- As with all posts that I, Alec Joyner, write in the first person on this blog, the content of this post reflects my personal thoughts and opinions, not necessarily those of The Mary Byron Project.
- The quotations below are all excerpted from my own transcription of the June 10, 2012 episode of The Adam Carolla Show. In no way do I intend to misrepresent or distort Adam Carolla’s comments or those of his co-hosts and guests. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in transcription (and in my basic description of their conversation), and I’ve tried to make the context of every quotation clear. Ellipses (“…”) denote elision, which I’ve tried to avoid except where it aids clarity and concision.
On a recent episode of his extremely popular podcast, while discussing boxer Floyd Mayweather’s prison term for domestic violence charges, comedian and radio personality Adam Carolla went on a seriously horrific but, unfortunately, fairly characteristic diatribe. Over the course of about ten minutes, he made two primary points. The first, in his words: “when you hook up with a boxer, you gotta know you’re gonna get punched at least once.” The second, again in his words: “if you could do a ton of damage, and you don’t—factor it in.” That is, Mayweather (and other perpetrators in similar situations) should be credited for what Carolla called “restraint.” Both of these points are appalling, as are all of the additional sub-points he made along the course of his rant. Nevertheless, they are also highly instructive demonstrations of the flawed logic (or, alternately, complete lack of logic) behind common misconceptions and prejudices about gender dynamics, women’s rights, and domestic violence. It is thus a useful, if unpleasant, exercise to examine and analyze Carolla’s remarks with exactly the kind of care and thoughtfulness he went without in making them.
First, briefly, here are the facts of the actual situation Carolla was discussing. The police report on the September 2010 attack indicates that, having already taken cell phones from his ex-girlfriend Josie Harris and their sons aged 9 and 10, Mayweather hit Harris, twisted her arm, and threatened to kill her or make her “disappear,” all in front of the boys, whom he threatened as well (to the point that one of them ran from the house to contact security). Mayweather was charged with felony theft and felony robbery, two counts of felony coercion, misdemeanor domestic battery, and three counts of misdemeanor harassment. He pled guilty to the battery charge and no contest to the two counts of harassment pertaining to his sons, and the felony charges were dropped. He was ordered to complete 90 days in county jail, 100 hours of community service, and a 12-month domestic violence program, and to pay a $2,500 fine. Another detail (unmentioned and perhaps unknown by Carolla and co.): Mayweather’s jail time was postponed from January to June so that he could appear in his scheduled fight for the Light Middleweight title against Miguel Cotto, for which he won $32 million.
Now, let’s take a look at some of Carolla’s comments.
- [in reference to Mayweather’s crime] “I don’t know if it’s a domestic dispute?”
There are two problems with this deceptively simple question. The first is Carolla’s use of the phrase “domestic dispute” to describe what he knew to be a criminal, unilateral act of violence. For more on why this is problematic, see my previous blog post on the subject. The second problem is that, although Carolla knew hardly anything about the specifics of Mayweather’s situation, his ignorance did not deter him from making sweeping, generalized comments about it as a representative instance of domestic violence; in fact, he used Mayweather’s case to make a sweeping, generalized defense of violent offenders. The closest Carolla’s team got to the facts of the case were to learn, and repeat for listeners, that Mayweather was serving 87 days in prison for “attacking his ex-girlfriend” “while two of their kids watched.”
- “his old lady”
Throughout the conversation, Carolla and his guest Dave Dameshek referred to Harris as “his lady” or “his old lady.” Not once did anyone on the podcast refer to her by name, and only with the one use of the term “ex-girlfriend” was it (essentially) clarified that Harris and Mayweather were never married. “His lady” and “his old lady” clearly objectify Harris, especially when combined with neglect to even learn her name, let alone call her by it. They render her something between a sex slave and a possession acquired by marriage, a recipient of Mayweather’s patriarchal allowances who possesses no agency whatsoever. To Carolla and company, Harris was and is “his,” both before and after the end of their romantic relationship. This fundamentally disrespectful misunderstanding and misrepresentation provide a basis for the ensuing ridiculous leaps of reasoning: if she belongs to him and relies on him for her and her children’s survival, she should accept and even be grateful for everything he gives her, be it a fur coat or a threat, a car or a punch.
- “If you’re gonna get hooked up with a boxer, here’s the good news. You’re gonna get a huge house… you’re gonna get a lotta perks, a lotta cash. [But] you will get punched at some point by this guy.”
Reflected in this line of thinking is the illogical and unfair but nonetheless very common dismissal of victims who “have it good.” Too often, women of high socioeconomic standing, women who live largely or entirely off of their partner’s income, and especially women in both categories at once are ignored, disbelieved, or resented when they come forward as victims of intimate partner violence. And it is seldom understood or acknowledged that manipulative abuse of financial control is itself a common form of domestic violence.
Taking a step back, there is a broader and deeper problem with Carolla’s first main point (“when you hook up with a boxer, you gotta know you’re gonna get punched at least once”). One can interpret it two ways: either Carolla meant that Harris is to blame for letting herself be attacked, since she should have known Mayweather, a professional boxer, would abuse her physically; or alternately, she is to blame for complaining and pressing charges, since abuse is “part of the deal” of “hook[ing] up with a boxer.” Or, probably, he meant both. Either way, this is textbook victim blaming, perhaps the most pervasive and deleterious mistake in popular understandings of the dynamics of domestic violence. Harris did not live with Mayweather at the time of the incident and was only involved with him through parenthood and joint custody. Does the fact that she had voluntarily entered into a relationship with him years earlier, or the fact that she had benefitted from his wealth and generosity, mean that she should have to continue to tolerate abuse, and fear for her safety and that of her children? Does it mean that she sacrifices her rights to legal recourse? Does it mean that she is forever the belonging of a man she shares nothing with except children? Carolla made his remarks jokingly, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t believe them, and either way, he gave his authorization to a terrible, dangerous way of thinking, and told his hundreds of thousands of listeners—many of them impressionable young men—that victim blaming is not only acceptable but even correct and logically sound.
- Carolla: “Of course [the children] watched. What else are they gonna do? It’s better than any Nintendo.”
Co-host Alison Rosen: “They ordered it.”
Carolla: “Yeah. They saw it on pay-per-view. By the way, ‘while the kids watched.’ I always love that one. ‘Kids, come on in. I’m opening up a can of whoop-ass on Mama. Daughter? Focus on this specifically. This is what happens when you get out of line. Come here.’ While the kids watched.”
The first half of the above quote sets up an equation between domestic violence and sporting entertainment. This equation is perhaps the most horrifying and objectionable piece of the entire conversation, especially since, in the comparison Carolla sets up, the abused children take on the role of willing spectators. Obviously, this comparison is like Carolla’s other arguments in that it trivializes Mayweather’s violent crime. But his previous argument, underneath its ridiculous and awful victim blaming, at least identified Mayweather as a violent aggressor in a dominant position of power and control. The DV-as-sport equation contains no kernel of truth and makes no sense whatsoever. No victim engages in an attack willingly. Abuse is not an even-handed boxing match. If acts of domestic violence are ever intended as entertainment, it is only out of the severe mental instability of a perpetrator; no one (including the likes of Carolla) should be entertained by domestic violence. In the appalling metaphor Carolla sets up, the abused, threatened, terrified children are rendered as willing, even eager spectators who, out of boredom, order the beating of their mother for their own entertainment. It is devastating to think that we live in a society where someone could make such a comparison without censure, let alone a society where thousands of people actually find it funny. Part of the blame has to go to the general celebration of violent sports—the likes of football and boxing and now “ultimate fighting.” At their best, these sports provide a relatively safe and contained outlet for our society’s over-cultivated appetite for aggression. But at their worst, they cultivate that appetite even more, and send the message that violence is not only okay but commonplace, and even to be celebrated—in the ring, on the field, everywhere.
In the second half of the above quote, Carolla describes a scenario: a perpetrator makes children watch the physical abuse of their mother, as a sort of precedent or threat. Carolla’s description makes such a scenario sound ludicrous, fanciful. This is particularly galling because what he describes happens all the time, and is not far off from what happened in Mayweather’s case: he beat his sons’ mother in front of them and threatened to do the same to them. It is reassuring to know that the state of Nevada, if not Carolla, has acknowledged that such threats are serious crimes; as was mentioned above, though never mentioned on Carolla’s podcast, two of the three counts for which Mayweather is doing time are for his verbal harassment of his sons.
- “If these guys really opened up on you, there’d be nothing left. … I wonder if they just think there’s that mode. Like, ‘I’m not trying.’ … You gotta give him some points for—you could do a ton of damage in three seconds. If you could do a ton of damage and you don’t—factor it in. … It… shows some restraint. … Not to be commended, but—if it was closed-fist mode, she’d be busted up.”
There are just so many things wrong with this, the latter of Carolla’s two main points. A small point, first: the course of the conversation strongly suggests that Carolla had no idea whether or not Harris was “busted up” by Mayweather; he simply assumed that she wasn’t. More broadly, the idea of “giving points” to Mayweather for anything in relation to his crimes is appalling, and is not supported by any sound logic or reasoning. If a bank robber “only” killed one employee of a bank while pulling a heist, would anyone commend his “restraint”? If someone shot the President in the leg, would anyone commend the shooter for having the “restraint” not to finish the job?
Carolla specifically said, at one point, that perpetrators such as Mayweather are “not to be commended.” One could possibly make the argument that this whole diatribe was merely a man trying to think his way through a DV perpetrator’s thought process in order to better understand an important social problem. At at least one moment, Carolla did seem to be working to comprehend a mindset he didn’t intuitively “get,” and did not advocate. But, taken all together, his comments tend toward something much more objectionable. He only added the “not to be commended” disclaimer after Dameshek mocked him for his seemingly pro-violent-offender stance, and it is impossible to ignore his comments that “you gotta give [Mayweather] some points” and “[not doing more damage]… shows some restraint.” Confronted with a situation where he had to admit that the great Floyd Mayweather had used his physical “gifts” or “skills” for ill, Carolla tried to salvage something that would make this man an idol, a role model, a person in some way admirable and commendable.
What this reveals is something even more dangerous than our society’s general celebration of masculine violence. It reveals the correlation our society draws, through sports, between masculine violence and intellectual agency. Carolla’s argument was not that Mayweather should have done more damage, or summoned all of his strength in beating Harris. His argument was that Mayweather could have done so and didn’t—that, even in committing a violent act, he made an intellectual decision toward restraint. This is consistent with the conventional rhetoric about Mayweather as “the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world”: hardly a brute, he is rather a small, defensive boxer who beats his opponents with quickness, endurance, and wily maneuvering. Modern sports and the modern sports media, by and large, don’t celebrate brute violence. They put forth the much more dangerous notion that brute violence can be disciplined and moderated, and that it is precisely the disciplining that should be celebrated. (Think of the term “martial arts.”) Modern violent sports allow men (and women) to think that violence can—and should—be domesticated. Once one understands this phenomenon, it becomes much easier to understand how Carolla (and, I’m sure, many thousands of others) can see a criminal act of domestic violence as a refinement of a boxer’s craft. And it becomes that much more obvious that something needs to be done to show people—especially young men—the error and the danger of carrying this logic too far.
- “The question is: what do you do with those people [who commit crimes while in a “mode” of relative “restraint”]? I’d like to see what happened to her. To me, that’s a lot of it. If I don’t see anything… I wanna see the damage, that’s all.”
Carolla’s final point was that, in his view, tangible, visible evidence of physical abuse would be the only convincing proof that Mayweather’s crimes were “real” and deserving of punishment. This is wrongheaded on multiple levels. First of all, there is any number of reasons why a victim of physical domestic violence would not have visibly noticeable injuries when appearing in court or when dealing with law enforcement. Many violent acts do not leave extensive physical evidence; strangulation is a particularly notorious and dangerous one. And in many cases, shame, embarrassment, and desire to be socially accepted—all common symptoms of domestic violence—lead a victim to try to hide any injuries or deformities she or he might have sustained.
Beyond all this, Carolla’s point implies that physical aggression is the only form domestic violence can take. Verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, and financial and legal manipulation, in this view, are neither violent nor criminal and merit no punishment. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is not uncommon. It is an indication of its pervasiveness and power, in fact, that Carolla’s team could take a case like Mayweather’s, in which a perpetrator has been sentenced, in part, for verbal harassment, and turn it around to make it seem like his only crime was the physical act of beating his ex-girlfriend.
To sum up, here’s a (probably incomplete) list of “don’ts” that Carolla, his co-hosts, and his guest violated:
- Don’t use misleading phrases like “domestic dispute” in describing acts of violence.
- Don’t use words and phrases that objectify and condescend to women.
- Don’t dismiss the fact that people of high socioeconomic standing can be victims of violence simply because their existence may be otherwise very comfortable.
- Don’t blame victims for the violence that others perpetrate against them.
- Don’t equate domestic violence to sporting entertainment.
- Don’t commend the “restraint” of violent offenders, and don’t promote the idea that violence is okay in moderation.
- Don’t forget or misunderstand that domestic violence can manifest itself as physical, mental, or emotional abuse; financial or legal manipulation; or the general perpetration of fear and intimidation. DV, to paraphrase the OVW definition, is any abusive behavior used to gain or maintain power and control in an intimate relationship.