he's fair-minded about it. Which is why I'm OK with it. The problem I have is not with Chad's argument, but how he argues.

Haywood was in court this morning, and there are no other reports, yet. I, too, hope that the "best truth" comes out of this, and that justice prevails. It's not about being "right" for me.

I have two sons, so I've got perspective about this -- believe me.

Frances Monahan