Thank you, Buzzfeed, for collecting all of Chris Brown’s sins in the wake of his controversial performance at the Grammy Awards on Monday. It is one dreadful catalogue. The rundown begins with a February 2009 search warrant in which Brown tried to push a woman named Robin F. out of his car. After she pretended to place a call alerting police, Brown pummeled her face, bit her ear, and choked her until she began to lose consciousness. Eleven days later, pictures of Rihanna’s bruised and bloodied face spilled into the press. When Brown pleaded not guilty to assaulting Rihanna, their violent past came out in court. He was sentenced to five years of probation and six months of hard labor, which nowadays seems to mean roadside cleanup. Brown also had to enroll in a year-long domestic violence course. He completed it in December 2010. Two days later, he sent out homophobic tweets to Raz B of the group B2K. Raz B wrote back, prompting Brown to make a YouTube video with this lovely message: “When I see you my n**ga, I will smack you in the mouth, beat you, drag you down the street and treat you like a little b**ch.”
In March 2011, after a heartfelt-sounding taped apology to Rihanna, Brown turned around and called his assault on her a “mishap.” “At the end of the day,” he said, “if I walk around apologizing to everybody, I’m gonna look like a damn fool.” That same month, after Robin Roberts asked him questions about his abusive history on Good Morning America, Brown went into a rage, throwing a chair against a window and shattering it.
And then this week, of course, the people behind the Grammy Awards, in all their infinite wisdom, asked Brown to perform twice, along with giving him the award for best R&B album. After the blowback online, Brown tweeted Wednesday “HATE ALL U WANT BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate FUCK OFF!”
OK, clearly this is a man who can’t handle Twitter. But is that actually a sign that we should feel badly for him—that he lacks some fundamental impulse control because he’s suffering from an underlying psychological disorder? Does Chris Brown hit women because he can’t help himself, in some deep way?
In a word, no.
In his extremely helpful book, Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft explains that the rate of mental illness among abusive men isn’t anything out of the ordinary. Nor are wife-beaters any more likely to have suffered from child abuse (with the exception of the extremely violent who choke, stalk, and kill). Brown reportedly watched his stepfather beat his mother when he was a child, but Lundy points out that only abusive men use their childhoods as an excuse for physically mistreating other people. What determines how abusive men behave, he argues, isn’t how they feel. It’s how they think—their value system. On some level, abusers have decided that it’s OK to hurt women or to treat them as objects. Maybe they have an elaborate set of justifications designed to elicit sympathy, but that’s what it boils down to: Essentially, abusive men choose to abuse.
Battering isn’t really about losing control or giving into impulse. In his many years counseling male offenders, Bancroft asked men who have punched their wives, for example, why they didn’t also throw the women on the floor. The men explained that they didn’t want to cause serious injury, or they didn’t want the kids to hear—or even: “I would never do that.” Bancroft writes that a typical abuser is like an acrobat in the circus ring who acts wild “but who never forgets where the limits are.”
Traditional psychotherapy almost never works because batterers typically don’t have a mental illness that responds to treatment. And, since they usually haven’t been abused as children, abusive men can’t work through that experience and move on. In fact, abusers often twist therapy into a tool for excusing their behavior, since they “are sometimes masters of the hard-luck story.”
Instead of wasting one ounce of pity on Chris Brown, let’s think for a minute about his value system and what may feed it. “If you’re surrounded by people who also treat women as objects who are supposed to serve men, then your behavior will be reinforced,” says Mark Larson, a longtime domestic violence expert, who directs the Responsible Fatherhood Initiative for the consultancy David Mandel and Associates. I don’t know who Brown hangs out with, but I doubt they are feminists. As for the effect of the recognition that’s implicit in his invitation to sing at the Grammys: “It doesn’t send the message that changing your behavior is important,” says Larson. “What abusive men have to hear is that we’re going to judge you on what you do about your behavior, and to the degree you don’t change what you’re doing, we’ll hold you accountable.”
I know that awards are given out for artistic merit, not charming personality, and we can debate whether you can safely love the art and not the artist if you’re a fan of Brown’s music. But the decision to ask Brown to perform at music’s biggest event of the year is of a different sort. That’s a warm embrace from his industry and his community. You can’t shun someone you’re clapping for. You can see Brown basking in the glow of approval—the only ugly way he seems to know how—in his tweet calling his Grammy “the ultimate FUCK OFF!” This is not a week in which Brown had to reckon with his critics much, because the affirmation he received came from a far more powerful source.
Larson says that while batterers aren’t like addicts, in the sense that they usually don’t have a chemical addiction or imbalance, they are similar in that they don’t change unless they’re ready to change. “You have to believe that the downside of what you’re doing, or the upside of doing things differently, is worth it,” he explains. Specialized intervention programs for abusive men have made inroads in changing their reoffending patterns where regular therapy has not. But batterers have to decide to commit to such programs in order for them to take effect.
It is really hard to imagine that Chris Brown is in that kind of mood at the moment. Or that other abusive men watching him are either. The statistics have held depressingly steady: One out of every four American women will experience violence by a partner in her life, and three out of every 100 men have severely assaulted their female partners in the past year. Chris Brown and the Grammys aren’t responsible for those numbers, of course. But this week they missed a chance to make them any better.