The Danger of Defending Violent Acts

Picture this: A 26-year-old king hits an 18-year-old.  It comes out of nowhere.  The punch is so forceful that the victim is left with a broken jaw and missing teeth.  After the first couple of days where people are critical, the narrative surrounding the transgressor begins to change.  “He is is beside himself,” it is said.  “Good people do bad things.” Some even go further, seemingly showing more sympathy for the culprit. The victim “will be uncomfortable for a week or two and then he’ll be fine”.  In contrast, “the guilt and the shame will live with [the culprit] for the rest of his life”.  Even the father of the victim weighs in,  showing concern for the offender’s welfare amid “this maelstrom which is pretty intense”.

This is precisely what has occurred very publically in Melbourne over the past few days.  The original incident occurred on the football field during an AFL match on Sunday, with West Coast player, Andrew Gaff, striking Fremantle youngster, Andrew Brayshaw. The story has dominated the media since the event and you’d almost have to be living under a rock in Melbourne to be unaware of it.

On the one hand, I admire these comments. On the surface, showing empathy to one who is clearly suffering is to be valued. By defending him they were trying to help alleviate his shame and anguish, exacerbated by the barrage of criticism he faced in the immediate aftermath. I particularly admire Brayshaw’s self-less father who was willing to overlook the wrong done to his son and reach out to a young man in pain. However, given that this episode is not a private matter and played in the public arena, it goes beyond personal views.

The fact is, as some legal experts have implied, if this had occurred anywhere other than the football field, criminal charges would be laid. “I’ve had people go to jail for less,” stated prominent lawyer, Tom Percy.  There would be no media coverage surrounding the culprit’s remorse.  There would be no character references and statements highlighting the importance of separating the act from the person.  There certainly wouldn’t be any words of support from the victim’s father.

It’s not only the double standards that are of concern.  More troubling, is the effect that this saga will have on society at large.  What is the underlying message are we sending the community when sympathies are almost more aligned with the culprit? What are we saying about violence when it is suggested that the violent action should be separated from the person?  And most importantly, how will this impact on the rates of potentially deadly king hits and violence episodes towards women when we emphasise that good people can do bad things?

Andrew Gaff is not merely a man who made a mistake.  Andrew Gaff is a role model and a hero to many.  When prominent individuals defend him after such a violent act, whether they are aware of it or not, they become defenders of all those who commit violent acts.  Maybe he is a good man and maybe the guilt will eat away at him for the rest of his life, but this is much bigger than the apparent suffering of one man.  The defense of Andrew Gaff can potentially contribute to the suffering of countless others, and people need to consider this before making these public statements of support.